Intertextual Dialogue Between Edgar Poes Berenice and Classical Literature


N.V. Ponevchynska

: ³ 16 (179), 2009. Cc. 166-171.

In the article the analysis of Edgar Poes short-story Berenice is given on content-conceptual and sub-textual levels. The author proved the existence of intertextual dialogue between Gothic and Classical literature.
- - . - .

Edgar Allan Poe's works demonstrate a turning point in the evolution of Gothic literature: a transaction from the object to the subject, from fear caused by the outside world to the terror that emerges within oneself, from the depths of the psyche. This shift in focus is emphasized to the extreme in the story Berenice (1835).

The story Berenice is rightly considered to be one of the most horrible tales Poe ever wrote. This belief is shared not only by scholars Michael Beard [1], Darlene Harbour Unrue [2] but by Poe himself. The central motif of narration is Death and Love embodied in sinister resurrection of Egareus beloved Berenice, called back to life by her great love. Poes obsession with this motif is also evident in many other works such as Morella(1835), The Fall of the House of Usher (1839), Ligeia (1838), Eleanor (1841) and can be explained by poets personal tragedyuntimely bereavement of his mother Elizabeth Arnold Poe in 1811, his stepmother Frances Allan in 1829, and his wife and cousin Virginia in 1847.

The aim of the article is to analyze Edgar Allan Poes story Berenice (1835) and prove the existence of close connection between this story and Greek and Roman mythology. The theme of intertextual dialogue between Poes works and Classical literature has already been addressed by Darlene Harbour Unrue, who wrote: Edgar Allan Poe's affinity with classical values has not been properly noted by critics and other readers who have interpreted the romantic and Gothic elements in his fiction and poetry as proof of Poe's predilection for the subjective, macabre, and fantastic, as well as transcendental [2, p. 112]. However, analyzing Poes works Unrue baselessly separated the classical references from the main body of the story, written in the romantic manner. Thus, Unrue drew a distinct line between the two terms: Classical literature and Gothic. This conclusion seems to be unjust in the case of Berenice and we shall try to prove the contrary.

In order to meet this aim of our investigation, we are to address the following objectives:

to analyze the plot of the story Berenice on content-conceptual and sub-textual levels;

to study the principal characters: Egareus and Berenice;

to find the elements or the classical references which can be attributed to Classical literature (Greek and Roman mythology).

to draw a conclusion about the degree of the classical references integration into the story. Berenice is a story about two cousinsEgareus and Berenice, who are of the same age and live under the same roof. In spite of these they are quite different personalities: I ill of health and buried in gloom she agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy. Hers the ramble on the hillside mine the studies of the cloister. [3, p.176 ].

The cousins have their separate lives, but at the certain moment of adolescence a mysterious illness strikes and affects both mental and physical condition of Berenice: she becomes subjected to epileptic seizures, which end up in stupor similar to death. Meanwhile Egareus who suffers from mental disease monomania-an excessive mental preoccupation with trifle thingsgets worse. In spite of his condition Egareus is finally able to percept Berenice as a terrestrial creature who can not only become an object for abstract mental meditation but a person to be loved. Having realized this fact, Egareus asks Berenice to marry him. Acceptance of a proposal leads to a tragic denouement: shortly before marriage Egareus notices Berenices presence in the library.

Firstly, he does not recognize his wife-to-be and sees her as blurred figure with lifeless eyes and narrow, wrinkled lips. Then Egareus sees Berenices unintelligible smile and teeth. He becomes fixated on these teeth and sees them long after Berenice is gone. Egareus attributes special features to these teeth: an ability to feel, understand and express feelings. A weird idea occurs to him as a result of these meditations: tous ses dents etaient des idees. Des idees./ "that all her teeth were ideas. Ideas!". [3, p.180]. Egareus becomes convinced, that he will receive an easy mind as soon as he gets Berenices teeth. The day elapses. In the evening a howl of terror enters Egareus conscience: a servant informs him that Berenice dies and a grave is ready to accept her. In the next episode we find Egareus in the library without any clear account for the past events, he is only sure that something horrible has happened. He wakes up and sees a small casket, which mesmerizes him. He fails to find an answer and then he sees a Latin phrase in the open book: Dicebant mihi sodales si sepulchum amicae visitarem, curas meas aliquantulum fore levatas. What does it mean? The servant enters the room and tells that Berenices grave has been violated and the girl herself has been found bleeding and still alive. Egareus looks at his clothes and finds out that he is covered in mud and blood. He reaches for the box but he could not open it, it falls and reveals dentists tools and thirty two white bone pieces. The story is created in accordance with Gothic traditions; we can observe all compulsory elements of this style on content-conceptual level. On this level we deal with the theme, plot structure and main ideas of the narration. Thus, the theme of this story can be formulated as Death and Love.

This theme is quiet traditional for Gothic Literature, compare for instance with Horace Walpoles The Castle of Oranto (1764) or Ann Radcliffes The Mysteries of Udolpho(1794). As for plot structure we are going to look at the type of conflict, the setting, and plot development. In Berenice we face the internal conflict, which can be perceived either in the narrow sense as Egareus struggle for gaining control over his sick obsessions or in the broad sense, which we shall address later. To develop this conflict Poe used special setting: the actions take place in an ancient castle, which conjures up an atmosphere of mystery and anxiety. The story that is to be told in this castle has a well-thought logical structure: an epigraph in Latin which serves as a prologue; an exposition (introduction of the main characters Berenice and Egareus), complication (exacerbation of Egareus monomania and Berenices epilepsy); climax (occurrence of Berenices-teeth idee fixe) and denouement (Egareus realization of what he has done). In this linear narration we can notice two other features of Gothic literature:

1. a strict determination, i.e. the consequence (Berenices teeth in the box) is fully predetermined by its reason (Egareus obsession);

2. appeal to logic as a means to explain apparently supernatural events: death and resurrection of Berenice can be explained by her epileptic seizure; and Egareus fear of the box is natural as it contains the evidence of his crime (Berenices teeth), though the whole episode of violation of Berenices grave fades from his memory. So, the given facts give us the right to state that on the contentconceptual level Berenice is the story written in compliance with Gothic canons.

Alongside with its affiliation to Gothic style Berenice comprises some elements, which can be referred to as the classical references. Under this term we are going to understand a set of stylistic means, used by Poe and which are presumably connected to Classical literature. We can list the following elements as the classical references:

the proper names of the principal characters;

the usage of Latin;

the usage of symbols.

In this context the first thing that attracts our attention is the choice of names for principal characters: Egareus and Berenice. These names are definitely associated with Greek mythology: Egareus was the king of Athens who threw himself into the sea when he believed that his son Theseus had been killed by the Minotaur [4, p.630] and Berenice was the wife of Ptolomeus the Third (246-222 B.C.) who promised her hair to Aphrodite if her husband came back alive and safe after the war in Syria.

So, if we base your further analysis upon these myths, we can come to a conclusion that the usage of legendary names for the characters has a symbolic meaning and creates thereupon sub-textual level of narration. To understand sub-textual implementation of these name-symbols we should compare the heroes of Poes story with their prototypes from Classical literature.

Firstly, we should answer a question: What do BerenicePtolomeus wife and BereniceEgareus wife-to-be have in common? These two women sacrificed for the sake of their beloved a part of their flesh: mythical Bereniceher hair, Poes Bereniceher teeth. This analogy with myth turns Berenicevictim of epilepsy into Martyr of Love.

Secondly, we should deal with Poes Egareus and Egareus of Athens relations. Ex facte it seems impossible to find any resemblance between a miserable man who suffers from monomania and a powerful king of Athens who waits impatiently for his sons return. And yet this resemblance does exist: it lies in a misunderstanding which leads to tragedy: suicide in case of the king of Athens and profanation in case of Poes character. To some degree they are equal.

The next element that should be investigated as it is likely to be the classical reference is the usage of Latin. The story begins with an epigraph written in Latin: Dicebant mihi sodales si sepulchum amicae visitarem, curas meas aliquantulum fore levatas [3, p.175]. This phrase certainly has a foreshadowing nature: it is an omen. Then we find this phrase in the story itself: Egareus underlines it and suddenly finds it in the open book when he suffers from a vague but oppressive premonition of the inevitable horror that has came true. Now this phrase is the fate itself. But why it is written in Latin?

There are several explanations:

1. Latin as a common strategy in Gothic literature [5, p.3];

2. Latin as a means of horror and mystery;

3. Latin as a sacral language, the means of transcendental transmitting.

The first reason is quite simple: Latin is used as a tribute to the past. The two other reasons are more interesting. So, why does Latin act as means of horror and mystery? To answer this question we should look at the history of Latin: firstly it was the language of the Roman Empire and reflected wars and glory, then in the Early Middle Ages it turned into Low Latin-a vernacular language, In the Middle Ages it became the language of the Church and thus combined both masses in the name of God and murders of Inquisition. In the Late Middle Ages Latin served as the language of scholars. So, Latin is connected in our perception with Inquisition on the one hand and with Science (alchemy, astrology, theology): it creates a combination of horror and mystery.

Speaking about Latin as the means of transcendental transmitting we should bear in mind that it is the language of the Church, the language of expression of Gods will, i.e. the language of Fate.

So, the usage of the Latin phrase by Poe is justified by its functions: to create suspense and anxiety and to hint at the fatal omnipotence of Destiny. Finally, we should address the main symbols of the story that are:

1. the symbol of sylph;

2. the symbol of asphodel.

3. the symbol of halcyon days.

Who is a sylph? According to mythology it is any of a class of imaginary beings assumed to inhabit the air. In the story Egareus calls Berenice Sylph amid the shrubberies of Arnheim. In this way Poe underlines her beauty but also suggests her extraterrestrial nature, which reveals itself in Berenices sacrifice. Here we see the motif of Love to its full extent.

An asphodel is considered to be a flower of death in Greek mythology. Egareus compares his fevered mind with a cliff affected only by asphodel touch. Analyzing his mental condition Egareus underlines that he is struck by Berenices physical and not mental decline. It is both an evident demonstration of monomanias influence on Egareus and recurrence of Death motif. The phrase halcyon days means benign and sunny weather in winter.

This idiom also has a mythological origin: Halcyone was the daughter of Aeolus and wife of Ceyx, who drowned herself in grief for her husband's death. She was transformed into a kingfisher [4, p. 283]. It is used both as an embodiment of Death and Love motif and as an antithesis: Poe opposes Egareus mental condition to benign nature.

So, us we can see the main function of the symbols in the story is to convey the principal motif, that is of Love and Death.

If our interpretation of implied meaning of the classical references is correct we can say that the story receives a new range: it is no longer an individual tragedy of Poes Egareus but an epic one compared with king Egareus fate. On this ground we have the necessity to reconsider the conflict of the story. Earlier we gave conflicts interpretation in the narrow sense: Egareus struggle against monomania. But now we can claim that the conflict is deeper in sense and can be formulated as a predetermined defeat of Good (humans eternal soul) in a struggle against Evil (humans fate).

In conclusion we can state that the main function of the classical references in the story Berenice is to facilitate perception of sub-textual implementation and thus the message of the whole text. In that case the classical references comprise an integral part of the narration.


1. Beard, Michael. "The Epigraph to Poe's 'Berenice'."//American Literature 49.4 (1978): 611-613.

2. Unrue, Darlene Harbour. "Edgar Allan Poe: The Romantic as Classicist."//International Journal of the Classical Tradition 1.4 (1995): 112-119.

3. Poe, Edgar Allan. Tales of Mystery and Imagination J. M. Dent & Sons London. 1912.

4. . . . .. ..: .1991736.

5. Ana Gonzalez-Rivas Fernandez and Francisco Garcia Jurado, "Death and Love in Poe's and Schwob's Readings of the Classics"// Comparative Literature and Culture Volume 10 Issue 4 (2008).


   -  ,        (Edgar Allan Poe)

- , (Edgar Allan Poe)

, , , . . , , - . . , . .
, . , , (). , ( ); - , : , . : , , , , , .
: 19 1809 .
: 7 1849 .

















(+ 100 )


- +
(+ 100 )


: E-mail


, Edgar Allan Poe's works, evolution of Gothic literature, story Berenice, intertextual dialogue, Egareus and Berenice, Castle of Oranto, Egareus obsession, language of the Roman Empire, language of the Church, symbol of sylph, wife of Ceyx, Gothic traditions, the classical references, intertextual dialogue, , ,