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A KEY TO THE HOUSE OF USHER DARREL ABEL B ~ common consent, the most characteristic ~f Poe's "arab~ue" ta~es lS "The Fall of the House of Usher." It lS usually admired 'for Its "atmosphere" and for its exquisitely artificial manipulation of Gothic claptrap and decor, but careful reading reveals admirable method in the author 's use of things generally regarded by his readers as mere decorative properties. Poe insisted that the "calculating" and "ideal" faculties, far from being "at war" with each other, were complementary aspects of the creative imagination-a doctrine vigorously reasserted by critics in our own day. He further maintained that "it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes." Such an emphasis on logical exactitude in the calculation of artistic effect invites inquiry into the question: How far is the unity of effect (which he called "that vital requisite of all works of Art" ) in one of Poe's most characteristic and successful works directly analysable into its causes? It will be seen that his effects are produced by deeper causes than has been supposed by those casual critics who believe that the horror of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is merely an adventitious product of "atmosphere." I Too much of the horror of the tale has usually been attributed to its setting superficially considered. But the setting does have a c!ouble importance , descriptive and symbolic. It first operates descriptively, as suggestively appropriate and picturesque background for the unfolding of events. It later operates symbolically: certain features of the setting assume an ominous animism and function; they become important active elements instead of mere static backdrop. Descriptively the setting has two uses: to suggest a mood to the observer which makes him properly receptive to the horrible ideas which grow in his mind during the action; and to supply details which reinforce, but do not produce, those ideas. The qualities of the setting are remoteness, decadence, horrible gloom. Remoteness (and loss of feature) is suggested by details of outline, dimension, and vista. Decadence is suggested by details of the death or decrepitude of normal human and vegetable existences and constructions, and by the growth of morbid and parasitic human and vegetable existences, as well as by the surging sentience of inorganism. Gloom and despair are suggested by sombre and listless details of colour and motion (at climactic points, lurid colour and violent action erupt with startling effect from this sombre listlessness). The narrator points out in the opening passage of the tale that the gloom which invested the domain of Usher was not sublime 176 A KEY TO THE HOUSE OF USHER 177 and pleasurable (which would have made it an expression of "supernal beauty" in Poe's opinion), but was sinister and vaguely terrible. Five persons figure in the tale, but the interest centres exclusively in one--Roderick Usher. The narrator is uncharacterized, undescribed, even unnamed. (I shall call him Anthropos, for convenient reference.) In fact, he is a mere point of view for the reader to occupy, but he does lend the reader some acute, though not individualizing, faculties : five keen senses which shrewdly perceive actual physical circumstances; a sixth sense of vague and indescribable realities behind the physical and apparent; a clever faculty of rational interpretation of sensible phenomena; and finally, a sceptical and matter-of-fact propensity to mistrust intuitional apprehensions and to seek natural and rational explanations. In short, he is an habitual naturalist resisting urgent convictions of the preternatural. The doctor and valet are not realized as characters; they are less impressive than the furniture; and Anthropos sees each only once and briefly. No duties requiring the attendance of other persons are mentioned, so our attention is never for a moment diverted from Roderick Usher. His sister Madeline's place in the story can b~t be explained in connection with comment on Usher himself. The action of the story is comparatively slight; the energetic symbolism, to be discussed later, accomplishes more. Anthropos arrives at the House of Usher, and is conducted into the presence of his host. Usher has invited Anthropos...


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pp. 176-185
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