Friday, October 14, 2016


As I think I've said, I'm no expert on Poe's career, so I have no encyclopedic knowledge of what stories, poems, and essays the author wrote first, as opposed to their order of publication, for which my only source is THE UNABRIDGED EDGAR ALLAN POE.

All that said, "Berenice" is a quantum leap past all of the other stories, including the one to which I gave the greatest praise, "Ms. Found in a Bottle." It's as if in all of his earlier stories, Poe was dimly imitating some admired model who specialized in both burlesque and insufferable erudition. (Voltaire maybe? A lot of people think ZADIG could've influenced the Dupin stories...)

With Berenice, though, Poe is finally drawing upon themes and symbols that have some intense, however mystifying, personal significance for himself. 

"Berenice" is nearly a catalogue of story-tropes that Poe would use again and again. There's a strangely obsessed narrator-- for once given an actual name, "Egaeus"-- who also suffers from a strange malady. He dwells in a secluded mansion and interacts with almost no one except his female cousin (note: Poe married his 13-year-old cousin the next year). Because of his malady, which causes Egaeus to focus his attention irresistibly on mundane things, he forms a bizarre fixation on Berenice's teeth, though he claims that he has no romantic interest in her (though she has some sort of feeling for him). She has her own malady, a catalepsy that can mistaken for death, but somehow when she apparently dies, no one bothers to check closely to make sure she's really dead (perhaps "Loss of Breath" prefigures this obsession with "living death" scenarios). Though Egaeus sees his cousin buried, he can't get over his obsession with her teeth, and so robs her grave so that he can pry all 32 teeth out of her mouth. To be sure, he performs this act in a trance, and only becomes aware of what he's done shortly before learning that the poor girl, surprise, isn't really, merely, or sincerely dead.

This is an amazingly perverse story for 1835, and it duly shocked the readers of the magazine where it appeared. Poe pleaded that he was just trying to garner readers, but since he kept coming back to these themes, plainly there was some personal interest in them; an exorcism of his personal demons, so to speak.

It's also pleasing that since I consider Poe one of the foremost innovators in crafting stories of "the Uncanny"-- a phenomenological term I explained here and in many other ARCHETYPAL essays-- that what appears to be his first venture into this territory is so much more complex than all the naturalistic and marvelous prose works that preceded BERENICE.

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