There are several parallel themes between the two stories. In both stories, two characters are portrayed as dual identities, or as being two parts of one whole. Madeline and Roderick are twins, identical in appearance. Ligeia and Rowena are also compared to each other, as being two sides of woman. In the end, the stronger identity absorbs and overcomes the weaker one. Roderick kills Madeline by burying her alive. He absorbs her into his identity by keeping her body in the house, which is really just an extension of himself. Ligeia’s spirit kills Rowena and then inhabits her body, absorbing her identity so that Ligeia can live on earth again. The epigraph at the start of “Ligeia” illustrates Poe’s concept of domination by stronger wills:
“And the will therein lieth, which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigour? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.”
External Reflects the Internal:
The internal struggles of Poe’s characters are reflected by their physical form and surroundings. Both the house and the abbey are described as being run-down and draped with “verdant decay” (649). There is a large crack in the front of the House of Usher, representing the split between the characters and the coming apart of their psyches. Roderick is repeatedly described as looking like a corpse. When we get our first glimpse of Madeline, she flits in and out of the scene as if she is already a ghost. Emphasis on bridal imagery reflects the characters’ obsessions with purity. Madeline is dressed in a white dress when she is buried. It is implied that part of the reason Roderick kills her and buries her alive is because he wants to maintain her purity, even in death. The narrator of “Ligeia” always refers to his and Rowena’s bedroom as the bridal chamber. He even references this fact after she has died and he is sitting by her corpse.
Sex and Death:
References to purity also tie into the theme of sex and death. In the bridal chamber, there is a sarcophagus in each of the four corners of the room, looming over them. Madeline’s white dress is stained with blood after she fights her way out of her entombment. For humans, sex has always been the closest way of creating immortality. People die, but can live on through their progeny. Both the narrator of “Ligeia” and Roderick pervert and subvert this idea, bringing about death, destruction, and the end of their line. The narrator of “Ligeia” is obsessed with his first wife and her death. Even after he is remarried, he goes around the abbey crying out for her, and essentially summons her. Roderick has so idealized his sister’s purity that he buries her rather than allow her to leave and marry and have children, destroying the Usher family line. This ties back into the idea of the internal being reflected by the external. As the lineage of Ushers is ended and demolished, the house, which symbolizes their family heritage, collapses in around them.
- Do you see the conflict between Ligeia/Rowena and Roderick/Madeline as a battle of wills? If so, why do Ligeia and Roderick win out in the end? What makes them stronger?
- What other examples, from the stories, can you give that demonstrate external appearances as reflecting internal states? What is the importance of all the external description to the stories? What does it add overall?
- How do you define the relationship between sex and death in these stories? What ways are these two concepts linked in the stories?