The eyes as a symbol of enigma in edgar alan poe’s ligiea
Edgar Alan Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ is a classic horror story that combines the elements of gothic and romantic literature. It is a first-person account of a lady ‘Ligiea” who dies, after which, her husband decides to re-marry. The second wife of the protagonist also falls ill after a while and eventually dies. The crux of the story comes when the second wife of the protagonist rises from the dead and other than just the mystery of her resurrection, the protagonist has to deal with the eyes of the undead wife which he considers to be like the eyes of his own wife who had died years ago. The eyes of both Ligiea and Rowena in Poe’s story are symbolic of enigma, which, in this particular story is portrayed in two levels, the first being confusion and the second, mystery.
The eyes of Ligiea in the story successfully convey an image very much representative of mystery. Symbolism is an important part of literature and while one may not easily make a conclusive supposition as to the nature of Ligiea in the story, the portrayal of the character is very much consistent with a character of mystery. For instance, in the story, the protagonist explains that Ligiea possess knowledge that is beyond the knowledge of ordinary man and in the story, this is described in the way the protagonist perceives the eyes of this particular character, hence the lines, “And thus how frequently, in my intense scrutiny of Ligiea’s eyes, have I felt approaching the full knowledge of their expression — felt it approaching — yet not quite be mine — and so at length entirely depart!”. (Poe) The protagonist dedicates so much narration to how the eyes of Ligiea are perceived to finally focus on the knowledge that shows through these eyes. The mystery here is the fact that initially, Ligiea is described to be of youthful beauty so it is strange that someone who had only existed for a few years would have the knowledge of the ancients and outlined in the story. “In “Ligeia,” the narrator is unable to see behind Ligiea’s dark and mysterious eyes. Because the eyes symbolize her Gothic identity, they conceal Ligeia’s mysterious knowledge, a knowledge that both guides and haunts the narrator.” (Sparknotes) This particular reference in the story validates the assumption that Ligiea, because of her eyes is a creature that is mysterious in the perception of the protagonist. So, the protagonist describes the eyes as such: “I derived, from many existences in the material world, a sentiment such as I felt always aroused within me by her large and luminous orbs.” (Poe) Hence, because of this mystery, the protagonist barely understands the character. “They (the eyes) conceal the great knowledge and understanding Ligeia possesses and shares with the narrator.” (Sparknotes) On the outset, such symbolism may be chauvinistic in a way because men normally perceive their wives as mysterious or difficult to understand so with the description of Ligiea, the protagonist, or the narrator also justifies the position of men in the matter of comprehending and understanding their wives.
The fact that the protagonist views a certain degree of mystery in the eyes of Ligiea also shows that the protagonist doubts the wife in some aspects. This is further reinforced when the protagonist sees the same eyes in his second wife, so in effect; the death of both women may be linked to the obvious suspicion of the protagonist who is also the narrator in the story. In effect, what this story achieves is a ‘questioning’ stance on the part of the audience; would the protagonist have killed both wives because of the suspicion that the protagonist had when seeing the mystery in the eyes of each of these women? Of course, this is not stated in the story, instead, the second wife rises from the dead and faces the protagonist – this, in fact, may be an expression of vengeance. So, while many interpreters perceive the resurrection of the second wife as a vampirism, such resurrection may in fact be an illustration of a vengeance that was not meted out by the protagonist’s first wife and was only brought into fruition by the second wife. This might explain the strange ending of the story where the protagonist sees the characteristic eyes of his wife in the resurrected body of his second wife.
Another angle that may be considered in this story is the confusion that is symbolized by the eyes of both Ligiea and the second wife. The lines, ‘The “strangeness,” however, which I found in the eyes, was of a nature distinct from the formation, or the color, or the brilliancy of the features, and must, after all, be referred to the expression.” (Poe) quite succinctly describe this confusion. The protagonist initially describes the eyes of Ligiea as having a certain quality that could not be fathomed, hence, an obsession for these eyes in the lines, “Those eyes! those large, those shining, those divine orbs! they became to me twin stars of Leda, and I to them devoutest of astrologers.” (Poe) The protagonist describes these eyes as being deceiving. Again, there is a certain degree of suspicion in this description of the eyes, and if the protagonist saw the same quality in the eyes of the second wife then it might be safe to suppose that beyond the vengeance that each of the wives meted out, the protagonist also had, to some extent, doubts about the quality of the emotions of each of his wives. The protagonist, while likening the eyes of his resurrected second wife to Ligiea, in the lines, “”Here then, at least,” I shrieked aloud, “can I never — can I never be mistaken — these are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes — of my lost love — of the lady — of the LADY LIGEIA.” (Poe) parallels the characteristics of his first wife to his second. Although one might say that such a parallel may also be an expression of how both wives perceive the protagonist, the other way around may also be assumed; that the protagonist saw similarities in both wives and so made conclusions based on this. In effect, what one has here is the obvious demonstration of confusion in the perception of the protagonist of the eyes of his wives which are also symbolic of their internal personalities.
This particular story is a classic example of how symbolism may be used to represent different levels in a story. While Poe was initially focused on the physical aspects of Ligiea in the story, it cannot be denied that he focused on the eyes of the character to express enigma by attaching confusion and mystery to these body parts.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligiea.” Classic Literature. N.p., 2009. Web. 14 Aug. 2010. ;http://www.classic-literature.co.uk/american-authors/19th-century/edgar-allan-poe/ligeia/;.
Sparknotes, . “Ligiea.” N.p., 2007. Web. 14 Aug. 2010. ;http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/poestories/section2.rhtml;.
Sparknotes, . “Ligiea.” N.p., 2009. Web. 14 Aug. 2010. ;http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/poestories/themes.html;.