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Morella
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site..|..Other Poe Study Guides
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Setting
Characters
Type of Work
Narration
Themes
Fate of Individual Identity
The Narrator's Hell on Earth
Conception of the Daughter
Morella's Revenge
The Baptism
Where's the Body?
Allusion to Homer
Other References
Climax
Author Information
Complete Free Text
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings... 2007
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A quotation (epigraph) precedes the first paragraph of the story. For information about this 
quotation, see Themes: Fate of the Individual Identity After Death.

.......When the narrator meets a woman named Morella, his soul burns “with fires it had never known before.” However, they are not the fires of carnal desire but of an indefinable yearning–perhaps for intellectual secrets that this woman of enormous learning and intelligence possesses. 
.......After they marry, she introduces him to one of her favorite activities: studying mystical writings. Poring over them, the narrator hopes to fathom their arcane meanings, but fails. So he submits himself to his wife’s guidance. By and by, “a forbidden spirit” arises within him as she recites strange words “from the ashes of a dead philosophy.” For hours at a time, he listens to her, enjoying the lull of her musical voice. But one day her words become “tainted with terror” and a shadow falls across the narrator's soul. It is no longer a joy to listen to her; it is a horror. 
.......“The most beautiful became the most hideous,” the narrator says, “as Hinnon became Ge-Henna.”
.......Among her favorite philosophers are the ancient Greek Pythagoras, who believed in the rebirth of the soul after death, and two Germans, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854), who focused their attention on the ego’s perception of reality and arrived at different versions of pantheism.
.......The subject of whether personal identity, or individual consciousness, survives death intrigues the narrator, in part because of “the marked and agitated” way in which Morella discusses it. However, in time, her manner oppresses him. (It may be that the narrator is jealous of his wife's superior intellect.)
.......“I could no longer bear the touch of her wan fingers," the narrator says, "nor the low tone of her musical language, nor the lustre of her melancholy eyes.” 
.......As for Morella, “Yet was she woman,” the narrator says. In other words, in spite of her intellectual preoccupations, she still longs for the attentions of her husband. However, aware of his discontent–aware that he now finds her repulsive–she begins to pine and suffers a decline in her health, manifested by her paleness and the prominence of veins on her forehead. By now, the narrator begins to yearn for her death, but she holds fast to life–for “irksome months”–fraying the narrator’s nerves. Her refusal to die infuriates him, and he curses time for lengthening her life.
.......One evening in autumn, Morella, lying in bed, calls out for her husband. The narrator recalls that “there was a dim mist over all the earth, and a warm glow upon the waters, and amid the rich October leaves of the forest, a rainbow from the firmament had surely fallen." .......After the narrator kisses her forehead, she utters this paradox: “I am dying, yet shall I live.” She then tells her husband that although he could not love her in life, he will “adore” her in death. When she dies, she says, their child shall live but sorrow will fill her husband’s days and “thou shalt bear about with thee thy shroud on the earth.” 
.......The narrator asks her how she knows these things. But she turns away, then expires. "Yet, as she had foretold," the narrator says, "her child, to which in dying she had given birth, which breathed not until the mother breathed no more, her child, a daughter, lived."
.......The child grows rapidly while the narrator discovers to his dismay that she takes on an uncanny resemblance to her mother. Her smile, her eyes, her hair, her fingers, the sad music of her speech, the words she speaks–all remind him of Morella.
.......He loves his child, though. In fact, he loves her “with a love more fervent than I had believed it possible to feel for any denizen of earth." But his love for her darkens as she begins to take on the mental powers of an adult woman–of Morella. After the first ten years of her life, the child even begins speaking the same “phrases and expressions” of Morella. As a result, the narrator suffers intense anxiety. 
.......Over the years, the narrator had never spoken to his daughter about her mother, never baptized her, and never given her a name. But here she is a duplicate Morella to bedevil him. Perhaps if she is baptized now, the ceremony will drive the spirit of Morella out of the girl and the narrator will be able to look to the future with hope, not dread. 
.......On the day of the ceremony, when the clergyman asks for the name of the child, a fiend takes control of the narrator and he whispers into the ear of the clergyman “Morella.” At the sound of the name, the child takes on the hues of death, and falling on the black slabs of the narrator's ancestral vault, responds, "I am here!"
.......After the child dies, the narrator lays her in the same tomb where he interred Morella. But Morella is no longer there. There is only emptiness where her body once was. Thereafter, the narrator says, "I kept no reckoning of time or place, and the stars of my fate faded from heaven, and therefore the earth grew dark, and its figures passed by me like flitting shadows, and among them all I beheld only– Morella. The winds of the firmament breathed but one sound within my ears, and the ripples upon the sea murmured evermore–Morella."

Setting

The action takes place in 18th or 19th Century Europe at the residence of the narrator and his wife, Morella. They are probably of aristocratic ancestry, since they maintain an ancestral burial vault. Morella was educated at Pressburg (spelled with one s in the story), a university city on the Danube River that was associated with witchcraft and the occult. Once the capital of Hungary, the city today is the capital of Slovakia. In the 20th Century, its name was changed to Bratislava. 

Characters

Narrator: Unnamed person who tells the story of Morella, the woman he married. Like the narrators of other Poe stories, the narrator of Morella exhibits symptoms of mental instability. Therefore, the reader cannot be certain that his account is reliable. 
Morella: Wife of the narrator and a woman of formidable intellect and erudition. 
Daughter: Offspring of the narrator and Morella. The child closely resembles Morella physically and mentally.
Clergyman: Person who baptizes the child of the narrator and Morella.

Type of Work and Publication Date

“Morella" is a short story in the Gothic horror genre. It was first published in April 1835 in the Southern Literary Messenger

Narration

The story is told by an unnamed narrator in first-person point of view. The fantastic nature of story–as well as passages in it in which the narrator describes himself as distraught–indicate that he might be mentally unbalanced and, therefore, an unreliable witness. 


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Themes

Fate of Individual Identity After Death

.......When Morella instructs the narrator about mystical philosophy, she apparently touches on the subject of whether individual (or personal) identity survives death or becomes part of a universal identity. Of this subject, the narrator says that "the notion of that identity which at death is or is not lost for ever, was to me, at all times, a consideration of intense interest." The possibility of the loss of personal identity frightens the narrator; he does not want his individuality, his personality, to be absorbed into some super soul in which all identities merge. The quotation preceding the opening paragraph of the story introduces the idea of a single, universal identity. The quotation, or epigraph, is from Plato's work, Symposium. Poe's translation of it from the Greek reads, "Itself–alone by itself–eternally one and single." References in the fourth paragraph of the story to Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854) again focus on this idea. They 
Morella introduces the narrator to German idealist philosophers–in particular, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854), who focused their attention on how the ego perceives reality; they arrived at different versions of pantheism. Unlike traditional theism, which regards God as separate from the universe, pantheism says God and the universe, with all its parts, are one and the same. 

The reference  in the fourth paragraph of the story . Fichte proposed that all things are part of a single, universal ego, a concept that is pantheistic.  also centered his philosophy, in part, on a type of pantheism. 
.......Morella also introduces the narrator to the beliefs of Pythagoras (580-500 BC), the Greek mathematician and philosopher famous for a geometric theorem stating that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other sides (c2=a2+b2). But Pythagoras is also famous for his belief in the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis). According to Pythagoras, the soul lives on after the body dies, sojourning for a while in the abode of the dead, then returning to the world to inhabit another being. In The Age of Fable, Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867) quotes the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) as saying that Pythagoras told his disciples the following: 

Souls never die, but always on quitting one abode pass to another. I myself can remember that in the time of the Trojan war I was Euphorbus, the son of Panthus, and fell by the spear of Menelaus. Lately being in the temple of Juno, at Argos, I recognized my shield hung up there among the trophies. All things change, nothing perishes. The soul passes hither and thither, occupying now this body, now that, passing from the body of a beast into that of a man, and thence to a beast’s again. As wax is stamped with certain figures, then melted, then stamped anew with others, yet is always the same wax, so the soul, being always the same, yet wears, at different times, different forms. 
The ideas of Pythagoras, Fichte, and Schelling, as well as the quotation from Plato, indicate that Morella's soul lives on after death in the body of her daughter as part of a universal ego. 

Horror

As in many other Poe stories, horror is a central theme. The narrator introduces this theme in the third paragraph of the story when he describes the effect that Morella's readings have on him: "And then, hour after hour, would I linger by her side, and dwell upon the music of her voice, until at length its melody was tainted with terror, and there fell a shadow upon my soul, and I grew pale, and shuddered inwardly at those too unearthly tones. And thus, joy suddenly faded into horror. . . ."

Spousal Mistreatment

The narrator treats Morella as an object that he uses to satisfy his curiosity about her remarkable intellect and erudition. After they marry, she freely shares with him her knowledge of a variety of subjects and introduces him to the secrets of arcane philosophies. Although the narrator says he finds her abstruse ideas terrifying and horrible, he also says that he finds one concept he and his wife examine–whether personal identity "is or is not lost for ever" at death–intensely interesting. In time, however, Morella and the sound of her voice repel him. “I could no longer bear the touch of her wan fingers," the narrator says, "nor the low tone of her musical language, nor the lustre of her melancholy eyes.” Eventually, the narrator rejects Morella and yearns for her death even though she "pined away daily" for his love.

Jealousy

It may be that the reason for the narrator's rejection of Morella is his realization that she is far more intelligent than he is. Rather than acknowledging his own shortcomings, he projects them onto Morella, then completely rejects her and even yearns for her death. 

Revenge

Deeply hurt by the narrator's rejection of her, Morella decides to use her powers to gain revenge against the narrator. 

The Narrator’s Hell on Earth

On his own, the narrator fails to grasp the meaning of the texts Morella provides, so she undertakes to tutor him in the finer points of mystical philosophy. However, in time, Morella and her tomes cast a shadow across his soul; what he hears from her lips horrifies him. Earlier, Morella and her ideas were beautiful, like the valley of Hinnom outside ancient Jersualem. But in time she and her ideas became utterly repulsive, just as Hinnom (Paragraph 3) did when its residents began burning children as sacrifices to Moloch, an Ammonite god. The sacrificial fires became associated with hellfire in Jewish and Christian theology, and the term Ge-Hinnom (meaning valley of Hinnom) evolved into Ge-Henna, or simply Gehenna, which became a synonym for hell. Thus, for the narrator, living with Morella and listening to her recitations became hell on earth. He could not even bear the touch of her hand. 

The Conception of the Daughter

Although the narrator never loved Morella, he did have sexual relations with her. Morella speaks of their intimacy when she is dying, saying, "But within me is a pledge of that affection–ah, how little!–which thou didst feel for me." Within me refers to the child that she is about to bear.

Morella’s Decline and Revenge

After the narrator annuls all affection for Morella, he observes, “Yet was she woman.” In other words, in spite of her preoccupation with the incorporeal, she still needs physical expressions of love and affection. When the narrator refuses to fulfill her needs, she begins to pine away, her health declining day by day. Deeply wounded by the narrator’s rejection of her, Morella decides to gain revenge. Calling upon her knowledge of metempsychosis, she passes her soul into the body of her daughter, whom she gives birth to at the moment she dies. According to the narrator, the child grows into a replica of her mother. The memory of Morella remains alive in the daughter, and the narrator knows no peace. He leads a tortured existence. 

The Baptism

The narrator decides to have his child baptized to drive from her the spirit of Morella–and to drive Morella from his own tortured mind. The narrator explains that “the ceremony of baptism presented to my mind, in its unnerved and agitated condition, a present deliverance from the terrors of my destiny.” At the baptismal font, the clergyman asks what the child is to be called. A demon then seizes control of the narrator–or so the narrator suggests–causing him against his will to whisper the child's name into the ear of the clergyman: Morella. The child hears the whisper, falls onto the family’s vault, and says, “I am here.” The reader may wonder why a burial vault is near a baptismal font–the former suggesting a cemetery and the latter suggesting a church. One explanation is this: In earlier times, it was customary to entomb bodies in churches, chapels, and monasteries. Thus, the church may have housed the “ancestral vault” of which the narrator speaks. 

Where’s the Body?

The narrator entombs his daughter in the same vault where Morella was interred. However, when laying his daughter to rest, he finds “no traces” of Morella. What happened? Here is one possibility: After the narrator's daughter dies, the soul of Morella becomes free to emigrate and returns to its original body. Meanwhile, during funeral rites for the daughter, Morella leaves the tomb as a vampire or zombie in order to bedevil the narrator later. Another possibility is that the narrator, a demented man from the very beginning, imagined or fabricated the whole Morella story. 

Allusions to Homer's Odyssey

The narrator of "Morella" refers twice to the musical quality of Morella's voice and once to the musical quality of his daughter's voice: 

Paragraph 3: "And then, hour after hour, would I linger by her (Morella's) side, and dwell upon the music of her voice. . . ."
Paragraph 5:  "I could no longer bear the touch of her wan fingers, nor the low tone of her (Morella's) musical language. . . ."
Paragraph 18: "In the sad musical tones of her (his daughter's) speech . . . ."
The references appear to be allusions to the Sirens in Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey. The Sirens are sea nymphs who sing a song so alluring that it attracts to their island all passing sailors who hear it–and then the sailors sit, transfixed by the song and the mystical knowledge that it imparts, until they die. As Odysseus and his crew near the island in their ship, Odysseus–ever curious–wants to hear the song and learn the secrets it tells. However, realizing that its irresistible music will cause him and his men to abandon ship and meet the same deadly fate of other sailors who heard it, he plugs the ears of his men with wax, so that they are unable to hear, after ordering them to tie him to a mast. Thus, as they pass the island, Odysseus himself hears the song but cannot go ashore, though he wants to, because he cannot break free of his bonds. Like the Sirens, Morella also "sings" a song of mystical knowledge. 

Other References

Cypress and Hemlock: In the last paragraph of the story, the narrator says that "the hemlock and the cypress overshadowed me night and day." In 399 BC, the citizens of Athens wrongfully sentenced the philosopher Socrates to death for offenses against the state. After spending a month in prison, he was forced to drink poison made from the hemlock plant. Drinking a hemlock concoction was the method of capital punishment in ancient Athens. This mode of execution was like modern "lethal injection" except that the condemned prisoner drank death rather than receiving it through a vein. Over the centuries, writers incorrectly reported that Socrates committed suicide, and hemlock became associated with self-inflicted death. In "Morella," the narrator's reference to hemlock indicates that he contemplated suicide. As for the cypress, it is a tree that has been long associated with sadness and melancholy.
Eros: God of love in Greek mythology; sexual desire.
Ficthe: See Themes: Fate of the Individual Identity After Death.
Lustra: Plural of lustrum, a Latin term meaning a five-year period. In discussing his daughter, the narrator says, "Thus passed away two lustra of her life." In other words, ten years of her life had passed.
Palingenesis (or Paliggenedia or Paliggenesia): In Paragraph 4 of the story, Poe uses a word written with the letters of the Greek alphabet. Its transliteration is “palingenesis,” meaning new birth, birth again, regeneration, or reincarnation
Pythagoras: See Themes: Fate of the Individual Identity After Death.
Roses of Paestum: Roses that bloomed twice a year in Paestum, an ancient city on the southwestern coast of Italy, south of Salerno. The Roman poets Vergil (70-19 BC), Ovid (43 BC-17 AD), and Martial (circa 40 AD-circa 103 AD) all wrote of Paestum's roses.
Schelling: See Themes: Fate of the Individual Identity After Death.
Teian: This adjective, spoken by Morella to the narrator (Thou shalt no longer, then, play the Teian with time) refers obliquely to the Greek poet Anacreon, who was a Teian–that is, a resident of Teos, a Greek colony in Ionia, Anatolia (the Asian part of present-day Turkey). Anacreon wrote poetry that celebrated wine, women, and song. Morella's allusion to Anacreon is her way of telling the narrator that his days of happiness have ended.
Tenement of Clay: Reference to the human body, a phrase used by English poet John Dryden (1631-1700) in his 1680-1681 work, Absolom and Achitophel.

Climax

The climax of the first part of the story occurs when Morella dies. The climax of the second part of the story occurs when the narrator lays the body of his daughter to rest in the ancestral tomb and discovers that the body of Morella is missing.

Author 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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