Poe Study Guides
Michael J. Cummings...©
(epigraph) precedes the first paragraph of the story. For information about
see Themes: Fate of the Individual Identity After Death.
the narrator meets a woman named Morella, his soul burns “with fires it
had never known before." However, they are not the fires of carnal desire
but of an indefinable yearning–perhaps for intellectual secrets that this
woman of enormous learning and intelligence possesses.
they marry, she introduces him to one of her favorite activities: studying
mystical writings. Poring over them, the narrator hopes to fathom their
arcane meanings, but fails. So he submits himself to his wife’s guidance.
By and by, “a forbidden spirit" arises within him as she recites strange
words “from the ashes of a dead philosophy." For hours at a time, he listens
to her, enjoying the lull of her musical voice. But one day her words become
“tainted with terror" and a shadow falls across the narrator's soul. It
is no longer a joy to listen to her; it is a horror.
most beautiful became the most hideous," the narrator says, “as Hinnon
her favorite philosophers are the ancient Greek Pythagoras, who believed
in the rebirth of the soul after death, and two Germans, Johann Gottlieb
Fichte (1762-1814) and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854),
who focused their attention on the ego’s perception of reality and arrived
at different versions of pantheism.
subject of whether personal identity, or individual consciousness, survives
death intrigues the narrator, in part because of “the marked and agitated"
way in which Morella discusses it. However, in time, her manner oppresses
him. (It may be that the narrator is jealous of his wife's superior intellect.)
could no longer bear the touch of her wan fingers," the narrator says,
"nor the low tone of her musical language, nor the lustre of her melancholy
for Morella, “Yet was she woman," the narrator says. In other words, in
spite of her intellectual preoccupations, she still longs for the attentions
of her husband. However, aware of his discontent–aware that he now finds
her repulsive–she begins to pine and suffers a decline in her health, manifested
by her paleness and the prominence of veins on her forehead. By now, the
narrator begins to yearn for her death, but she holds fast to life–for
“irksome months"–fraying the narrator’s nerves. Her refusal to die infuriates
him, and he curses time for lengthening her life.
evening in autumn, Morella, lying in bed, calls out for her husband. The
narrator recalls that “there was a dim mist over all the earth, and a warm
glow upon the waters, and amid the rich October leaves of the forest, a
rainbow from the firmament had surely fallen." .......After
the narrator kisses her forehead, she utters this paradox: “I am dying,
yet shall I live." She then tells her husband that although he could not
love her in life, he will “adore" her in death. When she dies, she says,
their child shall live but sorrow will fill her husband’s days and “thou
shalt bear about with thee thy shroud on the earth."
narrator asks her how she knows these things. But she turns away, then
expires. "Yet, as she had foretold," the narrator says, "her child, to
which in dying she had given birth, which breathed not until the mother
breathed no more, her child, a daughter, lived."
child grows rapidly while the narrator discovers to his dismay that she
takes on an uncanny resemblance to her mother. Her smile, her eyes, her
hair, her fingers, the sad music of her speech, the words she speaks–all
remind him of Morella.
loves his child, though. In fact, he loves her “with a love more fervent
than I had believed it possible to feel for any denizen of earth." But
his love for her darkens as she begins to take on the mental powers of
an adult woman–of Morella. After the first ten years of her life, the child
even begins speaking the same “phrases and expressions" of Morella. As
a result, the narrator suffers intense anxiety.
the years, the narrator had never spoken to his daughter about her mother,
never baptized her, and never given her a name. But here she is a duplicate
Morella to bedevil him. Perhaps if she is baptized now, the ceremony will
drive the spirit of Morella out of the girl and the narrator will be able
to look to the future with hope, not dread.
the day of the ceremony, when the clergyman asks for the name of the child,
a fiend takes control of the narrator and he whispers into the ear of the
clergyman “Morella." At the sound of the name, the child takes on the hues
of death, and falling on the black slabs of the narrator's ancestral vault,
responds, "I am here!"
the child dies, the narrator lays her in the same tomb where he interred
Morella. But Morella is no longer there. There is only emptiness where
her body once was. Thereafter, the narrator says, "I kept no reckoning
of time or place, and the stars of my fate faded from heaven, and therefore
the earth grew dark, and its figures passed by me like flitting shadows,
and among them all I beheld only– Morella. The winds of the firmament breathed
but one sound within my ears, and the ripples upon the sea murmured evermore–Morella."
The action takes place in
18th or 19th Century Europe at the residence of the narrator and his wife,
Morella. They are probably of aristocratic ancestry, since they maintain
an ancestral burial vault. Morella was educated at Pressburg (spelled with
one s in the story), a university city on the Danube River that
was associated with witchcraft and the occult. Once the capital of Hungary,
the city today is the capital of Slovakia. In the 20th Century, its name
was changed to Bratislava.
person who tells the story of Morella, the woman he married. Like the narrators
of other Poe stories, the narrator of Morella exhibits symptoms
of mental instability. Therefore, the reader cannot be certain that his
account is reliable.
Morella: Wife of
the narrator and a woman of formidable intellect and erudition.
of the narrator and Morella. The child closely resembles Morella physically
who baptizes the child of the narrator and Morella.
of Work and Publication Date
“Morella" is a short story
in the Gothic horror genre.
It was first published in April 1835 in the Southern Literary Messenger.
The story is told by an unnamed
narrator in first-person point of view. The fantastic nature of story–as
well as passages in it in which the narrator describes himself as distraught–indicate
that he might be mentally unbalanced and, therefore, an unreliable witness.
Fate of Individual Identity
Morella instructs the narrator about mystical philosophy, she apparently
touches on the subject of whether individual (or personal) identity survives
death or becomes part of a universal identity. Of this subject, the narrator
says that "the notion of that identity which at death is or is not lost
for ever, was to me, at all times, a consideration of intense interest."
The possibility of the loss of personal identity frightens the narrator;
he does not want his individuality, his personality, to be absorbed into
some super soul in which all identities merge. The quotation preceding
the opening paragraph of the story introduces the idea of a single, universal
identity. The quotation, or epigraph, is from Plato's work, Symposium.
Poe's translation of it from the Greek reads, "Itself–alone by itself–eternally
one and single." References in the fourth paragraph of the story to Johann
Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854)
again focus on this idea. They
Morella introduces the narrator
to German idealist philosophers–in particular, Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814)
and Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling (1775-1854), who focused their
attention on how the ego perceives reality; they arrived at different versions
of pantheism. Unlike traditional theism, which regards God as separate
from the universe, pantheism says God and the universe, with all its parts,
are one and the same.
The reference in the
fourth paragraph of the story . Fichte proposed that all things are part
of a single, universal ego, a concept that is pantheistic. also centered
his philosophy, in part, on a type of pantheism.
also introduces the narrator to the beliefs of Pythagoras (580-500 BC),
the Greek mathematician and philosopher famous for a geometric theorem
stating that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal
to the sum of the squares of the other sides (c2=a2+b2). But Pythagoras
is also famous for his belief in the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis).
According to Pythagoras, the soul lives on after the body dies, sojourning
for a while in the abode of the dead, then returning to the world to inhabit
another being. In The Age of Fable, Thomas Bulfinch (1796-1867)
quotes the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17 AD) as saying that Pythagoras told
his disciples the following:
Souls never die,
but always on quitting one abode pass to another. I myself can remember
that in the time of the Trojan war I was Euphorbus, the son of Panthus,
and fell by the spear of Menelaus. Lately being in the temple of Juno,
at Argos, I recognized my shield hung up there among the trophies. All
things change, nothing perishes. The soul passes hither and thither, occupying
now this body, now that, passing from the body of a beast into that of
a man, and thence to a beast’s again. As wax is stamped with certain figures,
then melted, then stamped anew with others, yet is always the same wax,
so the soul, being always the same, yet wears, at different times, different
forms. The ideas of Pythagoras, Fichte,
and Schelling, as well as the quotation from Plato, indicate that Morella's
soul lives on after death in the body of her daughter as part of a universal
As in many other Poe stories,
horror is a central theme. The narrator introduces this theme in the third
paragraph of the story when he describes the effect that Morella's readings
have on him: "And then, hour after hour, would I linger by her side, and
dwell upon the music of her voice, until at length its melody was tainted
with terror, and there fell a shadow upon my soul, and I grew pale, and
shuddered inwardly at those too unearthly tones. And thus, joy suddenly
faded into horror. . . ."
The narrator treats Morella
as an object that he uses to satisfy his curiosity about her remarkable
intellect and erudition. After they marry, she freely shares with him her
knowledge of a variety of subjects and introduces him to the secrets of
arcane philosophies. Although the narrator says he finds her abstruse ideas
terrifying and horrible, he also says that he finds one concept he and
his wife examine–whether personal identity "is or is not lost for ever"
at death–intensely interesting. In time, however, Morella and the sound
of her voice repel him. “I could no longer bear the touch of her wan fingers,"
the narrator says, "nor the low tone of her musical language, nor the lustre
of her melancholy eyes." Eventually, the narrator rejects Morella and yearns
for her death even though she "pined away daily" for his love.
It may be that the reason
for the narrator's rejection of Morella is his realization that she is
far more intelligent than he is. Rather than acknowledging his own shortcomings,
he projects them onto Morella, then completely rejects her and even yearns
for her death.
Deeply hurt by the narrator's
rejection of her, Morella decides to use her powers to gain revenge against
Narrator’s Hell on Earth
On his own, the narrator
fails to grasp the meaning of the texts Morella provides, so she undertakes
to tutor him in the finer points of mystical philosophy. However, in time,
Morella and her tomes cast a shadow across his soul; what he hears from
her lips horrifies him. Earlier, Morella and her ideas were beautiful,
like the valley of Hinnom outside ancient Jersualem. But in time she and
her ideas became utterly repulsive, just as Hinnom (Paragraph 3) did when
its residents began burning children as sacrifices to Moloch, an Ammonite
god. The sacrificial fires became associated with hellfire in Jewish and
Christian theology, and the term Ge-Hinnom (meaning valley of Hinnom)
evolved into Ge-Henna, or simply Gehenna, which became a
synonym for hell. Thus, for the narrator, living with Morella and listening
to her recitations became hell on earth. He could not even bear the touch
of her hand.
Conception of the Daughter
Although the narrator never
loved Morella, he did have sexual relations with her. Morella speaks of
their intimacy when she is dying, saying, "But within me is a pledge of
that affection–ah, how little!–which thou didst feel for me." Within
me refers to the child that she is about to bear.
Decline and Revenge
After the narrator annuls
all affection for Morella, he observes, “Yet was she woman." In other words,
in spite of her preoccupation with the incorporeal, she still needs physical
expressions of love and affection. When the narrator refuses to fulfill
her needs, she begins to pine away, her health declining day by day. Deeply
wounded by the narrator’s rejection of her, Morella decides to gain revenge.
Calling upon her knowledge of metempsychosis, she passes her soul into
the body of her daughter, whom she gives birth to at the moment she dies.
According to the narrator, the child grows into a replica of her mother.
The memory of Morella remains alive in the daughter, and the narrator knows
no peace. He leads a tortured existence.
The narrator decides to have
his child baptized to drive from her the spirit of Morella–and to drive
Morella from his own tortured mind. The narrator explains that “the ceremony
of baptism presented to my mind, in its unnerved and agitated condition,
a present deliverance from the terrors of my destiny." At the baptismal
font, the clergyman asks what the child is to be called. A demon then seizes
control of the narrator–or so the narrator suggests–causing him against
his will to whisper the child's name into the ear of the clergyman: Morella.
The child hears the whisper, falls onto the family’s vault, and says, “I
am here." The reader may wonder why a burial vault is near a baptismal
font–the former suggesting a cemetery and the latter suggesting a church.
One explanation is this: In earlier times, it was customary to entomb bodies
in churches, chapels, and monasteries. Thus, the church may have housed
the “ancestral vault" of which the narrator speaks.
The narrator entombs his
daughter in the same vault where Morella was interred. However, when laying
his daughter to rest, he finds “no traces" of Morella. What happened? Here
is one possibility: After the narrator's daughter dies, the soul of Morella
becomes free to emigrate and returns to its original body. Meanwhile, during
funeral rites for the daughter, Morella leaves the tomb as a vampire or
zombie in order to bedevil the narrator later. Another possibility is that
the narrator, a demented man from the very beginning, imagined or fabricated
the whole Morella story.
to Homer's Odyssey
The narrator of "Morella"
refers twice to the musical quality of Morella's voice and once to the
musical quality of his daughter's voice:
Paragraph 3: "And
then, hour after hour, would I linger by her (Morella's) side, and dwell
upon the music of her voice. . . ."
The references appear to be
allusions to the Sirens in Homer's epic
poem, The Odyssey. The Sirens are sea nymphs who sing a song
so alluring that it attracts to their island all passing sailors who hear
it–and then the sailors sit, transfixed by the song and the mystical knowledge
that it imparts, until they die. As Odysseus and his crew near the island
in their ship, Odysseus–ever curious–wants to hear the song and learn the
secrets it tells. However, realizing that its irresistible music will cause
him and his men to abandon ship and meet the same deadly fate of other
sailors who heard it, he plugs the ears of his men with wax, so that they
are unable to hear, after ordering them to tie him to a mast. Thus, as
they pass the island, Odysseus himself hears the song but cannot go ashore,
though he wants to, because he cannot break free of his bonds. Like the
Sirens, Morella also "sings" a song of mystical knowledge.
Paragraph 5: "I could
no longer bear the touch of her wan fingers, nor the low tone of her (Morella's)
musical language. . . ."
Paragraph 18: "In the sad
musical tones of her (his daughter's) speech . . . ."
Cypress and Hemlock:
In the last paragraph of the story, the narrator says that "the hemlock
and the cypress overshadowed me night and day." In 399 BC, the citizens
of Athens wrongfully sentenced the philosopher Socrates
to death for offenses against the state. After spending a month in prison,
he was forced to drink poison made from the hemlock plant. Drinking a hemlock
concoction was the method of capital punishment in ancient Athens. This
mode of execution was like modern "lethal injection" except that the condemned
prisoner drank death rather than receiving it through a vein. Over the
centuries, writers incorrectly reported that Socrates committed suicide,
and hemlock became associated with self-inflicted death. In "Morella,"
the narrator's reference to hemlock indicates that he contemplated suicide.
As for the cypress, it is a tree that has been long associated with sadness
Eros: God of love
in Greek mythology; sexual desire.
See Themes: Fate of the Individual
Identity After Death.
Lustra: Plural of
a Latin term meaning a five-year period. In discussing his daughter, the
narrator says, "Thus passed away two lustra of her life." In other words,
ten years of her life had passed.
Palingenesis (or Paliggenedia
or Paliggenesia): In Paragraph 4 of the story, Poe uses a word written
with the letters of the Greek alphabet. Its transliteration is “palingenesis,"
meaning new birth, birth again, regeneration, or reincarnation.
Pythagoras: See Themes:
Fate of the Individual Identity After Death.
Roses of Paestum:
Roses that bloomed twice a year in Paestum, an ancient city on the southwestern
coast of Italy, south of Salerno. The Roman poets Vergil (70-19 BC), Ovid
(43 BC-17 AD), and Martial (circa 40 AD-circa 103 AD) all wrote of Paestum's
Schelling: See Themes:
Fate of the Individual Identity After Death.
Teian: This adjective,
spoken by Morella to the narrator (Thou shalt no longer, then, play
the Teian with time) refers obliquely to the Greek poet Anacreon, who
was a Teian–that is, a resident of Teos, a Greek colony in Ionia, Anatolia
(the Asian part of present-day Turkey). Anacreon wrote poetry that celebrated
wine, women, and song. Morella's allusion to Anacreon is her way of telling
the narrator that his days of happiness have ended.
Tenement of Clay:
Reference to the human body, a phrase used by English poet John Dryden
(1631-1700) in his 1680-1681 work, Absolom and Achitophel.
The climax of the first part
of the story occurs when Morella dies. The climax of the second part of
the story occurs when the narrator lays the body of his daughter to rest
the ancestral tomb and discovers that the body of Morella is missing.
Edgar Allan Poe was born
on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was
taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman
in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather.
At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools
there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied
at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S.
Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After
beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his
young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined
the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while,
he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his
poem “The Raven" in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented
the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an
outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never
really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several
people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble
paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing
cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.