“Berenice,” written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1835, is a psychological horror story that delves into the theme of obsession and mental illness. The narrative is presented in the first-person perspective of the protagonist, Egaeus, a man who suffers from monomania, a condition characterized by excessive and single-minded enthusiasm for a particular thing or idea. The story chillingly presents how he later gets obsessed with his cousin’s teeth – eventually leading him to disfigure her with extreme brutality.
Berenice | Summary
The story opens with a gloomy and gray tone, with Egaeus reflecting on the concept of misery as manifold. He introduces himself as a member of a family of “old visionaries,” residing in a grand and elegant house adorned with tapestries and antique paintings. However, the house is also described as old, gloomy and gray. Egaeus recounts his childhood spent in the library, where he was born and where his mother died in childbirth.
Egaeus introduces his cousin, Berenice, with whom he grew up in the family home. He describes himself as gloomy and sickly, while Berenice is graceful and full of life. However, a fatal disease that causes seizures alters Berenice’s appearance to such an extent that she is no longer recognizable as his cousin. Despite this, Egaeus acknowledges that Berenice is in love with him and asks her to marry him, to which she agrees.
One day, while dozing in the library, Egaeus sees Berenice and is horrified by her appearance. He becomes fixated on her teeth, which he describes as perfect, with no marks on the surface and no shade in the enamel. He is consumed by an irresistible desire to hold and examine her teeth, and his obsession grows stronger with each passing moment.
However, the night comes and Egaeus is informed by a servant that Berenice has passed away, having suffered a seizure. He is unable to comprehend his actions, as he can only remember the horror of it and the shrieking female voice ringing in his ears. He notices a burning lamp and a little box on the table beside him and a book on the floor with a sentence that reads –
“Dicebant mihi sodales si sepulchrum amicae visitarem, curas meas aliquantulum fore levatas.”
A menial appears, with a terrified look on his face. He tells a wild cry was coming from outside and when the house helps searched for the voice they found Berenice’s disfigured body still breathing and alive.
The menial then points to Egaeu’s garments, bloody and covered with mud and human nail marks on him, and a spade that rests against the wall. He panics and jumps into the box that accidentally slips from his hand and falls heavily and bursts into pieces that reveal some dental instruments and 32 small and white freshly pulled teeth.
Berenice | Analysis
Edgar Allan Poe uses gothic elements in his writing that makes his work unique. Berenice is a psychological horror story that is a feather in the cap. The story begins with the narrator talking about mindset and wretchedness and sets a dark mood for the story. It begins with the narrator’s thoughts harmlessly but the readers are aware of the doom that is to fall as Edgar’s writing hints at doom, using the literary technique of foreshadowing.
An analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic story, “Berenice,” reveals the author’s utilization of elements of psychological horror to craft a tale that is both unique and unsettling. The narrative begins with the narrator, Egaeus, describing his own mindset and wretchedness, thereby establishing a somber tone that foreshadows the impending doom that permeates throughout the story. Egaeus, who resides in a gloomy house, speaks of his cousin Berenice, the only individual in the household who exudes a sense of vitality. He professes his love for her and she consents to his proposal of marriage. However, Berenice is plagued by a condition that causes seizures and as her health deteriorates, Egaeus becomes fixated on her perfect set of teeth, an obsession that ultimately consumes him.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the narrator is an unreliable figure, suffering from monomania, a disorder that leads to an excessive preoccupation with a single thing or idea. Egaeus’s fixation on Berenice’s teeth is a manifestation of this ailment and ultimately serves as the catalyst for his descent into madness. He becomes so consumed by his obsession that he loses touch with reality and is unable to provide a rational explanation for his actions. This is exemplified in the climax of the story, in which Egaeus is found covered in mud and blood, with a shovel resting against the wall, and a box containing 32 freshly pulled teeth on a nearby table. The implication is that Egaeus has disfigured Berenice’s corpse and removed her teeth, driven to such actions by his monomania.
Berenice | Themes
Obsession and Illness – The narrator confesses to the readers that he suffers from monomania. A disorder that causes its patients to have an enthusiastic obsession with ordinary things. He talks about his house, the history of his family, and the library that he is attached to and that it holds meaning for him. He says how he has always been ill and gloomy, his body and soul addicted to painful meditation. He explains how his disease has outgrown him and his mind fixating on any frivolous thing, the flame of a lamp, a flower’s scent, shadows.
As the story moves forward, Egaeus fixates on Berenice’s perfect set of teeth. He wants to hold it and look at it in every way possible. He just keeps imagining her teeth and cannot get rid of the thought and the unreasonable obsession later takes over him. He wants to free himself from the imagination and thoughts about her teeth. He commits a crime and he isn’t aware if it is because of his illness. He remembers feeling as if he has woken up from a dream and just has a terrible feeling and the voice of a shrieking woman in his ears. When he is conscious he hears his menial give him the message that Berenice’s body is disfigured and she is alive. His menial points at the mud and blood on himself and Egaeus shudders at the sight of it as he cannot process that he is the culprit.
Berenice suffers from epilepsy which causes her fatal seizures. Her illness gradually takes away her beauty as well as charm. She is declared dead by the servants and buried but Egaeus messes with her coffin as he disfigures her and pulls out all her teeth.
Berenice | Characters
Egaeus – is the narrator as well as the villain of the story. He belongs to a line of rich parents and grandparents, who even have been called “a race of visionaries”. He is a gloomy man who spent most of his childhood in the library of his house. He suffers from monomania, a disease that causes an obsession with ordinary things. He gets obsessed with his cousin and his fiance Berenice’s teeth and starts having visions and imaginations of possessing her perfect teeth. His psychic thoughts take over him and he disfigures Berenice.
Berenice is the beautiful cousin of Egaeus who has lived with him in his paternal halls. While Egaeus was ill and gloomy and isolated, Berenice was beautiful, joyful and full of life. But as she grows up she gets epilepsy that wastes her beauty and joy. And Egaeus grows up isolated and sad. Egaeus proposes to her for marriage but she gets a stroke of epilepsy before the day of her wedding and their servants declare her dead. She is buried and later disfigured by Egaeus only to be found alive.
About the Author
Edgar Allan Poe is famous for his contributions to horror, thriller, and mystery genres with gothic elements. His writings stand unique because he includes the climax at the end of the story rather than having a resolution at the end of the story. And most of his writings have an open ending leaving it to the readers to assume the ending. He is popular for writings such as ” The Raven”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, and “The Tell-Tale Heart”.