Illuminating Poe’s Interior Spaces
As the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” thinks to himself when he is unnerved by the sight of the story’s titular house, “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 200). While his story’s narrator is unable to describe what about the house specifically bothers him so, Poe himself does not seem to believe that such considerations are truly “beyond our depth,” and even wrote a humorous essay titled “The Philosophy of Furniture” to describe the effects of different interior arrangements. Though the essay was written to make fun of the tone of contemporary philosophy essays, its claims seem to be reflected in some of Poe’s stories such as “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Comparison of the interior spaces in those stories to Poe’s concept of an “ideal room” in his essay can illuminate Poe’s process and explain why he made specific choices in his detailed descriptions of rooms and furniture.
One of the most noticeable things about the mansion the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher” visits is its pervading darkness and gloom. The narrator speaks of the “ebon blackness of the floors” he walks over on the way to his old friend’s room, and there, he finds a “black oaken floor” (202). Without the context of the essay, this description already begins to create a feeling that there is something sinister or depressing about the house. There may, however, be more to Poe’s choice to include a dark wooden floor in the house. In his essay, when discussing the use of carpets, he says “A carpet is the soul of the apartment,” and the floor seen by the narrator so far has no carpeting. If, according to Poe, the carpet is an apartment’s soul, then not only does the House of Usher seem to be without a soul, but there is a deep darkness in the empty place where the soul should be, a suggestion that may also have implications about the nature of the characters. Previously in the story, the narrator says the “House of Usher” is an “appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion” (201). If the physical House of Usher is without a soul, this may imply that the House of Usher as a lineage is also soulless. Though it is difficult to determine how serious Poe meant “The Philosophy of Furniture” to be, and if something apparently insignificant like the lack of a carpet is truly meant to imply something so grave as the lack of a soul, this grim implication would not be out of line with the House’s decline throughout the story.
Aside from the just the carpet, the interior of the rooms of the House of Usher differ from Poe’s ideal room in various ways. Poe says that in the ideal room, “Two large sofas of rosewood and crimson silk… form the only seats, with the exception of two light conversation chairs.” In Roderick Usher’s room, the “general furniture” is described only as being “profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered” (202), making it safe to assume that the amount of furniture in the room far exceeds the amount Poe deems ideal. Poe also describes the owner of the ideal room as being “asleep on a sofa,” which should imply that the sofas in the room are comfortable enough for the owner to choose to sleep on instead of a bed, which is also not the case in Roderick’s room. A profusion of uncomfortable furniture seems wasteful, while Poe’s ideal room appears to be more efficient. The windows also clash with Poe’s ideal vision. He states that in this ideal room there are “but two windows” which are “large, reaching down to the floor,” whose panes are “of a crimson tinted-glass.” The windows in Roderick’s room are “long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within” (202). While they do allow “feeble gleams of encrimsoned light” to enter the room, they are the wrong size and in the wrong position, so high that for maintenance purposes they may seem impractical. While none of these other discrepancies between Roderick’s room and the “ideal room” seem to have any implications so grave as the carpet, each difference seems to be another way for Poe to suggest that there is something wrong with the room, the house, and the characters for allowing themselves to live in such a place.
In his essay, Poe emphasizes the superiority of architecture and decoration in England. “In the internal decoration,” he says, “the English are supreme.” Interestingly, the bridal chamber in the English abbey the narrator of “Ligeia” buys is much more bizarre and outlandish than the house described in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The narrator, in fact, commits the error Poe most often ascribes to his fellow Americans which he believes significantly flaws their sense of interior decoration. “In America,” he says, “dollars being the supreme insignia of aristocracy, their display may be said, in general terms, to be the sole means of the aristocratic distinction; and the populace, looking up for models, are insensibly led to confound the two entirely separate ideas of magnificence and beauty.” The narrator himself seems to be conscious of this flaw, saying he “gave way, with a child-like perversity… to a display of more than regal magnificence within” the abbey (166). He refers to the “gorgeous and fantastic draperies… the solemn carvings of Egypt,” and “the Bedlam patterns of the carpets of tufted gold” as “follies.” Poe, in his essay, goes as far as saying that people who decorate their homes with carpets of “huge, sprawling, and radiating devices” are “children of Baal and worshippers of Mammon,” once again seeming to use a character’s carpets to suggest something sinister about him; this time, that he is a worshipper of demons, reflected by the “Bedlam” patterns. While this line in his essay was likely an exaggeration meant for humorous purposes, what it suggests does not seem too far off from the tone of his story.
It is the story’s bridal chamber, though, that deviates from Poe’s ideals the most dramatically. Firstly, the narrator describes the room as “pentagonal in shape, and of capacious size” (167). Poe states that his ideal room “is oblong — some thirty feet in length and twenty-five in breadth — a shape affording the best (ordinary) opportunities for the adjustment of furniture.” There is no question that the room has only four sides. He does not feel the need to clarify explicitly that this is the best shape for a room. The shape of the bridal chamber, then, is otherworldly, dramatically different than anything he describes in his essay, not allowed any of the “best (ordinary)” furniture arrangements due to the different angles. For each of the ideal room’s corners, Poe ascribes “large and gorgeous Sevres vases, in which bloom a profusion of sweet and vivid flowers.” However, in the bridal chamber, each corner is instead occupied by “a gigantic sarcophagus of black granite, from the tombs of the kinds over against Luxor” (168). Without the context of the essay, the presence of ancient and ornate coffins used as decoration already does much to evoke a sense of something sinister. The sense is heightened by the contrast between the two rooms. The corners of the bridal chamber are decorated with death when they should ideally be decorated with life and vibrancy, and the increased number of corners in the room allows for even more death than there is for life in the ideal room.
The drapery of the room seems partially in line with Poe’s ideal, having the “arabesque” designs he recommends. However, the narrator says “these figures partook of the true character of the arabesque only when regarded from a single point of view,” but as one moves about the room, “he [sees] himself surrounded by an endless succession of the ghastly forms which belong to the superstition of the Norman, or arise in the guilty slumbers of the monk” (168). Poe’s essay emphasizes that decorative patterns on carpets or tapestry should be “of no meaning,” and while the drapery initially seems to follow this rule, the narrator ascribes meaning to it when he perceives the patterns to change shape. This also fits with the story’s consistent emphasis of the narrator’s abuse of opium which possibly causes him to go mad.
The room’s lighting is also in opposition to Poe’s ideal, and the clash between the two light sources can be seen as a parallel to the story’s plot. In terms of lighting, Poe praises the “tempered and uniform moonlight rays” of plain ground-glass shades and scorns the “harsh and unsteady light” of gas lamps, and the “unequal, broken and painful” light of cut-glass shades which disenchants female beauty “beneath its evil eye.” In the bridal chamber, however, light enters from the sole window, “tinted of a leaden hue,” occupying the entirety of one of the walls, falling with a “ghastly lustre” (167). Hanging from the ceiling is a “huge censer” with “many perforations so contrived that there writhed in and out of them, as if endued with a serpent vitality, a continual succession of particolored fires” (167-8). Neither light source is in line with Poe’s ideal. The light from the censer, emitting from various perforations, probably resembles the “broken” light of cut-glass shades he criticizes. Like the shape of the room, the possibility of two different kinds of light sources is not something Poe brought up in his essay, suggesting again that there is something wrong with the room and its inhabitants. He may have wanted to suggest that the relationship between the light sources was a parallel with the relationship between the story’s two women, Ligeia and Lady Rowena Trevanion. Rowena, who grows ill and dies, would resemble the “ghastly” light that is being taken over by the stronger light of the flames hanging over it, representing Ligeia and her apparent possession of Rowena’s corpse. The unequal light, similar to that of the cut-glass shades, is not necessarily “disenchanting” female beauty “beneath its evil eye,” but is definitely corrupting it.
Poe frequently uses detailed description of character’s faces using the principles of phrenology, “a popular pseudo-science of the time” (161, footnote) in order to suggest things about the characters. His detailed descriptions of the interior settings of his stories also suggest many things, and the rules with which to read these descriptions to see what they may really be hinting seem to be held in his essay “The Philosophy of Furniture.” The contrasts between his ideal room and the sinister rooms of his stories suggest that, while the essay was written for satirical purposes, it contains his true, if exaggerated, beliefs on interior decorating which he used to characterize the spaces in his stories.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: Norton, 2004. 199-216. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligeia.” The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: Norton, 2004. 159-173. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Furniture.” The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Web. 23 July 2015
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