116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Ovid Among the Goths: Poe’s “Berenice” as Classical Parody

Matthew Madre, Radford University

“Ovid Among the Goths: Poe’s ‘Berenice’ as Classical Parody” argues that the act of dental horror in Poe’s early story is best understood as a parodic reenactment of the Daphne and Apollo myth.  Appreciating this intertextual relationship not only assists in explicating the text itself, but also contributes to an understanding of Poe’s use of Old World culture to probe American literary identity.


Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet, writing of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1835 “Berenice,” assert that any satisfactory explication of the story “must offer a plausible explanation for its most controversial element, Egaeus's fixation on his cousin's teeth.”  However, despite the recognition that “Berenice” itself receives for being an early forerunner of Poe’s recurring trope of the reanimated beauty, and despite partially satisfactory explanations that link Berenice’s teeth to concepts like reified purity, Kantian philosophy, or Freudian suppressed sexuality, prior readings do not go far enough in making sense of such a specific, grotesque, and yet seemingly arbitrary action as dental mutilation. I posit that rather than reading “Berenice” as an early, developmental approach to themes contained in more celebrated tales like “Ligeia” or “The Fall of the House of Usher,” exceptional only for a sensationalistic, gross-out conclusion, instead acknowledging that Poe’s characters act out a parody of the Daphne and Apollo myth, where the tooth extraction is a darkly comic analogue to Apollo’s snatching the victory laurel from Daphne’s newly arboreal but still cognizant body. 

The case for reading “Berenice” as a parody is supported at length by ample textual evidence – plot similarities, a shared attention to the tension between intellectual enlightenment and sexual fascination, descriptive affinities between Berenice’s depiction and Ovid’s portrayal of Daphne in The Metamorphoses, etymological and mythological connections between the name “Berenice” and sacrificing an object from the body as a symbol of victory – and is further bolstered by intertextual considerations within Poe’s body of work, like his frequent classical allusions, proclivity for satirical fiction, and occasional use of flawed Apollonian figures as protagonists.  Further, this analysis is not only attractive due to is ability to offer insight into the otherwise baffling oral mutilation, but it also provides illumination into Poe’s views of distinctly American fiction.  As the literature-obsessed Egaeus performs the roles described in myth, taking on the Apollo mantle for himself while imposing the part of Daphne onto his cousin, the fact that the tale ends in horror rather than triumph only underscores the point that adapting previous European cultural touchstones is an inappropriate model for nineteenth century American behavior.  In short, acting out the stories of the classical era leads to madness, not refinement. 

Drawing primarily from G.R. Thompson’s work on Poe’s use of irony in his ostensibly gothic tales, the theoretical framework that Linda Hutcheon offers in A Theory of Parody regarding how parody functions and what it may lend to the interpretation of a story, and J. Gerald Kennedy’s research into how Poe contributes to ideas of American literary identity through an antithetical focus on Old World culture, my objective with “Ovid Among the Goths: Poe’s ‘Berenice’ as Classical Parody” is two-fold: to demonstrate that reading “Berenice” as a parody of the Daphne and Apollo myth is the most comprehensive and internally consistent means of making sense of its horrifying conclusion, and to suggest that this parody itself is a paradoxical dual rejection and affirmation of classical influence on American literary character.