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In his stories “Ligea,” “Berenice,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe shows a series of women in transit. All the women are in transit between death and life. The fact that this path is not one-way emphasizes the flux. More immediately, the narrator always catches these women in transit between physical places. The one glimpse we get of Madeline Usher comes when the lady “passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared” (120). In “Berenice” the instance in which the titular character is actually present occurs when Berenice dashes into the room, bears her white teeth, and dashes out, never speaking a word (88). Of Ligea the narrator says, “she came and departed as a shadow” (104). The narrator almost never captures these women standing still or speaking a word. The perpetual state of physical transit seems to underscore the larger state of mortal flux in which these women exist.
Their perpetual flux also elucidates Poe’s notion of beauty. Each of these transitory women is the defining subject of stories that take “the most poetic topic in the world:” “the death of a beautiful women” (Philosophy). But if the death of beauty is the center of these stories, why do we only get fleeting glimpses of the women? How are we to know their beauty? It seems that the very quality of beauty lies in its ethereal, unsubstantive quality; or, as Poe says it differently, as “not a quality.” As opposed to truth, which is of the intellect, and passion, which is of the heart, beauty is of the soul. While heart and mind would seem to come to judgements based on contemplation of empirical data, it seems that the soul’s way of knowing (though perhaps knowing is not a good word) is based on the immediate effect of this empirical data. The transitory women are thus the ideal subjects of beauty. As the heart and mind can easily corrupt the soul, it seems the ideal way for the soul to confront beauty is to come only briefly in contact with it, not allowing for the heart or mind to begin their corruption. The most valuable quality of these women is not something they do or say, but rather some immediate emanation.
But in order for this immediate emanation beauty to live on, the woman must also absent herself from the viewers heart and mind: truth and passion are “absolutely antagonistic to that Beauty” (Philosophy). Therefore, Poe’s notion of beauty also relies on what one does not know of the object of beauty, namely all her humanly perfections. These holdings of the intellect and heart corrupt the transparent sheet of beauty. It is thus understandable that Poe drives all of his women to death. It is with them under the ground that he can maintain his fantasy of their voiceless, actionless perfection. Perhaps the constant premature entombment of these women stems from a deeper fantasy to place all women in a space where he can keep his romantic notion of them alive.
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