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Berenice
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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Setting
Characters
Type of Work
Publication Date
Point of View
Themes
Epigraph and Its Author
Quotations Translated
Allusions
Wording Weakness
Short Biography
Complete Free Text
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2008
Preceding the story is this Latin quotation:
Dicebant mihi sodales, si sepulchrum amicae visitarem, curas meas aliquantulum forelevatas.—Ebn Zaiat.
For a translation of the quotation and information about its author, click here.
.......Earth is a place of misery and wretchedness, says the narrator, Egaeus (pronounced E je ihs), the scion of a wealthy and influential family. He lives in a mansion hung with tapestries and paintings. Egaeus was born in the library of the mansion and his mother died there. 
.......Egaeus says he has lived before.
.......In his childhood, he read many books and spent many a moment simply daydreaming. He grew up with his cousin, Berenice (pronounced BARE uh NICE e). "Yet differently we grew, the narrator says, "—I, ill of health, and buried in gloom—she, agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy; hers, the ramble on the hill-side—mine the studies of the cloister; I, living within my own heart, and addicted, body and soul, to the most intense and painful meditation—she, roaming carelessly through life, with no thought of the shadows in her path, or the silent flight of the raven-winged hours.”
.......The narrator thinks now of her as she was in her days of joy: “Oh, gorgeous yet fantastic beauty! Oh, sylph amid the shrubberies of Arnheim! Oh, Naiad among its fountains!” The narrator recounts past events as follows:
.......A fatal disease overtakes Berenice and works a profound change in her, “disturbing even the identity of her person.” Among the many manifestations of the disease is a type of epilepsy that often ends in a trance resembling catalepsy. The trance may last awhile, but her recovery from it is usually abrupt.
.......Meanwhile, the narrator develops his own disease, characterized by a monomaniacal interest in “the contemplation of even the most ordinary objects of the universe.” For example, he spends hours looking at the typography in a book or at a shadow on a tapestry. At times, he even spends an entire night watching the flame of a lamp or an entire day contemplating the perfume of a flower. Once, he spent many weeks investigating the meaning of a single sentence in a book by Tertullian.
.......Oddly, however, he does not devote the same intensity of concentration and meditation on the cause of Berenice’s malady. But he says he does consider at length "startling changes wrought in the physical frame of Berenice—in the singular and most appalling distortion of her personal identity."
.......Although Berenice is extraordinarily beautiful, the narrator does not love her. Nevertheless, her image often invades his thoughts, in which he sees her "not as the living and breathing Berenice, but as the Berenice of a dream; not as a being of the earth, earthy, but as the abstraction of such a being; not as a thing to admire, but to analyze; not as an object of love, but as the theme of the most abstruse although desultory speculation.”
.......Her sickly presence unnerves him. Whenever she approaches him, he becomes pale. However, considering that she has loved him for a long time, he asks her “in an evil moment” to marry him.
.......One winter afternoon as the day of the wedding approaches, Egaeus is in the library of his mansion when Berenice enters and stands before him. When he looks up and sees her, he says, “An icy chill ran through my frame; a sense of insufferable anxiety oppressed me.” For she is so emaciated that she does not at all resemble her former self. She is very pale, her once-black hair is yellow, and her eyes are “lifeless and lustreless.” And her teeth? “Would to God that I had never beheld them," he says, "or that, having done so, I had died!” 
.......In a moment, she leaves the room, but the image of her teeth remains with him. They are long and narrow and incredibly white, with “pale lips writhing about them.” Afterward, all he can think about is those teeth. They become an obsession blocking out all other thoughts. By and by, he realizes that the only way to gain peace of mind is to possess the teeth. As he sits in his chair in the library, day becomes night, then night becomes day. And when the second night arrives, he is still sitting there concentrating on the “phantasma of the teeth.” He remains in the library through the night. 
.......Suddenly, he hears a loud cry followed by “the sound of troubled voices, intermingled with many low moanings of sorrow or of pain.”  When Egaeus leaves the library to investigate, he sees a housemaid in tears who tells him that apparently an epileptic fit had killed Berenice. That evening, after Berenice is buried, Egaeus is again sitting in the library. It is midnight. He has trouble remembering what has happened since her interment. But he knows it is something horrible. 
.......“I had done a deed–what was it?” 
.......On a table nearby, next to a burning lamp, is a box that he had seen often. It belongs to the family doctor. He does not know why its presence unnerves him. A servant tiptoes into the library. He is frightened, and he tells Egaeus in a shaky voice that a loud cry has awakened the household. Then he whispers about “a violated grave—of a disfigured body enshrouded, yet still breathing—still palpitating—still alive!”
.......He points to muddy garments clotted with blood and to a spade against the wall. Suddenly Egaeus jumps up, shrieking, and goes to the table. There he picks up the box and tries to open it, but it falls to the floor and breaks open. “[T]here rolled out some instruments of dental surgery," Egaeus says, "intermingled with thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances that were scattered to and fro about the floor.”
Setting
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The action takes place in a mansion in unidentified locale. In the second paragraph of the story, the narrator says of the mansion that "there are no towers in the land more time-honored than my gloomy, gray, hereditary halls. Our line has been called a race of visionaries; and in many striking particulars—in the character of the family mansion—in the frescos of the chief saloon [large reception room]—in the tapestries of the dormitories—in the chiselling of some buttresses in the armory—but more especially in the gallery of antique paintings—in the fashion of the library chamber—and, lastly, in the very peculiar nature of the library's contents."

Characters

Narrator: Mentally unstable recluse named Egaeus who lives in the mansion of his ancestors, apparently as their heir. He marries his cousin, Berenice, who grew up with him in the mansion. Poe's selection of the name Egaeus as his narrator could have been suggested by the name Aegeus, a king of Athens and the father of the great hero Theseus. The second wife of Aegeus was the sorceress Medea. In Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, Egeus (spelled without an a) was the name of a man who attempts to force his daughter to marry a man she does not love. 
Berenice: Narrator’s cousin, who becomes his wife. The narrator says she possesses extraordinary beauty and grace. Unfortunately, she turns into a wasting wraithlike presence after epilepsy ruins her health. The name Berenice derives from the Greek word berenike, meaning bringer (bere) of victory (nike). Berenice was the name of a queen of Egypt (Berenice III) who was for a short time its sole ruler. She died in 80 BC.
Housemaid, Servant
Physician: Family doctor, who leaves behind a small box in which the narrator places Berenice's teeth. The physician has no speaking part in the story.
Narrator's Mother: Deceased woman who gave birth to Egaeus in the mansion's library, where he spends most of his time. 

Type of Work and Publication Date

“Berenice” is short story in the Gothic horror genre. It was first published in the Southern Literary Messenger in March 1835. It was later published in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840 and in the Broadway Journal in 1845.

Point of View

Poe wrote “Berenice” in first-person point of view in the persona of an unreliable narrator. The narrator is considered unreliable because of his obvious mental debility. Thus, the story is not necessarily a record of what actually happened but a record of what the narrator believes happened. However, because he acknowledges his mental debility, he enhances his credibility somewhat. 

Themes

Horror

After a Latin quotation preceding the story helps set the tone, advising that visiting a grave relieves suffering, "Berenice" begins in a gloomy mansion in which the narrator says, "Misery is manifold." He then observes that evil comes from goodness and that sorrow comes from joy. The narrator, who believes he is reincarnated, becomes fascinated with a beautiful young woman who suffers bouts of epilepsy that end in  prolonged stupor. When she wastes away, he becomes obsessed with her perfectly white teeth. Unable to rid his mind of their image, he ultimately removes all thirty-two of them from her mouth—apparently when one of her trances mimics death. She is buried alive. After the Southern Literary Messenger published the story in 1835, readers protested its grotesquerie. Nevertheless, it was republished in 1840 and 1845—and many other times thereafter. 

Mental Illness: Obsession

The narrator, Egaeus, is a melancholy recluse tormented with obsessive thoughts. Obviously, he is mentally ill, which he himself admits. As a child, he was “buried in gloom” and “addicted, body and soul, to the most intense and painful meditation.” As his illness progressed, it gained “the most incomprehensible ascendancy” over him, fixing his mind for hours on a single thought or on insignificant minutiae around him: a shadow, a flame, the smell of a flower, the print in a book. His most incapacitating obsession is the physical appearance of Berenice after her health declines. In particular, he becomes fixated on her gleaming, brilliantly white, untarnished teeth. The image of them occupies his mind constantly. The narrator says, “They were here, and there, and everywhere . . . I had no thoughts but for the teeth . . . . All other matters and all different interests became absorbed in their single contemplation. They—they alone were present to the mental eye, and they, in their sole individuality, became the essence of my mental life.” Egaeus appears to suffer from what modern psychology calls obsessive-compulsive disorder, a chief symptom of which is the inability to banish a thought that repeatedly invades the mind. Some victims of this illness develop obsessions only; others develop obsessions and compulsions. Typically, the compulsion rids the mind of an obsession temporarily or until another one takes its place. For example, a sufferer obsessed with contamination from germs may wash his hands repeatedly and gain some relief. To expel his thoughts of Berenice’s teeth, Egaeus removes them when she is still alive–perhaps when she is in a catatonic state and appears dead. 

Isolation

From his childhood onward, Egaeus isolates himself in his family’s mansion, spending most of his time in the library. The books he reads and the reverie he engages in appear to be his sole diversions. Even when he marries Berenice, he remains apart from her, for he does not love her.

Berenice as a Mere Object

Egaeus regards Berenice as a curiosity to study, not a woman to love. She is like a captured peacock butterfly, beautiful to look at and interesting to analyze. When Egaeus speaks of her, he sometimes refers to her as an object. For example, when he describes the gauntness of Berenice as she stands before him in the library, he says, "I remained for some time breathless and motionless, with my eyes riveted upon her person. Alas! its emaciation was excessive, and not one vestige of the former being lurked in any single line of the contour. My burning glances at length fell upon the face." Note that her person, its emaciation, the former being, and the face are all impersonal. It is possible that the narrator's derogation of Berenice is due to envy of her. After all, she is beautiful, graceful, light-hearted, and energetic—everything that he is not. 

Repressed Desire

It is possible that Egaeus represses his sexual drive, although the removal of Berenice’s teeth could signify a subconscious desire to remove any sexual barriers between them. 

The Epigraph and Its Author

The Latin epigraph at the beginning of "Berenice" and Poe's translation of it are as follows:

Dicebant mihi sodales, si sepulchrum amicae visitarem, curas meas aliquantulum forelevatas.—Ebn Zaiat.
My companions told me I might find some little alleviation of my misery, in visiting the grave of my beloved. 
The author of the quotation, Ebn Zaiat, was a poet little known in Western literature. In "The Epigraph of Poe's 'Berenice,' " (January 1978 issue of American Literature) Michael Beard of the American University of Cairo writes that "Burton Pollin's Dictionary of Names and Titles in Poe's Collected Works (New York, 1968) lists him as an Arab biographer, though in fact he was a political figure and an occasional poet . . . ."  In The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, (New York: Avenel, 1986) Stephen Peithman identifies Zaiat as "a grammarian and poet who died about A.D. 208 . . . and who "wrote an elegy on the loss of a slave girl he loved." Information about Zaiat is included in Barthélemy d'Herbelot de Molainville's 1697 book Bibliotèque Orientale, an Islamic encyclopedia based on an Arab dictionary of history, religion, literature, and other subjects. 

Translations of Other Quotations in the Story

French Quotation About Mlle. Marie Salle

Que tous ses pas etaient des sentiments.
All her [ballet] steps were sentiments.

French Quotation About Berenice's Teeth

Que toutes ses dents etaient des idees.
All of her teeth were ideas.

Latin Quotation From Tertullian

Mortuus est Dei Filius; prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est: et sepultus resurrexit; certum est, quia impossibile.
That the Son of God died is entirely believable simply because it seems so absurd that He would do so. That he rose from the dead is certain simply because it is impossible to do so.

Allusions and Other References

The narrator uses a number of allusions and direct references to embellish his description of himself, Berenice, and his grotesque experiences. These allusions and other references include the following:

Arnheim: (1) The name of a family and a castle in Sir Walter Scott's 1829 novel Anne of Geierstein, or The Maiden of the Mist. A passage in this work describes the barons of the Arnheim family as having pursuits similar to those of Poe's narrator, Egaeus. Here is the passage, from Chapter 10: 

These same Barons of Arnheim were men who strove to enlarge the boundaries of human knowledge, and converted their castle into a species of college, where there were more ancient volumes than the monks have piled together in the library of St. Gall. Nor were their studies in books alone. Deep buried in their private laboratories, they attained secrets which were afterwards transmitted through the race from father to son, and were supposed to have approached nearly to the deepest recesses of alchemy. 
Arnheim is also the German spelling of Arnhem, the capital city of the province of Gelderland in The Netherlands.
asphodel: Perennial plant in the lily family with white, yellow, or pink flowers and narrow leaves. In Greek mythology, the asphodel was favored by Persephone, the goddess of Hades, the abode of the dead. Thus, the asphodel became known as "the flower of death."
Caelius Secundus Curio: Protestant nobleman (1503-1569) in Italy who argued that more souls go to heaven than to hell. 
Austin, St.: Another name for Saint Augustine (354-430), Roman Catholic bishop considered one of the most important thinkers in the history of Christianity. In his book City of God, Augustine (pronounced uh GUS tin or AWG uh steen) argued that humans must choose to live according to the City of the World, presided over by Satan, or the City of God. 
halcyon: Type of kingfisher (bird) native to Australia and Southern Asia. According to a legend, the halcyon brings fair weather to the ocean at the beginning of winter. 
Jove: One of two ancient Roman names for Zeus, the king of the gods in Greek mythology. The other Roman name was Jupiter.
naiad: In Greek mythology, any of the beautiful goddesses living in springs, rivers, lakes, fountains, and other freshwater sources. Naiads (pronounced NAY ids or NYE ids) were cheerful and benevolent.
Ptolemy Hephestion: 
Sallé, Marie: Famous French dancer (1707-1756) who performed in ballets and operas.
simoon: Powerful desert wind in Africa and Asia; sandstorm. Variant spelling: simoom.
sylph: Slender, graceful young woman; mortal inhabitant of the air who has no soul, according to the medieval physician Paracelsus, who pioneered the use of chemistry in the healing arts (1493-1541).
Tertullian: Important thinker of the early Catholic church who argued against Docetism, a Christian movement maintaining that Christ did not have a physical body but only seemed to have one. This fundamental belief of the Docetists led to their denial of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven. Poe quotes a passage in his writings: Mortuus est Dei Filius; prorsus credibile est, quia ineptum est: et sepultus resurrexit; certum est, quia impossibile. Here is a loose translation: That the Son of God died is entirely believable simply because it seems so absurd that He should do so. That he rose from the dead is certain simply because it is impossible to do so

Wording Weakness in Last Sentence

Although Poe generally exhibits excellent word choice in his short stories, the third clause of the last sentence of "Berenice" comes a cropper in this regard. It says that from the small box left behind by the physician, "there rolled out some instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances that were scattered to and fro about the floor." Why are the teeth referred to as "ivory-looking substances"? It is as if the narrator had never seen teeth before. And why does the narrator use the word substances, suggesting chemical aggregates or essences, instead of the word objects or things? And in the instant when the narrator saw the contents of the box, did he take the time to count all thirty-two of the white objects? 

Biographical Information

Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849. 


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