Text: Linda E. McDaniel, “Roderick Usher in Our Time: Styron’s Mason Flagg,” Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986, pp. 137-143 (This material is protected by copyright)


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In his examination of twentieth-century evil and insanity in Set This House on Fire, William Styron develops his history of the “house of Flagg”(1) with details recalling Poe’s treatment of moral and psychic disintegration in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”(2) Styron’s tone and plot often suggest Poe’s masterpiece and link Mason Flagg to Roderick Usher. The “proprietor” of an ancient palace, Flagg exhibits eccentric tastes in music, art, and literature; and he has a singular involvement with a young woman who dies horribly on the same day Mason falls to his death. Whereas Poe presents a creative madman who makes death instead of life his study, Styron exposes a loony fraud who makes sex instead of love his obsession. Although discussions of the novel frequently point out its Gothic elements and rich variety of sources,(3) recognition of Styron’s indebtedness to Poe provides another approach to Styron’s analyses of twentieth-century madness.

Poe and Styron introduce first-person observers who journey alone after receiving a letter from a boyhood friend. In “Usher,” Poe’s narrator explains that he embarked from “a distant part of the country” after “a very singular summons” from his boyhood companion, Roderick Usher (p. 398). In Set This House on Fire, Styron’s “rationalist” narrator, Peter Leverett, travels from Rome to the remote village of Sambuco after Mason writes a “breezy, but specific” letter inviting Leverett “for a visit” (pp. 19, 2l).

Both narrators recount long journeys, made with horse (Poe) and with sportscar (Styron), and they detail the approaches to their destinations. After “passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country,” Poe’s traveler comes “within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” Feeling “a sense of insufferable gloom” and “an utter depression of the soul,” he shudders and reins his horse “to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn” (pp. 397-398). Peter Leverett narrates at length his trip and approach to the palace of Flagg. With a pint of bourbon in the glove compartment of his Austin, Leverett has also driven through a “singularly dreary tract of country”: “For miles at a stretch I could see nothing at all on either side of me — no homes, no humans, no growing things . . . . Then abruptly I was in cliff country, ascending the flanks of gaunt, wounded hills where nothing grew and no one lived” (p. 26). During his ride, Peter feels a sense of “desolation” and a “shadow” in his mind “of some dim but incomparable misery” (p. 37). Finally, when he comes “in sight of Sambuco’s archaic gate,” the battered car quivers and dies “as the magnificent sea [comes] into view a thousand feet below” (p. 56). Finding the town “unnaturally silent,” Peter is “troubled once more, and despairing” before he walks [page 138:] through the “mildewed archway” (p. 56). Additional Poe titles, namely, “Shadow — A Parable,” “Silence — A Fable,” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, may contribute their share to these passages by Styron. “Usher,” nonetheless, remained paramount as his imagination built upon Poe.

Examining the residence of the “proprietor,”’ each narrator experiences an increased gloom. Entering a “Gothic archway,” Usher’s guest is met first by a servant in waiting who takes the horse, and then by a valet who acts as guide through the house. The narrator describes the “excessive antiquity” of the place, with its “vaulted and fretted ceiling,” ..encrimsoned” windows, “dark draperies,” and “black oaken” floors. He then remarks, “An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all” (p. 401). Especially significant in Poe’s story, of course, are the descriptions of the “crumbling condition of the individual stones” of the house and the zigzag fissure which extends from the roof to the waters below (p. 400).

In Styron’s novel, instead of a servant in waiting, a foul-mouthed idiot peasant named Saverio encounters Leverett and announces: “I am taking care of your car” (p. 68); and the hotel manager guides and directs Peter through the place. Leverett feels “burdened under the blackest sort of gloom” (p. 63) even before entering the palace Mason rented. Built in the thirteenth century, the Palazzo d’Affitto, like the House of Usher, shows “excessive antiquity.” Peter observes vaulted ceilings, massive doors, red drapes, and particularly remarks the tiles, which, unlike Usher’s dreary floors, repeat a bright red and blue pattern. Instead of a fatal fissure, Mason’s palace is marred by an exclusively twentieth-century defect that initially puzzles Peter: “as I accustomed my eyes to the place I could tell that something was wrong here.” He realizes that the movie cameras and machines, crisscrossing the floor, have marked and gouged out “ugly channels” in the tiles (p. 97).

The masters of the houses also evince, in Poe’s words, “an incoherence — an inconsistency” (p. 402). Although both hosts greet their guests warmly, the narrators register early misgivings about their friends. According to Poe’s observer: “Usher arose from a sofa. . .and greeted me with a vivacious warmth which had much in it, I at first thought, of an overdone cordiality . . . . A glance, however, at his countenance, convinced me of his perfect sincerity” (p. 401). A glance at his friend’s face also impresses the guest with a terrible change in Usher: “Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher!” (p. 401). Furthermore, the narrator easily discerns in his friend “an excessive nervous agitation” (p. 402).

Despite a cordial greeting, Peter’s host too shows signs of change and inconsistency. Mason greets “Petsey” with giggling and pumping of his [page 139:] hand (p. 58); and Leverett later recalls how Mason could make a friend feel “warmed by his energy, his big grin, and by the note in his voice . . . of honest affection” (p. 132). Nevertheless, Peter soon discerns inconsistencies in Flagg’s conduct: “He was grinning broadly but his jacket was drenched in sweat: he seemed eaten up by some furious inner agitation” (p. 185). In contrast to Usher, Flagg at first seems unaltered: “On the outside he had changed hardly at all,” remarks Leverett (p. 63). A family friend, however, hints at another kind of change in Mason: “I mean — well, he’s a weird boy. He’s altogether different from the kid I remember down in Virginia” (p. 115). Leverett ultimately realizes that Flagg has gone “beyond recapture” (p.184).

Musical, artistic, and literary pursuits of Usher and Flagg indicate the nature of their agitation and change. Especially partial to dirges, Usher selects music that attests his obsession with death and the afterlife. Because of a “morbid acuteness of the senses,” he can tolerate only the sounds of stringed instruments. His impromptus and improvisations on his guitar impress his observer, particularly “a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber” (p. 405). At other times, Usher accompanies his music with “rhymed verbal improvisations,” such as the symbolic lyric entitled “The Haunted Palace” (pp. 406-407).5

Mason’s musical selections, on the other hand, support the statement that Flagg has “ ‘sex in the head like a tumor’ “ (p. 441). Although Usher creates and performs his own music, Flagg hires or arranges for someone else to improvise or perform. Mason does share Usher’s interest in improvisational music, such as jazz or the impromptus of Billy Raymond. Inside Mason’s apartment, the black entertainer improvises “naughty tunes” and accompanies his improvisations on the piano with “lascivious groans” (pp. 99-101). As an added attraction, Mason’s artist, Cass Kinsolving, recites limericks and improvises degrading pantomimes. Leverett’s first impressions of the music at Palazzo D’Affito demonstrate how much the “morbid condition” of Flagg’s auditory nerve differs from Usher’s: “a hell of a racket broke loose. From the regions upstairs . . . came the noise of a tinkling piano, feet thumping, a high falsetto voice singing above it all, then wave upon wave of hysterical laughter. Close by us, from a doorway at the level at which we were standing and so loud that each crashing bass note had the effect of the tread of elephants, a phonograph erupted the opening bars from the overture to Don Giovanni” (p. 97).

Besides passing the melancholy time with music, Poe’s characters also paint and read together (p. 404). Although Usher’s abstract paintings do not “lie within the compass of merely written words,” the narrator describes one painting of the interior of a long white tunnel that conveys a ghastly sense of [page 140:] space “below the surface of the earth” (pp. 405-406) and which foreshadows the burial vault into which the two friends later descend.(6)

Again, Usher’s strange creations are his own; Flagg commissions hisby blackmailing an artist to paint “‘one filthy picture, to be skilfully executed’ “ (p. 421) in exchange for booze and medicine. Thus, working “in a shadowland frontier between reason and madness,” Cass Kinsolving executes a graphically pornographic painting of a nude youth and a lovely young girl (p. 405). Like Usher, Flagg expresses interest in abstract art, and gushes over the “‘sense of space’” in Kinsolving’s drawings. According to the artist himself, however, Mason is a fraud because “‘[t]here wasn’t no more space or humanity in those drawings than you could stuff up the back end of a flea’ “ (p. 386).

The hosts’ libraries provide other indicators of their owners’ nineteenth- and twentieth-century preoccupations. Usher’s titles underscore his interests in the mysteries of heaven and hell, demonic possession, damnation and death.(7) In a lengthy paragraph, Poe catalogues Usher’s collection of rare erotica — “such works as the Ververt et Chartreuse of Gresset, the Belphegor of Machiavelli, the Heaven and Hell of Swedenborg; the Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm by Holberg,” to name a few. Usher’s friend speculates on the “probable influence” on his host’s psyche from reading, for instance, the Vigiliae Mortuorum. . .(“Vigils for the dead according to the use of the church of Mainz” — pp. 408-409).

Styron spends pages listing the areas of Flagg’s reading — from the origins of Rosicrucianism to books on natural history, from studies of primitive cultures to Ranulf de Glanvill’s theories of law (pp. 147-148). In addition, Flagg’s collection includes “such grizzled entries” of erotica as “The Thousand Nights and a Night (London, privately printed, 1921)” or the complete works of the “ ‘divine’” Marquis de Sade. Flagg himself demonstrates the “probable influence” of such studies. In his diatribe on “sex as the last frontier,” Mason talks about “the total exploration of sex, as Sade envisioned it. . .which makes a library like this so important to the psyche, and so rewarding” (pp. 150-151).

His artistic and literary interests inform each master’s relationship with a young woman,e whom the narrator glimpses only once before hearing of her death. Soon after his arrival, Poe’s narrator sees Roderick’s ailing sister, Madeline; she “passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared . . .A sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps” (p. 404). Only once and just as briefly does Peter see Francesca, a beautiful peasant girl hired by Flagg: “a door burst open a few feet away from me, exposing a glimpse of [page 141:] an ascending stairway, and a girl . . . who came skidding out into the room as if upon glass.” Peter barely has time to note the details of a torn bodice and “brown eyes round with hurt and terror” before “she pushed past me with a little groan of anguish . . . bare feet pattering in diminishing terrified flight down the hallway” (pp. 122-123).

The narrator’s only subsequent picture of the woman depicts her in profound repose. After Usher and friend bear Madeline’s coffin to the underground vault, the narrator regards her face: “The disease . . . had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death” (p. 410). The descriptions of the beaten, ravished, and dying Francesca recall Madeline’s picture: “Once [Francesca] moaned and her eyelids flickered, and a flush came to rouge the pallor of her cheeks. Then again she went pale, and sank back into her coma, barely breathing” (p. 465). Later: “faint color had returned to [Francesca’s] cheeks. . . and her eyes were closed as if in death, lids chalky white, and she uttered no sound” (pp. 467-468). As Usher fears of Madeline, a character in the novel reports of Francesca: “‘she is still alive — but the horror!’” (p. 456).

Francesca, however, does not rise from her catatonic unconsciousness” to return in any form to her tormentor’s room. Instead, Cass Kinsolving assumes the role of nemesis, on behalf of Francesca (and himself); and Mason dies at the hands of the artist — whose actions parallel those of Ethelred, the hero of “The Mad Trist.” In Poe’s story, passages read from the romance by the narrator accompany and correspond to sounds and events preceding Usher’s death. Like Ethelred, who attempted first to gain “peaceable admission” into an evil hermit’s dwelling, Cass has tried without success to talk reasonably with Flagg. Both heroes, drunk with wine, therefore, decide on new tactics. Poe’s narrator reads this account from “The Mad Trist”: “And Ethelred. . .who was now mighty withal, on account of the powerfulness of the wine which he had drunken, waited no longer to hold parley with the hermit, who, in sooth, was of an obstinate and maliceful turn” (p. 413). Ethelred splinters the hermit’s door with his mace; Cass, on the other hand, flies downstairs to get a key. Both heroes gain access to the room only to find the “maliceful” personages disappeared. Ethelred discovers in the hermit’s place “a dragon of a scaly and prodigious demeanor”; Cass discovers snaky Mason hiding underneath the bed. Subsequently, Ethelred with his mace “struck upon the head of the dragon, which fell before him” (p. 414). Cass, with a large stone, splits Mason’s skull open, “and Mason dropped like a bag of sand” (p. 464).

After Roderick Usher’s death, the story-teller concludes: “the deep and [page 142:] dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher” — and its master (p. 417). After Flagg’s death, Mason is hurled over the ledge and “into the void” (pp. 463-465).

These parallels in tone and plot thus point to “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an important source for Styron’s Gothic novel. The ironic and satiric contrasts develop Styron’s versions of twentieth-century moral and psychic disintegration. Whereas Usher is a nice, clear-cut, soundly unhealthy case of madness and evil, Mason Flagg, as one character says, is just a “ ‘wicked and terrible, phony creep’ “ (p. 40). Connecting Set This House on Fire with Poe’s story suggests another approach toward analyzing Styron’s narrator and friend, and toward understanding Styron’s modern definition of evil.

[page 142, continued:]


1.  (New York, 1960), p. 445. Further references are to this edition and appear in the text.

2.  M. 2:392-422. Further references to this edition appear in the text.

3.  Anthony Winner, in “Adjustment, Tragic Humanism, and Italy,” SA, 7(1961), 339-361, examines Styron’s use of Gothic techniques to develop his concepts of evil. In William Styron (New York, 1972), pp. 71-89, Marc L. Ratner discusses the novel as “Gothic satire” and also includes brief treatment of various sources discussed in scholarly essays. Ratner is one of several critics who mention a resemblance between Styron’s twosome and Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby.

4.  Poe calls Usher “proprietor” (p. 398); and Styron calls Flagg proprietor”of he rented palace (p. 119). Mason is also the proprietor of the family home in tirginia, an “enormous estate” described as a “renovated castle in the morning nist” (pp. 75-79).

5.  The activity in Styron’s strange palace is often reminiscent of The Haunted Palace,” just as surely as certain actions and situations elsewhere recall those by Dirk Peters (whose name resonates in Peter Leverett’s) in Pym.

6.  Despite critics’ varying impressions, interpretations most consistent with Ushers other interests deal with the painting as one of Ushers concepts of Death. For a brief discussion of the painting as symbol of “Death-Madness,” see Darrel Abel, “A Key to the House of Usher,” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Fall of the House of Usher, ed. Thomas Woodson (Englewood Cliffs, 1969), p. 51. Abel’s important essay first appeared in UTQ 18(1949), 176-185.

7.  For comments on the titles in Usher’s library, see Mabbott’s “Notes” 15-25, pp. 419-421.

8.  The young woman, of course, is not Flagg’s sister, but Styron includes a Freudian-Oedipal relationship between Flagg and his mother, Gwendolyn (see pp. [page 143:] 72, 78-79, 94). In line with the readings of the twin sister as part of Usher’s split personality, Styron develops a divided Mason (see pp. 124, 158-159).

9.  A description of Mason’s ex-wife does, however, suggest Madeline’s surprise appearance at Ushers door: After Peter hears “a frantic rapping at the door, the door itself flung open without a pause, and there was Celia. . . . [H]er hand went to the back of her head, came down again, covered with blood. She said nothing at all. After a moment she stared at her red and trembling fingers, once more opened her mouth as if to say a word, and then collapsed in a heap upon the floor” (p. 160).





[S:0 - PAOT, 1986] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and Our Times - Roderick Rusher in our Time: Styron's Mason Flagg (Linda E. McDaniel, 1986)