15th October 2018

Berenice – wide reading

“MISERY is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform.” ‘Berenice’ was written by Edgar Allan Poe and was first published in March of 1835. Berenice follows the life of its narrator Egaeus, who suffers from Monomania – Which is more commonly known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Throughout the text Egaeus forms a growing obsession with his Berenice’s teeth, an obsession accompanied by compulsions that could only be relieved by the teeth inevitably becoming his. Poe is able to describe to us the traits of a gothic protagonist through the use of the narrators ‘need to know/curious nature’, the use of contrasting and contradicting personality qualities and by how Egaeus was very much driven by strong emotions rather than logic or reason.

I believe that Edgar Allan Poe’s intentions for his story ‘Berenice’ was to show readers that obsession can be dangerous if it harbours in its possessor in a way that it overpowered Egaeus. Obsession although is typically presented being minor, once it branches into being a formulated mental illness it can cause all logic to shift away from a person as their actions become more and more compulsive as they lose more and more control. Poe showed a dark side of what today is known as OCD, he showed how easily someone was able to get fixated on such a materialistic thing such as another persons beautiful teeth. The concept of Egaeus being engrossed by teeth is significant as teeth have been historically known to symbolise not only aggression but beauty. Which shows that Egaeus’ fixation could have a foreboding a violent crux surrounding Berenice’s beauty. 

In this text the narrating voice of Egaeus is shown to us to be a gothic protagonist. This is achieved by Poe’s use of gothic traits as a part of Egaeus’ persona. One gothic trait is a characters wanting/need to know excruciating details about people and events. Egaeus had suffered from an illness known as ‘monomania’, this caused him to become obsessed on things very easily and to a dangerous degree. He described it as, “This monomania, if I must so term it, consisted in a morbid irritability of those properties of the mind in metaphysical science learned the attentive…” Which in simpler terms, means that his illness caused him to constantly think about the deep details of everything around him. He wanted to know how everything worked and why. He wanted the greatest understanding of all of everything. But he couldn’t have that. Egaeus had an obsession with Berenice’s teeth and the only way for him to really know and understand those teeth were for them to be his own. He also said in the first paragraph of the text that. “How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unknown loveliness? – – from the covenant of peace a smile sorrow? But as, in ethics, evil is a consequence of good, so, in fact, out of joy, sorrow is born.” From this we are able to depict that Egaeus has an ability to question the nature of life small pleasures, and fill the concept of them with doubt. He wants to understand, he wants to know, this shows that he can see both the good in the bad. So when his actions become violent as the text progresses, he most likely was able to validate them as “evil is a consequence of good.” So in reality we as people are capable of the equally opposite action of everything we do in life. Nothing is truely out of our limits. We wouldn’t know life for its extreme concepts such as good/bad or joy/sorrow if we didn’t have both. We’d have an in between. You wouldn’t gain anything from any experience. Everything would just fill you with the same emptiness as before. So in this I understand where Egaeus’ was coming from. Extreme emotions come hand in hand, good/bad, joy/sorrow, curiosity/not having curiosity. He was a man who only worked in extremes, he didn’t know of such thing as contentment. 

As most gothic protagonists do, Egaeus didn’t have control. He didn’t have the understanding of how to think using logic, and was strongly driven by his emotions. This caused the majority of his actions to be impulsive. Although he was someone who overthought every action he made in life, he often would find ways to validate everything even if it was good/bad. When referring to his relationship with Berenice, Egaeus states that, “In the strange anomaly of my existence, feelings with me, had never been of heart, and my passions were always of the mind.” Which shows us that the ‘love’ he had for Berenice was purely materialistic. He ‘loved’ her for her appearance and nothing more. When her illness became too great, her appearance began to fade as she became sicker and sicker. The only part of her beauty that remained untarnished was her teeth. So although in this quote Egaeus is exclaiming that he is driven by his mind, his mind is incapable of understanding and/or correcting perceiving the logic action to do. As the text progressed Egaeus voiced how he had became consumed by overwhelming anxiety by stating, ” An icy chill ran through my frame; a sense of insufferable anxiety oppressed me, a consuming curiosity pervaded my soul… I remained for some time breathless and motionless.” Logic had fully disappeared by this point in the text, as unexplainable and complicated emotions had overcome Egaeus, he began to validate his actions by using curiosity as a reason. But overall his emotions overcame him as what he is deranging seems to be an anxiety attack, anxiety is often triggered by lack of logical thinking. We all have times when our emotions over rule our logical thinking, these are times when our actions become reckless and often don’t make much sense. This trait to me, makes me believe that perhaps Egaeus is a lot more like us, than what we first assume. Because he is still a person, who feels real emotions. He just doesn’t understand them. But do any of us really understand why we feel the way we do about certain things? It isn’t like emotion is a choice.

The final gothic trait that Egaeus possesses is that he is surrounded by mystery. He states that, “My baptismal name is Egaeus; that of my family I will not mention.” This immediately builds the idea that he is mysterious as he refuses to divulge his surname which is a relatively minor aspect of his persona in comparison to the rest of the information he provides to us throughout the text about his monomania and obsession with Berenice’s teeth. He makes repetitive and frequent references to dreaming and the imagination. An example being when he states how he was born in “… the very regions of fairy land – – – into a palace of imagination.” This caused the audience to often get confused about whether or not the narration was fictional or an anecdote. A sense of mystery was further developed on the idea of day dreaming, as it showed Egaeus’ disassociation from reality. This is shown when Egaeus vocalises that, “The realities of the world affected me as visions, and as visions only, while the wild land of dreams became, in turn, – – not the material of my everyday existence – but in very deed that existence utterly and solely itself.” Egaeus was separated from the reality everyone else saw, he believed that he only lived reality as the eyes of a viewer. He had two conflicting realities within himself, the one that everyone else lived in and the fictional one of obsession and all his anxieties that was his, and his alone. This caused confusion to further grow in the audience as Egaeus would sporadically switch between the life/reality he is participating in vs the one he is simply watching. Throughout the text, confusion is the main source of the readers ability to gage a sense of mystery from the narrating character. This is due to inadequate amounts of information being provided to develop a fully education opinion/judgement of Egaeus’ character at all.

The text ‘Berenice’ demonstrates many various elements of gothic fiction. Focussing centrally on Egaeus’ need to know nature, how he was controlled more by his emotions rather than by logic or reason and finally how Egaeus was surrounded by a strong air of mystery. Poe was able to demonstrate to us about how easily a person can break away and distance themselves from reality. Especially when dealing with an overbearing mental illness. When trying to find a coping method, trial and error often occurs. This causes people to walk the dwindling line of societies reality and their own. Which can become mentally taxing and exhausting for the person doing it. Once the narrator began to lose control of his illness, it started to get worse and worse and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He began to slip away, losing himself completely to his illness until he became a chaotic mess of confusion and obsession. 

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