Poe’s Ladies: Search for Perfection

1.0 Introduction

Throughout his work Edgar Allan Poe is guided by the idea explained in his “Philosophy of Composition” where he says that the best inspiration for the most poetical melancholy is found in “the death of a beautiful woman” and “equally it is beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”[1] Poe’s famous ladies, Annabel Lee, Lenore, Eleonora, Berenice, Ligeia, Morella, Madeline, are the means for his presentation of this theme in his tales and poems where, in the words of Floyd Stowall, “through loneliness, mystery and terror we are led from the idea of beauty to the idea of death, the ultimate solace for pain. This association of death and beauty accounts for nearly all that is most characteristic in Poe’s poetry.”[2]

poe-12.0 Love and Death, the Role of Women in Poe’s Works

During his lifetime Edgar Allan Poe experienced the death of many a beloved woman, which highly influenced his portrayal of female characters. Alan Shucard in his essay “On Immortal Love” says that:

“(…) unable to fulfil relationships with flesh-and-blood women, he worshipped unearthly or even dead ones; unable to avoid his tormentor Death, he transfigured it, turned it into an object of mysterious attraction. If he tried to love a woman mortally, he could lose her, as indeed he lost them all – mother, wife, fiancées, flirtations. But if he turned them to ether, he could worship them forever (…).”[3]

Therefore, writing most of his poems and short stories on the “twin themes of Eros and Thanatos, love and death,”[4] in his portrayal of women Poe strives towards his feminine ideal of a beautiful but frail and vulnerable woman. Such are the ladies of his poems, the “fair and debonair”[5] Lenore and the gentle Annabel Lee, who both die an untimely death, leaving the grief-stricken lover to immortalise them in his verses. In addition, the ladies of his short stories are given some “unexpected capacities for life beyond the grave,”[6] such as the element of resurrection common to Morella, Ligeia, Eleonora, and Madeline Usher.

 Nevertheless, Poe’s tales about women are not actually about women, but rather about men retelling their own experiences. He never allows his ladies to appear as narrators or protagonists of his tales, making their chief role that of an “emotional catalyst”[7] for their male companions. Ergo, their importance lies only in the melancholic experience that their death provides to the narrators of the tales, or the poetic personas in the poems.

 annabel_lee_by_dustfae-d1t9fngConsequently, it may be noticed that these fictional, poetic, idealised women are not thoroughly developed and well-rounded characters, but stereotypes with several common traits.  One of them is the unnamed illness that kills them slowly, making them paler, thinner, and more delicate, which sometimes makes them even more beautiful in the eyes of the narrator. They pass away silently and very rarely express their own opinions and thoughts, like Madeline Usher who is wordless before her entombment. In Karen Weekes’s words Poe’s ideal ladies are mere “placeholders, the less obtrusive the better, for some need in the narrator himself.”[8] These women, who are usually passive, vulnerable, or even already dead, are thus objectified and only some of their aspects are idealised. The narrator tends to focus on just few of their qualities, like their eyes, hair, teeth, frailty and slimness of their figure or whiteness of their skin. Their beauty seldom decreases with death, but if it does the loss of youth and loveliness is harshly criticised. Such is the case of Berenice, who lost her beauty as her condition deteriorated, thus causing her husband’s repulsion and his fixation on her teeth as the only part of her untouched by the malady.

Moreover, Poe’s ideal ladies were young, naive, very much in love, and completely devoted to their male counterparts. Annabel Lee “lived with no other thought than to love and be loved”[9] by the poetic persona of the poem. Nonetheless, the beautiful Eleonora probably epitomizes this Poe’s ideal. She is the narrator’s young cousin, slender, frail and submissive, who in her deathbed does not think of her own plight but rather of that of the narrator. Hence she makes him pledge that he will never marry any other “daughter of Earth.”[10] She is immortalised in her promise that she will watch over him and send him signs from the other world; furthermore, when he eventually breaks his oath she comes back and in a whisper in the night absolves him from his vows made to her and blesses his marriage.

Another Poe’s famous lady who energetically fights mortality is Ligeia, who returns posthumously by taking over the dead body of her husband’s second wife Lady Rowena. Highly intelligent and well learned, in her knowledge Ligeia towers over her husband whose status is reduced to child-like submission. She is claimed to be “the only female in Poe’s tales or poems to triumph both over death and, more significantly, over her narrator.”[11]

elizabethAdditionally, here appears a blend of romantic and maternal images, which is also common to Poe’s poem “For Annie” and his short story “Morella.” Annie takes care of the poetic persona who goes “to sleep on her breast”[12] and then the maternal image becomes even stronger when Annie tucks him in and says a prayer “to keep [him] from harm.”[13] Morella, like Ligeia, is superior to her husband in knowledge and she also contains the element of the supernatural. Namely, after her death in childbirth her soul passes into the new baby girl; she eventually dies after the baptism of the child.

However, the most common trait that Poe’s ideal ladies share is the character of the narrator. These bereaved men are usually self-centred, weak-
willed, fearful, emotionally unstable, and prone to illnesses which cause bizarre behaviours, especially when they are overcome with emotion.  Furthermore, they are not thoroughly familiar with their wives, such as Ligeia’s husband who knows neither her last name nor when and where he met her. Besides, when it comes to their descriptions the narrators usually focus on some of the above mentioned physical characteristics and seldom refer to their wives’ emotional states. They are not even completely familiar with their wives’ illnesses; they only notice the aggravation of their condition. Moreover, like Morella’s and Berenice’s husbands, they tend to be repelled by visible signs of their wives’ physical deterioration and are inclined to macabre activities. During one of his trance-like states Egaeus violates Berenice’s grave to extract her teeth. The narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher” helps Roderick Usher, who is also emotionally unstable, to entomb his sister alive. Morella’s husband does not name their daughter until she is ten years old, and Ligeia’s husband literally scares his new bride to death with a bedroom full of sarcophagi.  Although these macabre activities do not often occur in Poe’s poetry, there is still the example of Annabel Lee’s husband who sleeps beside her in her tomb at night.

3.0 Conclusion

            Making a subtle link between love and death and thus producing the most poetic melancholy, Edgar Allan Poe lets his ideally young and beautiful ladies die in order to catalyse melancholic feelings in their bereaved lovers. He uses these women, or rather their death, hence leaving his ladies underdeveloped and flat characters who share common peculiarities. Again, apart from their love, devotion, and their frailty of appearance and health, their most common trait is the character of the narrator. We meet these women through the eyes of the narcissistic men, absorbed with themselves, rather weak-willed and prone to illnesses and macabre behaviours. Consequently, may we conclude, like Virginia Woolf, that women, in this case Poe’s ideal, frail, beautiful ladies, are needed in inferior positions in order to reflect, like mirrors, the enlarged image of men?[14]

[1] http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/poe/edgar_allan/p74p/essay1.html Last used October 26,.2010

[2] Floyd Stowall, “Poe as a Poet of Ideas”, Edgar Poe the Poet: Essays New and Old on the Man and His Work, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1969, p. 177.

[3] Alan Shucard, “On Immortal Love”, Bloom’s Major Poets: Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, Broomall, 1999, p. 80.

[4] Leonard Unger, American Writers, A Collection of Literary Biographies, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1972, p. 427.

[5] Edgar Allan Poe, “Lenore,” Spirits of the Dead: Tales and Poems, Penguin Books, London, 1997, p. 25.

[6] Karen Weekes, “Poe’s Feminine Ideal,” The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Alan Poe, ed. Kevin J. Hayes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, p. 148.

[7] K. Weekes, “Poe’s Feminine Ideal”, p. 148.

[8] K. Weekes, “Poe’s Feminine Ideal”, p. 150.

[9] Edgar Allan Poe, “Annabel Lee,” Spirits of the Dead: Tales and Poems, Penguin Books, London, 1997, p. 90.

[10] http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/poe/edgar_allan/p74r/death7.html Last used October 30, 2010

[11] K. Weekes, “Poe’s Feminine Ideal”, p. 158.

[12] Edgar Allan Poe, “For Annie,” Spirits of the Dead: Tales and Poems, Penguin Books, London, 1997, p. 102.

[13] E.A. Poe, “For Annie,” 102.

[14] http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91r/chapter2.html Last used: November 2, 2010

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