Edgar Allan Poe's "Ligeia": An Object-Relational Interpretation

By Zlotnick-Woldenberg, Carrie | American Journal of Psychotherapy, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Edgar Allan Poe's "Ligeia": An Object-Relational Interpretation


Zlotnick-Woldenberg, Carrie, American Journal of Psychotherapy


This paper argues that Poe's short story "Ligeia, " in which the narrator experiences the death of his adored first wife (Ligeia), a second marriage to the despised Rowena, and ultimately the death of Rowena and the revivification of Ligeia, is not a supernatural tale, but rather a psychological one. According to this reading, the poisoning of Rowena and the revivification of Ligeia are hallucinated by the narrator in the course of an opium-induced psychotic break. The antecedents to this break are explored in light of object relations theory, with particular emphasis placed on the way in which the two women function as part objects. Ligeia represents the narrator's romantic and spiritual side and is associated with the good mother, while Rowena, who represents his more mundane and materialistic side, is associated with the rejecting mother It is argued that the narrator, functioning primarily in the schizoid position and employing such defense mechanisms as splitting and projection-which already require a high degree of fantasy-is not an unlikely candidate for such a break.

Poe's short story "Ligeia" (1) is narrated by a widower who has suffered the loss of his beloved and idealized wife, Ligeia. Shortly thereafter, he enters into an unhappy marriage with the Lady Rowena. The tale concludes with Rowena's death and what appears to be the revivification of Ligeia. It has traditionally been read as a supernatural tale in which the will of the dead woman is strong enough to overcome death, an idea alluded to in the story's epigraph' which is attributed to Joseph Glanvill, and referred to several times subsequently. It may, however, also be read as a story in which the narrator, displaying poor reality testing and loose boundaries and functioning primarily in the schizoid position-as evidenced by his use of such defense mechanisms as splitting, projection, idealization, denial, and omnipotent thinking-hallucinates that Ligeia kills Rowena and herself returns from the dead. In this interpretation, it is the will of the narratorexpressed through his fantasy, which is enhanced by the use of opiumrather than the will of Ligeia that brings her back to life. Indeed, although the story is entitled "Ligeia" and appears at first to be about the power of her will, its primary focus is really on the narrator, and it is his psychological functioning --or malfunctioning-that is at the heart of the story@

SPLITTING AND PROJECTION: THE QUESTION OF AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ANTECEDENTS

It is important to mention at the outset that, while not identifying Poe with his narrator, the reader cannot discount certain autobiographical facts that may contribute to an understanding of the story's dynamics insofar as Poe may be projecting not only his conflicts but also his internal objects onto his characters. Poe was a romantic who sought to escape the harsh realities of his life through art and drugs. He experienced poverty and sickness, was abandoned by his father during his infancy, and his mother died soon thereafter. His insecure attachment to parental figures might have been exacerbated by the fact that the family that raised him never adopted him.

It is reasonable to assume that the narrator's splitting behavior, which involves "separating loving and hating facets of oneself from loving and hating facets of the object... [so that] the individual [can] safely love the object, in a state of uncontaminated security, and safely hate without the fear of damaging the loved object" (2, p.19), might have been projected onto him by Poe. Its most likely origin was the early loss of the author's mother. Such a loss might be perceived by the infant as due to his destructiveness and/or needy love, and subsequently defended against by splitting. Klein might argue that because of the death of his mother at an early age, Poe himself never had the opportunity to make reparation, which is crucial for a child if he is to relinquish his attachments to internal part objects and move on to more mature and healthy relationships with whole others. …

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