Our narrator's a serious guy with a serious passion for his dead wife. His description of Ligeia, which opens the story, is as heartfelt as it is rosy. His love for Ligeia is obvious, but so is his commitment to understanding her. This same sort of balance, between serious contemplation and intense emotion, is key to the tale. It applies as much to the narrator's feelings about Ligeia as it goes to the structure of the story itself. Just as the narrator is overcome by his devotion to Ligeia yet struggles to understand her, we as readers have to deal with our own emotional responses – fear, for instance – as we try to look beyond the spooky bits. Poe is writing a story that is just as much about passion and power – what other words can better describe the force that animates Ligeia? – and the philosophical explanation for her return from the dead, as described by Glanvill.
Poe complicates the issue even more by making his narrator a little less than objective: his statements are colored by love and opium, and so the story takes on a sort of misty quality. So even as Poe is striking a balance, he's making sure it's an unsteady one.
The tale of "Ligeia" has all the hallmarks of that strange genre called Gothic fiction: death, romance, horror, supernatural phenomena, hallucinations, and possibly haunted locations. Oh, and did we mention death and romance? Those two concepts – usually combined – are the foundation of this genre. Poe's ability to look at something as terrifying as Ligeia's resurrection romantically, through the eyes of her former lover, is what makes the tale more than a simple horror story. It's that strange mixture of love and death, all set in a spooky old abbey that makes it super Gothic. Heck, look up "Gothic Fiction" on Google and you'll see a picture of Ligeia rising from her bed. Well, probably not. But maybe.
Before we get into the profound stuff, let's get one thing straight: Edgar Allan Poe liked to make stuff up. Especially women's names. Ligeia (pronounced lie-GEE-uh – nope, we didn't guess that the first time either) is just one of many he invented (along with Morella and Eulalie). It seems he just liked to make up names (as well as quotes, as you'll find out when you read "What's Up With the Epigraph?" section) that sounded cool. You could say that Ligeia, as simply an unusual name, brings a certain air of mystery to the story right from the start.
As for the big question of why Poe would name the story after Ligeia in the first place, well, that's not as easy to answer as it may appear to be. Yes, our narrator spends the whole time talking about this Ligeia lady – he is definitely obsessed with his late wife – and her return from the dead is the high point of the story. Still, this raises a difficult question: is the story really about Ligeia or is it about the narrator's obsession with her? Has his imagination turned his dead wife into something larger than life – or larger than death? There's no really good answer to the question. The most you can do is keep in mind that, even though the story bears her name, Ligeia isn't the one telling it.
The obvious answer to this question is: Ligeia somehow manages – through force of will, perhaps – to inhabit the dead body of Lady Rowena, transform it into her own image, and then reveal herself to the narrator.
Unfortunately, the "obvious" answer is also the craziest. For one thing, you have to notice the "somehow" up there. There's no logical explanation for how Ligeia possesses Lady Rowena's body – or for how the "brilliant and ruby colored fluid" falls into Rowena's wine, or for pretty much everything else (24). It doesn't help that our narrator is high on "an immoderate dose of opium" the whole time, and that he's constructed a funhouse/madhouse of a bedroom for Rowena (23). All of these many, many factors make any kind of interpretation really complicated. So maybe the narrator does stare into "the full, and the black, and the wild eyes" of Ligeia. Or maybe he's just hallucinating, and his desire to have Ligeia back leads him to imagine the whole, strange resurrection scene.
Does that leave us to choose a "correct" version of the story? No. But we should keep in mind two very important parts from earlier in the tale. On one hand, the Glanvill quote about the death-conquering power of, well, willpower. On the other hand, though, we have to remember Ligeia's own "conqueror," the worm (you can read more about him and his story in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory"). In the poem – which, mind you, she composes – the worm is the hero, and wins out over all. Which is the true champion this time around? We'll let you decide.
You're not going to find anything picturesque in "Ligeia," nope. No rainbows, radiant sunrises, or star-filled skies. In "Ligeia," the world is gray and most everything is old and decaying. Look at the way the narrator describes the window of the bridal chamber: it's "a single pane, and tinted of a leaden hue, so that the rays of either the sun or moon, passing through it, fell with a ghastly luster on the objects within" (19). That same hard-to-define, odd, almost "ghastly" beauty can be found throughout the story, in Ligeia's home city, in the abbey and its bridal chamber, and, perhaps most importantly, in Ligeia herself. Really, you can't look at the world the narrator inhabits and – in the case of the abbey – creates, and not think of Ligeia. And maybe that's why the narrator can't get her off his mind. (Mind you, these locations are all also classically "Gothic." You can read more about what that means in the "Genre" section.)
And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigor? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness, Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.
– Joseph Glanvill
So, you're probably wondering who Joseph Glanvill is, right? The quick answer is that he's an English writer and philosopher from the seventeenth century. Some more detail? Well, Glanvill had a lot to say about, among other things, the power of witchcraft, the supernatural, and the soul. So, naturally, he's the perfect guy for Poe to call upon for a choice quote. But the thing is, nobody has ever been able to find the quote that Poe uses for his epigraph. Poe probably just made it up, added some "-eths," and stuck Glanvill's name to it to make it seem more authentic. You know, sort of how you used to soak your fake pirate maps in tea and burn their edges with a candle so they'd look "real." (You did that when you were a kid, right?)
Fake or not, we can still make sense of "Glanvill's" statement. Looking at that first line, we can find the real star of the show: "the will." This will is apparently immortal – it "dieth" not. It's also unknowable and "vigorous," judging by the next line. Even more important, the will and God seem to be pretty closely related, for God is "but a great will pervading all things by the knowing of its intentness." (That last part is a little vague, but we think it makes the most sense if you just replace "intentness" with "intensity.")
So, now we know that, according to "Glanvill," the will: 1) doesn't die, 2) is unknowable and powerful, and 3) is or is like God. Which is all to say that the will is really, really important and pretty much everywhere.
Now to the last part: you know how the first line talks about the will being "therein," but doesn't specify where that "in" is? Well, we finally get an answer at the end of the epigraph. It seems that the will is in "Man." So in the last line "Glanvill" makes a bold claim: "Only through the weakness of his feeble will," he says, does man "yield himself to the angels" and "death utterly." In other words, he's saying that if you're gritty and determined enough, you can avoid death through will alone. Um….
We're not saying this is true or false, but we will tell you that it's important to keep in mind while you're reading "Ligeia." After all, it appears three more times in the course of the story.
Yes, "Ligeia" is a horror story. A lady rises from the dead and there's a spooky room and a freaky poem about a bloodthirsty worm. What more could you ask for? How about a heaping helping of philosophy?
Well, like it or not, that's what you get from Poe. He's not content with making you shake in your boots. No, he wants you scratching your head and furrowing your brow too. It's that same combination of fright and philosophy that makes "Ligeia" something of a tough read. Most ghost stories don't begin with an intense pages-long description of the title character, and with good reason. They want to keep things moving, maybe introduce some thought-provoking questions – "What would I do if the dead came back?" – and then continue on to the scariest possible outcome. With "Ligeia," Poe takes a more leisurely route, and as a result, we're ultimately left with more to consider and more time to consider it. And you know what? Deep thinking isn't often easy.
Two words: Lady. Ligeia. Say it out loud. You can't help but deliver it, as Hamlet says, "trippingly on the tongue." That's a big part of Poe's style, even if it does sound a little ridiculous. (If you read the "What's Up With the Title?" section, you know that Poe went so far as to make up names like Ligeia because he simply liked the way they sounded.) In this case, the phrase is nice because of a little thing called "alliteration." That's a big word to describe when two or more words that are close together begin with the same sound.
Poe really liked this kind of stuff, alliteration and all sorts of other little linguistic tricks. Just look at the last line: "'Here then, at least,' I shrieked aloud, 'can I never be mistaken – these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes – of my lost love – of the lady – of the LADY LIGEIA'" (29). The sentence is chock full of alliteration: lost, love, lady, LADY, and LIGEIA.
Poe repeats other stuff, too: that long list of adjectives connected by "and" – "the full, and the black, and the wild eyes." Each "and" is like a rap on the door: you can't help but pay attention. The same thing goes for all those "of the" phrases inserted at the end… but let's not get carried away. You can find this stuff all throughout Ligeia; Poe uses tricks like these to emphasize important things, in the same way you might use italics – which, by the Poe uses, too – to single out a word.
Now, we'd be letting you down if we didn't address some bigger stylistic choices, too: namely, that poem stuck right in the middle of the story and that quote that keeps popping up all over the place. These are some bold moves, and they demonstrate just how good Poe was with the whole word thing. Heck, he manages to pass off his own writing as something concocted by some English dude from the sixteenth century. And believe us, if we didn't have any help figuring that out, we needed help figuring out it was made up, too.
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the strangest play you'll ever see. Well, sort of. "The Conqueror Worm" is actually a poem about a play, and unless you're an angel, you're not in the audience. In the story, the narrator tells us that Ligeia wrote the poem, but it's worth noting that "The Conqueror Worm" was first published separately by Poe in 1843. That's neither here nor there, though. It's not going to help us figure out what the poem's about. What will help is a very special Cast of Characters, the sort of thing you'll usually find in your playbill. So, here you go:
Cast of Characters
(in order of appearance)
The Audience… Angels, a.k.a. seraphs (a fancy word for a particular type of angel)
Man/mankind… variously played by mimes, puppets
The Hero… The Conqueror Worm
Now that we have our cast of characters, let's bang out a little summary. The poem is divided into five stanzas (a stanza is a grouping of lines). Each stanza has eight lines. As for a rhyme scheme, well, it's not totally consistent. If you look at the third stanza, though, you see a regular pattern of end rhymes – that is, rhymes involving the last word of each line. In this case, the pattern is ABABCDCD. So the last words of lines 1 and 3, "rout" and "out," rhyme with each other, as do the last words of lines 2 and 4, "intrude" and "solitude," and so on with the next four lines.
We'll go through each stanza and figure out what's going on. Still with us? Good!
In the first stanza, we've got a description of the "gala night," probably the play's opening night. In the audience? A bunch of angels, complete with wings and veils. The orchestra is playing "the music of the spheres," the spheres meaning the stars, in this case. Here, Poe's playing with words: the phrase was used to describe the movement of those spheres/stars or, in a bigger sense, the state of the universe.
So, now that the stage is set for our "play of hopes and fears," this is going to be some heavy drama. We get right to the action, and the action is weird. A bunch of mimes are walking around the stage, mumbling – they apparently didn't get the whole "mimes don't talk" memo. Their movements aren't entirely random, though. They're more like puppets, here – they move "at bidding of vast formless things," while invisible puppeteers manipulate everything around the actors, creating, as they do, "Invisible Wo."
This is a lot to handle all at once, so let's take it one thing at a time. The most confusing – and most important – thing here is the whole mime/puppet bit. Which are they – mimes or puppets? Well, as you might have noticed in the Cast of Characters, they're listed as playing the character of mankind. How do we know this? It's up there in the first line of the stanza. The mimes, Poe writes, are in the form of God on high. Now, if you're up on your Bible knowledge – and don't worry if you're not, that's why we're here – you know that the Book of Genesis says God created Man in his image. And, so, we can only assume that all these mimes and puppets are, in fact, representing mankind.
Now, as for those "vast formless things" with "Condor wings," they're a little harder to pin down. We do know that they're good at getting the mimes to do what they want, and at creating "Invisible Wo!," which definitely doesn't sound good. These guys seem to have control of the mimes' will – an important word in this story, judging by the number of times it comes up in that Glanvill quote alone. Their control actually contradicts something from the Book of Genesis. For at the same time that God is supposed to have made Man look like him, he's also gave him free will, something these mimes and puppets definitely don't have. This lack of control only leads to… well, maybe a look at the next stanza will help us figure that out.
After reminding us of how this play "shall not be forgot," Poe gets back to the story. Now we're introduced to "the Phantom," who sounds a lot like one of those "vast formless things" mentioned earlier. Now, let's say that's the case: according to Poe, the crowd – all those puppets – is always chasing this Phantom but never catching it. It'd sort of be like Pinocchio always trying to become a "real boy" but never quite being able to cut the strings. That'd be pretty depressing, yeah? Well, that's exactly what's going on here. All these puppets are trying their darndest to catch their puppetmaster, but with no success. Instead, they're left to move in "a circle that ever returneth/to the self-same spot" (13). They're literally running in circles, and their lives are full of terrible things: Madness, Sin, and Horror – running in circles can do terrible things to your mind, it seems.
Luckily, there is something to alleviate the boredom: a big old, blood-red, mime-eating creepy-crawly. He adds a bit of life – and death – to the story. All this blood and man-eating makes the angels cry, but it sure does make for a better story! With the appearance of the worm, the play ends, out go the lights, the curtain falls, and the angels shuffle home to heaven. Now, in case you haven't figure it out yet, Poe tells you exactly what you've just watched. It's a tragedy called "Man," and "its hero the Conqueror Worm."
So what's the take-away? Man is weak and totally without free will. He's doomed to sadness and sin and, ultimately, to be dinner for a disgusting worm. This is a pretty dark take on life, and no wonder: the poem's been written by a dying woman. It also seems to contradict Glanvill's quote. Yes, Glanvill he agrees that man's will is weak, but he also seems hopeful that maybe, just maybe, if a person could muster up the courage, they could break the vicious cycle and conquer the Conqueror Worm. When you put the quote and the poem together, you get a sort of Point/Counterpoint effect, like you might find on your average cable news show. As for who makes a stronger case, well…it's best to keep reading, really.
"Ligeia," like many of Poe's tales, is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator. This strategy gives Poe a lot of freedom when it comes to the storytelling: he can create a distinct voice and manipulate information in a way that he might not be able to with your usual impartial third-person narrator. In the case of "Ligeia," Poe has a lot of fun: his narrator has a bad memory, is addicted to opium, and is totally obsessed with his dead wife. He's a classic "unreliable narrator" (check out "Characters" for more on that). So Poe can do more than simply tell the story, he can get himself – and us – all wrapped up in its messy particulars, in the haze of opium and obsession. We're stuck right in the middle of the action and, despite having a front row seat or perhaps because we have one, we have a hard time separating fact from fiction, reality from dream.
Right from the beginning, you can tell "Ligeia" definitely doesn't follow the "classic" plot arc. The narrator spends the first third of the story telling us all about Ligeia, about her origins and her beauty and her intelligence and, most of all about her intense devotion to the gal. There's lots of description and no action. You can think of it as "Ligeia: An Introduction."
Just before launching into the story of Ligeia's death, the narrator tells us, "How poignant, then, must have been the grief with which, after some years, I beheld my well-grounded expectations take wings to themselves and fly away" (8). With Ligeia's sickness and death, all of the narrator's dreams are, to put it crudely, flushed down the toilet. He's left with no hope and no guidance.
The narrator admits that he has no idea what to do without Ligeia… so it should come as no surprise when he does something regrettable.
This isn't a climax, so to speak, but it is the moment when you know things are going to get really intense. Shadows on the carpet, mysterious drops of red liquid, a sudden turn for the worse, and still pages left to go – you know that the story's not just going to end with the death of Rowena.
The first time Rowena shows signs of life, we might think to ourselves: "Man, this is weird." The second? "Huh, what's going to happen?" The eighth, ninth, tenth times? "Come on, this is getting ridiculous!" We really, really want to know what's going down.
The whole "rising from the dead" thing is amazing enough, but Poe's got another twist left in him. Sure, he shows us something unbelievable, but there's still something more to be uncovered.
Finally, we get the big reveal. Literally. You could call this the climax if you really wanted to, as this is what everything is moving towards. It's the payoff, and a big one at that.