Edgar was an odd little boy–“Berenice” Assignment

This post is part of a summer reading assignment for my AP Literature and Composition classes. In this assignment, we will focus on antithesis, a rhetorical device Poe uses in “Berenice.”

By now, you should have read “Berenice” and any number of other Poe tales. Feel free to work ahead of the assignments and to reread. Poe demands rereading! Also, be sure you are working on the How to Read Literature book. You do not want to wait until the last minute to make the chart. This book, in many ways, will introduce you to how we read in AP Lit and should help you with Poe, too.

Remember that there will be tests on these works when we get back to school!

Like Poe’s narrator, I’ve always had a fascination with Berenice’s teeth. What a striking image Poe gives us in the story! With this summer’s rereading of the tale, I decided to focus on Poe’s style. (Style is often considered an author’s diction and syntax—word choice and word order. Like I said in the reading assignment, because of Poe’s variegated and, at times, antediluvian diction, you will want to use a dictionary!) What I noticed in an early paragraph was the use of antithesis, which is a combining of opposite ideas. Here’s Poe:

“Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform. Overreaching the wide horizon as the rainbow, its hues are as various as the hues of that arch,–as distinct, too, yet as intimately blended. Overreaching the wide horizon as a rainbow! How is it that from beauty I have derived a type of unloveliness?—from the covenant of peace a simile of sorrow? But as, in ethics, evil is a consequence of good, so, in fact, out of joy is sorrow born. Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.” (from “Berenice”)

Here, misery and wretchedness are compared with a rainbow! Then we get “beauty” and “unloveliness”; “peace” and “sorrow”; “evil” and “good”; “joy” and “sorrow”; and so on. Some of these are more complex than others. Reread that last sentence of the excerpt and think about it. (Don’t you love how he says a bit earlier that “from the covenant of peace a simile of sorrow”? That’s the poet in Poe and it is also what some readers dislike about his prose. Often, I love it.)

Now, one more thing before your assignment. Think about how this rhetorical device—antithesis—can also be used to get at larger ideas of theme and image in “Berenice.” Think about how Egaeus and Berenice are opposites. How Berenice is beautiful, but becomes, well…something else. Also, how all these dichotomies create an odd balance in the story that is toppled by Egaeus’s monomania, his fixation on a single idea or image.

And I know there’s even more in the story that I haven’t thought about and I’ve read this story something like ten times! That’s the “horrible beauty” of this stuff, folks!

But I digress…

Here’s a famous example from literature that also uses antithesis:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)


Your Assignment:

Write a 7-10 sentence paragraph that uses antithesis. It can be related to Poe’s story “Berenice,” but it doesn’t have to be. This paragraph has to mean something. In other words, it can’t be simply a shameless juxtaposition of opposites—“He was hot. He was cold. He lived. He died.”

Feel free to post your paragraph on the AP Lit Facebook page or in the comments section of my blog. It will be too long for Twitter!

Since I never give an assignment I wouldn’t do myself. Here’s my attempt:

Edgar was an odd little boy. Only eight, he seemed eighty. Other boys his age played in the forest, but he chose the graveyard. The living trees that rose from the ground and the activity their presence produced, the constant chirp of birds, the squirrel run-and-chatter, bored him. He enjoyed the concrete and marble rising from the ground, a forest already cold and dead as it grew. He found the woods too humid and oppressive, but he was able to cool his forehead and his thoughts on the smooth tombstones. In the woods, life was noisy and raw, beetles eating trees, birds eating beetles, bobcats eating birds, while the graveyard was quiet and orderly. You didn’t hear or see the worms eating below. Little Edgar took comfort in the abstraction of names and numbers around him and began to write stories using the beginnings and endings he was provided on each grave.


  1. Within one breath, Bernice’s beauty beguiled all senses and doomed the chance for another kindling of thought to ignite the neurons of the monomaniac’s mind. Endlessly, he would contemplate her various virtues and appreciate her appetite for adventure and life as he sat dormant with his mind whirring on a single-thought trek. What a pair they made; her wandering out into the fresh light as he secluded himself in an enclosed room. One day, Bernice’s breath gave her not beauty but a sickness that made her fascinatingly grotesque to her infatuated betrothed. He despised the sight of her new repulsive hypnotism; this repulsion caught him unaware, thus furthering his monomaniac captivation. From the traipsing beauty to the caged beast, he could not rid her from his thoughts. Successfully chipping away at the living monument to splendor she had incarnated, he made of her an animal more alike to himself than he could have possibly anticipated. Once she had poured all that was lovely in life into his mind, until she had become nothing but teeth to him in death. Strange how Egaeus’ mind could hold but one thought and his hand thirty-two teeth.

    1. NIce job! I applaud you for using the source text!

      The first sentence and the last are very nicely done. I particularly like the last one and its strange morbidity. The first, with all of its alliteration, captures something of Poe’s style as does your word choice throughout.

      Most texts on English usage would have you add an “s” after the apostrophe in the last line. Much of our confusion on this rule comes from AP (Associated Press, not Advanced Placement!) style, which does away with any mark seen as superfluous. Space was and is money for print newspapers and magazines.

      Just an editing idea: Could you get rid of “trek” in sentence two? This is maybe more of a personal taste question, but I think the sentence is more powerful without it. You are free to disagree!

      Again, very nice job!

  2. Egaeus’s fixation upon Berenice was initially one of joy. His life was despondent and hers was full of vigor. His familiarity was in libraries and halls. Hers was in nature, free of gloom. With time, the fixation turned into one of aberration. The potentcy of life present in her faded to simple lifelessness. His prior bleakness of heart did not dissapate, but rather evolve into a depression, even obsessive insanity. Her initial disease of delight morphed into a full-fledged disease of dispair, and finally, death.

  3. Their love was that of two different worlds. She saw him as the light of her life; someone she simply could not live without. He simply saw her as a mere pawn in his game of life; someone who could easily be cast aside for a new piece. She would go above and beyond and do anything in her power to help him and make him happy. He’d smack her down just because it entertained him. Though many looked down upon the couple, the love was somehow there, obvious for the woman, but deep down in the man. After all, they both only sought to put a smile on the face of humanity while they watched the world burn.
    (Based on the romance of Joker and Harley Quinn from Batman)(Lame, I know, but it’s all I can think of.)

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