A Psychoanalysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”
Often, the elements of the mind and past developments play a key role in understanding events and writings. In Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe crafts tales that reveal the inner cravings that motivate action and perception. In “Ligeia,” Poe orchestrates his story to comment on his own family history as well as to demonstrate the intricate elements of a mother to child relationship. His themes of love and obsession suggest an Oedipus complex in his narrator which creates a further convoluted story that demonstrates the complexity of family. Additionally, Poe’s three characters in “The Fall of the House of the Usher” represent the three elements of the human mind: the id, ego, and superego. This demonstration of psychoanalytic motivation explains the functions of the mind and suggests the strength of desire.
Edgar Allan Poe led a tumultuous life filled with loss. At a very young age Poe lost his mother, and while still in his youth, Poe’s foster mother died. This tragic life lead Poe to have a strong craving for motherly love which can be seen in his literary works (Jones 446). In Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia,” Poe creates a form of the Oedipus complex between the narrator and his wives. Although the story does not involve a mother and son relationship, Poe creates a mother-and-child-like relationship between the narrator and both his wives. Poe uses themes of obsessions and jouvenial word repetition in reference to the narrator to emphasize the women’s roles as motherly figures. Through the characterization of Ligeia and Rowena, Poe depicts a loving, interesting mother and an uninvolved, careless mother. This dynamic stems from Poe’s unresolved difficulties with his own parents and implies the complexity of the relationship between a mother and son. Throughout the story the narrator assignes himself childlike qualities asserting his role as the child in his and his wife’s relationship. When talking about Ligeia’s vast knowledge he explains that, “[I] resign myself, with a child-like confidence, to her guidance” (Poe 8). This is a very common feeling of trust for a child to have towards their mother, but does not depict the traditional standings of a husband and wife. Later, after Ligeia’s death, the narrator admits that, “Without Ligeia I was but as a child groping benighted” (Poe 12). The speaker explains his complete dependence upon Ligeia just as a child must completely depend on its mother to sustain its life. The narrator continues, stating again that he “gave way, with a child-like perversity”(Poe 13) This repetition of the word child in reference to the narrator portrays the dynamic of the relationship and implies that the narrator relates to his wife the way a child relates to his mother. The narrator is dependent on Ligeia and needs her guidance. The speaker expresses feelings of obsessions and clinginess towards the motherly figure, which Freud explains as the beginning steps of the Oedipus complex. When describing Ligeia, the narrator uses words such as “majesty,” unequalled beauty, and “spirit lifting vision” (Poe 3). These words reflect strong adoration and suggest that the narrator views Ligeia as somewhat divine. This description closely aligns with Freud’s view of how children view their parents. A child sees its mother with unwavering love and supernatural qualities. The narrator associates himself with youthful language and respects Ligeia as a child would a mother asserting his role and emphasizing Poe’s allusion to the complexity of family dynamic. An additional element that suggests the narrator and his wife’s relationship represents a mother to son relationship is found in the first line of the text. The speaker admits that “I cannot, for my soul, remember how, when, or even precisely where, I first became acquainted with the lady Ligeia” (Poe 2). This is a very odd sentiment to express about a wife, yet a very natural relationship to have with a mother. Individuals can not recount the moment they met their mother, yet nearly everyone has a meaningful story that describes meeting their significant other. This oddity suggests that a traditional relationship does not exist between the narrator and his wife but rather one of maternal influence.Once establishing this relationship, it is clear that Ligeia represents a preferable mother while Rowena represents negligence. When describing Ligeia, the narrator spends paragraphs praising every feature of Ligeia, but when referring to Rowena, the speaker explains “that she shunned me and loved me but little” (Poe 21). This dynamic strongly references Poe’s relationship with his foster mother. Lorine Pruette, writer in A Psycho-Analytical Study of Edgar Allan Poe expresses that, “[Poe’s] foster mother provided his wants… but seemed in no way to have satisfied his passionate desire for love and approval” (Pruette 378). Poe grew up yearning for the relationship an approval of a caring mother and projects these feelings of inadequacy and abandonment into his writing. Using characterization, Poe demonstrates feelings of obsessive love as well as feelings of neglect which alludes to Poe’s own feelings about the motherly figures of his childhood. Poe expresses a confused view of maternal relationships playing into Freud’s beliefs about children having feelings of love, jealousy, and obsession towards their mothers. Just as the character’s actions and feelings in “Ligeia” draw upon the functions of the human mind and instinct as explained by Freud, the motivations of the character in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” can be explained by Freud’s belief that the mind is made up of the id, ego and superego. The narrator, upon approaching the house explains that, “with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit” (Poe 3). This house represents its tenants, and the narrator’s aversion to the dark, gloomy house is based in the fact that the narrator embodies opposing qualities such as goodness and morality. This characterization implies that the narrator is the superego and symbolizes the unconscious part of the brain which psychologists describes as the “system within the total psyche developed… by incorporating moral standards of society” (Strunk 318). The narrator represents societal rules established about goodness and opposes selfish desires. The juxtaposing element of the unconscious mind is the id which is defined as,“the division of the psyche from which blind, impersonal, instinctual impulses that lead to immediate gratification of primitive needs” (Strunk 317). This portion of the mind is represented by Madeline and represents instinctual, selfish desires. Although her physical character is seen in the story very little, the malignant effect Madeline has had on her brother, Roderick, is very evident throughout the entirety of the tale. Roderick is the owner of the house and represents the ego or conscious part of the mind. The ego regulates between the id and superego, balancing innate desires with social morality. In Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe constructs a story where the id has taken control of the ego leading to complete demise. Roderick represents an individual whose id has dominated his superego. At the beginning of the story, the narrator of the tale and superego, has received a letter of, “wildly importunate nature” that expressed Roderick’s sickness and, “earnest desire to see” the narrator in person (Poe 4). This implies that Roderick has been overwhelmed by his id and is now slipping into sickness and defeat. In an effort to create balance and save himself, Roderick invites the narrator to compensate for the effects of Madeline. Once the narrator reaches the house, Roderick explains, “that much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to… [his] tenderly beloved sister” (Poe 10). This further portrays that Roderick’s id is represented by his sister, Madeline, who has caused Roderick’s sickly condition. As the story continues, Madeline dies and Roderick and the narrator place the body in a vault (Poe 17). This action symbolizes Roderick’s attempt to rid himself of the id and escape it’s desires. Roderick locks his id away in a natural effort to resist the powers of human desire. In the end, the ego is unable to avoid the id’s grasp on desire which is represented by Madeleine’s grasp on Roderick’s physical body. Madeline breaks out of her vault, alive, and rushes to Roderick. Madeline collapses and dies causing Roderick to also collapse and die of fright (Poe 25). Madeline is the cause of Rodericks sickness and eventual death representing the id’s ability to take over and destroy the mind. Roderick is unable to elude his innate desires and this kills him. He attempts to compensate by reacquainting himself with his superego but it is too late and Roderick is overcome. Poe assigns overwhelming strength to the darker aspects of the mind and suggests that the id is unable to be buried or resisted by the ego.Both “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” as well as many more of Poe’s short stories, center around themes of death and regeneration. These themes derive not only from the death of Poe’s mother and foster mother, but the writer also survived the deaths of his friend Jane Stith Stanard and his wife Virginia Clemm. Poe himself wrote, “I could not love except where Death / was mingling his with Beauty’s breath.” (Jones 446) This considerable loss inevitably played an emotional role in Poe’s writings. Freud explains that part of human’s death instinct is a need to express aggression revolving around the emotions of death. This expression can generally take place internally in the form of self-sabotage or externally in the form of violence towards others. Poe demonstrated various forms of aggression towards himself and others throughout his life, but his writing is another form of processing the death instinct detailed by Freud. Despite this preoccupation with death, frequently Poe’s writings about demise are intermixed with some sort of rebirth of life. Pruette explains that this repetition of story theme in Poe’s writing alludes to the idea that Poe believed “that the dead are not wholly dead to consciousness” (Pruette 378) This can be seen in Ligeia’s take over of Rowena as well as in Madeline’s escape from the vault. In both these cases, character are able to achieve a type of life after death questioning the finality of death. This notion is supported in Freud’s belief that in “our unconscious we are immortal.” Both these suggestions made by Freud and Poe imply that there is more to the mind than life and death and explain themes of life returning after death in Poe’s work.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” elements of the mind are displayed through characterization. In “Ligeia” Poe expresses the complicated relationship between mother and child and projects his own feelings of discontentment towards the motherly figures of his life upon the character. Similarly, “The Fall of the House of Usher” explores mental elements such as the id, ego and superego portraying the role and strength of each. In both of these works, Poe explores themes of love, life, and death suggesting the complexity of each and illustrating that all are key constructs of the conscious and unconscious mind.
Freud, Sigmund. “Our Attitude Towards Death.” II. Our Attitude Towards Death. SigmundFreud. 1918. Reflections on War and Death, 0ADAD, www.bartleby.com/282/2.html.Jones, Llewellyn. “Psychoanalysis and Creative Literature.” The English Journal, vol. 23, no. 6,1934, pp. 443–452. JSTOR, JSTOR.Pruette, Lorine. “A Psycho-Analytical Study of Edgar Allan Poe.” The American Journal ofPsychology, vol. 31, no. 4, 1920, pp. 370–402. JSTOR, JSTOR.Poe, Edgar Allan. Ligeia. Generic NL Freebook Publisher, n.d. EBSCOhost.Poe, Edgar Allan. Fall of the House of Usher. Generic NL Freebook Publisher, n.d. EBSCOhost.Strunk, Orlo. “Religion, the Id, and the Superego.” Journal of Bible and Religion, vol. 28, no. 3,1960, pp. 317–322. JSTOR, JSTOR.
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