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Hysteric Vocalizations of the Female Body in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Berenice”
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Hysteric Vocalizations of the Female Body in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Berenice”

The constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange between madness and reason was carried out. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue by reason about madness, could only have come into existence in such a silence.

— Michel Foucault, History of Madness (2006)1

D. H. Lawrence once asserted that “Poe is rather a scientist than an artist,” and indeed, Edgar Allan Poe is widely recognized by readers and critics alike for his fascination, even obsession, with the medico-psychological sciences evinced in his prose works.2 In particular, he is well known for the literary voice that his stories, such as “The Black Cat” (1843) and “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), give to nineteenth-century debates over changing ideas of insanity, moral insanity, and monomania (the idée fixe).3 Yet ironically, such fixed critical focus on this one psychological designation of import to Poe’s fiction has obscured, perhaps, Poe’s literary representations of another important diagnosis within psychological and medical history emerging during the period—that of hysteria. Such neglect seems all the more surprising in that Poe, according to critic Steven Meyer, was “an important early theorist of hysteria”; Meyer notes that “the earliest example [End Page 601] cited by the Oxford English Dictionary for the use of ‘hysteria’ in the ‘transferred’ or ‘figurative’ sense of ‘morbidly excited condition; unhealthy emotion or excitement’ is in fact a line of Poe’s.”4 This line, from “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) refers to Roderick Usher as displaying “an evidently restrained hysteria in his whole demeanor.”5 Yet it is possible to find in Poe’s oeuvre more than simply a figurative or passing representation of hysteria; instead, I suggest that Poe’s work makes available an alternative model of hysteria, one which more clearly grapples with the complicated history of nineteenth-century gender discrimination and patriarchal attitudes toward female sexuality, embodiment, and illness that the term hysteria has come to signal in medical-historical and feminist discourse. I argue that recognizing the presence of this alternative representation can, in turn, shed new insight into the perennial problem within Poe criticism of his penchant for depicting dying women.6 Ultimately, I will show how Poe’s treatment of illness and femininity in one such tale of a dying woman, “Berenice,” offers a trenchant— if often overlooked—critique on the emerging pseudo-science of hysteria. For Poe, “the death of a beautiful woman” is more than an aesthetic choice; this subject allows him to engage and articulate a powerful argument about the gendered miscommunications and gendered violence that arise within the oppressive climate of nineteenth-century hysteria.

Re-Diagnosing “Berenice”

Four years before he would describe Roderick’s hysteric-like descent into madness and death, Poe published “Berenice,” another tale of disease and destruction, albeit of the text’s female title character Berenice. Narrated by Egaeus, Berenice’s cousin-cum-fiancé, the plot follows, on one hand, the escalating illness and ultimate death of the “prototypical ‘Dark Lady’” Berenice and, on the other hand, Egaeus’s growing obsession with his bride-to-be’s teeth.7 The story concludes when Egaeus, deep in thought, is interrupted by a servant who tells him that Berenice’s grave has been “violated” and that she is still alive; [End Page 602] further, Egaeus, with his clothes covered in mud and a spade leaning against the wall, discovers that he has in his possession a box filled with dental instruments and Berenice’s newly-removed teeth (CW, 218). This story, which is often treated in the company of others in what Daniel Hoffman terms Poe’s “marriage group” (such as “Morella” and “Ligeia”), has been read as the first of Poe’s series of tales in which “the willful, dark-haired woman who fascinates but also threatens the narrator with reminders of his own vulnerability and...