Dark groping and fearful probing, result in spitting blood and chilling screams that resonate in the night-shrouded graveyard. In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story Berenice, the floating image of his fiancée’s teeth is burned into the narrator’s mind and fills him with ideas. Ideas of female power and male superiority being waged war against through suppression, dominance, and a weakness of men to succumb. The long bandied story of female vampirism as sucking the life essence from a male seems to trickle down here into Poe’s ironic telling of a man who performs disturbing dental surgery on his lover’s mouth to remove all thirty-two of her teeth. I believe this is Poe’s way of explaining men’s fear of female power.
Society had, from time immemorial considered women vampiric creatures that lurked in the night to suck the essence of men from them in a bid for power and destruction. Women were seen as nothing more than containers and evil bewitchers. Bram Dijkstra puts it plainly in Evil Sisters when he says: “…set out to prove that nature had given all women a basic instinct that made them into predators, destroyers, witches – evil sisters” (1). It would appear through Poe’s story Berenice that perhaps he rather detests this sort of analysis of the female psyche.
Poe illustrates carefully for the readers that Egaeus does not love his fiancée. There is quite an emphasis on this lack of feeling and seems to point us in a specific direction. Egaeus says of his betrothed: “Through the gray of the early morning—among the trellised shadows of the forest at noon-day – and in the silence of my library at night, she had flitted by my eyes, and I had seen her – not as a being of the earth, earthy, but as the abstraction of such a being – not as a thing to admire, but to analyze – not as an object of love, but as the theme of the most abstruse though desultory speculation” (Poe, 144). We see Berenice as Egaeus sees her, as a floating, perhaps evil, up for speculation, and certainly not of this earth being. There is no sentimental attachment, but cold, clear curiosity that will devour both the viewer and the viewed.
The teeth appear to represent through the obvious fashion, vampirism. That Poe would highlight these and their removal, as well as the male obsession with them, the fixation, one can readily assume a vampire association. The narrator, Egaeus, who takes Berenice’s teeth, is afflicted with a malady or monomania that allows him to fixate and turn over in his mind random objects or acts of nature: “This monomania, if I must so term it, consisted in a morbid irritability of those properties of the mind in metaphysical science termed the attentive” (Poe, 142). But throughout these fixations, Egaeus does not transpose his own mental decisions or ideas onto the objects he studies, but merely appreciates them for their existence. When he beholds Berenice’s teeth, however, his viewing is not filled with a neutral study, it is instead rather a loaded discovery. In the story, Poe gives us a quote in French: “Que tous ses dents etaient: des idees!” (146), and indeed Egaeus claims this is what destroyed him. The footnotes explain the translation of this passage as: “That all her teeth were ideas” (146). This now removes a layer between the viewer and the viewed. Berenice’s teeth became an object that Egaeus now derived thoughts from and projected thoughts onto. It was no longer a safe monomania that merely accepted the representations of objects and effects, instead he now wished to create his own. This transition seems a rather frightening one in relation to what men will do to remove a woman’s power, or what he deemed the seat of her power through this obsession with her teeth: “They parted; and in a smile of peculiar meaning, the teeth of the changed Berenice disclosed themselves slowly to my view. Would to God that I had never beheld them, or that, having done so, I had died!” (Poe, 145). Egaeus sees Berenice at night, or what he believes to be her in an apparition-like state. When she smiles and reveals her teeth he is fascinated and horrified. The female has been revealed and exposed to him in his most intimate state – that of sleep and repose – and he refuses to succumb to their ultimate manipulation and power lest he lose his masculinity in the process.
The family believes that Berenice dies of various health afflictions and buries her. In his obsession, Egaeus digs up the grave of Berenice to find her alive. He surgically removes her teeth anyway and keeps them in a box. The discovery of his deed soon takes place, yet Berenice lives still. The vampire imagery is strong in this string of events, for burying Berenice did not stop her from living, and despite what Egaeus considered the removal of her power, it was really only the representation of power and not the actual power, for she lived on still.
Egaeus keeps this power symbol, shuts it in a box, a further representation of female sexuality, or rather sway over men. When he had first beheld the teeth of Berenice in their revealed state, he wished he had died after seeing them, knowing what their deadly essence could mean for him as a male under her authority. Yet female power does not seem to bother Poe in the slightest. Instead this story seems to highlight the folly of male dominance or the cauterization of female power, as it cannot be killed, merely resurrected with greater fury.
Dijkstra, Bram. Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Poe, Edgar A. Berenice. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.