Review by Megan Starrak
Once upon a midnight dreary
I came upon something eerie
A rather gruesome tale of woe,
Written by the hand of Poe.
This article was going to be a very abbreviated look at the writings of Edgar Allan Poe in honor of his birthday on January 19th. Then I came across a short story I had never heard of called Berenice. It was published in 1835, and readers were appalled by the story’s content. Reading it, I discovered that the imagery contained within is some of Poe’s darkest.
Berenice is about a man named Egaeus who is engaged to marry his cousin Berenice. Early in the story, Berenice falls ill and begins to wither away physically. At the same time, Egaeus begins suffering from what he calls monomania, in which he becomes obsessed with objects and will stare at them trance-like for hours. One trance begins when Berenice goes to speak with him, and he fixates on her teeth, which are the only part of her body not affected by her illness. Egaeus spends at least a day wholly lost in his obsession with her teeth. He is drawn out of his deep thought when the maid informs him that Berenice has died.
During the story’s final act, Egaeus goes into another one of his trances. Poe does not detail what Egaeus does during this last trance; the reader only witnesses the aftermath as Egaeus becomes aware of it himself. A servant comes to Egaeus and tells him that Berenice was found alive after someone dug up her grave. The servant points to scratches on Egaeus’s hand and there is a shovel leaning against the wall. There is also a box sitting on the table, and with growing horror, Egaeus grabs it, and it falls to the floor. In Poe’s words, “…there rolled out some instruments of dentistry, intermingled with thirty-two small, white and ivory looking substances that were scattered to and from about the floor.”
As with many of Poe’s works, the theme of death and dying is prevalent in Berenice. But is it also a glimpse into Poe’s future? A year after this story was published, Poe married his cousin Virginia. The marriage raised some eyebrows because Poe was 27, and Virginia was 13. But the couple reportedly had a very happy marriage for several years. Then Virginia contracted tuberculosis and passed away in 1847 when she was just 24.
Poe’s mental health declined during her illness, and, in a letter, he wrote, “Each time I felt all the agonies of her death –and at each accession of the disorder I loved her more dearly & clung to her life with more desperate pertinacity. But I am constitutionally sensitive, nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.”
During this emotional upheaval, I wonder if Poe ever thought back to Berenice. Did the words, “Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are, have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been,” come back to him in the darkest moments of Virginia’s illness or after her death?
Being a writer can lead to a connection with something beyond ourselves. Poe would not be the first to write scenes that would come true years, maybe decades later. Many of Poe’s stories touched on supernatural aspects of our world. Maybe all the loss he had suffered during his life put him closer to that realm than the rest of us. Poe could have taken a different writing path, but he was drawn toward the darker side of the universe, and classic literature is a more macabre place because of it.