Portraits of Women in "Ligeia" and "The Oval Portrait" of Edgar Allan Poe

Term Paper, 2015

16 Pages, Grade: 2,3



1. Introduction

2. Background of the works
2.1 Related biographical information
2.2 On Poe's short stories

3. Portraying the female
3.1 “Ligeia”
3.2 “The Oval Portrait”

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Edgar Allan Poe's presence in the literary scene has been much associated with elements of mystery, dark fate, sin and supernatural representations of evil and death. In his works, ultimate horrors, sorrow, insanity and other extreme suffering are experienced, all ofwhich constitute some ofthe standard aesthetic features of the so-called Gothic literature. Criticism on the form has revealed that Gothic texts can be interpreted through various perspectives such as psychoanalytical, historicist, feminist, colonial, post-colonial and others. Freud's contribution to psychoanalysis has lead to the parallelisation of dreams with Gothic elements, due to the fact that both contain plenty of surrealism and symbolism. In this case, considering, too, the traditional principle that art is an imitation of life, the author is treated like a patient whose anxieties and dramas must somehow be related to his or her past and literary works; yet, they have to be studied and decoded.[1] As Poe's life is a recognised example of this perspective, the literary-historical and the psychoanalytical approaches have generated contrasting readings of his works.[2]

It may sound quite surprising to the readership, though, that there is evidence, according to Fisher, suggesting that Poe was actually planning the publication of a book entitled “Tales ofthe Folio Club” that could have made him one of America's greatest humorists rather than a melancholic writer. Fisher supports, that after the attempt's misfortune, Poe must have dispensed less gluttony with his alcoholic remedies or other intoxicants in the creation of characters who were supposed to act in the confused way of the Folio Club's alcoholics or the drug addicts in the fictional stories of his time. Thus, the narrators in “Ligeia” and the original version of “The Oval Portrait” (“Life in Death”), which will be analysed in this paper, may have “accidentally” emerged from this failure.[3]

More particularly, the current work seeks to portray women's characters as they are depicted in the short stories “Ligeia” (1838) and “The Oval Portrait” (1842).[4] There seems to be a connection between Poe's mother, whom he did not really know, his foster mother and the premature death of his wife with Ligeia's portrayal. The second story follows Poe's personal view that the most poetical topic in the world is the death of a beautiful woman.[5] Approaches to questions such as who are these women and what do they symbolise; what position do they have in the narrator's life and how does their presence or absence affect his feelings within the sequence of events; and what interpretations can we offer with regard to the Gothic background and Poe's life will be offered.

2. Framing the two works

2.1 Related biographical information

Poe's childhood must have been charged with negative emotions due to the early loss of his mother in 1811 and the separation of the three children, which had to be sent to live with different families.[6] Their alcoholic father had abandoned the family the year before. The two-year old Edgar was taken to the household of John Allan, a wealthy and respectable merchant in Richmond, whose wife, Frances, became his foster mother. Frances was a tender and unassertive woman who gave young Edgar the maternal care and love that he missed from his mother, but also protected him during his childhood from her husband's quarrelsome disposition, as he did not want to adopt him officially or have him in his house at all. At the age of eighteen, Poe went to serve in the army, by the end of which Frances died unexpectedly and Poe parted from John Allan for ever. In 1829 he moved to Baltimore in the poor household of his widowed aunt. By that time, influenced by the Byronic personality, he started writing stories to earn his living. His aunt, a strong-willed woman, although uneducated, had recognised Poe's literary talent and given him physical and mental support throughout his career to publish his writings. In 1835, he married his first cousin, Virginia, who was only 13 years old, but whom she had known, admired and loved during his stay with his aunt. For the first six years they had a happy life. Later, Virginia's health revealed complications with tuberculosis. She started losing weight; then ruptured a blood vessel while singing and ended up invalid; her body was slowly being destroyed until her death in 1847. The events sent Poe into deepest depression. Critics believe that Virginia's five years of dying have influenced some of Poe's works such as “Ligeia” or “Eleonora”, whereas the madness with which Poe speaks in a letter about the greatest “evil” that can befell a man, is observed in the madness of the narrators in works such as “Ulalume”, “Annabel Lee” and others.[7] In the last two years of his life Poe had two more romances - including his childhood sweetheart - but his health worsened and sent him suddenly to the hospital where he died in 1849. The exact causes of his death have not been clarified.

2.2 On Poe's short stories

Following a scheme of his own, Poe is regarded as the first author who introduced the short story as a literary genre. His ideas were based on the theoretical framework that it is necessary for such stories to develop a ‘unity of effect and impression’ through artistic imagination. This unity should seek to appeal to emotions and aesthetic aspects, rather than a didactically or intellectually biased disposition.[8] He concentrated much on topics that depicted the death of beautiful young women surrounded by the dark aestheticism of Gothic elements. Critics rank “Ligeia” among the finest examples of Gothic horror stories. In those, Poe tries by means of psychological and emotional charge to present a more irrational state of mind and its alluring disposition towards self-destruction. At the same time, the narrator struggles to establish a rational command over reality, but without success.[9] The manifestations offate that dominate the characters, e.g. the sudden illness of the two women with their consequent death, are presented in such a way, that neither they nor external help can do something to prevent the oncoming loss. It looks like they were doomed to die under those particular circumstances. Moreover, in most of Poe's stories, as observed by Roberts, we know nothing about the narrator's background or related persons, not even his name, but only his emotional state and mental suffering that is witnessed by the reader.[10] The death of the two Ladies in “Ligeia” projects to the reader a directly- experienced sorrow, which makes the narration more vivid, haunting and overwhelming. In the example of “The Oval Portrait”, the aspects of irrational behaviour that characterises the unknown painter of the young woman's portrait occur a posteriori, i.e. the painter realises the death of his young wife after he has completed his work. Also, the event of death has a more remote position in the narration and the reader does not share the narrator's pain as in “Ligeia”, due the fact that there is the first-level narrator - the one of the main story who speaks to the reader; and a second-level one, who tells the story of the painter and his wife in written form and in third person, but the story is addressed to the narrator or any other visitor of the chateau, as we will see. This may be seen as a Gothic element that sends the story in a deeper past obscuring its origins and making it sound legendary and ready to haunt one's mind, particularly when the main object ofthe narration is within sight in the visitor's (main narrator's) room.

The mechanics of Gothic vary from author to author. As a general observation, all of them aim at the induction of a horrifying effect upon the reader. Poe's characteristic emotional and mental model is a high-level claustrophobia. His restricted spatial frames as observed e.g. the sense of remoteness as in old houses, in the dark abbey, the chateau with the haunting small rooms, the decaying city etc. enhance the sense of imprisonment, whereas his coffins, sealed tombs or even the “imprisonment” of the young girl in the painting of “The Oval Portrait” resonate with the notion of finality.[11]

3. Portraying the female

3.1 “Ligeia”

This short story is about the death of two beautiful women, whose husband is identified with the narrator. In the first part, Lady Ligeia's unusual person and beauty, but also her importance in the narrator's life are introduced, until the unexpected appalling point where she falls ill and dies. In the second one, the narrator recalls his next wife, Lady Rowena, another beautiful woman but very different from Ligeia; she suddenly falls ill, too, and gradually dies only within the second month of their marriage. In the end, the narrator recognises in Rowena's mysterious death the “return” of his lost beloved Ligeia.

Ligeia is portrayed as an unusually-endowed woman with qualities that are not encountered among the average woman. Her past is left into indefiniteness, obscurity or even forgetfulness, whereas her present of her immense education, musical eloquence and unequalled beauty are presented as powers of affection that have conquered the heart of her husband and made him even incapable of recalling how this acquaintance occurred. Poe uses a very flowery, sweet and charming language to describe the narrator's affection. The fact that Ligeia's virtues exceed those of an ordinary wife colours her with a certain ‘strangeness’ and proposes more roles in this relationship. She is seen by her husband as a ‘friend and partner of his studies’; ‘a wife of his bosom’; ‘a guide through the chaotic world of metaphysical investigation’; and ‘a source of wisdom’, without which he would ‘feel benighted like a child’. Aside from ‘friend’ and ‘wife’, Ligeia seems to incorporate also the role of a teacher, or perhaps a teaching mother and a kind of mentor. Her multifaceted role and the superiority of her influence bestow her with idealistic elements of a spiritually lovable figure. The descriptions are believed to reflect Poe's traumata for the loss of his beloved Virginia, but also a subconscious haunting sorrow for the early loss of his mother. It is likely, too, that aspects of Poe's foster mother, Frances, whom he must have felt as real mother, are included in the protective image of Ligeia.

The external impression of Ligeia follows a similar path of ‘strange’ characteristics, which the narrator remembers more clearly than the internal ones. On the one hand, the depiction of a ‘slender stature’ with ‘lightness and elasticity of footfall’ who ‘came and departed as a shadow’; her ‘low sweet voice’, her visionary ‘radiance of an opium-dream’ are indicative of an ethereal personality, like a spirit from above. On the other hand, the approach to the proportions of her form and the references to her beauty, such as the ‘skin rivalling the purest ivory’, the ‘delicate outlines of the nose’, the ‘hyacinthine tresses’, the lip carvings, the radiance of her smile, her marble hand and the majestic Greek chin speak almost of a work of art such as a well-sculpted statue. Poe seems to follow Bacon's idea of exquisite beauty, according to which beauty needs to have some strangeness


[1] Smith, 5-6.

[2] Smith,61.

[3] Fisher, 50,56. For a detailed presentation ofthe plan's course until its failure see 50-6.

[4] Poe E.A., “Ligeia” (reprint), The Works ofthe Late E.A. Poe (1850), 1:453-68; “The Oval Portrait” (Text C), 1:366-9.

[5] Roberts, 38.

[6] Based mainly on Dawn's version, 3-11.

[7] Dawn, 314.

[8] Roberts, 37.

[9] Scofield, 31-2.

[10] Roberts, 10.

[11] Savoy,181.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Portraits of Women in "Ligeia" and "The Oval Portrait" of Edgar Allan Poe
University of Bonn
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ISBN (Book)
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Gothic, horror, women, Victorian, womanhood, death, vampirism
Quote paper
Dipl. Archäologe / B. Ed. Englisch-Latein Michael Barkas (Author), 2015, Portraits of Women in "Ligeia" and "The Oval Portrait" of Edgar Allan Poe, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/356144


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