By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Eleonora’ is a short story by the American writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49). It was first published in an annual titled The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present in 1842. The story is narrated by a man who realises he loves his cousin, Eleonora, with whom he lives in an isolated valley in a forest.
Sometimes described as more of a prose poem than a traditional short story, and written at a time when the modern idea of the ‘short story’ was still developing, ‘Eleonora’ contains some intriguing symbolism which is worthy of closer analysis.
‘Eleonora’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a man who lives with his cousin, Eleonora, and her mother in the Valley of the Many-Colored Grass, dwelling there in splendid isolation and knowing nothing of the world beyond their home. They live deep in the forest and their home is so remote from anywhere else that no traveller ever comes near where they live.
The narrator refers to the nearby river as the River of Silence, because of its stillness and calm.
The narrator is happy living with Eleonora, by whose beauty he is fascinated. They have lived there with Eleonora’s mother for fifteen years. However, when the narrator and Eleonora become aware of their love for each other, their environment starts to change, with new flowers bursting into life in the surrounding forests. But within this paradise, a problem develops: Eleonora has a premonition that she will die and the narrator will forget her, falling in love with a woman from the outside world.
The narrator pledges never to love anyone else, even after Eleonora’s death. She accepts his vow, and reassures him that she will continue to watch over him after death, and try to send him signs that she is still with him, even in death.
When Eleonora dies, the land loses much of its life and colour, with the fish swimming away down the river. The narrator honours his vow to her for several years, but eventually he leaves the valley and travels to a ‘strange city’ where he finds work at the court of the king. In time, he falls in love with another woman, a maiden named Ermengarde, and he marries her.
One night he hears the voice of Eleonora, apparently forgiving him for breaking his promise and wishing him happiness with his new bride. The narrator feels absolved, and is able to find happiness in his new marriage to Ermengarde.
Of all of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories, ‘Eleonora’ is perhaps the one most influenced by his love for his cousin and wife, Virginia Clemm. Poe had married the then thirteen-year-old Clemm in 1836, but in January 1842, she contracted tuberculosis and would die five years later. 1842 was the year Poe wrote ‘Eleonora’, and the story is widely regarded as a response to the news of Virginia’s illness and what it signified.
Poe draws on biblical symbolism in ‘Eleonora’ to depict the prelapsarian paradise of the narrator’s home with Eleonora before ‘Love’ enters their hearts and changes everything. Living deep in the forest, in a remote area cut off from the rest of the world, their home is already not unlike the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve lived a paradisal existence before they were tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
Indeed, the home described in ‘Eleonora’ has both trees and serpentine images: indeed, at one point the narrator describes its ‘serpent-like trees’, in a dreamlike condensation of the two images of the biblical Fall. And there is even a river leading out of their Eden, as Genesis 2:10 tells them there was in the biblical story: ‘And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads.’
As was the case with Adam and Eve in the Genesis story, so the narrator’s innocent existence with Eleonora comes to an end when they come into knowledge which had previously been hidden from them. But the symbolism is more complex than this, for when Eleonora and the narrator first discover their feelings for each other, the land flourishes and becomes more bright and colourful and fruitful than before:
A change fell upon all things. Strange, brilliant flowers, star-shaped, burst out upon the trees where no flowers had been known before. The tints of the green carpet deepened; and when, one by one, the white daisies shrank away, there sprang up in place of them, ten by ten of the ruby-red asphodel. And life arose in our paths; for the tall flamingo, hitherto unseen, with all gay glowing birds, flaunted his scarlet plumage before us.
The narrator continues:
The golden and silver fish haunted the river, out of the bosom of which issued, little by little, a murmur that swelled, at length, into a lulling melody more divine than that of the harp of Æolus — sweeter than all save the voice of Eleonora.
That said, the serpent-like imagery at this point in the story suggests that something enters their relationship at this point, and it is perhaps significant, regardless of the story’s roots in Poe’s own biography, that it is only after they declare their love for each other that Eleonora grows sick and dies.
When analysed in this way, then, ‘Eleonora’ might be regarded as a story which speeds up the process of growing up, falling in love, losing someone, and finding new love with someone else, condensing these processes into just a few pages. And despite the poem’s probable origins (at least in part) in Poe’s own marriage, the story is laden with symbolism making it a more universal statement about love and loss.
When people first fall in love with each other, the happy couple often feel as though they are the only two people in the world; in the case of Poe’s story, the outside world is literally kept separate. It is significant that the narrator’s new love, Ermengarde, bears a name which literally means ‘whole seclusion’: once again, love is about shutting the rest of the world out.