28 pages 56 minutes read

Edgar Allan Poe

Berenice

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1835

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Berenice”

“Berenice” by Edgar Allan Poe is a horror story first published in 1835 that deals with themes of obsession, illness, and death. Poe is one of the most prominent American authors of Gothic fiction, and his short stories frequently explore macabre and horrific subjects. In “Berenice,” the narrator, Egæus, is a bookish young man who becomes obsessed with his dying fiancée’s beautiful teeth. After she is accidentally buried alive, he discovers that he violently removed all her teeth and put them into a box during a trancelike state. Poe uses Egæus and Berenice’s relationship to demonstrate that positive traits such as love and beauty can become horrific and monstrous when taken to their logical extremes.

This guide refers to the version published in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835 and digitized by the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.

The story begins with the narrator proclaiming that misery is a diverse and varied experience and comparing the many types of human wretchedness to the many colors of the rainbow. He reflects that evil comes from good, and sorrow comes from joy, as people can know the pain of loss only because they can imagine or remember a better time. This intellectual meditation sets up the central question of the story: “How is it that from Beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness?” (333).

After this, the narrator introduces himself as Egæus, the son of a wealthy and noble family who lives in their ancient mansion. The most notable room of this house is the library, where Egæus says his mother died, and he was born. Egæus believes that being born in this “palace of imagination” strangely inverted his sense of reality (333). Reality seems dreamlike to him, while fantasies and ideas become his entire existence.

Berenice is Egæus’s cousin who was raised alongside him in this house. She is “agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy” (333), in contrast to the bookish and sickly Egæus. Berenice was once able to roam the countryside around the house and experience a joyful life. However, she develops a disease that induces seizures that paralyze her body, putting her into a deathlike trance until she suddenly awakens.

Egæus has a mental illness he identifies as “monomania,” a disorder of the mind that causes him to become completely obsessed with ordinary things. He often wastes entire days staring at a shadow on the floor or repeating a common word; his obsessions are always centered on frivolous objects. He clarifies that he is different from a daydreamer or an enthusiast, noting that “few deductions—if any—were made” during his obsessive trances, and “the meditations were never pleasurable” (334). While Egæus’s mental illness previously caused him to fixate on regular household items and scholarly books from his library, a problem arises when he develops an obsession with the physical changes occurring in Berenice’s body because of her illness.

Egæus claims that he had never loved Berenice when she was beautiful, declaring that “my passions always were of the mind” (334). However, once her illness removes her beauty and induces his obsession, he proposes marriage to her. They become engaged. One evening, Berenice appears before the narrator in his library chamber. He stares at her face, which has become pale, hollow, and dull, like that of a corpse. However, when she smiles at him, he sees her teeth, and he becomes obsessively fixated on them against his will. Unlike the rest of her face, Berenice’s teeth are perfect—white and uniform in color.

Egæus sits for a very long time in a trance, mentally contemplating Berenice’s teeth. He relates that “then came the full fury of my monomania, and I struggled in vain against its strange and irresistible influence” (335). An entire night and day pass, during which he is vaguely aware of a cry of horror and the sound of troubled voices coming from outside the room. Around sundown the next day, Egæus leaves the library and finds a servant, who tells him that Berenice died that morning during one of her seizures and is about to be buried.

After viewing the body, Egæus becomes paralyzed with horror. He thinks for a moment that he sees one of her fingers moving, but he is distracted because the band meant to hold her jaw shut has broken. The spectacle of her teeth forces him to rush out of the room in an erratic state.

Egæus finds himself sitting in the library around midnight, feeling “newly awakened from a confused and exciting dream” (335). He cannot remember anything about Berenice’s burial, but he knows that he did some sort of horrible deed. Egæus discovers a little ebony box beside him on a table. While there is nothing remarkable about it, he feels himself shudder when he looks at it. Also on the table is a book open to a Latin quote by the poet Ebn Zaiat that translates, “My companions told me I might find some little alleviation of my misery, in visiting the grave of my beloved” (335). This also fills him with inexplicable feelings of fear.

Finally, a servant enters the room and informs Egæus that Berenice’s grave was dug up, and her disfigured body was found beside it. While she was presumed dead when she was buried due to her trance caused by epilepsy, the body is still alive. The servant then points out that Egæus’s clothing is covered in mud and blood, and a spade leans against the wall. Realizing that he may have been the one who dug up the grave, Egæus screams and rushes to open the box on the table. He drops it, and “some instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with many white and glistening substances” fall onto the floor (336). The story concludes abruptly here, suggesting that Egæus violently extracted Berenice’s teeth from her still-living body after she was accidentally buried alive.

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