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Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “Ligeia” is a strange and surrealistic tale which relays the disturbing events of the death of a beloved wife, and her possible resurrection by uncertain means. Although the story is of the gothic tradition, complete with dark and mysterious surroundings, ghostly apparitions and multiple deaths, it is Poe’s use of a first-person narration within the text which serves to transform the story from a rather obvious horror story with shallow characters and little action, into a psychological enigma.
The use of first-person narration within the text serves to work in a number of ways, operating simultaneously to create a human dimension in which the reader can experience the events first-hand through the narrator, serving to create a suspenseful atmosphere in which fact and fantasy can blend and any “truth” as we know it is hard to define, and acting as a mechanism in which the author can create further tension within the text by leaving out illuminating facts and details which could help the reader find a “reality” in the layers of mystery. By having an unreliable, stressed, and drug-addicted narrator Poe has the further advantage of creating a character which the reader can empathize with through his loss, while at the same time harboring feelings of uncertainty and suspicion about the narrator’s role within the events. This suspicion of the narrator by the reader consequently works to transform the story from an average recital of horrific events into a story examining the intricate workings of the human psyche, leading the reader to question not only the motives of the narrator, but those of him or herself in the interpreting of the story.
One of the primary uses of first-person narration within the text is to add a psychological dimension to the story which relies not only on a sense of connection between the reader and the narrator, but also on a suspicion of the credibility of the narrator and an uncertainty about the events as they are represented. This suspicion is
created by offering the reader a narrator who is using drugs, who is obviously under mental anguish due to his wife’s death, and who, like the reader, does not seem to understand what is going on around him. This lack of credibility works against the narrator, causing the reader to question the narrator’s motivations, mental state, and reasons for sharing this story. Yet, at the same time, the reader maintains a connection to the narrator, inspired by an understanding of such human emotions as fear and sorrow that the narrator relays throughout the text. It is this combined connection and suspicion which forces the reader to doubt the truth of what they are reading, yet at the same time to still consider the possibility that Ligeia has returned from the dead to retake her place at her beloved husband’s side.
The consequences for creating a narrator who maintains little or no credibility can be seen when considering the example of a drug addict as a witness to a crime. The listener must ask themselves what the speaker is gaining from such an admission, and if relaying the truth the best they know it is their only intention. If the narrator was a distinguished doctor with a credible reputation and an otherwise normal life, the reader would almost immediately maintain a trust of the narrator’s view of the events and would probably believe the events as described actually occurred. If a sane and functioning doctor tells us that an apparition has dropped blood into a wine glass and thereby poisoned his wife, although one would be immediate doubtful, one would also take time to consider the possibility. Poe’s narrator, however, is deep into opium use and seems to have a very slight grasp of reality. The narrator himself relates that after Ligeia’s death he became a “bounden slave in the trammels of opium”(1582). A narrator who is drug-addicted, obsessed with his dead wife, and who spends his time floating about a gothic abbey decorated with symbols of death does not hold quite the same amount of authority. By creating a suspicion about the narrator’s role and perceptions in the story, but at the same time offering this account as the only insight into the
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Style, Point of view, Fiction, Narratology, Ligeia, Narration, Grief, First-person narrative, Unreliable narrator, Mood
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