Darkness and Decay Within the Walls: Poe's Architecture
Ligeia, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Masque of the Red Death present a gothic setting, within which the action of the tale takes place. Each of the houses is not only decaying, but somewhat bizarre. As the tale unfolds, an unhealthy relationship between the structure and its inhabitants is revealed.
The story Ligeia takes place in two Gothic locations: first, the city on the Rhine ("dim and decaying") (p. 102) where he meets, marries and loses Ligeia, then the abbey in the "wildest and least frequented portions of fair England" (p. 102) which is in a state of "verdant decay" (p. 103). By mentioning the river Rhine, he sets the first part of his tale in Germany, the place of origin of the Gothic tradition; by making the city "large, old, decaying" (p. 97), he establishes an atmosphere of potential decadence and horror. We are told little, however, of the house itself, other than a mention of the "closed study" (p. 98) in which Ligeia would appear as if from nowhere and lay her hand on his shoulder. This closed study would seem to be not only a happy memory of the intimacy of their life together, but also a symbol of their shared intellectual interests. By making it closed to others, the exclusive and obsessively devoted nature of their love for one another is emphasized.
After Ligeia's death, the distraught husband moves to England to the moldering abbey, where, for somewhat unclear reasons, he marries the lady Rowena, the opposite of his lost bride. The original religious atmosphere of the abbey, linked as it is to the resurrection of Christ, is now taken over by the dark forces of nature, notably the vine that smothers the window.
Similarly, the will to live, the primal rejection of death that characterizes the strong-minded Ligeia, overlays the religious parallel of Christ's submission to death and His subsequent resurrection. This contrast of Christianity and paganism is referred to in the mention of monks and Druids.
The setting for Ligeia's murder of Rowena in order to assume her body and her subsequent return to her horrified husband is the gothic chamber of Rowena. The images with which Poe fulsomely describes this room are eastern, as befits its relationship to his character's opium addiction. It is in a "high turret of the castellated abbey" (p. 103), thus establishing its gothic character, and pentagonal in shape, accounting for its Druidic relationship. The furnishings, including sarcophagi in the corners, are Egyptian or Arabic, reminding the reader of the myths of rebirth of the ancient culture, for example, the resurrection of Osiris from his scattered parts. A "pall-like canopy" (p. 103) hangs over Rowena's bridal bed, forecasting marital problems ahead. The phantasmagoric light from the serpentine censer and the changing patterns of the rug and wall hangings create the sense of forboding illusion that fits with the opium delirium of the husband. Ligeia's final determined struggle into some semblance of death-in-life could be actual, or the delusions of her husband as he succumbs to his drug, and joins her in death. By setting this crisis in the high tower (the mind), inaccessible to others (the servants), Poe dramatizes the solitary nature of the choice of life or death.
The Fall of the House of Usher takes place in a "singularly dreary tract of country" (p. 177), where a melancholy mansion looms over a sinister tarn.
The speaker in this tale seems not to inhabit an opium dream but to be in the depressed, nervous and suggestible state that follows a drug-induced experience. Unlike the speaker in Ligeia, he is a spectator to the action rather than a participant. The disintegration of the Ushers and of their ancestral home is mirrored -- by the anonymous narrator, by the story he reads to Roderick, and by the waters of the tarn.
The gothic atmosphere is established immediately, not only by the desolate setting but also by the grim aspect of the house itself and its barely discernable crack, which will ultimately cause it to shatter. It is a mansion of "excessive antiquity" (p. 179), one which seems to retain its integrity but in reality is held together by little but the fungus which encrusts it. We are told that the family tree of the Ushers is similarly ancient and unsupported by branches.
The speaker is shown to the quarters of Roderick Usher through a forbidding corridor in which he meets an unsavory doctor. The hall is furnished with the familiar symbols of death and phantasmagoria, and Roderick's chamber likewise has a gothic window and ancient furnishings. Roderick, whose description is reminiscent in some ways of Ligeia, is not only hypochondriac but also agoraphobic; he is imprisoned in the decaying house of his ancestry. Because he cannot leave the house, and has no relationships other than that with his boyhood friend, the narrator, and with his cataleptic and apathetic sister, the house is doomed.
The action of the tale takes place in a series of mirrors that serve to distance the Ushers and their fate from reality. First, the tarn mirrors the house itself and ultimately swallows it. Then, because the Ushers are morbidly attached to art, the song that Roderick sings, "The Haunted Palace," prefigures the demise of the house at the hands of "evil things in robes of sorrow" (p. 184). The robes of sorrow are Madeline's death-wrappings; she is Roderick's twin and hence his reflection. The narrator also sees Roderick's painting of the vault under the earth, another prefiguring of the donjon where they entomb Madeline. As the Ushers become more and more dead, the natural world around them becomes alive; Roderick is convinced that the trees and fungi are sentient. Finally, as the storm rages, the narrator attempts to sooth Roderick by reading him The Mad Trist. However, as Roderick seems to slip into a catatonic trance, he is in fact totally attuned to the mirroring sounds which the narrator only dimly perceives: the sounds of Madeline struggling out of her tomb. Finally, she appears at the door, and she and her brother die in each other's arms, an incestuous ending to the ill-fated house. As the narrator flees, he glances back to see the house subsiding into the unreal world of its mirror image.
In The Masque of the Red Death, Poe once again evokes a gothic atmosphere, as the "castellated abbey" of Prince Prospero is enclosed by a "strong and lofty wall" (p. 257). To ensure that the suffering plague victims on the outside do not interrupt the revels of the Prince's thousand friends within, the iron gate is welded shut. The rooms in the imperial suite are arranged and decorated eccentrically. They meet at odd angles so there cannot be a long vista (and therefore there is a lack of perspective). The seven rooms are decorated in the colors of a skewed rainbow with the end room being blood-red; none of the rooms have natural light. The flickering tripods illuminate them, along with a Gothic window executed in the color of each room. Appearances are further dissembled through the bizarre masks worn by the revelers.
In this tale, the chiming of the sinister clock is the premonitory sound that arrests the revelers and forewarns them of a dreadful fate. Upon the stroke of midnight, the Red Death makes its appearance among them, and is pursued by Prospero and his friends into the red room, at which point its identity is revealed and their fate is sealed. We are told that Prospero's brow reddens with rage, a prefiguring of the symptoms of the plague. As the last reveler dies, the flames of the tripods go out and the clock falls silent, another instance…