29 pages 58 minutes read

Edgar Allan Poe

Ligeia

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1838

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Ligeia”

Edgar Allan Poe's “Ligeia,” a well-known piece of Gothic and Romantic literature, invites readers to explore the intricacies of reality, death, and the enigmatic power of human will. Published in 1838 during the Romantic era, this tale falls within the sub-genre of Gothic fiction, typified by brooding atmospheres, uncanny occurrences, and a fascination with the supernatural.

This guide refers to the Penguin Classic 2019 Kindle edition.

Content Warning: This guide and the source text use the term “madness” to generally refer to mental instability.

An unnamed narrator reflects on his relationship and enthrallment with the enigmatic Ligeia in first-person narration. Both Ligeia and the narrator’s second wife, Lady Rowena of Tremaine, are now deceased.

The eponymous Ligeia is both fascinating and elusive. The narrator confides that he cannot recall when he first encountered her in a “decaying city” on the Rhine river. She never discussed her family, and the narrator never learned her last name, though they were married. He wonders if Ligeia purposefully concealed her name as a test of his love, or if he romantically refused to inquire about it. He calls their marriage “ill-omened” in an allusion to the Egyptian goddess Ashtophet, associated with love, fertility, and hell.

The narrator describes Ligeia’s appearance at length; she was very beautiful but “emaciated” and unusual-looking with extremely large, dark eyes. The narrator struggles to articulate the mysterious expression of Ligeia’s eyes, comparing them to several legendary women and mythological figures, such as Democritus’s well and the twins of the Gemini constellation. Ligeia was also highly intellectual and knowledgeable in esoteric arts. She taught the narrator a lot about “metaphysical” science.

The narrative's trajectory leads the reader through the whirlwind romance and marriage between the narrator and Ligeia, which takes a turn for the tragic as Ligeia becomes ill. Her beauty and intellect remain undiminished despite her ailing health, but Ligeia struggles greatly with her inevitable death. Throughout her struggle, she muses philosophically about the soul and the afterlife, and even composes a poem about insurmountable death entitled “The Conqueror Worm.” Eventually, Ligeia passes away, and the narrator purchases a gloomy abbey that he believes reflects his feelings of anguish.

Despite the narrator’s grief, he eventually enters into a new marriage with Rowena Trevanion. Rowena is the antithesis of Ligeia in every aspect, from appearance to personality. Rowena is cheerful, blonde, and submissive while Ligeia was mysterious, raven-haired, and independent. Within the dreadful atmosphere of the abbey, the relationship between the narrator and Rowena disintegrates and the narrator comments on how he even comes to hate Rowena. Their marriage is tumultuous and Rowena is often unhappy with the narrator and his moods. Shortly after arriving at the abbey, Rowena falls ill and is bedridden for a long period of time.

The narrator recounts a particular evening where Rowena is feeling better; he offers her a glass of wine, but notices droplets of “ruby” liquid falling into the glass as she drinks it, seemingly from nowhere. He admits he is under the influence of opium and decides not to say anything to her. Soon after this, she becomes terminally ill, and her attendants prepare her for her passing which occurs three days later.

Upon Rowena’s death, the narrator becomes convinced that Ligeia’s spirit has taken residence within Rowena’s lifeless body. Under the influence of drugs and his own deteriorating mental state, he embarks on a macabre experiment to prove the power of the will by praying that Ligeia’s spirit will reanimate Rowena’s body. He convinces himself, multiple times, that Rowena’s corpse bears a resemblance to Ligeia. After a few instances in which Rowena seems to come back to life, she ultimately remains unresponsive, leading the narrator to try to reason that she has indeed passed on. In despair, he reflects on the boundaries between life and death, haunted by the memories of Ligeia and his own actions. In the last lines of the story, Rowena’s corpse stands up and reveals herself to be taller and raven-haired, and the narrator identifies her as his lost love Lady Ligeia. 

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