“The death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” — Edgar Allan Poe, The Poetic Principle
Poe’s treatment of women, throughout his stories, can be directly tied back to this claim and its implication that women’s lives are determined and valued based on their poetical use. A similar concept can be seen in a more recent pop culture understanding of how women’s lives are valued: that of “fridging.” Coined in part by a letter written to comics writer Gail Simone, the term essentially refers to “any character who is targeted by an antagonist who has killed them off, abused… incapacitated, or de-powered for the sole purpose of affecting or motivating another character,” (TV Tropes, “Stuffed Into The Fridge”). It is this latter point that affects Poe — the idea of a character, particularly female, being killed for the sole purpose of affecting and motivating the, generally male, narrator. These women, then, act less as full characters and more as plot points. In Poe’s defence, his stories are complicated by the existence of his female characters’ post-mortem agency. However, the fact that they are only allowed agency after death may return to the original argument — that Poe “fridges” his female characters to create male narratives of loss and grief. By looking at two of Poe’s collected works, “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” we will ascertain how Poe fridges his women and what they do with the little agency he grants them.
Poe’s female characters suffer from a lack of agency and description, with the title character of Ligeia being an exception to the rule. The story of Ligeia begins with the narrator remembering her after death. Even then, the narrator takes little effort to remember any facts about Ligeia, forgetting even her family name: “a recollection flashes upon me that I have never known the paternal name of her who was my friend and my betrothed,” (“Ligeia,” page 453). The topics that, in the words of Ligeia’s narrator, “fail him not,” are mostly that of her appearance, which he details in great measure, and her acts of partnership in his studies. While he lacked perception of Ligeia’s intelligence before her death, the narrator explains that “I now clearly perceive, that the acquisitions of Ligeia were gigantic… yet I was sufficiently aware… to resign myself, with childlike confidence, to her guidance,” (457). Ligeia’s intelligence here, while it is remarked upon and actively acknowledged as greater than the narrator’s, is still used only for the narrator’s benefit. She is not allowed her own wisdom independent of his, instead it is tied directly to his studies and interest in the metaphysical.
Another female character of Poe’s, Madeline Usher, gets even less acknowledgement or description of her traits. Mentioned only in relation to her brother or her own illness by an unreliable narrator (a friend of her brother), we as the readers know little to nothing about her. We can presume some character traits—that she is possibly resilient despite her sickness— “she had steadily broke up against the pressure of her malady,”—and stubborn— “[she] had not betaken herself finally to bed”—but again these can only be presumed (“The Fall of the House of Usher, page 298). Unlike Ligeia, Madeline is not given any dialogue or indication of her thoughts. She exists purely in the background, almost literally, wit her first description describing her as “pass[ing] slowly through a remote portion of the apartment” and then disappearing, having a “door, at length, [close] upon her,” (297). Here, Madeline is portrayed passively with actions happening around her, but not acting or doing any of them. This can be seen in the way the door closes “upon her”: Madeline does not close the door, she does not turn the knob and shut it, she only happens to be behind the door when it closes. This passive language continues to be used up to Madeline’s death, when “the body [has] been encoffined,” (302). It is not “Madeline’s body,” nor “her body,” but “the body” that has been buried—a refusal to acknowledge Madeline as an active participant even in her own death.
Although vastly different, both women, Ligeia and Madeline, represent the act of “fridging” in the same way: their participation and agency is taken away, or sometimes not even given in the first place (with regards to Madeline), to allow for the narrative of male loss and grief. Ligeia dies so her husband can go on an opium big and wax rhapsodic about her appearance, while Madeline dies so her brother can grieve and feed on his paranoia. In other words, without the deaths of women, Poe’s stories would have no forward momentum—there are not confrontations, no conflicts. One may recall Bronfen’s theory of death and femininity here, the idea that through the representation of dead women, a dead other, a masculine subject is allowed to confront death and mortality. Poe’s “fridging” of women then is his plot, his narrative. It’s possible that to Poe, the death of women is the only “poetical topic” he knows to cause conflict, that for Poe’s male characters to feel anything, they require the death of a female character. Poe writes pain through the usage and deaths of female characters, not allowing those characters themselves any agency until after they are already dead.
And what do Poe’s female characters do with their newfound post-mortem agency? Both Ligeia and Madeline are seemingly allowed the same action—the ability to haunt, and in Madeline’s case kill, the men in their lives. While one may argue that this indicates Poe’s inclination to give his female characters power, I disagree. Not only does this idea not account for the nature of post-mortem agency—that the female character must be weakened and only then is she granted power and agency—but it ignores the fact that these women are still acting for and within the male narrative. Poe does not grant these women peace in death, he gives them agency only to continue the male pot, which shifts from grief to fear. The male character’s agency is never removed or ignored, it is only placed in opposition to female agency. In this way, Poe’s female characters are only “un-fridged” to create and continue conflict for the male narrative.
Both Ligeia and Madeline are “fridged” by Poe for the express purpose of creating male narratives of loss and grief. He does this by either keeping relatable information for the reader (in the case of Ligeia) or pacifying her altogether (in the case of Madeline). In either case, the women’s active participation and agency in the narrative is taken away to allow Poe’s male characters to confront the ideas and mystery of death without having to die themselves. To quote the poet Rhiannon McGavin, Poe’s male characters bleed “corn syrup and red dye and need someone to hurt for [them],” (“Chick Lit”). Ligeia and Madeline bleed real blood, they die real deaths, and yet Poe does not give them rest even then. He wakes them up and forces them to continue their struggle for the male narrative. Poe may have called the death of a beautiful woman the most poetical topic, but none of this sounds like poetry to me.
McGavin, Rhiannon. “Chick Lit.” Branches, Penmanship, 2017, pp. 13–14. LA Youth Poet Series No. 3.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “‘Ligeia’ (Reprint), The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe (1850), 1:453-468.” Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore – Works – Tales – Ligeia (Reprint), 2016, www.eapoe.org/works/tales/ligeiag.htm.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (Reprint), The Works of the Late Edgar
Allan Poe (1850), 1:291-309.” Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore – Works – Tales – Ligeia (Reprint), 2016,https://www.eapoe.org/works/tales/usherf.htm
“Stuffed into the Fridge.” TV Tropes, www.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StuffedIntoTheFridge.