Many defining qualities mark women distinctly female. They are both delicate in composition and bristled in nature, emotionally deceptive and unequivocally open, or challenging and submissive. Historically, women’s existence, even with all their perplexing attributes, has been deemed negligible. However, the presence of women in Edgar Allan Poe’s writing has a serious and unexpected resonance, despite their limited appearances.
The role of women in Poe’s works connects the stories to his own life, exploits their complex nature to drive male character’s mad, and pose as symbols of power. Although the short stories are not told from his point of view, Poe’s works serve as a creative outlet in which he relates the characters’ sorrows to his own. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the ambiguous narrator remarks on a love between the house’s proprietor, Roderick Usher, and his sister, lady Madeline, far greater than what is considered natural. The Ushers are a family with only a direct line of descent, suggesting past family members had to have reproduced incestuously.
The mention of lovers within the same bloodline is reminiscent of Poe’s own experiences seeing that he wed his first cousin, Virginia Eliza Clemm. Another of Poe’s short stories, “Ligeia,” chronicles a narrator ruminating on his lost lover, seized from him by an unknown disease, not unlike Poe’s own mother and wife being taken from him by the unforgiving grip of tuberculosis. The narrator and Poe are left to grieve their wives, the pair turning to substances to abate the coping process. Our narrator reveals his intrusive opium addiction, comparable to Poe’s frequent drunken sprees. The inclusion of women in Poe’s works drives the plot by inciting madness in the male characters.
Our leading man in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Roderick, is subjected to a disease that enhances his senses to the point of intolerability. However, Roderick’s condition is not his primary concern. Instead, it is the incoming death of his beloved sister, lady Madeline, that worries him far more. It is his incessant worrying that worsens Roderick’s condition, keeping him up in the night and adding to the hysterical mood of the story. In fact, it is not his disease that ends him, it is the overwhelming swarm of emotions he is met with at lady Madeline’s revival that claims his life. Our narrator in “Ligeia,” is unable to find happiness in his new marriage because-even after her death-he is still infatuated with his initial lover.
He is often in a love-related reverie and, it is this obsession that leads him to his opium addiction. When the narrator’s first wife, Ligeia, seemingly returns from the dead at the climax of the story, it is not unreasonable to assume that the author’s delusions and misery are only caused by the tremendous love he has for his wife. Despite women’s roles being mostly domestic during Poe’s time, they exude a great sense of power in his stories. Both lady Madeline and her twin brother, Roderick, are battling disease throughout “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Roderick acts as if his whole world revolves around Madeline while his sister does not appear to reciprocate those feelings.
Unlike most women of her time, Madeline keeps to herself and wanders the Usher estate freely. Her self-sufficient tendencies are present until her inevitable death. After being buried on the house’s grounds by her own brother and his closest boyhood companion, readers assume they’ve seen the last of lady Madeline. Against all odds, Madeline acquires what could be perceived as superhuman strength and escapes her grave. Her return to the House of Usher, where she confronts the brother who buried her alive and shows no sign of illness despite her harrowing conditions, is a succession of actions inconceivable for a woman of her time.
The story concludes with an estranged lady Madeline making her fargone brother so nervous he falls dead. Although the story is centered around Roderick Usher, the leader of the house, it is his sister with few appearances and a minute description who conquers both her disease and her brother. Comparatively, the narrator of “Ligeia” muses over his lost lover, taking pleasure in the memory of her unique beauty, big eyes and tall, elegant frame that stuns him beyond belief. But it is not her beauty the narrator finds most enticing about the girl. Instead, it is her intellect; the woman’s desire for education setting her apart and proving her strength. The narrator expresses his gratitude for his lover’s guidance throughout their marriage, suggesting her opinions are valuable and necessary. He delights in her love of language and how beautifully she speaks and it is this insistence that the girl’s most desirable trait is her intelligence that shows how Poe’s respect and admiration for women come through in his writings.
Women brought Edgar Allan Poe both magnificent joy and gut-wrenching heartbreak in his lifetime. As a writer and a human being, he was wildly fascinated by them, expressing these views by allowing women in his stories to reflect his own experiences, tamper with the minds of men, and represent strength. Although women are not the stars of his writings, their presence has a remarkable impact on the plot, characters and message of his works.