Pit and the Pendulum
An Evening With Poe
Of Edgar Allan Poe
And Enlightening Look
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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 republished in Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840 and in the Broadway Journal in 1845.
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.
.......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.
.......The Latin quotation 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........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.
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.
.......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
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.
.......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.
.......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.
Translations of Other Quotations in the Story
French Quotation About Mlle. Marie Salle
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.
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?
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.