Study Guide

Ligeia Themes

  • Mortality

    In "Ligeia," death is never the end. Right from the start we're forced to consider that, though dying is probably the end, there's a small possibility that people can overcome it and return to life. Poe asks us to consider it again and again as we see Glanvill's hopeful quote repeated and read Ligeia's bleak poem, "The Conqueror Worm." By the end of the story, we're so primed to see the controversy resolved. Ultimately, Ligeia triumphs over death, takes over Lady Rowena's body, and comes back to life – or seems to, anyway.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. At story's end, has the Conqueror Worm definitely been conquered?
    2. If death only comes because humans have a weak will, what does that say about humans? Are we just not trying hard enough?
    3. Why the "Conqueror Worm" in the first place? Why not a more traditional representation of death?

    Chew on This

    In "Ligeia," Poe suggests that death is not, under all circumstances, final; rather, it's a process that can be fought and, given the right person, reversed.

    Though Ligeia's rise from the dead may seem to back up Glanvill's assertion about man's "feeble will," the narrator's cloudy perceptions leave us to question whether the battle against death really has been won.

  • Appearance

    Appearance. When it comes to Ligeia, our narrator's obsessed with it. He can remember every line and every curve of his beloved wife's body. And yet, even then, he can't really describe her. There's a certain something that simply can't be captured in words, that lies outside – or maybe inside – of her looks, that's hidden in her expression. It's a strange situation: there's so much description, and yet there's so little to it. Like the narrator's bizarre bridal chamber, appearance may seem to be a simple thing to describe, but if you look at it from a different perspective, it's all too easy to get lost in the details.

    Questions About Appearance

    1. Why does the narrator bother describing Ligeia in such detail if he can't even capture her true essence in words?
    2. Why does the narrator spend so little time talking about Rowena?
    3. The narrator talks as if Ligeia's eyes hold the secret to her "expression." What makes one's eyes different from, say, one's cheeks?

    Chew on This

    In "Ligeia," Poe doesn't simply demonstrate that appearances can be deceiving; for when it comes to Ligeia herself, a physical description can't even begin to capture her essence.

    The narrator spends so much time describing Ligeia because her appearance, even in memory, is the only constant thing he knows. Only through those memories can he begin to think about more abstract things.

  • Versions of Reality

    Poe offers us a single perspective in "Ligeia," and it's definitely not a straightforward one. Our narrator is an opium addict and he's stuck living in the past. He's a man who hallucinates and even induces hallucinations in his wife by way of a cruel hall of mirrors. The longer we read "Ligeia," the more questionable our narrator becomes. By the time Ligeia finally rises from the dead, we really have to wonder if we can believe what the narrator is telling us.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Here's the big question: Is that last, unbelievable moment really real? Can we seriously believe our eyes – or the eyes of the narrator? Has Ligeia really come back from the dead?
    2. Is the narrator trying to drive Rowena crazy by making the bridal chamber a huge optical illusion, or is there something more to his madness?
    3. How does Ligeia's resurrection change our view of such simple concepts as life and death?

    Chew on This

    The narrator's bridal chamber is a metaphor for his mind; both are twisted, out of balance, and always shifting.

    By story's end, we are shocked and struck by the events that unfold before us, but we're nonetheless left to determine the truth of the matter ourselves.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    Opium is a drug that was legal back in Poe's day. It can cloud the memory, induce visions, and blur the line between dreams and reality. In "Ligeia," it does all that – to our narrator. As such, we're forced to share in his habit, to see the world through drug-clouded lenses. His addiction is a sign of his suffering – you'd like to imagine he wouldn't be using the opium if Ligeia hadn't died – and it affects the very fabric of the story he's sharing. When he tells us that his hallucinations (the shadow on the carpet and the red drops in the goblet) might be the consequence of his opium high, we have to question everything he has been saying all along.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. The narrator's addiction to opium definitely affects his memory of Ligeia's rise from the dead. That said, are the effects of his addiction reflected anywhere else in the story?
    2. Is it possible that the narrator's simply using opium as an excuse? Is his addiction merely making his own mental suffering worse?
    3. Sure, the narrator's opium use affects his perceptions, but here's another question: how does it affect our perceptions of him?

    Chew on This

    In "Ligeia," addiction is more than just a character trait; rather, it's a key plot device, a storytelling essential.

    The narrator's addiction to opium is a consequence of his grief, and so a sign of his ultimately feeble will.