Reading Poe, Part 2: Gold-Bug, Ligeia, Maelstrom

Today, I continue my short discussions of/reactions to Poe’s works. I’m still engaged with his complete short stories, and will be for a while. After finishing these, I’ll move on to his poetry. Each of these stories, like those in Poe 1, are categorized under Tales of Mystery and Horror

“The Gold-Bug” (1843)

William Legrand is bitten by a gold-colored bug. It seems that this bite might be poisoning him in some way, causing him to go insane. His servant, Jupiter, notices the changes in Legrand and becomes fearful; so, he recruits Legrand’s good friend (the narrator, who remains unnamed) to come to his aid. What follows is a mysterious adventure of secret messages and buried treasures that ultimately leads to the unearthing of a dark and disturbing secret. The Gold-Bug is interesting because it combines Poe’s thrilling storytelling with his style from the “tales of ratiocination”, creating a plot that is both intellectually stimulating and a bit creepy. I thought it was fitting that story is set in South Carolina (and that the main character is originally from New Orleans). It adds an element of southern Gothic before the southern Gothic was actually a genre. It’s no surprise to me that The Gold-Bug was a grand prize-winning story, one that Poe was actually paid quite well for (unlike much of his other writing, which earned him disturbingly little!). This was my first time reading it and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s a reminder that I’ve still got much to learn from Poe, as do we all. Rating: 4.25 out of 5

“Ligeia” (Sep 1838)

Ligeia is one of my all-time favorite Poe stories. I think this must be my 5th or 6th time reading it, and I’m not bored of it yet! In this story, the narrator’s wife, a poet who composes a poem, “The Conqueror Worm,” within the narrative itself, dies of illness. He remarries but soon the second wife falls ill as well. As the narrator watches over Lady Rowena’s body, he notices that she begins to transform physically into the form and countenance of the original wife, Ligeia. This is also one of the stories that Poe revised regularly throughout his lifetime. It was originally published in 1838, and many believed that first production was fueled by opioid hallucinations and meant to be a kind of satire. It would be interesting to get my hands on copies of each of the revised versions, if still extant, to see how, where, and why Poe made changes. I think it’s particularly interesting to think about why Poe includes “The Conqueror Worm” in Ligeia. The poem actually appears in part or in whole in a number of other Poe works, and was only included in a revised version of Ligeia. Poe seemed perturbed by the idea (a 19th-century convention) that death was something beautiful and sacred, as opposed to simply a natural and ugly ending to life. By including it in the story Ligeia, it might serve to suggest that Ligeia’s first death is in fact final, and that her phantom reappearance after Rowena’s death is just a trick of the narrator’s mind (influenced by drugs). It would also reinforce his philosophy more prominently in a popular work, thus reaching a wider audience. Rating: 5 out of 5

“A Descent into the Maelström” (Apr 1841)

It’s funny; for the longest time, I thought I had read this story years ago. But upon reading “this time,” I realized that I was completely unfamiliar with it, which means I probably never did read it in the first place! This one falls into the “ratiocination” stories and tells of a man recounting his experience surviving a shipwreck and massive whirlpool (what they call a “vortex” in the story). Descent reminds me quite a bit of Poe’s novel, Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, in its use of nature as antagonist. The awe of natural forces, especially the unknown and uncontrollable forces, acts as a kind of foil for both scientific inquiry but also the psychology of fear (evoked with pathos: “You suppose me a very old man, but I am not. It took less than a single day to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves”). Poe also uses the story-within-a-story device here, a strategy that is somewhat of a staple in his works (it adds some intellectual and creative intrigue, which was right up Poe’s alley). Ultimately, Poe uses the terror of the story to also explain scientific realities of physics in, ironically, an attempt to perhaps encourage a more rational reaction to our natural world as opposed to a fearful, emotion-based response. As an exploration of Poe’s style and psyche, this story is quite interesting, but as a story itself, it’s not quite one of my favorites. Rating: 4.25 out of 5.  

2 Comments on “Reading Poe, Part 2: Gold-Bug, Ligeia, Maelstrom

  1. Thanks for this. I was given the Complete Tales & Poems of Poe a few months ago. At the moment it’s holding up my computer monitor because it’s like a billion feet thick, but these reviews have made me consider cracking.
    The person who gave me the book also gave me a mug with a raven on it that says, “Poe me a cup,” which is just such a terrible pun!


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