“Evil is a consequence of good, so, in fact, out of joy is sorrow born.”
“Berenice” is a disturbing short horror story written by Edgar Allan Poe and published in 1835. The text follows a man named Egaeus who is soon to be married to his cousin, Berenice. Egaeus suffers from what he calls “Monomania” an illness which was termed in the 19th century as “exaggerated or obsessive enthusiasm for or preoccupation with one thing”
This is essentially a disease which causes extreme obsession with an object (or idea) and causes him to fall into periods of extensive focus.
His bride to be, Berenice, falls ill from multiple diseases. Both her physical and mental state deteriorate until she no longer looks like herself, excluding her teeth, which remain pristine, and as they were before she became ill. Egaeus soon becomes obsessed with her teeth, and his monomania spirals out of control. Soon after, Berenice reportedly succumbs to her disease and dies. The same night she is buried.
After awakening from a long period of focus which Egaeus terms ‘painful meditation’ on the teeth, he is troubled by a sense of unease, he cannot remember what has happened over the past few hours, but he does remember the sound of someone screaming.
A servant comes to him and informs Egaeus that Berenice’s grave was disturbed during the night and that somehow Berenice is still alive. The servant shows Egaeus that beside him sits a box, bloody rags, a cryptic poem and up against the wall, a shovel. He panics and attempts to pry open the box but fails, in his haste he drops it, the box breaks open to reveal its contents, dentistry equipment, and 32 teeth.
“Berenice” is the perfect example of Gothic Fiction and through it’s protagonist ‘Egaeus’ Poe shows this.
Each of Eagaeus’ personality traits are repeated again and again in Edgar Allan Poe’s works and appear in many other Gothic texts. They may have a companion, or are surrounded by peers, but the sense of isolation about them is very strong. In this story, Egaeus even describes his separation from the rest of the human race and his readers, reminding us often that we will probably not understand him and that his illness makes him extremely different to us.
Egaeus is an intellectual, he was born in a library and spends most of his time there, we never read of him being anywhere else. This shows how connected he is to this place, it is his sanctuary and sanctum. “Here died my mother. Herein was I born.” this suggests that his mother died in childbirth, but it also indicates that his mother shared in the strong connection with the library like he does, as she was in there when she went into labour.
Similar to Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”, Egaeus is a prominent academic. He spends the better part of his life in the library studying and thinking about the things in his world, he has a need to know what makes something itself, he is also extremely analytic, these traits are exaggerated by his monomania, it is why he became obsessed with his cousin Berenice’s teeth, because these were the only things left that still captured who Berenice was before she fell ill, when Egaeus looked at Berenice, all he saw was an object of beauty which he studied intensely. As she became more and more ill she lost the features which made her gorgeous in his eyes, therefore he clung to the last part of her which was ‘beautiful’ (her teeth). Because the teeth were untouched by her illness, they were a serene white and had not a single visible imperfection, so compared to the rest of her physical features, they would have appeared heavenly to Egaeus. He even goes as far as to say that if he had never seen them before, it is possible he would have died from amazement: “Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!” this shows how transfixed Egaeus was with the teeth.
The fact that Berenice never spoke throughout the story reinforces her being just an ‘object’, and prevents the reader from forming any kind of relationship with her character, she is simply an object. Egaeus only ever saw Berenice as a body, so when this body began to change into something else, he could not deal with it. This shows that he was extremely superficially orientated, another basic trait that as humans we fall prey to time and time again, we judge based on looks and define someone based on how they dress or how attractive they are.
Egaeus has a need to know, curious nature, even though it is partly the result of his disorder. He ponders the meaning of the most meaningless objects. He sits focused for hours on the material that a book is made of, or a faint shadow, the flame of a lamp, embers of a fire, the smell of a flower or he repeats the same word over and over to himself until it has no meaning, simply in an attempt to figure out why and how it exists. Egaeus has strong philosophical themes to his character, in pondering the meaning of almost everything. Including his beginning dialogue in which he states “How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness? —from the covenant of peace a simile of sorrow? But as, in ethics, evil is a consequence of good, so, in fact, out of joy is sorrow born.” this quote is entirely true and you can see it in the real world around us. You cannot have joy without sorrow, as the emotion would be meaningless without its opposite, without opposites things become fatuous and have no value. This is true for almost any emotion you can feel, or any action that can be taken. Without good there is no evil, no beauty without ugliness and vice versa. With life comes death, there is no escaping this. This idea can also be seen in the story’s characters, Egaeus is a character of the mind, whereas Berenice is a character of the body. (physical versus mental) Their personalities were also very dissimilar, with Berenice being ‘carefree’, ‘overflowing with energy’ and the most joyful of the two whilst Egaeus was downcast, “ill of health, and buried in gloom” – the one who found it hard to enjoy life. Poe placed emphasis on showing how these two characters were extremely different, using their extreme differences to show the strongest parts of each characters personality. The contrasts that they shared is the main reason why Egaeus asked Berenice to marry him, he hoped that her positive nature and constant state of happiness would spread to him. A self proclaimed “moment of evil” on his behalf.
For the entire story, the reader is constantly grasping for more information, this creates an element of mystery. Egaeus is protective of himself and there is definitely an element of secrecy which he surrounds himself with. He gives his first name but does not give his family name, he alludes to the “peculiar nature of the libraries contents” but does not explain any further, he even admits to not wanting to share what books the library contains. Egaeus does not allow us too much insight into his story, even saying that he doubts we will understand him “It is more than probable that I am not understood”, yet, towards the end he shares in our ignorance, having zero recollection of what he has done, reader and narrator share in the complete obliviousness and panic to discover what has happened. Neglecting to write the scene where the teeth are removed I believe evokes an even deeper sense of horror than if Poe had actually described it in detail, aside from being told that she was still alive and that as the teeth were pulled she remained alive, we get no other descriptors leaving us to imagine it for ourselves.
At the beginning, Egaeus seems like a character driven by logic and reason, he says “In the strange anomaly of my existence, feelings with me had never been of the heart, and my passions always were of the mind.” this means that he sees himself as a person who relies more on logic and is driven by his intellect far more than emotion. Egaeus is very detached from his emotions and appears to be in complete control of them, however, as the story continues he seems to slowly lose his grip, and then all at once he is taken over by his emotions as a result of the illness forcing the obsession with the teeth upon him. He is then driven by his mental illness, and he stays that way.
Repetitively throughout the text Egaeus tell us how sad and dreary his life has been. Stating: “Misery is manifold.” “The wretchedness of earth is multiform.” “Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.” each of these statements are introduced in the very first paragraph, setting the tone for the rest of the story and creating a depressive and solemn mood which is only broken when Egaeus speaks of Berenice before her illness. This is interesting because to Egaeus, Berenice was the embodiment of everything that he wished for himself; constant happiness, living free and wild. He says that she was of ‘gorgeous yet fantastic beauty’ he even compares her to a Naid, a beautiful mystical being resembling a mermaid. In his eyes she ‘lived carelessly’ and gave no thought to the ‘shadows in her path’ or the ‘raven-winged hours’ which are the bad parts of life, like death and illness. This is foreshadowing what was to come for Berenice, as the shadows in her path were the diseases which she quickly fell victim to and the raven winged hours which represented her death.
Teeth as a symbol in ‘Berenice’ are very important. They are the object of Egaeus’ obsession and as he grew more and more obsessed with them, Berenice was reduced to simply that, her teeth. She was no longer his fiance or cousin, she was just a set of beautiful, perfect teeth and what they symbolised.
When seen in dreams, teeth are a figure of ageing and death. They are also a symbol of change. Each of these things are a huge part of the text. As Berenice becomes more ill, her deterioration is described like an accelerated process of ageing. Egaeus had previously said that he vaguely remembers a ‘past life’ this could indicate that he is afraid of his own mortality, the fact that one day he will not exist, he projects this fear onto Berenice as he watched her condition grow worse, as she slowly grows closer and closer to death, it strikes absolute fear within Egaeus, he wished to preserve her and saw her teeth as a means to do this. Most religions say that we all have previous lives as well as afterlives. This gives those who follow it security and comfort, it is why in Gothic Fiction the element of the supernatural and severe god complexes tend to be so common in the core of the story. I believe it is why Egaeus says that he has lived before, in ‘aerial form’ He thinks that there is no way he could exist if he has not existed previously, he fears the end and the time before his existence.
When Edgar Allan Poe published Berenice, the backlash he faced was horrendous. Readers complained that it was too violent but in reality I think that in his time the public was simply not ready for a story which introduced the element of a mentally ill protagonist like Egaeus.
Egaeus seems to show many symptoms of multiple mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, depression and autism. He suffers from hallucinations and visions which deem him incapacitated for extended periods of time, he is very intelligent, grows violet as a result of his obsession with Berenice’s teeth, he refers to his home as “gloomy and gray” and in describing his every day thoughts, he states how misery is inescapable, it is ‘manifold’ and wretchedness on earth is ‘multiform’ meaning that it exists in many things, this could be referencing how the library is essentially where he lives and learns and is the most at home, but it is also a figurative prison cell, as he seems to become stuck there and end up going into his periods of intense focus or ‘meditation’. This being said, the reader can see from the very beginning that Egaeus is a dejected person with a pessimistic and distorted view of the world around him, which could be the result of many different mental illnesses. As an author, Poe was clearly interested in the idea of the mentally ill protagonist, a view which was very different from his readers at the time.
At the very beginning of the text and the very end, the Latin poem by Ebn Zaiat is written: “Dicebant mihi sodales, si sepulchrum amicae visitarem,
curas meas aliquantulum fore levatas” This translates to “My companions told me that, if I was to visit the grave of my beloved, I might be alleviated of some of my woes.”
This is the poem which, after his blackout Egaeus discovers on his desk. A very disturbing final clue because he would have read it before he went out to dig up Berenice’s body. I think that for Egaeus, the ‘companions’ who told him to visit his beloved’s grave was his monomania taking full control, literally telling him what to do as a separate being inside his own head. In ‘visiting’ (digging up) Berenice’s grave, he hopes to rid himself of all of his burdens, Egaeus believes that obtaining her teeth will make everything right in the world, instead of marrying her to be happy, he will settle for a box full of her teeth.
“Berenice” is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most gruesome and violent texts. Yet behind the impromptu dental surgery and terror lies perhaps the perfect way to sum up the 19th century and a story which evokes as much anguish as it does horror.
Gothic fiction is written to make us as readers uncomfortable and distressed, to provoke thought, to challenge us to investigate ourselves and our actions as individuals. When we see certain things in a character which seem familiar to us, or identify an aspect of our own lives in a theme or symbol it renders us vulnerable, shows us elements of our own minds which we tend to ignore, repress or be ashamed of.
I believe that as humans we are instinctively afraid of that which we do not understand, which is why we fear death because it is hard to imagine simply no longer being alive. We are afraid because not understanding something means that there is no possible way to control it, which is a problem because we seek to control everything about our lives in order to feel safe.
People were afraid of mental illness in the 19th century, mainly because it was mostly unstudied and misunderstood, people who suffered from illnesses like bipolar personality disorder, depression or schizophrenia were cast off as disabled, (sometimes even believed to be possessed or cursed) they were ousted from society itself and sent to mental institutions/asylums which were more like prisons than care facilities.
In this short story each and every word was chosen to evoke the deepest sense of horror within the reader, both the mood and tone carefully crafted to keep a level of unease and despair permanent. The brutal honesty that Poe uses to convey human instinct and baser emotion is as disturbing as it is fascinating.
Somehow the pulling out of Berenice’s teeth is not Egaeus’ fault, somehow, the only thing I registered when reading about it was disgust in the fact that teeth were physically pulled, Poe prevents a feeling of sympathy for Berenice. We only feel for Egaeus, this is because we are familiar with him. Berenice has been successfully omitted as a main character yet her role is so important in fully understanding Egaeus’ condition. Our protagonist, Egaeus, is a victim of mental illness and while we see him as a villain for doing what he did, you can’t help but sympathise. He is trapped in his head, a prisoner of his own brain.
Although this story is entirely fictional and an extreme representation of the effects of illness, ‘Berenice’ is a sad reality of 19th century life for those who suffered from mental illnesses, the lack of knowledge therefore lack of proper care led to millions of people misdiagnosed and abused within society, luckily in today’s world mental health care is something that is improving constantly and is a top priority for most countries.