Edgar Allan Poe's Ligeia: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Damon Barta

Damon has taught college English and has an MA in literature.

This lesson will offer a summary and analysis of Edgar Allen Poe's short story 'Ligeia' (1838) with particular attention to the narrator's unreliability.

A Strange Beauty

Edgar Allen Poe's short story 'Ligeia' tells a tale of the death of a man's unusually beautiful and brilliant bride, who may or may not have come back to life! Let's have a closer look.


The story begins with the recollections of an unnamed narrator about a beautiful and intellectual lady named Ligeia, to whom the narrator was married and is now dead. He fails to remember her last name, but he remembers her physical appearance in great detail. She is tall, 'emaciated', and has raven hair and black eyes. He thinks that he met her in a city near the Rhine. Although the narrator considers her to be of exquisite beauty he notes that there is a strangeness or irregularity to her appearance that he cannot quite pinpoint.

Ligeia is also highly educated. She speaks several languages and her knowledge of 'moral, physical, and mathematical science,' the narrator remarks, is greater than that of any man he knows. The two of them study together, though the narrator gives few details about the nature of these studies, referring to them as 'metaphysical investigation.'

Ligeia becomes suddenly and increasingly ill. She passionately expresses her devotion to the narrator as she dies. Before she dies she asks the narrator to repeat a poem that she has written.

The narrator is devastated after her death. He moves to an abbey in a remote part of England and takes copious amounts of opium. He marries a 'fair-haired and blue-eyed' woman named Rowena in a chamber of the abbey. The chamber is ornately decorated and contains several ancient Egyptian sarcophaguses. Unlike Ligeia, he 'loathes' his new wife and falls back on fond memories of Ligeia.

After less than two months, Rowena becomes ill. She recovers briefly, but falls ill again. In the throes of opium, the narrator brings Rowena some wine. He thinks he sees a few drops of 'ruby-colored' fluid fall into her glass before she drinks. After she drinks, her sickness becomes worse and she dies within a few days. The narrator keeps watch over her corpse. At one point, he thinks that she comes back to life, but she slips back to death. This happens again and again until she rises and the bandages fall of her face to reveal that she has become Ligeia.


Elixir of Death?

As with so many of Poe's stories, 'Ligeia' blurs imagination and reality to create an eerie effect that is sometimes referred to as the fantastic. The narrator admits to having a faulty memory and to being addicted to opium, so we must choose which parts of his tale are real and which are imagined. This unreliability creates an uncertainty that leads us to seek answers in other, more concrete, details of the story.

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