The Use of Architecture in Poe
Or: A Damn Good Way to Bore Your English Teacher
Warning: If you are unfamiliar with The Fall of the House of Usher and or William Wilson, this'll probably be something of a snooze.
In the United States of the late 18th Century, the Enlightenment inspired writers and statesmen such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to tout the qualities of logic and reason as humanity's best bet for both worldly progress and spiritual elevation.
The powers of the individual
mind gained prevalence
over the Puritanical
reliance on Faith
and the shunning of all sensory experiences; it became man's new sanctum sanctorum
, virtually guaranteed ultimately to produce all the correct answers and interpretations
And a lovely time was had by all.
The following century, however, Edgar Allan Poe and other gothic writers contested its infallibility, exploring the mind's dark side and the potential perversity of its ratiocination.
What ARE You Talking About?
In the short stories The Fall of the House of Usher and William Wilson, Poe uses architecture to manifest the machinations of the unconscious. The various structures both symbolize and contain the minds of the characters that inhabit them, reflecting their unreliability.
Houses, apartments, and schools are flawed in their construction, have secret, unexplored chambers, and a definite susceptibility to the irrational.
Lunacy in the blueprints, as it were.
Get On With It
In the majority of Poe's tales, and a significant number of the poems, the bulk of the narrative action takes place in an interior space. As he paints psychological portraits of his characters, he surrounds them with walls and isolates them from the natural, outside world.
In The Fall of the House of Usher, the title character never leaves the title building, and William Wilson made peace with captivity as a student.
'The teeming brain of childhood,' he says, 'requires no external world of incident to occupy or amuse it.'
The natural and exterior worlds need play no part in the lives of Poe's main characters; the imagination supplies everything, reinterpreting data and feeding it to the conscious mind. Should an outsider infiltrate into the core of a character's home and/or being, he, she or it does so only to be made a contextual element of the interior, subject to its will and mentality. Even the raven, a creature distinctly natural and of the exterior landscape, flies into the personal space of the narrator.
It may have entreated entry by 'tapping' on the window lattice, and within the scope of the room-as-mind trope, such a metaphor can easily be extended to include the raven as merely an external element, a sensory phenomenon like any other that attracts the mind's attention. The narrator, however, had to let it in--and once done, the raven belongs to the imagination, and is subject to its whims. An otherwise simple bird perches 'upon a bust of Pallas', and repeatedly croaks out 'nevermore.' The event in itself is of course entirely fanciful; birds do not speak. To the narrator, though, everything that happens in the room is real.
Are You Writing From Experience, or What?
An individual, even one suffering from insanity, is never 'out of his mind.' Indeed, the lunatic may live more in his mind than a sane person, trapped in its winding passages and countless rooms, detached from the outside world.
The mind has no limits; the only reason one can distinguish the real from the imagine--or dreamt--is a vague and indescribable notion of consciousness, a feeling that separates the spheres.
Poe begins to blur the lines on the first page of Usher, in which the architectural features of the House take on symbolic value.
The narrator, upon arriving at the scene, immediately endows the building with specific human qualities. The narrator describes the house-s 'vacant eye-like windows,' a phrase he repeats and thus emphasizes on the next page. The whole scene has a real effect on the narrator, whose description and explanation of which speak directly against Enlightenment ideals:
'What was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?
No satisfactory answer presents itself. Reason provides no conclusion, and he must tell himself that:
'...while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the reason, and the analysis, of this power, lie among considerations beyond our depth.'
The 'iciness' and 'sinking of the heart' have no reasonable or logical origin. It is a house--this it is, and nothing more.
But that trick never works.
I'm Losing It!
'I had so worked upon my imagination, as really to believe that around the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity--an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven'
These feelings, though genuine, are nonetheless ambiguities, nothing tangible. They are the merely the beginnings of the horrific, made familiar to most through the typical, everyday, superficially creepy.
Poe, however, soon complicates the experience. Instead of merely inspiring feelings, structures become increasingly intertwined with the actual mental states of the characters, reflecting their disorder and instability.
The narrator of Usher has not yet finished his portrait of the house's exterior when he delivers a description of its face that will ultimately mirror Roderick Usher's:
'The discoloration of ages had been great, he begins. When he first meets Usher, he exclaims, 'it was with some difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the man being before me with the companion of my early boyhood'.
The foreshadowing does not stop there. As the details of the home become more detailed, their symbolic significance becomes more ominous.
'No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the utterly porous, and evidently decayed condition of the individual stones'.
The continuing description of Usher also includes the word 'inconsistency,' and the series of maladies he suffers belies the same mental decay reflected by the walls.
The largest and most severe psychological fault line of Usher?s is the failing health of his sister; the only other member of his family still alive.
In the narrator's retelling of Roderick's statement:
'her decease would leave him (him the hopeless and frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers'.
The sister holds the House of Usher, as it refers to the family name and lineage, together--and the House of Usher, as it refers to the family mansion, has an empathetic illustration of the sentiment. A 'barely perceptible fissure' extends in a zigzag manner all the way from the roof to the tarn. The house has a major threat to its structural integrity--as does Roderick Usher.
So What Else, Then?
William Wilson's architectural experiences do not at first parallel his character in such a clear and ominous way. The reflections of his school and dormitory maintain a higher degree of subtlety. The progression of confusion and madness define this character, as opposed to the near totality of immersion experienced in Roderick Usher.
As he fumbles through childhood and student life, he never benefits from a clear idea of his position in the house:
'There was really no end to its windings, to its incomprehensible sub-divisions. It was impossible, at any given time, to say with certainty upon which of its two stories one happened to be. From each room to every other there were sure to be found three or four steps either in
ascent or descent. Then the lateral branches were innumerable--inconceivable, and so returning in upon themselves, that our most exact ideas in regard to the whole mansion were not very far different from those with which we pondered upon infinity'.
The physical description of this place almost defies imagination; one cannot conceive, as the passage suggests, what its blueprint might look like.
However, when one imagines the picture of the human brain, certain details seem to match. It has windings, lobes, subdivisions, all of which wind into each other in the most incomprehensible way. The phrase 'lateral branches' has a definite medical, scientific tone that one might encounter in a textbook.
The classroom, too, lacks anything in the way of order.
'Interspersed about the room, in endless regularity, were innumerable benches and desks. . .so beseamed with. . .efforts of the knife, as to have lost what little of original form might have been their portion in days long departed'
The chaotic design of the house is odd enough, but the violence and disarray of an arena in which one expects precisely the opposite indicates an absolute disturbance. Moreover, one must remember that these descriptions lack all objectivity. The narrator, William Wilson (not even his real name), deserves no degree of reliability, and the reader must see everything as he sees it.
What Wilson offers the audience is nothing less than an externalization of the mind--an expressionistic device typical of the gothic genre. The corollary has not the specificity of that between Usher and his house, but William Wilson's madness has not fully developed. His first encounters with conscience (or guilt, or whatever one cares to make an argument for--Poe never defines it) take place here in the form of a shadow, an echoing student whom shares his name and mimics his behavior.
As with Roderick Usher, a completely internal function is thus flung into what Poe presents through his narrators as the 'real' world. However, within the structures that constitute the overarching trope, there is no such place.
Inside, the projections of the imagination overwhelm the natural laws that dominate the exteriors. Reason does not apply in either story.
I Feel As Lost as They Do. Are You Nearly Done?
The ghastly demonstrations Poe concocts to illustrate what the mind can do when reason breaks down or never gains a solid seat fully integrate the structures he designed for the purpose. As illustrated above, the physical house has from the beginning of the story been described and treated like a haunted arena, possibly animate, and certainly malevolent.
The house takes a great deal of blame from both narrator and Roderick, who even suggests that he suffers under 'an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion, had, by dint of long sufferance. . .obtained over his spirit an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets. . .had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence'.
Architecture bears the responsibility for his poor condition, an entirely unreasonable assertion that the narrator labels 'superstitious'. Roderick continues to talk of a 'sentience' that 'had been there, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones', and the poem he creates, the Haunted Palace is about the siege of a beautiful estate by 'evil things, in robes of sorrow'.
Roderick has taken the idea of a sentient house, inhabited by evil, and run with it in his own mind. The madness belongs to him, and he projects it onto the house. His thoughts drip from the ceilings, his fears lie hidden beneath the floorboards. When the narrator reads the tale of Ethelred, and the sound effects echo those actually emanating from within the house, he attributes them as nothing with which to concern himself. Usher, on the other hand, takes the final step into madness because of them:
'Not hear it?'he asks.'Yes, I hear it, and have heard it. . .the breaking of the hermit's door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangor of the shield--say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault!'.
What a reasonable outsider writes off as coincidence has other meaning to the mad possessor--and in his house, he is right. Reason is wrong, inaccurate; whatever the mind thinks makes for fact in the House of Usher.
The same occurs for William Wilson. Poe's conflation of mind and manor come to a climax in this story that entirely erases the boundaries between the real and imaginary worlds, largely as a result of the story's literary structure. At least in Usher, the reader feels that the narrator provides some sort of reality touchstone--an outsider performing an exploratory exercise in a mad mind.
William Wilson has no such third party speaking in the first person, and his mind filters the tangible, and usually reliable real world, through madness before it comes to the reader.
In this story, the room, the furniture, the so-called real world, acts out against William Wilson. When he finally kills his namesake and other self, the separation between them vanishes.
'The brief moment in which I averted my eyes,' he explains,'had been sufficient to produce, apparently, a material change in the arrangements at the upper or farther end of the room'.
Note the word 'apparently,' which because of its placement mid-sentence deliberately calls attention to itself. Poe reinforces the unreliability of the narrator by reminding the reader that this is merely what he sees.
The large mirror that appears and in which he meets the pale, bloody version of himself may or may not be a figment of his imagination. No amount of ratiocination can explain the appearance of the mirror; whether it has supernatural or merely psychological origins.
Nothing a madman presents one with can be relied upon; regardless, the fact of his seeing (or believing he sees) a mirror makes the trope literal within the story--the building now truly reflects the character.
When breaching his interior spaces, through his eyes, the mind and its surroundings become extensions of each other, indistinguishable by any outsider.
Enough, Enough! Let Me Out!!
With or without a third party to interpret them, the houses and apartments in The Fall of the House of Usher and William Wilson have integral relationships with their possessors. When Usher falls, so does his house, both literally and figuratively; it collapses, because it cannot exist without him, nor can he without it. The trope is precise and deliberate; his home is his mirror, it shows him only himself.
William Wilson lacks Roderick Usher's awareness of the strangeness of his surroundings, for they do not act so clearly upon him--until all abstraction of the symbol disappears with the arrival of an apparent glass.
Poe uses architecture in both stories to isolate his characters from the outside world, keeping them within the confines of their own minds, which can project as well as receive--they may not just passively accept, but actively reconfigure the realities with which they are presented.
The Enlightenment cannot reach into the dark corners, recesses, and cellars of the unconscious--no one, the reader included, can rely on the faculties of reason to discern the fact from the fantasy.
For Your Perusal:
The Fall of the House of Usher
The Tell Tale Heart
The Imp of the Perverse
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Fall of the House of Usher. Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vol. 1. Ed. H. Abrams. New York: Norton, W.W. and Company, Inc. 1995.
Poe. William Wilson.Norton Anthology of American Literature.
Poe. The Raven. Norton Anthology of American Literature.
Poe. The Tell-Tale Heart. Norton Anthology of American Literature.
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