Symbols abound in works of fiction and are used by authors to convey their message or produce a certain effect on the reader. In the horror genre, master story teller Edgar Allan Poe uses negative as well as ordinary symbols to evoke dread, revulsion, and fear that gradually and inevitably lead to a terrifying climax. Poe manipulates symbols to suit his purpose – to frighten and horrify – and he does it gradually and almost imperceptibly.
In his The Black Cat and The Fall of the House of Usher – two classic tales of Gothic horror – Poe uses negative symbols out of the commonplace as a surrealist painter draws seemingly bizarre shapes out of ordinary things to create an eerie, haunting atmosphere which grips the reader inescapably as the story unfolds. Poe creates sharp contrasts doubtless to make the transition from light to sombre to horrible more appalling. He begins The Black Cat by a distraught rambling statement about something that has left him terrified, tortured and destroyed. Thus, the reader immediately is put on guard about something sinister to follow.
But in the next paragraphs the pall dissolves for a moment as the narrator recalls the past where he was known for his “docility and humanity” of disposition. The foreboding air quickly returns as Poe proceeds to transform the cat’s master from a gentle animal-loving person to a homicidal maniac. The cat, although remarkably good-looking is depicted as an ordinary house pet, doted upon by its master. It does not cause any alarm other than the common superstition that black cats bring bad luck, or the ancient notion, voiced out by the wife, that they are actually witches in disguise.
An object of pity as its once caring master, now slave to the bottle, stabs its eye, and finally hangs it to death, the cat morphs into a malevolent creature, at least in the imagination of the narrator. The black cat with the splotched breast that takes its place is lovable too at first until its master comes to hate it and wants to kill it too but murders his wife instead. In this tale, Poe uses the negative symbol of the black cat to suggest that indeed something supernatural has occurred.
The white splotch on the cat that comes to live with them after the first is killed soon becomes recognizable by the narrator – or perhaps he imagines it – as an image of the gallows, a fate to which he was destined after his crime was discovered, commensurate with his deed of hanging the cat by the limb of a tree. It conditions the mind to accept the idea of an avenging demon. The first negative symbol used in The Fall of the House of Usher is that of the old mansion of the Ushers, which evokes foreboding as it sat in the midst of a dreary landscape.
Observes the narrator: “I looked upon the scene before me – upon the mere vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges – and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees- with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to . . . the hideous dropping off of the veil. ” By itself the image of the old mansion disturbs an otherwise peaceful mind, but Poe heightens the gloom by describing its weird image reflected on the adjoining black tarn as the narrator gazes “upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
” Here Poe probably plays on the age-old superstition about mirrors being capable of trapping the human soul, or perhaps the ghastly description is only meant to heighten the aura of gloom pervading the mansion – “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 gives an indication of impending doom awaiting the structure: “a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn. ” As a breaking mirror is said to bring about bad luck, the reflecting water of the tarn swallowed the mansion in the end. It may be noted that the tarn as a negative symbol also appears in Poe’s Ulalume, where the poet wanders through the “dank tarn of Auber.
” Usher’s dread of his ancient dwelling is depicted in his ballad of The Haunted Palace: a place of beauty and happiness until “evil things, in robes of sorrow” renders it forever desolate. One senses his awareness of the unseen – or of the forthcoming evil – in his description of the doomed palace, wherein are found Vast forms that move fantastically To a discordant melody; While, like a rapid ghastly river, Through the pale door, A hideous throng rush out forever And laugh- but smile no more.
Apart from the mansion, Roderick Usher’s purported illness – “a morbid acuteness of the senses” – also serves as a negative symbol. If the cat’s master in The Black Cat is an alcoholic, the narrator in The Fall of the House of Usher is a hypochondriac, living in perpetual morbid fear. The former is terrified of the cat owing to the strange markings in its breast, the fear that it might be an incarnation of the animal he killed; the latter is prey to “an anomalous species of terror.
” The former is afraid of retribution for what he had done to the cat; the latter is afraid of struggling with fear itself. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. In have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect- in terror. In this unnerved-in this pitiable condition-I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.
If Roderick Usher’s mental illness is cause for depression, that of the Lady Madeleine’s wasting disease induces sorrow and pity for the afflicted woman. Poe makes brother and sister twins, perhaps to suggest according to the common belief that twins are bound to share the same feelings, experience the same pain and suffering. Being a twin and possessing acute senses, Roderick might have known his sister was only comatose when she was laid on the mansion vault – must have sensed her struggling, clawing her way out of her tomb.
One feels deep revulsion for Roderick Usher, who, knowing his twin sister had been buried alive just kept it to himself. As in Usher, a cadaver is deposited without the benefit of a public burial in The Black Cat. Whereas a cataleptic is entombed alive in the former, a cadaver with an animal not yet dead is walled up in the cellar in the latter. The Black Cat is somewhat reminiscent of The Tell-Tale Heart where the murderer hides the body if his victim under the wooden planks of his apartment, but is found out by the police as they were about to depart, convinced of his innocence.
In that story, acuteness of senses – the ability to hear the hideous beating of the old man’s heart – similar to Roderick Usher’s hearing the struggles of Lady Madeleine in her coffin – gave away the murderer. Having painted a dark scene, Poe proceeds to sustain the sense of impending doom. As readers we know something sinister and evil is about to befall the house but just as we brace ourselves for the onrush of terror, the master of horror places us at ease, enabling us to lower our guards. Thus, we become most vulnerable when the terrible thing is unleashed when we least expect it.
The sudden announcement of a terrible thing, like the emergence of a killer from the dark when its victim thought she was safe, has a forceful impact on the reader. Poe’s masterful use of this technique employs the manipulation of symbols, in this case the breaking of the planks of a wooden door, the mortal cry of a beast, and the clanging of a metal shield – all to induce terror. Feeling troubled and unable to sleep during a stormy night, the narrator reads an antique volume to Roderick Usher.
It is titled Mad Trist where Sir Ethelred, the hero of the tale, breaks down a hermit’s wooden door, slays a dragon, and causes a brazen shield to fall clanging at his feet. Waylaid and distracted, the reader is frightened by what Roderick Usher reveals: “Not hear it? –yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long-long-long-many minutes, many hours, many days have I heard it-yet I dared not-oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am! – I dared not- I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb!
It turns out that the breaking of the hermit’s door, the death-cry of the dragon, and the clanging of the brazen shield corresponded to the breaking of her coffin and her struggle to let herself out through the coppered archway of the family vault. Through his acute senses Roderick knows she has managed to come out: “Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door! ” Alcohol in The Black Cat is used to explain the demented state of the narrator’s mind. Did the alcohol unleash the man’s capacity for evil, or is man innately wicked, capable of the vilest deeds, alcohol or no alcohol?
Not a moralist, Poe delves into the darkness of the human heart, but does not inquire into such matters. The narrator in The Black Cat may have come upon the theory it was the black cat that brought about his downfall in the same way people justify their most unspeakable crimes by heaping the blame on others, pointing to someone or something else that impelled them to their deed. Poe uses symbols to create a fearful atmosphere, utilizing people’s tendency to attribute occurrences to the supernatural.
Faced by the unknown, people are easily conditioned to accept what may be illogical to them in their rational moments. As the narrator in Usher puts it: “… while beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. ”
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Black Cat”. 31 October 2008. <http://books. eserver. org/fiction/poe/black_cat. html > —“The Fall of the House of Usher”. 31 October 2008.
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