Text: Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, “Poe’s Satiric Use of Vampirism in ‘Berenice’,” Poe Studies, December 1981, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 13:p-p


[page 23:]

Poe’s Satiric Use of Vampirism
in “Berenice”

Eastern Kentucky University

Writing on “The Fall of the House of Usher,” J. O. Bailey has pointed out that Poe frequently employed vampire lore early in his career, and, in a footnote, that it appears in “Berenice” as “the erotic attraction to strangely developed teeth extracted from an undead corpse.‘‘(1) In a recent study of the vampire motif in romantic literature, James B. Twitchell follows D. H. Lawrence in arguing that Poe explores “the dynamics of human relationships using the vampire metaphor”; in the course of reading a variety of Poe’s tales in these terms, Twitchell argues that in “Berenice” we see Poe’s first and rather clumsy attempt to incorporate the vampire into a tale, that Poe’s concern here is in exploiting real historical events (graverobbing in Baltimore)(2), and that the vampire material is just added along the way. The narrator attempts to explain a relationship he has had with his cousin in which he, at first sickly and weak, grows stronger in daily contact with her. She, however, weakens and shrivels up, and as she does, her eyes and teeth become objects of incredible horror. He has metaphorically drained her of her life-blood, and in so doing he has made her desperate for energy. Perhaps fearful that she will return for his life, he kills her and rips out those potential instruments of her retaliation, her teeth. Although he earlier asserts that Egaeus’ self-described monomania provides “the psychological explanation of [his] vampirism,” Twitchell concludes that “the vampire motif is unattached to any theme, and is included more for Gothic stuffing than for sense” in this tale.(3)

We offer an alternative reading of the vampire lore in “Berenice,” which in our view Twitchell both misinterprets and underestimates. In Poe’s Fiction, G. R. Thompson argues that supernatural happenings in the gothic tales are often embedded in dramatic frames which “suggest the delusiveness of the experience as the first-person narrator renders it. . . . [T]here is often in a Poe tale a tale within a tale; and the meaning of the whole lies in the relationships of the various implied stories and their frames rather than in the explicit meaning given to the surface story by the dramatically involved narrator.“(4) In “Berenice,” we will argue, rhe vampire lore constitutes a frame that casts the title character, not the narrator, in the role of vampire; but such a frame should be seen not as a literal explanation of Berenice’s effect on her husband-to-be but rather as an ironic commentary on the distortions of Egaeus’ “mental eye” (Works, II, 216), for it is his diseased imagination that sees the passive Berenice in the threatening patterns of the vampire and its spell. Furthermore, the excesses of the narrator’s rhetoric and the bizarre twist on traditional vampire [column 2:] lore at the ending suggest that, at one level, the tale functions as a satire on literary uses of this lore.

That Poe himself was familiar with stories and “studies” of vampires is well established.(5) That he may have intended a satiric reading of “Berenice” is suggested in his letter to T. W. White, the editor who first accepted it for publication. After emphasizing that “Berenice” is “similar in nature” to the absurd, yet popular tales appearing in various contemporary magazines, Poe continues: “You ask in what does this nature consist? In the ludicrous heightened into the grotesque: the fearful colored into the horrible: the witty exaggerated into the burlesque: the singular wrought out into the strange and mystical” (Letters, 1, 57-58). In many ways, “Berenice” reflects all of these patterns of exaggeration.

Poe first prepares the reader to question his narrator’s view of reality through the character’s own account of himself. Egaeus, who descends from “a race of visionaries” (II, 209), has from his earliest recollection dwelt entirely in the world of books. He was born in the library and spent his childhood in a “palace of imagination” created by its contents (II, 210). Isolated from the real world and stagnated in his growth, Egaeus finally admits to an inversion of consciousness within the chamber: “The realities of the world affected me as visions, and visions only, while the wild ideas of the land of dreams became, in turn, not the material of my every-day existence, but in very deed that existence utterly and solely in itself” (II, 210). Obviously, the reader has been warned that Egaeus’ version of events may reflect the coloring perceptions of his imagination.

Through Egaeus’ recollections we first see his cousin Berenice as an innocent, a “sylph,” a “Naiad”; she is, in fact, the stereotyped gothic heroine, a beautiful victim doomed to abuse by supernatural forces, as the narrator foreshadows when he laments that she has no thought of “the shadows in her path” or “the silent flight of the ravenwinged hours” (II, 210). What this language limes is the shadowy nature of the hell-spawned creature that attacks innocent women — the vampire.

When Berenice is felled by a sudden and mysterious disease, Egaeus’ explanation once again suggests vampirism: “the spirit of change swept over her, pervading her mind, her habits, and her character” (II, 211, italics ours). Egaeus emphasizes the supernatural nature of the disease, for even after “the desrroyer came and went” ( II, 211 ), she remains sick. Also, her malady suggests the symptoms of the typical victim of a vampire bite: Berenice abruptly atrophies “in the moral and physical being,” and later she falls in and out of the familiar vampire “trance” (II, 211).

While these images suggest that Berenice has been victim of a vampire’s attack and thus may evolve into a vampire herself, the narrator also reports that “In the meantime, my own disease, . . . then, grew rapidly upon me” (II, 211). Because his disease also involves trance-like periods of “absolute bodily quiescence” (II, 212), one must [page 24:] ask to what extent Egaeus may be projecting his own symptoms in his description of Berenice’s. It is also possible, of course, that his malady is itself evidence that he is suffering from the spell of the transformed Berenice, a literal reading which Egaeus’ version suggests and perhaps mocks.

Within his library Poe’s narrator consults two writers in particular, Curio, who wrote about the inhabitants of hell, and Tertullian, who argued that “the more absurd an idea appeared to the universal human reason, so much the more meritorious it was . . . to believe it.” Egaeus directly quotes from Tertullian a reference to the entombed Christ’s rising from the grave, “a thing true because impossible.“(6) These allusions call up the idea of return from death, foreshadow the tale’s ending, with its image of Berenice as alive in her coffin, and thus suggest a darkly ironic parallel between Christ’s resurrection and the superstition of the undead vampire’s return.

While he may not consciously see Berenice as a vampire, the over-wrought Egaeus certainly develops a deep fear of his cousin. He admits to seeing her “not as the living and breathing Berenice . . . not as a being of the earth.” Consequently, he “shuddered in her presence” and “grew pale” (II, 214). Because Egaeus does not love Berenice, two interesting questions, unanswered by previous criticism, arise: why does he propose to her and why does he describe this marriage proposal as coming “in an evil moment“?(7) The most obvious answer is that the narrator is under Berenice’s spell, although the possibility that her condition and malady are actually products of his own diseased imagination cannot be dismissed.

In a pivotal scene, charged for Egaeus with such supernatural significance, he comes close actually to labelling his cousin a vampire. Egaeus, even with his heightened sensitivity, tells us he fails to hear her enter. His language suggests a supernatural explanation for this sudden entry “the misty influence of the atmosphere” may allude to the vampire’s well-known ability to transform itself into a mist and back again, as does Berenice’s “vacillating and indistinct . . . outline” (II, 214). Just as important, she arrives at twilight: before her illness Berenice is described in various outdoor settings, afterwards, only indoors, suggesting the vampire’s aversion to daylight. At sight of her Egaeus feels “an icy chill . . . through my frame” (II, 214). Her features seem undeniably vampiric: her “emaciation was excessive,” her forehead “very pale,” her temples hollow, her undead eyes “lifeless, and lusterous, and seemingly pupilless.” From their “glassy stare,” he shrinks involuntarily. When her “thin and shrunken” lips part in the middle of “a smile of peculiar meaning,” (II, 215), Egaeus envisions the feature that most strongly suggests he is confronted, if only in his imagination, by a vampire — Berenice’s teeth. His response is extreme: “Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died” (II, 215). In typically gothic fashion, Egaeus sees himself as victim both fearing the teeth and being hypnotically drawn to them “with frenzied desire” (II, 215). Poe maintains the reader’s ironic distance from Egaeus by his admission to [column 2:] having assigned to the teeth “in imagination, a sensitive and sentient power” (II, 216, italics ours).

While Egaeus’ vision of Berenice images her in increasingly vampiristic terms, Poe seems to mock this framework by closing his tale with an absurd twist on the vampire legend. The scene first rings changes on gothic conventions. It is midnight, the about-to-be-born vampire is entombed (Berenice’s burial), and Egaeus makes a lastgasp effort to “save” himself by journeying to his cousin’s grave. That Poe expects us to laugh at this gesture is suggested by the Latin quotation used as epigraph for the 1845 version and embedded in all texts at this juncture: “My companions told me I might find some little alleviation of my misery, in visiting the grave of my beloved” (the translation is Poe’s own from a footnote to the first and second printings). The reader must laugh at a stereotyped gothic narrator who tritely says, “the hairs on my head erect themselves on end, and the blood of my body become congealed within my veins” (II, 218); at a character whose own diseased imagination appears to have thrust his wife-to-be (however ill she may be in fact) into the role of vampire, and at a man who thinks he can destroy a vampire not by the traditional methods of the stake not by running water, not by sunlight, not by decapitation, but by pulling its teeth. Surely this is Poe pulling the reader’s leg.



1 - “What Happens in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘?” American Literature, 35 (1964), 448.

2 - See Killis Campbell, The Mind of Poe and Other Studies (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1933), p. 167.

3 - The Living Dead (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 58-61.

4 - (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), p. 14. David Sloane, “Gothic Romanticism and Rational Empiricism in Poe’s ‘Berenice,‘” American Transcendental Quarterly, 19 (1973), 1926, concludes that Egaeus is “a burlesque of the pretentiousness of the Dark Romantic Imagination” and the tale is “a burlesque of the principles of beauty in the European Gothic Novel.”

5 - See, for instance, Lyle H. Kendall, Jr. “The Vampire Motif in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,‘” College English, 24 (1963), 450-453; and Lee Richmond, “Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Morella’: Vampire of Volition,” Studies in Short Fiction, 9 (1972), 93-94.

6 - See “The Death of a Beautiful Woman,” in The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Stuart and Susan Levine (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1976), p. 100.

7 - II, 214. Twitchell’s explanation that Egaeus proposes marriage “in an attempt to force this energy flux into equilibrium” (p. 60) seems inadequate, for it depends on an unproven assumption that at this moment the narrator is a vampire who has already bitten his cousin and she is trying to return the bite.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1980]