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“Ligeia”, published in 1838 by Edgar Allan Poe, describes the tale of a narrator who is deeply enthralled by his own imagination and thoughts and is submersed in the act of escaping reality. This cautionary tale warns readers about the dangers of unchecked imagination and the problems that arise from the intertwining between fantasy and the real world. Through an internal struggle turned outward, the narrator’s actions prove to be fatal for others. Due to an excessive use of opium propelled by the need to escape reality, the narrator dangerously allows his ideas and thoughts to manifest into a female mirage whom he cannot bare to live without.
Ligeia, through her mysterious description, is proved to be a creation of the narrator’s mind. Although appearing at the surface to be a real woman, small details lead to the belief that Ligeia is nothing but a mirage. The narrator is deeply in love with Ligeia, but cannot recall significant aspects of her life. For example, the narrator cannot remember in the slightest the moment in which he met Ligeia: “The character of my beloved, her rare learning, her singular yet placid cast of beauty, and the thrilling and enthralling eloquence of her low, musical language, made their way into my heart by paces, so steadily and stealthily progressive, that they have been unnoticed and unknown” (644). Ligeia is described to have slowly made her way into the narrator’s heart in such a way that it was undetected and unknown as to how she came to be his love. As a fiction of the narrator’s imagination, Ligeia was constructed overtime and therefore had no exact moment or point of entry into the narrator’s life. She slowly invaded his heart and then appeared suddenly. She slowly manifested into, what appears to the narrator as, a real woman. In addition to her unknown arrival, Ligeia is describe in such a way that makes her seem as though she is hardly there: “I would in vain attempt to pourtray the majesty, the quiet ease of her demeanour, or the incomprehensible lightness and elasticity of her footfall. She came and departed like a shadow” (645). Her barely-heard footsteps and shadow-like movements relate the notion that she is not there at all. More like a ghost or a shadow figure, Ligeia’s description adds to the suspicion that she is not real. Completely made up in the narrator’s mind, she does not come across as a normal human being, concluding her to be a vision of fantasy.
The narrator’s use of opium and dislike of the real world also adds to the suspicion that Ligeia is nothing more than an illusion. Opium, representing a destructive mindset, plays to the narrator’s advantage in the sense that he is able to be propelled away from reality and into a dreamy state. When describing Ligeia, the narrator shares that her face and beauty “was the radiance of an opium dream”, and declares her to be “an airy and spirit-lifting vision” (645). Ligeia is detailed in this way not as to be the subject of a metaphor, but instead because she is literally the product of an opium induced dream. Her very nature of existing is that of a drug-like scene. She is not real. The narrator also concludes Ligeia to have been “adapted to deaden the impressions of the outward world” (644). In other words, she was specifically created to relieve the narrator from reality, and to allow him to retreat into his own imagination. To the narrator, Ligeia appears as a real woman, and this is what keeps him from slipping back into reality. Her presence leads him to accept his fantasy as real. Carrie Zlotnick-Woldenberg, a doctoral candidate in Clinical Psychology at Ferkauf Graduate School, reveals that “the narrator does not know the difference between events occurring in the external world (reality) and those occurring in his own imagination (fantasy)”. Ligeia is the factor that blurs the line between the real and the fake, which is why, in her description, Ligeia can almost be seen as a real woman. The details of her existence are what proves her to be something entirely different. The narrator’s use of opium pushes him into a dream-like state in which reality is abandoned and Ligeia is created.
Ligeia, a manifestation of the narrator’s mind, represents aspects that the narrator is enthralled with. He is obsessed with extreme, exotic study, and so Ligeia reflects that with her “raven-black” hair and eyes that are “the most brilliant of black” (645-646). Her facial features are strange to the narrator, influenced by his fancy for mystery and unusual study. The narrator, being a very intellectual character, is obsessed with his mind and thoughts. From this, Ligeia is created to be intelligent: “I have spoken of the learning of Ligeia: it was immense – such as I have never known in woman” (647). The narrator admires that she is intellectual because he can relate to it. He, as one who lives within his own mind, finds extreme pleasure in having a physical manifestation of his intellect. Due to the narrator’s extreme distaste for reality, he seeks any way to live in fantasy. Ligeia, a projection of imagination, is a spectacular way for the narrator to achieve his goal: “Ligeia has brought me far more, very far more, than falls ordinarily to the lot of mortals” (648) Ligeia gives the narrator more than humans of reality receive. Being so other-worldly, she drags the narrator out of reality, and that is one of her main purposes. The reason the narrator is so in love with Ligeia is not merely because he created her, but because essentially, she is him. A representation of his own beliefs and intellect, she allows the narrator to be fully connected with only himself and no one else, adding to his need to be separated from what is real.
After Ligeia has passed, the narrator marries a new woman named Lady Rowena, who proves to be the exact opposite of everything Ligeia stands for. Ligeia is described as an exotic and strange woman, whereas Rowena is natural and represents reality by being a “fair-haired and blue-eyed” woman (649). The narrator comes to hate Rowena due to her differences from Ligeia: “Whereas Ligeia is the embodiment of the romantic spirit, her successor is associated with the mundane and the material” (Zlotnick-Woldenberg). Rowena is reality, and the narrator desperately wants to dip back into fantasy. Ligeia is the representation of what he really wants. Zlotnick-Woldenberg claims that the imagined woman and Rowena cannot both be in the narrator’s life: “The two women cannot co-exist. They exist sequentially: first Ligeia, then Rowena, and then Ligeia once again”. Their co-existence would be a conflict, because the narrator cannot be in reality and in fantasy at the same time. Since the narrator favors fancy, his hatred for Rowena grows immensely until it peaks at a high point in his delusion: “As Rowena was in the act of raising the wine to her lips, I saw, or may have dreamed that I saw, fall within the goblet, as if from some invisible spring in the atmosphere of the room, three or four large drops of a brilliant and ruby colored fluid” (651). The narrator claims he sees Ligeia poison Rowena’s drink, but in reality, he is the one who kills his wife. Zlotnick-Woldenberg says the narrator’s hatred is “best demonstrated by his hallucination that someone – obviously Ligeia, whose spirit seems to make its appearance prior to what he perceives as her actual revivification – has murdered her, a clear projection of his own wishes”. Ligeia, however, is not real and therefore cannot have committed the crime. The narrator poisons Rowena, but portrays, and may believe, it to be Ligeia who murders her. The narrator’s disliking of Rowena symbolizes his hatred for nature and reality. When he kills her, he is allowing his fantasy to live on in the embodiment of Ligeia, and he is finally able to once again live fully submersed in his own imagination.
“Ligeia”, by Edgar Allan Poe, cautions readers about the horrors that can come from trying to escape reality by indulging too heavily in fantasy. The narrator’s constant need to be relieved from the dullness of reality leads him to an excessive use of opium and the creation of the fictitious Ligeia. The narrator, too caught up in the dream state he has dived into, kills his own wife Rowena in order to return back to the fantasy he craves. Trapped within himself without a connection to others, the narrator becomes obsessed with a world derived from fancy and is so desperate to escape what is real that his delusions become his truth, and he murders in order to keep it that way.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligeia.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Volume B, 8th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 644 – 653. Print. Zlotnick-
Woldenberg, Carrie. “Edgar Allan Poe’s `Ligeia’: An Object-Relational Interpretation.” American Journal Of Psychotherapy 53.3 (1999): 403. Academic Search Complete. Web. 1 Dec. 2016.
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