The narrator of "Ligeia" cannot remember how he came to know Ligeia. He says his memory has become weak through years of suffering. Or perhaps it is because Ligeia’s qualities affected him so gradually and imperceptibly. Anyway, he remembers meeting her in an old city near the Rhine, but cannot place what was mentioned of her family and now struggles to remember even her paternal name.
Like many of Poe’s narratives, Ligeia begins with a memory. But the narrator’s efforts to conjure the memory of Ligeia—his wife—are unclear. Ligeia’s origins are a mystery, even to her husband. The figure of Ligeia is immediately linked to an indistinct, dream-like feeling, and in this way she becomes connected also to all longing or senses of loss.
There is only one aspect of Ligeia that the narrator of "Ligeia" does not ever fail to remember, the form and appearance of her. He remembers how quietly she walked, and could enter a room without one knowing. And he remembers the low tone of her voice. She is radiant like a specter, with pale skin and her beauty is unusual. He knows that her figure is somehow irregular but it seems exquisite to him in its strangeness, and he can’t quite place how it is irregular. Her features are fine, delicate, like porcelain. All of her qualities present themselves like those of Greek Goddesses to the narrator. But one aspect shines above the rest – Ligeia’s large eyes.
The list of descriptors create a powerful impression of Ligeia. Her quietness, her ability to sneak up on the narrator, her low voice, and pale skin—all of these features combine to create an image of a ghostly, ethereal woman. She seems already to be haunting the narrator, in a way.
These eyes are larger than human eyes usually are – there is something animal about them. They are usually only slightly noticeable but when Ligeia gets excited, they enlarge and their size and blackness become intensely strange. But though the form of Ligeia’s eyes is haunting, it is their expression that he really remembers. The narrator of "Ligeia" says he has spent hours thinking about this expression, trying to understand its power. He calls them “divine orbs”, and they seem to have an almost religious power over him.
Ligeia’s eyes are an important symbol of the story, because they provide a warning sign of the supernatural, superstitious side of the narrator. Whenever Ligeia’s eyes appear in the story, the narrator is under a kind of spell – they fascinate him. Their unnatural size and the way they swell and fill with a superhuman passion put Ligeia into an unknown category, somewhere beyond the other characters, somewhere beyond human. Whether she truly was beyond human, or become so in the narrator’s mind after the grief of her death affected him, is not entirely clear.
The narrator of "Ligeia" describes the feeling of almost remembering something, which he thinks is one of the most thrilling human feelings. He has felt this way about the expression of Ligeia’s eyes. Sometimes an image will come to his mind that is an exact analogy for the effect that Ligeia’s eyes have on him. Things like running water and moths, the faces of very elderly people, and particular stars, inspire him to remember Ligeia.
Ligeia has a strange effect on the narrator’s mind. His memory of her is made up of ethereal qualities that are neither human nor inhuman. The objects and animals and heavenly bodies that she inspires give her an otherworldly, larger than life character that looms over the narrator and the story.
The narrator of "Ligeia" has also been reminded of Ligeia by music and literature, and a certain book in particular by Joseph Glanville. He gives a quote from this volume, which is also the story’s epigram, about the power of the will and how God himself is a will. He has only found the connection between this passage and Ligeia after lots of contemplation, but now he believes it is something about her intensity. He describes how she is outwardly calm but has outbursts of temper like no other, and at these moments, her large eyes became huge and her voice took on a melodious, powerful energy.
The connection of Ligeia to the divine gives her a power not just over the narrator but over his whole world. She becomes larger than a human character and transforms into abstract concepts like energy and will. Giving his wife this power and comparing her to a goddess on one hand shows the depth of his love. At the same time, it’s unclear if these traits of Ligeia’s were real, or are rather products of the narrator’s own overpowering sense of loss at her death. It is possible, in fact, to see Ligeia as a kind of embodiment of grief—calm, with outbursts of powerful energy. Poe’s triumph in the story is to have Ligeia be both—both a kind of supernatural being and potentially “enhanced” by the narrator’s grief-filled memories.
The narrator of "Ligeia" tells us that Ligeia was also very educated – she read all the time and knew many languages fluently. He has never known such knowledge in a woman and can find no fault in her intelligence, which thrills him to remember. She studied metaphysics and seemed so superior to him in her knowledge that he let her guide him and felt the scope of his knowledge expanding.
Poe gives Ligeia not only a physically intimidating character but also an intellectual superiority over the narrator, so that she becomes a kind of ultimate figure, both lover, mother and teacher.
So when Ligeia dies, the narrator of "Ligeia" is left alone, without both his teacher and wife. He is like a lost child. As illness took her strength away, she read less and her once wild eyes grew dim. The narrator knew that she was about to die and struggled to reckon with this truth. Shockingly to him, Ligeia also struggles to think of death, and her visible terror as she lies on her death bed is unbearable to watch.
Like a flame about to go out, Ligeia’s supernatural qualities begin to wither on her death bed and the narrator suffers a horrible realization of what he is about to lose. The loss of strength in the eyes removes Ligeia’s extraordinariness and makes her seem more human, which in turn makes her tragic refusal to accept death all the more upsetting.
It is not until the last moment, that Ligeia becomes still, her voice low and soft again, and confesses the fierceness of her love for her husband. The narrator of "Ligeia" has never imagined her love to be as fierce as this, and he feels both blessed and cursed to be losing her now. Her confessions speak to him of her desire to live, and he cannot express how horrible they are to hear.
In addition to Ligeia’s qualities of intelligence and beauty, the narrator finally sees evidence of her affection for him, a quality that he never expected. This show of love in the last hours of her life gives Ligeia more humanity that fills the narrator with sympathy, and with a sense of loss.
At midnight, on the night of her death, Ligeia asks her husband to recite to her a particular poem that she has written herself about the “Conqueror Worm” about a play performed by puppets and watched by angels, in which the hero is a horrible worm, destroying the human characters. As the narrator of "Ligeia" finishes reading this morbid poem, Ligeia cries out appeals to God that the worm be conquered instead of her. She then recites the Glanville epigram. With this, she falls into her husband’s arms and repeats to him the last phrase of the Glanville quote – “Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”
As we’ve heard earlier in the story, there is a special connection between Ligeia and certain volumes of literature and poetry. She shows the force of this connection on her deathbed and seems to especially embody her own words and becomes very frantic with the idea of the worm. The final quote will be instrumental in the story that follows because it alludes to her refusal to submit to death.
After Ligeia dies, the narrator of "Ligeia" can’t stand to be in their city by the Rhine and, with no lack of wealth, buys an abbey in a wild, remote part of England. The devastated appearance of the old building perfectly describes how he feels, and he doesn’t want to repair it. But inside the building, he has hope of lifting the mood, and decks it out with luxurious draperies and carvings and decorations. But the narrator doesn’t want to talk too much about these things. He goes on to the most important room of the abbey, the bridal chamber, where he married his new wife, Lady Rowena of Tremaine. He isn’t sure how it happened that the family of the bride allowed their daughter to marry him.
Fitting Poe’s tendency to connect place and person, the narrator finds the old city tarnished by the memory of Ligeia. But his escape does not free him from this condition. He chooses an old, Gothic abbey, which represents the grieving, maddened state of his mind. By confining himself in this way, and surrounding himself with rich, dark decorations, the narrator only exaggerates his dark mood.
But he can describe the bridal chamber perfectly. It is a pentagonal room at the top of a high turret, with a venetian glass window covering one of the five sides. This glass was such a dim color that it transformed the light that entered the room and made everything look sickly. There are vines growing over the walls and the ceiling is carved oak with many elaborate Gothic figures shaped in the wood. There’s an incense burner in the center of the ceiling and many other Eastern decorations and granite figures in the corners standing over the proceedings like tomb sculptures.
When we were introduced to Ligeia, the narrative was entirely composed of descriptions of her appearance and intelligence and all the qualities that the narrator loved about her, but in the first months of marriage with Rowena, the narrator is more concerned with the architecture that surrounds them than the woman herself. Ligeia’s memory looms in the background.
The major attraction of the room besides all these things is the drapery. The huge walls are draped with tapestries with embroidered Gothic figures that only appear normal from one angle, so that as one moved about the room, the figures transformed in turn, so the whole room was in a kind of constant agitation, which was made worse by the wind moving the drapes.
The moving images on the walls of the abbey make the structure itself seem restless—it doesn’t feel homely at all. The figures mimic the characters in the story, changing in mood and always on the verge of monstrosity.
In chambers like these, the new couple pass their first month. The narrator of "Ligeia" can’t help but notice that Rowena isn’t very loving towards him and dreads his moods. He remembers the beauty and spirit of Ligeia and he revels in opium-induced dreams about her and hopes that if his passion is loud enough, she might come back to him.
Grief and the absence of Ligeia has transformed the narrator’s experience of love. He is unable to love Rowena. And to make matters worse, his sensations are exaggerated by the effects of opium, making us, as readers, unable to determine what in the story to come is supernatural and what is the product of his opium-drugged state.
In the second month of the marriage, Rowena becomes ill, and she has feverous nights, and mumbles and moans strange words, which the narrator of "Ligeia" puts down to the fantastical images surrounding her in the chamber. She recovers but then becomes ill again, a more serious case, and her doctors can do nothing to help. As her condition worsens she becomes both fiery and nervous and she becomes also very scared of the motion of the tapestries.
The similarity between Rowena and Ligeia continues, and their lives seem to follow the same pattern, with Rowena now falling victim to a similar condition that leaves her bed ridden. But instead of the narrator’s love to surround her, there are the tomb-like images and decorations of the abbey’s fateful bridal chamber.
One night, Rowena wakes the narrator of "Ligeia", who has been sleeping fitfully beside her. She tells him that she sees things and hears things in the tapestries but none of it appears to him. He wants to show her that her imaginings are caused by the wind alone, but she is in a terrible state. Without the physicians nearby, the narrator goes to find some wine to revive her, but on the way he feels something pass beside him and notices a faint, angelic shadow on the ground. The narrator is under the influence of opium though and he doesn’t put much stock in it.
Fitting the description of her as a kind of double of Ligeia, Rowena seems to have a sixth sense for the paranormal menace of this room. The narrator is in an altered state, drugged up on opium, and though his visions appear to him in a hallucinatory daze, they also seem to conjure this angelic presence that are reminiscent of Ligeia’s hold on him from beyond the grave.
The narrator of "Ligeia" brings back the wine and Rowena begins to come to her senses again. But as she brings the wine to her lips, the narrator thinks he sees some red liquid drop into the cup, but he doesn’t tell Rowena and she drinks down the wine. He imagines he dreamt the strange addition to the cup and the late hour is causing him to hallucinate. But soon after, Rowena’s condition changes for the worse and he believes that she will soon die.
The visions that began as dim, hazy mirages become clearer and the red color of the wine is definite now. Though the narrator excuses his visions as a product of the drugs, there is a definite correlation between them and Rowena’s state – after the mysterious addition to the wine, she loses all strength. Are these the narrator’s drug-filled visions? Is something supernatural going on? Is the narrator himself half-unknowingly killing Rowena and reenacting the death of Ligeia? Nothing is clear.
The fourth night that the narrator of "Ligeia" watches over Rowena indeed turns out to be her last. As he sits with the body, he sees visions and shadows. He looks to see if the angelic shadow is on the ground but it is not so he looks back at the corpse of his wife. Memories of Ligeia flood back to him and he is heartbroken as he remembers watching Ligeia on her own death bed.
At midnight, the narrator of "Ligeia" believes he hears a low sob coming from the bed. He is filled with superstitious fear and eagerly watches the corpse for any change. Eventually he thinks he detects a slight change in color on Rowena’s cheeks. For a moment he is stunned but duty takes over and he knows he must do something, but no one is around, so he tries to call back Rowena’s spirit. His efforts are in vain though. Rowena quickly looks even more deathly than before.
The illusion of the wine can be seen in Rowena’s blushing cheeks and the ebb and flow of Rowena’s strength corresponds exactly with the narrator’s dreams about Ligeia. This shows how god-like the narrator’s mind (or Ligeia’s ghost?) is at this point, and how much of an empty vessel his new wife has always been to him.
The narrator of "Ligeia" falls back down onto his couch and the visions of Ligeia come back to him. Hours of this pass until another sign of life comes to the body of Rowena, a sigh. The narrator rushes to her and sees her lips quiver, then the same coloration on her cheeks, even a heartbeat. There is no doubt that the lady has come back to life. But just like before, as the narrator tries to help her, the color disappears and she seems to go back to death.
These signs of life in Rowena are the most life and beauty we have seen yet in the narrator’s description of her. It is as if the thoughts of Ligeia are bringing her back to life, fuelling the narrator’s passion so strongly that the dim impression he had of his new wife is erased.
For a third time, the narrator of "Ligeia" dreams of Ligeia and for a third time, Rowena seems to awaken. He can’t bear to describe every occasion of this terrible transformation, but he tells us that it goes on all night, and he no longer tries to do anything. He just sits in a stupor of fear. Again, Rowena seems to come back to life, but this time, actually stirs, rises slowly from the bed and walks into the room. The narrator is paralyzed with fear. His mind races. It must be Rowena, but he starts to see some differences – this figure is taller for example. The narrator rushes to the figure and she starts to take off the cloth that enshrouds her, letting loose raven-colored hair, and then revealing a pair of large, wild eyes. The narrators shrieks. It is Ligeia.
The narrator cannot get away from Ligeia. His inability to stop thinking about her seems to have resulted in the haunting of his mind becoming a reality – the physical world has formed before him in the image of his grief. His obsession with Ligeia, the influence of opium, and Ligeia’s larger-than-life personality have together created an unstable reality, where death and life cannot be separated, where Ligeia can return to him. Whether she truly has supernaturally returned, whether it is in fact the narrator’s drug-fueled mind, and whether he is truly an innocent in all this—none of that is clear. But, regardless, and in part because of the lack of clarity, the overpowering, reality-altering, and even monstrous power of his grief for his lost wife is profoundly tangible.