I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligei.See Important Quotations Explained
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.