Poe time! “Berenice”
“Can’t take my eyes off you…”
Filed under Short Story: Poe
Berenice starts off with a quotation, which is quite unhelpful in the sense that it is written in Latin. I initially ignored it and read on, until I found Egaeus starting to become obsessed with teeth. I thought then that maybe the quote would shed some light on how teeth were extremely sexual back in the day, or perhaps how they were considered a holy part of the human body. Google told me otherwise. The translated quote read, “My companions told me I might find some little alleviation of my misery, in visiting the grave of my beloved.” And boy, did Egaeus visit Berenice’s grave!
In a perverted sense, the quote is true when applied to Berenice. Egaeus, with his monomania, suffers from a mental anguish when removed from his beloved – his beloved not being his wife, but her teeth. All 32 of them. So when his wife is mistaken for dead and is buried, teeth and all, Egaeus tries to ‘find some little alleviation of my [his] misery’ by ‘visiting the grave of my [his] beloved’. The most frightening part of the story isn’t even in Egaeus’ actions – it’s in his inability to realize what he’s doing, when he’s doing it. He has an out of body experience, where he cannot differentiate between reality and fantasy. Things get morbid when the two combine.
According to Egaeus, “Evil is a consequence of good, so, in fact, out of joy is sorrow born.” It’s possible that he sees his wife’s teeth as the embodiment of perfection, because when her body has withered and gone to waste, her teeth remain flawless and white. It is this perfection – this goodness – that is the trigger for the evil to come, and the very consequence for it.
Berenice isn’t just your average horror story -there’s something inherently wrong about the desecration presented in it. Whether it’s Egaeus’ twisted notion of good only leading to evil or his manic adoration of this wife’s teeth, I would say Berenice is the only story that actually gave me chills – something that neither Victor Frankenstein’s cutting up dead bodies for the creation of a monster, nor Heathcliff’s obsession with Catherine and revenge, managed to do.
Some may find this disturbing but I kind of like the distortedness of this short story. I think that Berenice was warped as much as it is fascinating. I think what really pulls me in to this story was the way Poe was able to dramatize terror in such a realistic way that I could imagine such scenario potentially happening in real life.
I find it interesting to see that Poe does not include the act of removing the teeth itself; I mean if this story revolves around those teeth, I think the act of removing it would be rather important. However, I realized that we have to see it from a different angle. Maybe it was because Poe wanted to emphasize the idea of monomania. The readers understood that Egaeus was so obsessed with Berenice’s teeth that Poe find it superfluous to include that scene in the story as we know that it was going to be him who removed her teeth. This immediate conclusion is quite interesting as it shows how clever Poe was able to create the flow of his plot that caused us, the reader, to fall into his ‘trap’.
My favorite scene throughout the book was when Egaeus saw the box. He was at a dazed state and was incapable of responding to the fact that his cousin was still alive when he committed the gruesome act. In this case, I feel that Poe had pulled in real life experiences into his story. Being an opium and alcohol addict, Poe would inevitably know the feeling of being ‘high’ and to an extent unconscious. I think this is why he was able to reflect and describe the unconsciousness of Egawus when he pulled out his cousins’ teeth. The most enthralling moment was when the servant came in and told Egaeus about Berenice state, and we saw him observing his clothes covered with blood and dirt. And for me, it was frightening, but at the same time exciting when he screams and grabs the box, which shows that he had returned to his ‘conscious’ state. I think that such transition was so beautifully blurred by Poe and I think that it is one of the most commendable aspects of Poe’s writing – the ability to blur the line between reality and horror.
Another area of the work that I love was in regards to diction and the purpose of a female character in Poe’s story. In Berenice, although Berenice was an “agile, graceful, and overlooking with energy”, she was a passive character, not speaking much, until (of course) when she screamed as Egaeus pulled off her teeth. It is as if her only purpose in this story was to die. What is thought provoking was the fact that Egaeus seem to dehumanize Berenice by describing ‘the’ forehead of Berenice rather than ‘her’ forehead. Egaeus confesses that he never loved her when she was healthy, despite the way she felt towards him. However, he proposed to her when her appearance was destroyed by the disease out of a perverse remembrance of what had been of her. At this time he noticed that her teeth are the only part that was not destroyed by the disease, and he develops an obsession towards it. Egaeus state of mind is something that I would love to delve myself into. It seems queer that an intellectual man such as himself could be so obsessed with teeth, that it would precedes the beauty of Berenice. It then begs the question that he perhaps was insane from the beginning of the story. After all, Poe himself said, “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity”. Maybe this is what happened to Egaeus.
Food for thought: I was reading about a Freudian interpretation of the story and it said that Freud pointed out that the story had a sexual connation. He believed that the removal of the teeth could be a symbol of castration (removal of the testicles), which was a punishment for masturbation. He also stated that it could be a symbol of ‘opening’ to Berenice’s body, otherwise known as a sexual intercourse. All of this is quite interesting as it showed how such story could have so many interpretations.
So far this week, our class explored the wonders of the short story of Berenice created by Edgar Allan Poe. I found it to be quite an amusing read actually, with the gothic and horror twist to the storyline, it was a different kind of gothic compared to that of Wuthering Heights. First time reading the story, I found it to be really disturbing, with Egaeus’s unusual monomania obsession over Berenice’s teeth and the events that followed. However what was projected from Egaeus himself was the absence of his love for Berenice. He did not get married to her because he loved her, it was rather for infatuation and his fascination for her. Egaeus viewed her to be an object of curiosity for him to study, like a beautiful peacock butterfly; beautiful to look at and to analyze and study. Egaeus often refers to Berenice as an object, for example when he said, “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.” Noted, 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.
However, due to the fact that Berenice was ill with epilepsy, the point to which her health declined was a horrible moment for Egaeus. I actually perceived Egaeus’ taking of Berenice’s teeth was a form of his disease taking action, where he needed assurance of Berenice’s beautiful teeth in order to feel “content”, which is why he might have taken the teeth out before Berenice was dead, while she was at a catatonic state and appeared dead. However so the ending to which the story Berenice had ended was a tragic and twisted (love?) story to Egaeus and Berenice’s life together.
What I liked to most about Poe’s Berenice was the state it left me in as I finished the story. I’m pretty sure I was literally gaping – I was both confused and mortified at the contents of the story. When the ending finally set in, I felt my hairs stand on end.
First of all, what stood out to me was that midst all the things Egaeus could have unleashed his monomania on, it was Berenice’s teeth that caught his attention. Her TEETH, of all things. I suppose Poe made a good choice here, as there’s something sinister about the image of the white teeth behind her grin. A possible reason behind this choice is that her teeth were the only part of her that remained untouched by the disease. Perhaps Egaeus wanted them because he wanted the Berenice of old – the one he felt was beautiful. Perhaps he wanted to hold on to a reminder of what Berenice used to be. On another note, as I was searching for deeper analysis on the story, I came across several interpretations that were rather interesting, including ones that suggested that the teeth represented mortality, as it is a symbol of human decay and fragility. I find that this is interesting, as the opposite is evident in the story – it is the teeth that survive the consequences of Berenice’s “mortality”. Other interpretations suggested that the teeth holds sexual connotations, as the teeth can be seen as an “entrance” into her body/ as a symbol of castration, in Freudian terms. I personally don’t understand how this fits in the story (as of yet, at least) – it’s rather a stretch, in my opinion.
“My companion said to me, if I would visit the grave of my friend, I might somewhat alleviate my worries.” → this is the translation of the Latin epigraph in Berenice. Perhaps his trance caused him to violate her grave because she had been buried before his monomania had been satisfied, and he had to procure the teeth in order to entertain his disease.
However, I can’t help but wonder how it was possible that no one realized that Berenice was still alive, before her burial. As I was looking up the story a while ago, I read that there were sections omitted from the published version of the story – something about Egaeus being aware that Berenice was still alive, but chose not to act. If this were true, it would suggest that Egaeus’ disease has not only robbed him of his sanity, but of his morality and humanity as well.
I think it was really interesting how Poe never clearly states that Egaeus was the one who pulled out Berenice’s teeth (as she was alive!). I think that as the reader, being able to come to the startling realization of such a violent act has much more of a poignant effect than it would have had if it was described in detail. Poe doesn’t even refer to the objects in the box as teeth, but rather, “ivory looking objects’. I feel that this ambiguity lets our imagination run wild a little, letting us come up with our own ideas of how the act would have been carried out. It has, to say the least, a very chilling effect.
So we started on the first of our short stories, Berenice, this week. Its definitely an interesting short story, and I wasn’t too surprised with the way that it turned out, considering that it was one of Poe’s short stories. I thought that reading through the short story for the first time was annoying because of the vocabulary used, so in most paragraphs there would be at least one new word that would need to look up. I had no idea what the story was about either, so I was trying to find meaning in what I read. Additionally, most of the early paragraphs didn’t seem to contribute much to the plot of the story, and that left me quite confused. I kind of felt that only on the second page of the story did I start to grasp what it was about, and what the narrator was talking about.
One thing that I found particularly interesting about the story was the relationship between Egaeus and Berenice. Egaeus mentions that he doesn’t love Berenice, and that his proposal to her was “in an evil moment.” He only sees Berenice as a object to analyze, and whenever he encounters Berenice, he feels a chill, and shudders and grows pale. He takes advantage of the fact that Berenice had loved him for a long time to marry her. I have no idea why he Egaeus would want to do something like that, as he said that she was an object of desultory speculation. What it pretty much sounds like to me is that he is marrying her just to blankly stare at her during his moments of monomania. Berenice was probably happy that Egaeus would be willing to marry her despite her deteriorated physical form, but she probably didn’t know that he didn’t love her. When the story gets to the part where Egaeus pulls out all of Berenice’s teeth subconsciously, I can only imagine the horror that Berenice felt to have her teeth painfully pulled out by her own husband.
The whole idea of Egaeus being able to do everything that he did while he was subconcious because of his monomania scares me a lot. This reminds me of sleepwalking (I know its a weird connection), simply because that is the only realistic connection for me where a person can do something subconsciously. As a child, I know that I used to sleepwalk occasionally, and my parents would tell me about it in the morning, and I would have no memory of what I did. Of course that’s a minor comparison to the monomania that overcame Egaeus and caused him to pull out all of Berenice’s teeth, but it helped me comprehend how something that scary could be possible.
While Edgar Allan Poe’s works are obviously disturbing and twisted, I find them even more frightening for the fact that the plot features are often inspired by his own life. Gloomy, studious men, first-cousin marriages, wives dying prematurely, addictions, all visibly parallel Poe’s life.
Berenice in my opinion is one of his scarier ones out of those I have read. Egaeus’ morbid obsession with Berenice’s teeth which prompted him to pull all of them out, and Berenice being buried alive is scarier than the tension in The Pit and The Pendulum or the Red Death’s mysterious powers in The Masque of the Red Death.
I think Egaeus’ monomaniac subconscious had been what had drove him to marry Berenice despite not loving her. Contrary to the usual cases where the conscious is not aware of the subconscious, I think that Egaeus’ conscious self was at least partly aware of the subconscious’ dangerous impulses; Egaeus is aware that he proposed to her during “an evil moment”, and the very fact that Egaeus is able to reflect on his monomania might be a hint to my argument. Otherwise, Egaeus describing the proposal as having been done “in an evil moment” might only be a lament that his marrying her was what had fatefully brought about his mutilation of Berenice.
A thought on short stories:
A trait I observed exists in most shorts stories is that there is less focus on plot than on character development. It is logical, considering the short story’s limited room and having to compensate for its value with interesting characters. Approximately three-quarters of Berenice is just Egaeus reflecting on himself
Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Berenice’ is a gothic short story that features numerous allusions to mythical figures as well as the works of other people. The names of the characters themselves have a significant origin. Egaeus’ name may have come from Aegeus, a legendary king of Athens who committed suicide when he thought his son died in his attempt to kill the Minotaur. Berenice’s name came from a poem by Callimachus, in which Berenice’s hair is cut as a guarantee if her husband returns safely back home, and intriguingly, the lock of hair that was cut from Berenice’s head speaks as an independent entity. We can see that there is a violent attribute to Egaeus’ name, and both Berenices did have something taken from them. In the story, Berenice had her teeth pulled out, and the fact that the hair of Callimachus’ Berenice could speak as an independent entity is similar to the fact that Berenice’s teeth seemed to be able to ‘speak’ to Egaeus, therefore making him obsessed with her teeth. Poe’s allusion to Arnheim, which is a castle and landscape-garden of supreme loveliness, as well as Berenice as a sylph (an imaginary spirit) in Arnheim is significant. Berenice is perceived as less than a human being by Egaeus, hence his metaphor of Berenice as a sylph, which means that she is imaginary and not a real human being. Furthermore, the setting of Arnheim itself is similar to the setting of the story itself: in a secluded, lovely mansion.
by the way, mr andrew. i love the picture. HAHA.
So this short story really got me at first. I had no idea what the story was about, so naturally i thought it was about a guy who lost a woman he loved since childhood, and the ivory at the end was a pearl neck-less he intended to give her or something like that… luckily for me i was not the first person to share my thoughts on the book when we got done and thus picked up from other s the fact that….. they buried a woman alive and he dug her up to pull her shiny teeth out. Kinda flipped my whole point of view on the story on its head. I did enjoy it and believe a psychoanalysis of this story would be very interesting to read. though i would not read this book during my spare time, i am glad i read it for the sake of having an opinion and it has shaped my view on Poe.
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