Masque of the Red Death
Discuss with reference to “The Fall of the House of Usher”. For one to indentify Edgar Allen Poe’s creation of an American Gothic sensibility in the short story “The Usher” relate one must examine closely some feature which are associated with the genre o f American Gothic literature. I have chosen two particular topics to examine, and these are the atmosphere of gloom and darkness crafted throughout the story, and also the idea of symbolism and allegorical meaning within that is, a sense of double meaning.
The atmosphere created in the poem is typical not only to American gothic writings, but to European writings also, however the second point, that of the use of allegory, is siad to be more particularly American. I will also include reference to other techniques used in the story used to create this Gothic consciousness in this essay. An atmosphere of mystery and gloom is a central gothic element in the short story “The Fall of the House of Usher”.
According to Anita Vickers in the book “A New Nation”, American gothic literature is laden with conventions such as “oppressive gloom, the underlying horror or dread of the protagonist of narrator” and a feeling of “uncertain doom” (Vickers, 2002, 163). Vickers goes on to say that these conventions are employed to create an atmosphere of “suspense, mystery, fearful apprehension and strangeness” (Ibid). These elements are most definitely present in “the Fall of the House of Usher”.
A sense of gloom is potent from the outset of the story, with the initial introductory lines enshrouding the reader in a envelope of dreariness and uncertainty, “during the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country” (Poe, … ). The setting is, from the outset, conveyed as being mysterious and strange to the reader.
In the first paragraph alone Poe makes countless references to the outright gloom and darkness which seem to haunt the setting of the tale. The references to “Melancholy”, “insufferable gloom” and “utter depression” (poe.. ) contribute to the gloomy and sinister atmosphere created for the reader in the opening of the story. Also relaying Vickers’ point about the atmosphere of American Gothic is Andrew-Lloyd Smith in his book “American Gothic Fiction: An introduction”.
Smith compares American gothic literature to a gothic painting. He claims that the atmosphere in a gothic text or work of art is as important as the setting. He draws on the examination of a painting by the artist Piranesi, which Smith indicates, accomplishes effectively the portrayal of the atmosphere in American gothic texts and paintings. This successful gothic atmosphere created, he says, is one which induces a “sense of futility, despair and the loss of hope” (Smith, 2005, 7).
Indeed in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” this sense of futility and despair is most evident, from the opening paragraph of the story, up until the last pages. In parts of the story Poe does not disguise this sense of foreboding within descriptive paragraphs, or hint at an atmosphere of dread through an account of the setting. Instead, Poe allows the narrator in the story to directly comment on the sense of doom and desolation that he feels on arrival to the house.
The narrator articulates that on seeing the house, “a sense of insufferable gloom” (Poe.. ) saturated his spirit, and compares the feeling to “the after-dream of the reveller upon opium – the bitter lapse into everyday life” (Poe… ). This sense of darkness which he initially speaks of was intangible, however on further examination of the property, the narrator make the worrying ambience he has been describing corporeal, when he speaks of a sort of mist surrounding the area of the house. He describes an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn – a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued. ” (Poe… ) As well as these indications of an eerie sense and feeling about the property of the Usher’s house, the narrator’s reflection on his attempts to cheer the spirit of Roderick Usher, also highlight an atmosphere of gloom directly associated with Usher himself.
According to the narrator, encircling Mr. Usher was a “darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe, in one unceasing radiation of gloom. ” (Poe… ). All of these descriptions of a sense and atmosphere of doom and gloom are inextricably connected to the creation of a Gothic text. Poe’s inclusion of this atmosphere which the characters in the action of the story in the text highlights the particularly American gothic sensibility crafted in this text.
Marita Nadal Blasco, in her essay on Poe’s American Gothic writing highlights that another element of the American gothic genre is the hint towards an allegorical meaning to the text. She writes “the gothic is most powerful, and most distinctly American, when is strains towards allegorical translucency” (Manuel, 2003, 355), that is that the author does not make a distinct connection to any specific part of American history or society, however critics have generated theories as to what some aspects of the story might be linked to, and if they have an allegorical meaning.
Writing specifically about The Fall of the house of Usher Blasco makes reference to the “incomplete turn toward allegory” (ibid) in the text and goes on to say that the “allegorical signs generated are more important than the literal elements that constitute the text” (Ibid). An example of the allegorical and symbolic meaning that features of the story could have, is the inclusion and emphasis on the “House of Usher”.
Blasco, in her essay draws on the work of Eric Savoy who “singles out the house as the most significant analogue and trope of American Gothic’s Allegorical turn” (Ibid) and also identifies a gothic house as being a structure which is haunted by the “return of the repressed” (Manuel, 2003, 356). The Usher house is said to be a link to a “traumatic history that can never be fully recovered” (Ibid). Poe, however, uses the symbol of the house, not only in the latter sense, but also as an indication towards the actual Usher family.
This can be seen when the narrator suggests “”House of Usher feature “-an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion. ”, Poe here is hinting that the title of the story can also indicate the family as well as the physical dwelling place. The Usher family has only ever had one surviving member from each generation – indicated when the narrator explains that Madeline Usher’s death would leave Roderick as “the last of the ancient race of the Ushers. ” (poe.. ).
This too, support the idea that the family has had a disturbing, and one could be put in mind of a curse which haunts generations. In using Blasco’s words, Poe’s story indicates a “proliferation of signs without a clear reference” (Manuel, 2003, 356). As mentioned above, it is this “inconclusive and incomplete turn toward allegory” (Manuel, 2003, 355) which is significant in, and particular to, American Gothic writing. To briefly mention some other aspects of the short story that create an American Gothic sensibility in the text, one would refer to the focus on the interior and psychological within the story.