Gothic dark stories of Edgar Allan Poe have fascinated and absorbed many through the years. What is so extraordinary in his writing that it makes him o popular? My answer is language, his amazing skill of influencing the mind of the reader through the manipulation of words. In this essay I will analyse and compare two stories of Edgar Allan Poe in respect of language, themes and motifs used. Poe in Ligeia and in The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar plays with the reader by manipulating the language of the text and its discourse. In Ligeia nothing can be took for granted because of the unbelievable narrator and in The Facts everything seems serious and factual, which in reality is also a trap for the reader. Both stories are concerned with the power of the human mind over the spiritual world, Ligeia presents the lover’s call for his wife and the second text features scientific measures to stop death.
The sudden death and the premature burial are strong motifs in Poe’s fiction and in Ligeia are also partly present. This is a story of a man grieving for his wife, Lady Ligeia. The narrator recollects everything he remembers about her and surprisingly he does not remember much. She was and is for him a mystery. He does not know her surname, her family and even the place where they had met. Only thing which he knows for sure is her beauty. Ligeia was tall, slim, with light skin, a “sweet mouth”, beautiful black eyes and dark hair. For the narrator she was a creature of intensity and strangeness. Sometimes like a ghost, appearing from nowhere behind him and sometimes like a Egyptian or Greek goddess, too ethereal to be real. The narrator describes Ligeia’s beauty as “the radiance of an opium dream“ and admits repeatedly the difficulties which he encountered recollecting certain facts about his wife. With time the beauty of his lady faded and she grew ill. He struggled “in spirit with the grim Azrael,” the angel of death to save her. She also fought and pleaded for life but eventually they lost. Ligeia died shouting to God: “shall this conqueror be not once conquered?” Poe through Ligeia words asks why if Jesus defeated death at the Cross, people still have to suffer and succumb to death, “the Conqueror Worm” and “the curtain, a funeral pall” continue to fall. Following the death of his beloved the narrator full of sorrow travels east and becomes a slave of opium. This drug and the visions brought by it become Ligeia’s substitute. However he does not dwell on the visions saying: for “these absurdities (I) must not pause to detail” and finds a living replacement for Ligelia, a new wife. Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine, with her blue eyes and blond hair, with a full name and a contempt for her husband was a total opposite of her predecessor. She was being compared all the time with Ligeia, with the perfect image of her in the narrator’s memory. As he did not stop taking opium he was “habitually fettered in the hackles of the drug.” In the narcotic trances he would call Ligeia thinking that summoning her with his longing and passion was possible, which may have happened in the end. His second wife was also attacked with an illness. Once again the narrator stayed by his lover’s side during the fight with death. Under the opium influence he experienced visions, of an angel looming in the chamber and of three droplets of ruby coloured fluid falling. Then Lady Rowena died, in a moment giving a sob, then died again and gave a sight to die once again for the third time. Finally the man hears a low sob from the corpse and “the hideous drama of revification” repeats but with a distinctive change. The reanimated body no longer belongs to Lady Rowena but is much darker, taller, with “the full, and the black, and the wild eyes” Lady Ligeia’s. The spirit of his beloved came back and transformed the body of her replacement no longer occupying it.
Ligeia came back to fulfil her husband’s desire, his need for her. He could not live without her. The main topic of this story is precisely an addiction. In the beginning the ethereal woman is controlling the narrator, later it is opium. Everything what the man, in his first person account, says and recollects is vague and dubious. The reader cannot take for certain anything that is described. Questions arise: did Ligeia come back from the dead?; was there really an angel present?; have Ligeia existed at all? There is the possibility that the whole story is a vision, a narcotic dream of the narrator and in the end the reader is left by his or her own, can accept and analyse whatever and however he or she wants.
On the other hand Poe in The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar presents completely different approach to giving an account. This one is a story of a mesmeric experiment on a dying man. Mesmerism in the beginning of 19th century was perceived by the general public of USA and Europe as a new science, a new way to cure a range of diseases. Poe was so fascinated with its philosophy that he written three stories concerning this topic. The creator of mesmerism, Mesmer “held that when hypnotising a patient, a magnetic fluid streamed from his hands into the patient's body, empowering him to subdue the troubles of the patient or put him to sleep.”
Poe’s story The Facts is written with the scientific detachment in a precise way. The narrator is a mesmerist who convinced his friend M. Valdemar to be a part of his ground breaking experiment. He wanted to investigate if and how long the human spirit could be held after crossing the line of an earthly existence. In the last moments of M. Valdemar the mesmerist was called. Two doctors D. and F. were present by the patient’s side. Doctors were sure that the man will be dead in 24 hours so they left him with two nurses. The mesmerist started his experiment when the medical student Theodore L. came. This young man’s notes were the base of this account according to the narrator. M. Valdemar was put in a mesmeric trance devoid of pain. Asked, answered barely whispering that he is asleep and dying. After some time there was a change in his physique. Valdemar’s eyes opened, pupils disappeared, his skin paled, his mouth opened and the black tongue appeared. The death came. However the narrator continues saying: “I now feel that I have reached a point of this narrative at which every reader will be startled into positive disbelief. It is my business, however, simply to proceed.” The mesmerist asked Valdemar once again if he is still asleep and he got an answer: “Yes; --no; --I have been sleeping --and now --now --I am dead.” The voice came from out of nowhere putting everyone present in a state of great fear. Nurses left, the student fainted and the mesmerist shocked, reacted as well but does not admit how. After reviving the young man, the narrator checked the body which should be a corpse. The mesmeric power had no influence on M. Valdemar body no more, only by voice contact could be achieved. The patient was left in the trance for seven months. No changes were observed and eventually the mesmerist asked Valdemar what are his wishes. The patient pleaded to be awoken or to be put to sleep, in his case an eternal one. The narrator did what was asked of him and tried to awoken the patient with the drastic result. The body in a single minute shrunk, crumbled and rotted away, leaving only the hideous putridity.
This story was firstly published anonymously in 1845 in numerous American periodicals and in European journals. It was taken as a documented verifiable medical experiment attended by “reputable doctors and nurses in Bronx, New York.” Poe was able to make thousands of people believe that his story was a real account of the communication with the dead, which proved that the control over them was possible. Of course he just used and manipulated their beliefs and the vague feel of the time, when the modern spiritualism started to gain followers. According to Sidney E. Lind, Poe could be influenced by an actual case reported by Townshed in 1844. Poe used the idea of suspending death through mesmerism and extended in detail the described case. Through the language of the story, the author convinces the reader that what is written so precisely must be true. The mesmerist writes an account based on notes of the witness, gives initial letters of names of the men present and speaks using medical terms, like: “in articulo mortis,” “extensive perforations” and “semi-osseous or cartilaginous state.”. As Doris V. Falk in her essay says: “the long paragraph describing the state of Valdemar's internal organs (only, by the way, as they could have been seen in autopsy) is directly to the point.” This story and its reception make an interesting example of merging the fact with fiction and the ambiguous division between them. Nowadays this story is read as an early science-fiction, a gruesome story about the dead, one of many, but a century ago it was taken as a description of a real situation.
Poe had a great understanding of mysteries and terror of the human personality, which he used in writing stories about fears, obsessions and passions, that drive and control people. He had amazing insights into “the irrational defenses of the mind, and into irrationality itself,” which can be observed in the two stories mentioned. Ligeia explores mysterious territory between reality and dream, in descriptions which are chaotic and psychedelic. Whereas the second story deals with the ambiguity of fact and fiction using scientific jargon and people’s beliefs. In both the narrator tries to take control over the human spirit showing the strong will and the power of human mind. In Ligeia and in The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar characters reach another dimension of existence and perceive unknown presence, among others an angel and a human soul. In both cases these experiences can be visions, caused by different means: by a drug or by the animal magnetism, “an amoral force operating within the mind and body”. Then both stories in a way feature the unreliable narrator, making them more challengeable and interesting for the reader, proving Poe’s admirable control over the language of his fiction.
o Derksen, Lorna. The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar. Watershed Online: http://www.watershedonline.ca/poe/responses/valdemar.html (access: 20.05.2013).
o Falk, Doris V. Poe and the Power of Animal Magnetism. PMLA, Vol. 84, No. 3 (May, 1969), Jstor: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1261142 (access: 31.05.2013).
o Lind, Sidney E. Poe and Mesmerism. PMLA, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Dec., 1947), Jstor: http://www.jstor.org/stable/459150 (access: 20.05.2013).
o Poe, Edgar Allan. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Paperview Ltd., 2004.
o Shulma, Robert. Poe and the Powers of the Mind. ELH, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Jun., 1970), Jstor: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2872400 (access: 09.06.2013).