As the story begins, the narrator tells us what he knows about Ligeia – or, rather, what he doesn't know. He can't remember when they met, where she came from, her family history – well, aside from something vague about an old city by the river Rhine. He can't even remember her last name.
Still, she's far from forgotten: the narrator starts talking about his passion for Ligeia, which is something he certainly can't forget. He continues on from there, describing the way she carried herself, with such grace. He goes on to tell us about the subtle strangeness of her beauty; her white skin, her raven-black hair, her delicate profile and elegant mouth and brilliant teeth and bright smile. Then he moves on to her unique and heavenly eyes, and further still to her expression, "that something more profound than the well of Democritus" (4). He can't do much to describe her expression, although he's constantly coming up with analogies to it. Always, though, it reminds him of the quote from Joseph Glanvill that opens the tale – "And the will therein lieth."
From there he speaks of the intensity with which she did everything, of the passion that consumed her, and of her great intelligence, unmatched by any other woman – all things that consumed and inspired him, too. Soon, though, he tells us about how Ligeia's intensity began to decrease, how she fell ill, and how her illness devastated him.
He goes on to describe the moments before Ligeia's death: As he sits by her bedside that night, she asks him to repeat a poem that she had written a few days before. It's called "The Conqueror Worm," and it tells the story of a strange play, in which mimes play Man and the conqueror worm triumphs over all. Once the poem has been recited, Ligeia wonders out loud if "the conqueror" might not win this time, repeats the Glanvill quote, and then dies.
After Ligeia dies, the narrator leaves for England, where he moves into an old abbey. Having inherited Ligeia's fortune, he's become quite rich and soon takes a new wife, Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine. Unfortunately, he doesn't love her; in fact, he hates her. He puts her up in a strange "bridal chamber," decked out with Egyptian sarcophaguses and strange gold curtains that make the whole place one big optical illusion. All the while, our narrator's mind is constantly on Ligeia, and he begins to smoke opium to ease his pain.
At the beginning of the second month of their marriage, Lady Rowena gets sick, and though she briefly returns to health, she eventually falls into a strange funk, and starts to have hallucinations. The narrator passes these off as mere illusions created by the curtains, but one night things really take a turn for the worse.
Seeing that his wife's on the verge of fainting, the narrator brings out some wine to try to revive her – but he's interrupted by a strange sensation. He can feel a sort of invisible figure pass him by and then, soon after, he sees a faint shadow on the carpet. He passes these off as his own hallucinations – he's high on opium, after all – but his visions become more and more potent. Soon he hears footsteps and sees strange red drops of liquid fall into Lady Rowena's glass of wine. When Rowena drinks from the cup, she immediately gets sicker and soon dies.
Now the narrator finds himself sitting at the side of Rowena's shrouded body, but his mind, fogged by opium, is still on Ligeia. Around midnight, he notices something strange – a faint cry coming from Rowena's bed. A few minutes later, he notices that a bit of color has returned to her cheeks; he decides that she's still alive. All alone, he attempts to bring his wife back to life, but to no avail – she soon fades back into death, looking even worse than she did before. He has more visions of Ligeia, visions that are interrupted by a second, more drastic revival. The same cycle occurs again – he fails to bring her back, she falls back into death, looking even worse than before, and he begins to have visions.
Finally, early in the morning, Rowena has an even more dramatic awakening: even though she's still wrapped in her burial shroud, she looks very much alive. He watches her rise from the bed and advance toward him. Yet, he notices that she seems taller than before. When he leaps up, she lets the bandage fall from her head, revealing huge amounts of dark black hair. He knows, then, that he is looking into the eyes of Ligeia.
- A lot of love stories begin with "first meetings" – you know, first dates and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, our narrator doesn't remember where or how or when he met Lady Ligeia.
- It was a long time ago, it seems, and he's been through a lot since then, so those details have kind of slipped his mind.
- Once upon a time he could have told you that part of the story, but not anymore, because she snuck up on him, slow and stealthy, surprising him with her beauty and eloquence, stealing his heart – like a cat, maybe, or a cat burglar – without warning.
- He thinks he met her in some "old and decaying city near the Rhine" – in other words, a German town – but, even then, he still can't remember much.
- Her family is an old and established one, sure, but he doesn't remember their name. He only knows her as Ligeia – she's one of those one-name wonders, like Madonna or Cher or Shakira (take your pick); he's sure, in fact, that he never knew her last name at all, despite the fact that she was his wife and his partner in all things.
- Maybe it was just supposed to be romantic, the whole one-name thing. But on second thought, he says, maybe not.
- Either way, he's sure that something he can put a name to, "the misty-winged Ashtophet of idolatrous Egypt," the god of "ill-omened marriages," definitely had something to do with their wedding.
- Still, he says, there's one thing I definitely remember – the way Ligeia looked. She was tall and thin, he tells us. But really, he says, I'm really not qualified to describe the way she carried herself (although maybe this has more to do with his bad memory) – quietly, almost like a shadow.
- Her voice, he says, was "sweet and low," and her face incomparably beautiful, glowing "like an opium-dream," something he knows a lot about, apparently (3).
- Her beauty wasn't really normal, though – no, he has to qualify his statements again. It was really a bit strange, he says, not "classical" at all.
- What was strange, though, he can't say: her skin was white like ivory, her hair "raven-black," glossy, curly, "hyacinthine," – that is, like the hyacinth; it's big word that Homer used to describe Odysseus's hair in The Odyssey (3).
- Her nose, now, her nose was perfect, as were her smile and chin – nothing seems very strange after all.
- Her eyes, on the other hand, now they were unique – they're the strange part, too big for a human (but maybe perfect for an Anime character?) – and yet only occasionally could you tell how weird they were. In those few moments, though, oh man, her deep, dark eyes and long lashes and "irregular eyebrows" – that combo was beautiful.
- But – and there always seems to be a but – really all those little things can't even begin to account for her real beauty. No, that could only be found in something even more vague: her expression (emphasis narrator; the italics let you know that it's really important) (4).
- He's spent a lot of time thinking about that expression, but without much success. Again, he can't really describe it. That doesn't mean he can't try, though.
- He's always trying to come up with some kind of description, actually, a description that's right there on the tip of his tongue but never actually uttered.
- Still, he comes up with lots of ways to sort of illustrate it: he finds it in "rapidly-growing vines," moths, butterflies, streams, the ocean, falling meteors, "the glances of unusually aged people" (weird, no?), a couple stars, stringed instruments, and passages from some books (5).
- Really, though, there's only one good way to describe it: with the Joseph Glanvill quote that serves as the story's epigram:
- "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 him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will" (5).
- As it turns out, it took him years of thought to come up with that comparison. Ligeia was just so intense – despite the fact that she was also strangely calm, at least on the outside.
- Sometimes, though, he says, when her eyes grew wide, you could tell how passionate she really was. Also, she was always whispering "wild words." Talk about still waters running deep.
- Now the narrator moves on to that whole super-intelligent thing he mentioned before.
- Ligeia, he says, is the smartest woman he ever met – she spoke a bunch of languages and knew about all sorts of strange science, as much as any men of the time did.
- She was so smart that he let her guide him. He was like a little child and she was his schoolmistress. Without her, he says, he was lost.
- Unfortunately, he tells us, she left all too soon. The fire in her eyes began to glow too brightly, her skin became translucent, and her veins throbbed beneath her skin. Still, though, she struggled to save herself, more than he, he must admit, could struggle to save her; he couldn't even begin to help her, in comparison – her efforts to live were just that intense.
- Only when she was dying, the narrator continues, did he realize how deeply Ligeia loved him. She would spend hours telling him how much she loved him – so long, really, that he began to feel a bit overwhelmed.
- Once again, he can't even begin to describe her passion, the way she clung to life.
- Now, to the meat of the story:
- At midnight, on the night of Ligeia's death, she asks her husband to recite a poem she had recently composed. The narrator complies.
- The poem, called "The Conqueror Worm," is the story of a strange play watched by angels, one in which Man is portrayed by a bunch of puppets, and the hero is a strange and horrible worm. (You can read more about "The Conqueror Worm" in the "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section.)
- When the narrator finishes reading the poem, Ligeia cries out. She asks God to let the Conqueror Worm be conquered just this once. Worn out, she repeats the Glanvill epigram and then falls back onto the bed.
- The narrator puts his head to her lips and hears her last words, again from Glanvill:
- "Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will" (17).
- The narrator, devastated by Ligeia's death, leaves the gloomy old city by the Rhine and relocates to a gloomy old abbey in a wild, gloomy part of England.
- He does his best to make the abbey look like a designer insane asylum, decking it out with crazy draperies, Egyptian carvings, and gold-tufted carpets.
- Also, he gets addicted to opium, which makes the whole world seem hazy, and definitely contributes to the crazy vibe.
- Still, all this is nothing compared to the bridal chamber he sets up for his second wife, Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine. In this case, our narrator knows all about her family name, but doesn't seem to care about anything else. She's just "the fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena" (18).
- Now, onto that bridal chamber. The narrator can't believe Lady Rowena's family ever let her enter it in the first place – he thinks maybe it had something to do with the huge fortune he inherited from Ligeia.
- Finally, though, the narrator tells us about something he can't forget: the details of that room.
- It's a pentagonal room, set up on top of a big tower. It's got one gigantic window, the color of lead, which, naturally, makes the whole room look pretty spooky.
- But that's only the beginning. He's got vines growing all over the walls, a huge vaulted ceiling made of oak, decorated with all sorts of scary carvings. Hanging from the ceiling is a big gold censer – a container made for burning incense – that's there because the fire inside casts all sorts of colors on the walls.
- Now, as for the furniture, he's got the usual ottomans – footrests, not Turkish people – and a candelabra and a couch too, sculpted from dark ebony, topped off by a canopy. And, of course there are the usual sarcophaguses – big King-Tut style coffins – in each corner, straight out of the tombs of the pharaohs.
- Oh, and check out those tapestries on the wall, tapestries covered in black figures. These aren't your mother's tapestries, though. No, the figures drawn on them only appear normal from one angle. If you happen to look at them from any other, well, you're in for a surprise, because they start looking, well, just plain spooky. To top it all off, he's built it so the wind is always rushing behind them, making them blow ominously.
- So this is where he and Lady Rowena spend their honeymoon. He realizes all too soon, though, that he "loathes [Lady Rowena] with a hatred belonging more to a demon than a man" (21). Yikes.
- The narrator becomes overwhelmed with memories of Ligeia.
- He's filled with Ligeia's spirit… and a whole lot of opium; he freely admits that he's pretty much always high out of his mind. In the middle of these highs, he takes to calling out her name, hoping always that if just he yells enough, then she'll come back.
- At the beginning of the second month of his second marriage, Lady Rowena suddenly gets sick.
- Her recovery is slow, and she begins to see strange things while she's cooped up in the bridal chamber. The narrator passes these off as the effects of the crazy tapestries or maybe her high fevers, and soon enough Lady Rowena returns to health.
- Just as quickly as she recovers, she lapses back into sickness, but this time it's much, much worse. The doctors can do nothing to help. Soon, Rowena is complaining about the strange sights and sounds again.
- One night, near the end of September, Rowena gets really freaked out – her hallucinations have gotten really bad. As the narrator sits by her side, she tells him of each and every sight and sound, and each time he tells her that it's merely the wind rushing behind the tapestries.
- All his reassurances don't help: she goes pale and faints.
- He rushes to grab a bottle of wine the doctors had prescribed, but just then, he senses a strange, invisible object passing him by. He then sees a faint "angelic" shadow on the carpet. He doesn't pay much attention to these things, though – he's high on an "immoderate dose" of opium, after all – and goes on to pour out a gobletful of wine for his wife.
- He hands her the cup and takes a seat, only to hear a "gentle foot-fall" upon the carpet. Then, just as Rowena brings the cup to her lips, he watches – or thinks he watches; he might be dreaming, he says – three or four drops of red liquid fall into the cup. Uh oh.
- Before he can do anything, Rowena has already taken a drink. He hopes that he's simply imagining the whole thing.
- Nope. Things take a turn for the worse almost immediately; three days later, Rowena is dead, and the narrator finds himself sitting by her shrouded corpse.
- While sitting there, he can't help but think of that shadow he saw on the carpet just before she died. That gets him thinking about Ligeia – and once he starts thinking about her, he can't stop.
- Some time around midnight or so – he can't really remember when – the narrator hears a very quiet sob. He looks to see if something's going on with Rowena's body and, lo and behold, a bit of color has returned to her cheek.
- He does his best to revive her – everyone else is too far away to be of any use – but he fails, and the life seeps out of her. If anything, she looks worse than she did before.
- Soon enough, the narrator's back to dreaming about Ligeia.
- An hour later, he notices it happening again: he hears a sigh and notices a slight movement of Rowena's lip; her forehead glows with life, as do her cheeks and throat. She even has a pulse, however weak. She lives, she lives, he's sure she lives.
- Then, again, life leaves her. And her body seems even more rigid and gray than before.
- Now, surprise, surprise, the narrator has more visions of Ligeia but the cycle of life and death begins to move more and more quickly – so quickly that the narrator decides to cut to the chase.
- Early in the morning, Rowena returns to life more energetically than ever before. Our narrator is stuck in place, too shocked to move. Her whole body moves, her limbs relax; aside from her closed eyelids and the shrouds that still cover her, Rowena seems to back from the dead – really, actually, totally back.
- Suddenly, she gets up from the bed and moves toward the narrator.
- Awakened from his stupor, the narrator jumps up. He can't help notice something is off – other than the whole "back from the dead" deal. This moving body certainly looks like Rowena, but she seems to be just a bit taller.
- He leaps toward her, but she moves back just as quickly, removing her shroud as she does.
- Only then does he see her hair, her raven-black hair, come bursting forth and her eyes beaming. It's not Lady Rowena at all.
- No, he shrieks, "these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes – of my lost love – of the lady – of the LADY LIGEIA" (29).