What does Poe mean by his attempt to achieve “unity of effect,” and how can we trace the particular ways he manages this in his writings, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Black...

What does Poe mean by his attempt to achieve “unity of effect,” and how can we trace the particular ways he manages this in his writings, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Black Cat.”

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his essay ¨The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale,¨ Poe contends that without

...a certain continuity of effort--without a certain duration or repetition of purpose--the soul is never deeply moved....There must be the dropping of the water upon the rock....

With the construct of a short story, Poe feels that the reader can be controlled by the writer because this person reads the story in one sitting. With a tale thus ¨undisturbed¨ by time lapses and interruptions, the author is able to lead the reader to the conclusion with a unity of events and effects designed to produce a single result. In both ¨The Black Cat¨ and ¨The Fall of the House of Usher,¨ for instance, there is a singleness of effect designed by Poe as every part of the narratives strengthen the point, or the desired result of these stories.

  • ¨The Black Cat¨

In ¨The Black Cat,¨ the feline is symbolic of the feminine, and the relationship of the narrative with his wife is established with that of the black cat. As a precursor to the murderous act upon his wife, the narrator abuses and then kills Pluto, for whom he first professed great affection. Then, after Pluto's death, another black cat appears at the narrator's home, and attaches itself to him; however, the narrators aversion for the cat increases as 

...its partiality for myself seemed to increase....I began to look upon it with unutterable loathing.

This loathing is also directed toward himself and subconsciously toward his wife, who ¨possessed that humanity of feeling which had once been [his] distinguishing trait.¨Then, all of this charged emotion reaches its zenith with the sudden swing of the ax meant for the cat, but redirected onto the wife. The single effect of horror is created because Poe has led the reader surreptitiously to this inciting moment with the interactions of the narrator with the black cats.

After the murder, the narrator performs another parallel action by burying his wife inside a wall in the cellar. When the police search the house and find nothing, in a show of bravado, the narrator boasts of the sturdiness of the house and taps the walls only to be horrified by the howl of the black cat who has been missing after his wife's burial, a howl of both terror and triumph as

...the party upon the stairs remained motionless, through extremity of terror and of awe.

Finally the police dig away at the bricks and discover the decayed body of the wife upon whose head ¨sat the hideous beast,¨now symbolic of the blackness of the narrator's murderous soul.

  • ¨The Fall of the House of Usher¨

In this longer tale of gothic horror, the narrator endeavors to provide the reader an explanation of his perspective of the events leading to the destruction of the Usher family and home. Certainly, there is a continuity of events as well as the parallel destruction of the Usher estate that serves to underpin the horrific occurrences within the Usher family, occurrences that coincide with the decay and eventual collapse of the Usher home. First of all, a singleness between the family and the estate is achieved as there is a 

...merg[ing of] the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the “House of Usher”—an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.

Poe's single effect, or ¨dropping of the water upon the rock¨ as the reader falls under the control of the writer with each significant detail, occurs in the story as Roderick Usher grows increasingly unstable because of his fear of his sister's approaching death. Inside ¨the melancholy House of Usher¨--melancholy described by Poe as ¨the most legitimate of tones--Roderick becomes increasingly nervous. The narrator observes,

In the manner of my friend I was at once struck with an incoherence—an inconsistency; and I soon found this to arise from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy—an excessive nervous agitation. 

The Usher dwelling reinforces the superstitious impressions of Roderick with  

...some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion, [that] had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit— 

And, as Roderick becomes more unstable, more uncertain of what he hears and senses, the narrator observes that he

...felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.

This ¨unceasing radiation of gloom¨ extends to all who are inside and outside the House of Usher. Even Roderick's musical compositions and his poem, ¨The Haunted Palace,¨ are disturbing factors that drive the narrative to its conclusion. And, as the disordered fantasy of Roderick's mind matches the forces causing the decomposition of the earth and the crumbling of the Usher mansion, the narrative moves to his horrifying conclusion with every word strengthening Poe's single effect.

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The Fall of the House of Usher

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