In a Smile of Peculiar Meaning: Edgar Allan Poe’s “Berenice”

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Detail, 1916 Illustration by Harry Clarke for Edgar Allan Poe’s Berenice, from Tales of Mystery and Imagination

In 1835, the Southern Literary Messenger published a short story so shocking, so graphic and ghastly, that outraged letters poured into the office of editor Thomas W. White. Written by a relatively unknown Edgar Allan Poe, the story, Berenice, tells of Egaeus, a young man of family and wealth who is stricken by an obsessive disorder known to 19th-century psychiatry as monomania, a pathological fixation on some specific item. In the case of Egaeus, this fixation centered horribly on the gleaming teeth of his cousin and fiancée, Berenice, a porcelain rictus staring out from an ill and wasted visage.

“God of heaven! — is it possible? Is it my brain that reels — or was it indeed the finger of the enshrouded dead that stirred in the white cerement that bound it? Frozen with unutterable awe I slowly raised my eyes to the countenance of the corpse. There had been a band around the jaws, but…

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