Like "The Fall of the House of Usher," this story also has all of the trappings of a classic, gothic horror tale. As noted in the introduction, the setting is in an old castle in an unknown or remote part of the world; in its dark interior, there are huge ottomans and tapestries and, outside, the wind is blowing the casement curtains, causing strange configurations. Likewise, there are strange noises, producing an eerie, "phantasmagoric" effect on the inhabitants. Everywhere there is "verdant decay."
Here, the castle as Poe's setting sits molding on the Rhine, conjuring up all types of gothic visions for us; later, he replaces this moody setting with yet another gothic touch: a forlorn abbey located in some remote part of England. The walls there are "elaborately fretted with the wildest and most grotesque specimens of semi-gothic" that the narrator has ever seen. This mood, as well as the suspense that Poe creates, is sustained.
Yet, were the story not set in the ghostly castle, or even in the "semi-gothic" abbey, the tale would still lend itself to the gothic genre merely by the presence of the supernatural element, an element which plays such a major role in the history of the Lady Ligeia herself.
This story is akin to "The Fall of the House of Usher" in that both the Lady Ligeia and the Lady Madeline possess an inordinate and superhuman strength to live. Both women are presumed to be dead, but both of them possess a will to live that will not let either one of them remain dead. "Ligeia," published exactly one year before "The Fall," expresses this concept even more directly than does the story just discussed. For example, note the quotation which is placed at the beginning of the story; it is used two more times in the story by the Lady Ligeia to express her belief that some type of life continues after the apparent death of the body. (As a footnote, it is interesting that while Poe credited the quotation to Joseph Glanville, an author who actually did live and who was a favorite of Poe's, the exact quotation has as yet not been found among the author's works. It is suspected, therefore, that Poe made up the quotation and merely assigned it to the writer.) The key words in this quotation, which the Lady Ligeia utters, express her strong belief that the weak may die but that the strong do "not yield . . . unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of [a] feeble will!" Whereas in "The Fall" the Lady Madeline was able to break free of the iron that entombed her, the Lady Ligeia seemingly has the ability to retain her will to live through periods of time and to cross barriers of land and water; ultimately, it would seem, it is possible for her — and the dead — to assume the body of another person.
As is the case in almost all of Poe's short stories, the first-person narrator here is never named; he has no family or friends. We know nothing about his background; we know him only through his mental states that we witness in the story. This characteristic, as noted, is often typical of the Romantic writer.
The story takes place, then, at some distant time in some unknown place and concerns characters who have no discernible past. Furthermore, the narrator is typical of many types of Romantic heroes in that he desires absolute knowledge; we see a similar situation in the Romantic story of Goethe's Faust.
Furthermore, the Romantic hero is completely dominated by his concept of love. The deep love which the narrator has for Ligeia is seemingly his sole reason for existing.
In his theory of poetics, Poe expressed the belief that the most perfect subject for a poem (and, therefore, by extension, a short story) would be "the death . . . of a beautiful woman" as told through "the lips . . . of a bereaved lover." This short story fits that prescription perfectly. Even though the narrator marries the Lady Rowena, he can never put aside, or ignore, the power of his love for the Lady Ligeia, and it is possible that it is this all-abounding love which helps the Lady Ligeia to return to the narrator at the end of the story.
The tale of Ligeia begins with the narrator asserting his deep love for the Lady Ligeia, even though he cannot remember how or where he met her — or even if she has a family. Thus, at the very beginning of the story, the mood is set: Poe (and many other Romantic writers) creates a certain vagueness and indefiniteness; these qualities, he felt, were essential to the production of the perfect art form. By this, Poe meant that he wanted his stories to be removed from the mundane world; he wanted them to exist on a higher plane, one where ethereal matters were the main concern of art. Because the narrator knows nothing of the Lady Ligeia's past (he does not even know her last name), the emphasis is upon the purely transcendent nature of their relationship.
Despite the obscure origin of Ligeia and the origin of the narrator's love for her, the certainty of that love is so strong that the narrator's entire being is suffused with it. He is totally devoted to the Lady Ligeia. This lady, besides having a rare and perfect knowledge of many fields of study, possesses a rare understanding of life. In addition, her beauty is unique: she is tall and slender with a "placid cast of beauty" and she speaks with the "thrilling eloquence of [a] low musical language." Even though she later becomes "emaciated," no "maiden ever equalled her" in beauty of person. The most outstanding feature of Ligeia is, perhaps, her hair; it is glossy and luxuriant — "hyacinthine," in the author's words. Her eyes and lashes are beyond the beauty of "beings either above or apart from the earth." Yet the Lady Ligeia is not so blandly pure that she could be called "perfect," for the narrator says that she was also "most violently a prey to the tumultuous vultures of stern passion." Curiously, despite the woman's magnificent physical beauty, the narrator values her most, perhaps, for her mind — that is, for the narrator, her main attribute is the fact that she was always there beside him to help him in his studies. Her wisdom is consummate; the narrator is fully aware that she is infinitely superior to him in the "chaotic world of metaphysical investigations," and he is content to let her guide him through these studies. Without her, he would have been a mere child groping through this strange and alien field of study.
For a period of time, it would seem, the relationship between the narrator and Ligeia was ideal; then suddenly, without any warning signs, the Lady Ligeia grew ill. As a ghostly hue covered her being, she still expressed a strong desire to live. As death approached closer and closer, she would pour out "the overflowing of a heart whose more than passionate devotion amounted to idolatry" towards the narrator. At the end, she asked him to read a poem she had written about the ability to conquer life. The poem, which is as central to this story as "The Haunted Palace" was to "The Fall of the House of Usher," is set in a theater where the audience is composed of angels, and the actors are mimes (silent creatures) who are controlled by strange formless creatures, or things. Suddenly, a phantom appears upon the stage and chases the mimes, but ultimately a "crawling shape intrudes" and
It writhes! — it writhes! — with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food.
At the end of the play, we discover that the poem is entitled "Man," and that the hero of the play is "The Conqueror Worm." Clearly, the poem is the key to the Lady Ligeia's obsession with life beyond death; that is, since the worm is mankind's most potent and horrible symbol of death, the poem deals with death in its most dreaded form — annihilation — a catastrophe that the Lady Ligeia believes is possible to defy. After the narrator has finished reading the poem, she fervently reaffirms the idea that man does not yield to death except "through the weakness of his feeble will."
After the death of Ligeia, the narrator can no longer endure the "lonely desolation" of his decaying dwelling on the Rhine. After months of weary and aimless wanderings, he settles in a remote part of England — in "the wildest and least frequented portion of England," and, significantly, the abbey which he purchases has a "gloomy and dreary grandeur." After a time, he marries "the fair-haired and blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine." The bridal chamber is one of Poe's most masterful creations, filled with, among other grotesque specimens of the gothic setting, a "gigantic sarcophagus of black granite."
Lady Rowena is the antithesis of the Lady Ligeia. She is also beautiful, but she is blonde, simple, and unsophisticated. Whereas the Lady Ligeia was superior to this world, Lady Rowena is extremely earthly and temporal. In contrast to the metaphysical and spiritual qualities of the Lady Ligeia, Lady Rowena embodies the material and mortal qualities of this physical world. Thus, in one interpretation of the story, the narrator seems to be exchanging a world of beautiful, transcendent, ethereal reality for a world of material reality.
After a month, the narrator becomes aware of the fact that his wife does not love him — in fact, she is in dreadful fear of his fierce moodiness. In contrast, he ignores her and takes pleasure only in remembering the perfection of the Lady Ligeia. In the second month of their marriage, the Lady Rowena becomes very ill. She is nervous, feverish, and terribly excitable. She is constantly perturbed by strange sounds, motions, and "phantasmagoric influences" within their chambers. One night when the narrators sits by the bed of the dying Lady Rowena, he listens to her frail cries of fear and fright and, to his astonishment, he discovers that his wife is not so much afraid of death as she is afraid of strange and unknown presences in the room. The narrator then becomes aware of a "palpable although invisible" presence in the room and, moments later, senses a "gentle footfall upon the carpet."
As Lady Rowena drinks a glass of wine, the narrator notes several drops of a brilliant ruby-colored fluid suddenly appear in her glass of wine. Confused, he believes that his vivid imagination has been rendered morbidly active by the opium and by the late hour. Three days later, the Lady Rowena is dead and on the fourth day, as he is sitting alone with the shrouded body of his wife, we hear him confess to thinking not of his wife, but only of the Lady Ligeia.
At midnight, he hears a low sob come from the bed where the corpse of his wife has been laid out. Rising, he studies the shrouded form of the Lady Rowena and, after some time, he notices a very slight tinge of color appear in her face. He is aghast: The Lady Rowena still lives. However, shortly thereafter, she resumes the ghastly expression of death — "a repulsive clamminess and coldness . . . " This occurs a second and a third time, and each time, various, strong signs of life appear and then, suddenly, the corpse becomes intensely rigid and loathsome.
Between each of these horrible experiences, the narrator sinks into visions of the lovely Lady Ligeia, and time and again, this "hideous drama of revivification" occurs until finally the corpse struggles more violently than ever. Then it rises and with tottering, feeble steps, it advances toward the narrator.
Unafraid, he realizes immediately that she has grown taller. Then, touching the corpse, he is aghast to see it shake loose from her head "the ghastly cerements which had confined it." Huge masses of dishevelled hair "blacker than the raven wings of midnight" tumble down and, as the eyes of the corpse open, the narrator, in a frenzy of fierce excitement, knows that he is looking not into the eyes of his wife. Instead, he is looking into the black and wild eyes of his last love — the Lady Ligeia!
In addition to its being a superlative gothic horror tale, the story can also be read as a fine example of the effects of the use of the drug opium on a highly imaginative writer. During the Romantic period, many writers experimented with the hallucinogenic effects of various drugs. (Among the famous English Romantics who experimented with drugs, there were Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; De Quincey wrote The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and Coleridge often wrote under the influence of opium. Opium, likewise, was also considered to be an essential part of life for many French Romanticists.) Since the narrator is an opium addict, then, the entire story can be read as a visual and mental result of hallucinogenic drugs, the result of opium on the mind of the addict. From this point of view, all of the effects described in the story could exist only in the mind of the narrator — that is, the opium simply caused him to see and hear all the supernatural, phantasmagorical events that took place; they never really happened. Such an explanation is possible; we know, for example, from many written accounts, that drugs can cause the addict to vividly sense things of seemingly otherworldly natures that the non-addict is incapable of feeling or sensing. Therefore, the reincarnation of the Lady Ligeia could be, first of all, a direct result of the strong love, attachment, and need for the lost Lady Ligeia, combined with the fact that the narrator feels a repulsion toward the Lady Rowena, who is the complete physical and sensual opposite to the Lady Ligeia. These strong, subconscious desires are freed under the influence of opium and make the narrator feel that they are real. As Poe handles the story, such an interpretation is possible; certainly the story lends itself to the possibility that it is the visualization of the hallucinatory effects caused by opium. As such, it is certainly a brilliant example in its surrealistic depiction of the supernatural.
The Lady Ligeia can also be viewed as the typical Romantic woman of mystery, a variation of the "femme fatale." As is typical of this type of woman, she is pale and wan, yet she has a fierce dark beauty, with rich luxuriant hair and dark raven eyes. Significantly, there is "some strangeness in the proportion." This, for the Romantic, was absolutely essential; some irregular aspect of one's mien individualized one's beauty and gave a certain "peculiar" flaw to perfect beauty. (See, for example, Hawthorne's story "The Birthmark," a short story which Poe admired very much — so much so that he even modeled the room of the narrator's English abbey, in this story, after the description of the house in Hawthorne's story.)
Throughout "Ligeia" and especially at the story's climax, there is an emphasis on the eyes of the Lady Ligeia. The narrator is profoundly affected by them. It is as though he has no concept of this world except through the eyes of the Lady Ligeia; thus, because he relied on her so completely for his metaphysical experiments, he relies on her eyes at the end of the story to make clear to him the things of the other world.
For a brilliant interpretation of this story in terms of the spiritual versus the material, as the Romantic's search for the ideal and as an escape from the mundane, see Richard Wilbur's introduction to Poe's selections, printed in Major Writers of America, Harcourt and Brace, publishers. This story, obviously, is so rich in detail that it lends itself to many and varied interpretations. For this reason, it remains one of Poe's finest contributions to the genre of the short story.