Beauty and Strangeness – Poe’s Ligeia
Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic tale “Ligeia” is a study of the supernatural and of feminine beauty. In exploring Ligeia’s physical beauty, Poe quotes Elizabethan politician and scholar Francis Bacon: “There’s no exquisite beauty,” says Bacon, Lord Verulam, speaking truly of all the forms and genera of beauty “without some strangeness in the proportion.”
In James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, we find that Stephen Dedalus’ translated Aquinas model of beauty using the following words: wholeness, balance, and radiance. ‘Balance’ is often translated as ‘proportion’ by others. So, if something is lacking in any of the above three elements, then the beauty observed will be flawed.
In Ligeia, Poe’s neurotic and unreliable narrator is determined to find out that ‘strangeness’ that was so unnerving to him: “I was possessed with a passion to discover.” After examining in great detail Ligeia’s hair, skin, nose, lips, teeth, smile, chin, and eyes, he concludes that her eyes carry the unmistakable light of strangeness: “They were, I must believe, far larger than the ordinary eyes of our own race. They were fuller than the fullest of the gazelle eyes…” And in the end it is the eyes that convinces him that the revivified corpse is Ligeia and not Lady Rowena Trevanion of Tremaine.
As part of his study of the glittering Russian aristocracy, in Ana Karenina, Leon Tolstoy explored Ana’s physical beauty: face, arms, neck, hair, feet, hands, and even her dress and accessories:
“Some supernatural force drew Kitty’s eyes to Anna’s face. She was fascinating in her simple black dress, fascinating were her round arms with their bracelets, fascinating was her firm neck with its thread of pearls, fascinating the straying curls of her loose hair, fascinating the graceful, light movements of her little feet and hands, fascinating was that lovely face in its eagerness, but there was something terrible and cruel in her fascination.”
But it is not from any particular part that he finds fault in Ana. Nothing is flawed. It is the whole –wholeness of fascination– that gives off the odor of cruelty and strangeness, destroying therefore the balance of her beauty.
Not only did Scott Fitzgerald create a wholesome American beauty in Daisy Buchanan –the belle of The Great Gatsby– but a mentally challenged and morally flawed American beauty. Understanding doesn’t come easy to Daisy, and when she gives an opinion, it is always either a trivial opinion or an inane one that often verges on absurdity. Notice how she deals with one single idea by repeating the same idea three times: “In two weeks it’ll be the longest day in the year.” She looked at us all radiantly. “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.” If you count the pronoun “it” you will realize that she has mentioned the longest day of the year five times. And throughout the novel, Daisy keeps stuttering and repeating herself; a problem that Nick Carraway –the narrator– calls “echolalia.”
For the reader of fiction nothing can be more poignant than the fall of a beautiful, intelligent, and honorable character; but when the character is a female and from the upper crust, the situation becomes pathetic. Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth chronicles the demise of an old New York society beauty. Of all the beautiful women portrayed in novels by male and female authors, Lily Bart remains the epitome of exquisiteness and elegance. Beset by financial problems left by her bankrupt husband, Lily’s mother hopes for a brighter future through her daughter:
“Only one thought consoled her, and that was the contemplation of Lily’s beauty. She studied it with a kind of passion, as though it were some weapon she had slowly fashioned for her vengeance. It was the last asset in their fortunes, the nucleus around which their life was to be rebuilt.”
When Lily poses for a tableau vivant, she dazzles the viewers with her beauty. Yet readers gasp and shudder at the anticipation of impending doom. Selden –Lily’s sedated paramour and the most insipid character in the novel– detects the strangeness in Lily’s beauty: she is ogled rather admired; that “she was so evidently the victim of the civilization which had produced her that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.”
Hidden (more often than not) from easy detection are the strange traits of beautiful female characters. Thanks to Edgar Allan Poe, armed with Lord Bacon’s axiom, “There’s no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion,” readers perhaps will seek out the strangeness –lack of balance– that makes a particular character beautiful.