I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligei.
An unnamed narrator opens the story by claiming not to remember the circumstances in which he met his beloved, the lady Ligeia. Although he fixates on her rare learning, her unusual beauty, and her love of language, the narrator cannot specifically recall how Ligeia became his love object. He does speculate, however, that he first encountered her in Germany, where her family lived in an ancient city on the Rhine. He is confident that Ligeia spoke frequently about her family, but he does not believe he ever knew her last name.
The narrator counteracts this ignorance of Ligeia’s origins with a faithful memory of her person. According to the narrator, Ligeia is tall, slender, and, in her later days, emaciated. She treads lightly, moving like a shadow. Though fiercely beautiful, Ligeia does not conform to a traditional mold of beauty: the narrator identifies a “strangeness” in her features. Ligeia’s most distinctive feature is her hair—black as a raven and naturally curly. Among her physical features, only her brilliant black eyes rival her hair. They conceal the great knowledge and understanding Ligeia possesses and shares with the narrator. The narrator relishes his memory of her beauty but loves her learned mind even more passionately. She has guided him, during the early years of their marriage, through the chaotic world of his metaphysical studies.
As time passes, Ligeia becomes mysteriously ill. On the day of her death, she begs the narrator to read a poem she has composed about the natural tragedy of life. The poem describes a theater where angels have gathered to watch the mysterious actions of mimes, which are controlled by formless, outside presences. Suddenly, amid the drama, a creature intrudes and feeds on the mimes. With the fall of the curtain, the angels reveal that the tragedy is entitled “Man,” and the hero is the creature, the Conqueror Worm. With the close of the poem, Ligeia shrieks a prayer about the unfairness of the tragedy and dies.
Devastated by Ligeia’s death, the narrator moves to England and purchases an abbey. He soon marries again, this time to the fair, blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine. The narrator’s bridal chamber is a Gothic masterpiece, which includes a large window that lets in ghastly rays, a vaulted ceiling, various Eastern knickknacks, and large gold tapestries that hang from the walls. In this bridal chamber, the narrator and Lady Rowena spend the first month of their marriage. During that period, the narrator realizes that Rowena does not love him. At the beginning of the second month, Lady Rowena, like Ligeia, becomes mysteriously ill. Although she recovers temporarily, she reveals a hypersensitivity to sounds and an unexplained fear of the gold tapestries, which she fears are alive.
Lady Rowena’s health takes a turn for the worse, and the narrator fears that her death is imminent. Sitting by her bed, he watches her drink a glass of wine, into which mysteriously fall, according to the narrator, three or four large drops of a red fluid. The narrator is unsure of his observations because he has recently smoked opium, to which he has become addicted during his second marriage. Three days later, Rowena dies, and on the fourth day, the narrator sits alone with her corpse but cannot keep his mind from the memories of Ligeia. Later that night, the narrator wakes to moans from Rowena’s deathbed, and he discovers that a tinge of color has returned to Rowena’s face. Rowena still lives. A second round of moans ensues, and the body reveals more color. However, the flash of life is brief, and Rowena’s body becomes icy cold again.
Faced again with memories of Ligeia, the narrator, horrified, encounters another reawakening of the corpse. This time, however, the corpse moves from its deathbed and advances, shrouded, into the middle of the apartment. Aghast, the narrator mysteriously questions the identity of the corpse. Though he feels it must be the lady Rowena, he notices the body has grown taller. Glancing from her feet to her head, the narrator discovers raven-black hair emerging from behind the shroud—it is the lady Ligeia standing in the bridal chamber.
“Ligeia” is Poe’s most successful attempt to merge the Gothic grotesque with the traditional love story, elements also combined in “Berenice” and “Morella.” Ligeia gives the story its name, and every detail of the plot draws its purpose from her character because she is the object of the narrator’s love. Ligeia perseveres in spite of the obstacles—death and light—that Poe, as the author, places in her way. Ligeia dies, but her memory remains the primary fixation of the narrator’s mind. The blonde-haired Rowena replaces her as the narrator’s wife, but the darkness of the marriage bedroom suffocates the blonde, and Ligeia returns in Rowena’s body, imbuing the blonde’s body with her darker tones.
Poe contrasts light and darkness to symbolize the conflict of two philosophical traditions. Ligeia emerges mysteriously from the Rhine, a river in southwest Germany. Being German, she symbolizes the Germanic Romantic tradition, closely related to the Gothic, that embraced the sensual and the supernatural. Ligeia’s mind is the center of the irrational and mystical, not the rational. The cold Lady Rowena is an ice queen from the north. She represents rationality. Rowena embodies the austerity and coldness of English empiricism, a philosophical tradition based on rational methods of observation, calculation, and analysis.
Rowena suffers from her confinement within a Gothic bridal chamber that is dark and filled with unnatural decorations. The narrator preserves Ligeia’s sensuality and Romanticism’s artificiality in the chamber’s architecture and decorations. Rowena fears the red drops and the gold tapestries because they seem so unreal. Figuratively, Rowena dies because she is deprived of sunlight and nature. If the grotesque chamber is, in part, responsible for Rowena’s death, then the lady Ligeia can be considered a symbolic accomplice.
Ligeia’s ultimate victory is her return from the dead. Ligeia’s return confirms that the narrator has lost his power’s of rationality and lost touch with reality. Though some critics emphasize the unreliability of the narrator because of his abuse of opium, Poe is less concerned with the quality of the narrator’s senses than with the power of his visions—what he sees, not how he sees it. This is not to say that Poe undervalues the narrator or means for us naïvely to believe his bizarre and contradictory confessions. Whether or not Ligeia’s return from the dead is actually, physically real or an opium-induced delusion, her apparent physical manifestation at the end of the story means that she has become more real for the narrator than a memory.
Many of Poe’s narrators are unreliable because of paranoia and guilt about their own crimes, as in “The Black Cat,” in which the narrator is anxious about the discovery of his murder. In “Ligeia,” the narrator is obsessed with lost love. His love embraces contradictions. For instance, he passionately loves a woman without knowing her last name. But for Poe, these contradictions are symptoms of love. Poe offers the possibility that love brings Ligeia back, if only in the eyes of the narrator. The mysteriousness of Ligeia’s eyes spreads symbolically to the narrator’s eyes. If Ligeia conceals vast knowledge behind her eyes, then the narrator somehow inherits her eyes’ power to take in unnatural knowledge—to see the dead. The difference lies in the narrator’s ability to convey his knowledge to us, allowing us to witness and judge the return of the lady Ligeia. Neither we nor the narrator ever saw what was behind Ligeia’s eyes, and their mystery lent them their allure.
While “Ligeia” strives to be a love story, it relies heavily on the sort of Gothic imagery for which Poe became famous. “Ligeia” resembles a criminal story like “The Tell-Tale Heart” with its emphasis on the narrator’s obsession with specific body parts. Eyes are crucial to both stories, and in this tale, Ligeia’s hair takes on the same importance. The Gothic dimension of this obsession involves the fantasy of reducing a human being to her body parts. The Gothic emphasis on anatomy raises the possibility that aspects of human identity reside in specific body parts, throwing into question the notion of an immortal soul. What survives of Ligeia is not her soul, but the materialized form of her body, conveyed symbolically, in the last scene of the tale, by her dark hair. The story only dramatizes the unconscious longings of the narrator to see his lost love again, and it gives these longings the physical shape of Ligeia’s body. The love story, then, reverses the murder and dismemberment of a horror story like “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Love becomes the ability to revive a dead body.