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THE DEEP ONES: "Berenice" by Edgar Allan Poe

The Weird Tradition

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Mar 28, 2013, 9:06pm Top

I have this in a couple of different print books but will probably be reading it from the annotated version linked to in #1, just because I almost always find Poe easier to follow with annotations.

Mar 29, 2013, 2:02pm Top

I'll be reading this out of Peitman's The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

Mar 29, 2013, 3:51pm Top

I have an annotated Poe volume on my want list, but I think I will be using the annotated link above this time.

Apr 1, 2013, 10:39am Top

The annotations in the first-linked online version are a bit odd. They're mostly glosses of more-or-less difficult words, but frequently the wrong part of speech - frex, "interred" is glossed as "To Bury" rather than "buried".

Apr 1, 2013, 10:43am Top

I think interred qualifies as less difficult!

Apr 1, 2013, 11:11am Top

I'm not sure whom the annotator imagined as his target audience, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't the Deep Ones. We're surely more used to big words than most. Buf if aimed at an "unsophisticated" (juvenile?) audience, that makes the part of speech business if anything even stranger.

Apr 1, 2013, 12:44pm Top

The online annotated version is Edgar Allan Poe Annotated and Illustrated Entire Stories and Poems by Andrew Barger. I have a paper copy. Yes, the annotation is odd and may have been done hastily.

It's also odd that Barger took the time to look up the full name of 'Ebn Zaiat' yet missed the reference to The Domain of Arnheim. He noted the location of Arnheim in Europe but missed the reference to the Poe story.

Edited: Apr 3, 2013, 12:51pm Top

Having just perused the annotations after reading the story in a bound edition elsewhere, I am stunned at how bad they are. First is: The Ubiquitous Employment of Title Case. Second is the bad translation of the French, with two instances of "Its" for "her." Was it just run through an online translator?

Apr 3, 2013, 8:48am Top

I had forgotten that "Berenice" is the first of Poe's doomed heroines. The reader doesn't really get to know her quite as well as, say, Morella or Ligeia, but that doesn't mitigate the pure horror one experiences at learning her fate.

Apr 3, 2013, 9:03am Top

Quite a Poey story - doomed heroine, obsessed narrator, premature burial. Oh, and it's macabre enough too.

Since bertilak mentioned the reference to "The Domain of Arnheim", did Poe have something special for the Rhineland? "Ligeia" is set there too. It's not what you otherwise think of as a typical Gothic setting.

Apr 3, 2013, 1:09pm Top

I did appreciate knowing from the intro to the annotated edition that Poe himself thought this one might be a little over the top! It really was awful, I mean, horror-inducing.

The 19th-century introspective psychology was somewhat interesting, with its distinction between the "speculative" and the "attentive." I think these correspond to types of meditative practice as well as they might to mental abberation.

The transformed French quote seems to have been important in alluding to the notion of an idée fixe, the characteristic pathology of the speaker.

Edited: Apr 3, 2013, 2:17pm Top

I decided to overdo it with this story. I read it in the eBook version of the Raven edition of the works of Poe, volume 2, then in the French Nouvelles histoires extraordinaires by Baudelaire, then in three annotated versions. The most thorough and useful of the latter was The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe by Stephen Peithman.

At first I broke one of my rules, which is to always translate the epigram. Google translate renders this unpoetically as “Members told me, if I visited the grave of my mistress, my worries would be somewhat mitigated.” This foreshadowing shows that Poe is messing with us from the very beginning. According to Peithman, Poe wrote this story to win a bet that he could write about an 1833 incident in which grave robbers took teeth to sell to dentists. He wrote to T. W. White, “I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste …”. Poe the splatterpunk!

The name Egaeus is usually thought to come from Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but that does not seem to be a very good fit to me. Egeus was patriarchal, or oblivious to the realities of love, but Egaeus by Poe has different issues. Egaeus’s self-diagnosis of monomania may not be quite right, since monomania is the obsession with one particular idea, whereas Egaeus gets stuck on a series of ideas which arise from random stimuli. Since he was born in the library (i.e., is fictional) perhaps we cannot give a better diagnosis.

Lori Beth Griffin in "Egaeus Diagnosed" (http://hilo.hawaii.edu/academics/hohonu/documents/Vol04x04EgaeusDiagnonsed.pdf) ticks off his symptoms and claims that they point to catatonic schizophrenia.

Egaeus’s ‘love’ for Berenice is quite off-kilter. He does not love her until the startling changes in her physical frame and personal identity. Previously he only analyzed her but felt nothing. Then, despite (or because of?) her ‘fallen and desolate condition’, he recalls that she had loved him (upon what evidence?) and proposes marriage. This is consummately creepy even though there is nothing supernatural or other-worldly here. Even then, he describes Berenice in terms of ‘the forehead …, the hollow temples … the eyes … the countenance … and the teeth.” This is total objectification. This is love Jim, but not as we know it.

The only flaw in the story, if you are not concerned with ‘bad taste’, is the plot device that Berenice was buried the same day she died, despite the fact that epilepsy was thought to sometimes induce catalepsy, which might be mistaken for death.

The high point of the story before the shock ending is “I had done a deed – what was it?” which has impact because of its lack of emphasis and its terrible uncertainty. Baudelaire has “J'avais accompli quelque chose;—mais qu'était-ce donc?” which Google Translate puts back into the prosaic “I had accomplished something, but—what was it?” Perhaps the French have fewer ways to express this due to their emphasis on maintaining the purity of their language.

Peithman gives several interpretations of the symbolism of the teeth. My favorite is from Marie Bonaparte’s Freudian analysis from The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: a Psycho-Analytical Interpretation in which she says Egaeus “yields to the yearning for the mother’s organ and to be revenged upon it, since the dangers that hedge it about make him sexually avoid all women as too menacing.” (quoted from Peithman, not Bonaparte). In the extant portraits of Poe’s wife/cousin she is not showing her teeth.

Apr 3, 2013, 2:29pm Top

The teeth! — the teeth! — they were here, and there, and every where, and visibly, and palpably before me, long, narrow, and excessively white, with the pale lips writhing about them, as in the very moment of their first terrible development.


Edited: Apr 3, 2013, 4:09pm Top

>13 bertilak:

Brilliant post! I, too, had noticed Poe's seeming faux pas of mentioning that Berenice's epilepsy was already a known issue to the narrator and others at the scene. Perhaps with the focus on teeth in this tale, we're seeing an instance of vagina dentata in action?

Apr 3, 2013, 5:35pm Top

Hmmm. A truly weird story, in the more common sense of the term (i.e., odd). The splatterpunk comparision made by bertilak seems apt to me, particularly in the pejorative sense in which that term is sometimes used (violence for violence's sake). In sum, this one just didn't do it for me.

Apr 3, 2013, 6:44pm Top

Of course I've read this story before, and I must have looked at some notes in a Penguin or other "scholarly' edition. So although I tried to come to this without a lot of preconceptions and critical baggage, there was inevitably some there. Some of the comments I make below, I have to confess, are in response to others' comments above.

I think the first thing to do is confess that the first time I read it, I didn't really grasp what had happened at the end - the switch from Egeaus' internal world to the "pull-back-and-reveal" of the spilled teeth and dental equipment was just too quick and too oblique for me.

On re-reading I guessed (if I wasn't remembering) that "Berenice" is one of Poe's earlier stories, and I thought the telling of it was a little lop-sided, with just a little too much of Egaeus' philosophising clogging the progress of the narrative. Although in saying I'm certainly doing Poe less than justice in that the bookish, scholarly narrator almost (?) disdainfully throwing off obscure references is an important part of Poe's literary persona and extends throughout his work, as well as influencing later writers e.g. Lovecraft, M.P Sheil, Jorge Luis Borges.

Noting that this is about the first of Poe's 'doomed heroines', it seems to me that Egaeus's obsession with her teeth prefigures the narrator's obsession with the old man's eye in "The Tell-Tale Heart". It's entirely characteristic of Poe, I think, for a gruesome story ostensibly written for a bet to actually have some of his deepest preoccupations (if not actually obsessions) coiled up within it.

Edited: Apr 3, 2013, 9:26pm Top

>17 housefulofpaper:

I, too, considered the "Tell-Tale Heart" connection as I read this, now that you mention it. This was early Poe in general, not just for the doomed heroine trope, but you can really feel those dark engines revving up in anticipation of what was to come.

>13 bertilak:,16

I'm not so sure how close to splatterpunk this is - that group of writers would have lingered long and hard on the deed. Poe merely suggests and lets the reader's imagination do the rest. Even that much is especially nasty, though, which helps to cut through the murkiness of Egaeus's dream-like existence, thrusting the reader into the harsh light of insanity.

Apr 3, 2013, 10:42pm Top

>13 bertilak: Bertilak references the same book I read this out of: Peithman's The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. I especially noticed, on this rereading, the phrase "que toutes ses dents etaient des idees" which is translated by Peithman as "That all her teeth were ideas". This reverence for her intellect, coupled with phrenologically significant high forehead, suggests a respect for Berenice's mind -- it's not her looks alone that appeals to the narrator. Then he assigns the "moral expression" and "a sensitive and sentient power" to her teeth.

>17 housefulofpaper: Yes, it is like the eye in "The Tell-Tale Heart" -- a body part the narrator is unaccountably obsessed with. If you think of this as a dry run for other Poe tales where the narrator does ghastly things, it's interesting to see that Poe thinks a long, buildup with references to philosophy and poetry and religion is necessary to rationalize the later events. In "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843), we hear talk of an evil eye but also how the old man did the narrator no harm. This ends with the extreme lack of detail to morally justify revenge in "The Casque of Amontillado" (1846). We just get vague references to injury and insults there. At the same time, as the rationale for the concluding horror takes up less and less space, the narrators go from unconscious madness to premeditation. "Berenice" requires the removal of teeth but not destruction of the whole person. "The Tell-Tale Heart" says the evil eye justifies the death of the whole man. "The Casque of Amontillado" requires the death of a wholly (to the narrator) deserving person. The little literary flourishes here, the foreign language epigrams, are puns and taunts in "Casque". Poe was at the beginning of developing the mad/unreliable narrator streak of his tales. He went from the fussy style here to the more modern-feeling prose later (at least in this stream of his work)

I think the aspect of burying Berenice while leaving the narrator in the library is weird too. Peithman's annotation actually lists four paragraphs Poe took out of the final version because they were too gruesome. They have the narrator seeing Berenice in her coffin. The narrator reminded me, and very probably was, partial inspiration for the narrator of Lovecraft's "The Outsider".

It's pretty horrifying to think of Berenice -- presumably paralyzed or the narrator in quite a fugue state -- experiencing the sensation of all 32 teeth being pulled without anesthesia.

As per Peithman, Arnheim goes back to the Baroness of Arnheim of Sir Walter Scott's Anne of Geierstein according to Peithman. She mysteriously appears in a forest at night.

Besides the Freudian interpretation, Peithman asserts a possible Gnostic interpretation of the teeth as "the wall and fortifications of the inner person". This could imply a conquering and possession of the inner soul. (I don't really buy that or the Freudian interpretation.)

And, because we often mention Leiber here, I'll note Fritz did a story called "Richmond, Late September, 1849". In it, Poe, in his last days, encounters a woman claiming to be Berenice Baudelaire.

Apr 4, 2018, 11:31am Top

While looking up something for our current discussion of Poe's "Eleonora", I ran across an interesting article, "Edgar Allan Poe and the Surrealists' Image of Women". It seemed to make more sense to post the link here, since it has much to do with "Berenice".


Edited: Oct 26, 2018, 11:40am Top

Bingo. Another to wallow in shortly. Going through a bit of guilt and shame, having turned away from him to investigate his UK cronies. Planning to smooth his ruffled feathers with a two week stint starting next week. A dozen should do the trick.

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