Berenice (short story)  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"Berenice" is a short horror story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835. The story follows a man named Egaeus who is preparing to marry his cousin Berenice. He has a tendency to fall into a periods of intense focus during which he seems to separate himself from the outside world. Berenice begins to deteriorate from an unnamed disease until the only part of her remaining healthy was her teeth, which Egaeus begins to obsess over. Berenice dies and Egaeus continues to contemplate her teeth. Deep in thought, he is interrupted by a servant who tells him Berenice's grave has been disturbed. Covered in blood, Egaeus sees beside him several dentistry tools - and a box containing 32 white teeth. Poe was forced to self-censor the work due to its violent nature.

Contents

Plot summary

The narrator, Egaeus, is a studious young man who grows up in a large gloomy mansion with his cousin Berenice.. He suffers from a type of obsessive disorder, a monomania that makes him fixate on objects. She, originally beautiful, suffers from some unspecified degenerative illness, with periods of catalepsy a particular symptom, which he refers to as a trance. Nevertheless, they are due to be married.

One afternoon, Egaeus sees Berenice as he sits in the library. When she smiles, he focuses on her teeth. His obsession grips him, and for days he drifts in and out of awareness, constantly thinking about the teeth. He imagines himself holding the teeth and turning them over to examine them from all angles. At one point a servant tells him that Berenice has died and been buried. When he next becomes aware, with an inexplicable terror, he finds a lamp and a small box in front of him. Another servant enters, reporting that a grave has been violated, and a shrouded disfigured body found, still alive. Egaeus finds his clothes are covered in mud and blood, and opens the box to find it contains dental instruments and "thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances" - Berenice's teeth.

The Latin epigraph at the head of the text may be translated as: "My companion said I might find some alleviation of my misery in visiting the grave of my beloved." This quote is also seen by Egaeus in an open book towards the end of the story.

Analysis

Sigmund Freud might point out the importance of teeth in "Berenice". In Freudian terms, the removal of teeth can be a symbol of castration, possibly as punishment for masturbation. Another interpretation is thinking of the teeth as protection for an entrance to the wife's body, another sexual connotation.

The story is also one of Poe's most violent. As the narrator looks at the box which he may subconsciously know contains his wife's teeth, he asks himself, "Why... did the hairs of my head erect themselves on end, and the blood of my body become congealed within my veins?" Though Poe does not actually include the scene where the teeth are pulled out, it is very clear what happened. The reader also knows that Egaeus was in a trance-like state at the time, incapable of responding to evidence that his wife was still alive as he committed the gruesome act. Additionally, the story emphasizes that all 32 of her teeth were removed.

Egaeus and Berenice are both representative characters. Egaeus, literally born in the library, represents intellectualism. He is a quiet, lonely man whose obsession only emphasizes his interest on thought and study. Berenice is a more physical character, described as "roaming carelessly through life" and "agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy." She is, however, an oppressed woman, having "spoke no word" throughout the story. Her only purpose, as in many of Poe's female characters, is to be beautiful and to die.

Poe may have used the names of the two characters to call to mind the conventions of ancient Greek tragedy. Berenice's name (which means "bringer of victory") comes from a poem by Callimachus. In the poem, Berenice promises her hair to Aphrodite if her husband returns from war safely. Egaeus may come from Aegeus, a legendary king of Athens who had committed suicide when he thought his son Theseus had died attempting to kill the Minotaur.

Incidentally, this is one of the few Poe stories whose narrator is named.

Major themes

Several oft-repeated themes in Poe's works are found in this story:

Publication history

First published in the Southern Literary Messenger in March 1835, public outcry led to an edited version being published in 1840. The four removed paragraphs describe a scene where Egaeus visits Berenice before her burial and clearly sees that she is still alive as she moves her finger and smiles. Poe says in a letter to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger on April 30, 1835: "I allow that it approaches the very verge of bad taste -- but I will not sin quite so egregiously again."

Adaptations

The 1995 computer game The Dark Eye contained reenactments of selected stories by Poe. One of them was based on "Berenice" and allowed the player to experience the story from the alternating points of view of both Egaeus and Berenice.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Berenice (short story)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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