“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.