For day five of Gothic Romance Week, I have decided to take a look at the Death and the Maiden motif as used in Poe. I did a video that spoke to this principal a few weeks ago. In this post, I will be going a bit deeper into why Victorians were so death-obsessed.
For those who do not know, Death and the Maiden is an artistic and literary motif that features a juxtaposition between a figure personifying death and one personifying a maiden. It really goes back to Hades and Persephone, as most feel they are the earliest example of this motif. It is also Death and the Maiden that is exemplified by the paintings and drawings of naked young maidens with skeletons! In the works of Edgar Allan Poe, this motif is not used quite like it is in other works. I feel that his work still shows much of the nature of this motif, even without the full-on personification of death!
In the works of Poe, Death and the Maiden is more exemplified by the thin line between life and death, as well as by the death and resurrection of beautiful young women! It is this less traditional variant of Death and the Maiden, where death is the maiden or the maiden is dead, that is a hallmark of Poe’s works. Poe was obsessed with the idea of women dying, especially with them returning from the dead, due to his repeated loss of loved ones who were female. Some have even theorized that watching his mother, who was an actress, perform death scenes as a young child made him have a difficult time realizing that she would not come back when she died tragically when he was just three! This imprint of beloved women dying and coming back from the grave is something that would follow in his stories and poetry.
In “Annabel Lee” the titular character died tragically young and her lover who narrates the poem lies down beside her tomb each night. In Ligeia, the narrator is obsessed with his dead wife, who is able to return from death by taking over the body of his new bride. In Berenice, the narrator is obsessed with the teeth of the titular character because they are the only beautiful thing left after the rest of her has wasted away from disease. In Morella, the narrator sees his daughter grow into the spitting image of her mother (who died giving birth to her) feeling that her soul had been transferred into the body of their daughter! Each of these examples, and more, prove that Poe had a preoccupation with dead beauties, as well as with their return to life. This is what I mean by his take on Death and the Maiden being truly the duality of life and death within one character, that of the maiden! The dead maiden character is often left to become a haunting specter over the life of the narrator of the work, as we see in The Raven. In this way she is personifying death as much as she personifies the angelic entities that Poe compares his dead beauties to in many works!
Edgar Allan Poe’s works are influenced not only by his own history of loss but also by the Victorian obsession with death. In the Victorian period, there was much that could kill easily, and women were especially at risk. Women were more likely to die in childbirth, not to mention the dread disease that took both Poe’s mother and his wife Virginia, consumption. Today we call consumption tuberculosis, but I think the original name hits on the way the disease causes the person to waste away before your eyes. It is a long and drawn-out death that was always a possibility, as unlike today there was no cure, making it a death sentence! It is these factors, as well as other diseases that easily spread, that exemplify why Victorians were so obsessed with death. Death was around every corner when you lived in those times. It is also why the Gothic and the macabre were so popular during this era! This is the viewpoint of the world that would lend itself to Poe creating his great stories of dead beauties.
I hope that you have enjoyed this look at Death and the Maiden in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Do you agree with my analysis of how the concept is interpreted in his works? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Note on Image: The image at the top of the post is Snow White in her coffin, which I thought was fitting for this discussion of dead beauties. I know it is not Poe-related, but I could not resist it! I found the image on https://geekgirlpenpals.com/disney-vs-grimm-origins-fairy-tales-snow-white/illustration-depicting-the-prince-and-the-seven-dwarfs-with-snow-white-in-her-glass-coffin/.
- The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe