John Gardner's "The Ravages of Spring" as Re-Creation of "The Fall of the House of Usher."

By Fenlon, Katherine Feeney | Studies in Short Fiction, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

John Gardner's "The Ravages of Spring" as Re-Creation of "The Fall of the House of Usher."


Fenlon, Katherine Feeney, Studies in Short Fiction


In "The Ravages of Spring," John Gardner ingeniously re-creates Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." Yet, "Ravages" is more than an exceptional tribute to Poe's technique. As it re-creates "The Fall of the House of Usher," it Americanizes the details of Usher," offers a comprehensive interpretation of that earlier work, and contemporizes its horror, even as it "out-Poes Poe" in its lasting effect of terror.

On first reflection, "The Ravages of Spring" seems only tangentially related to "Usher." It is a story of a country doctor, known to us as Dr. Thorpe, who narrates a tale about his brush with death during a violent cyclone from which he seeks refuge in an isolated, allegedly haunted house. While there, Thorpe encounters Professor Hunter, a supposedly long-dead geneticist, and his female companion, who have perfected the technique of cloning humans. The storm eventually rushes in upon the house, destroying it, the scientist, and the woman. The doctor escapes, rescues three clone@ children, and some days later takes the two surviving children into his own custody. While there is no specific allusion to "Usher" itself, Kay Kinsella Rout points out the Gothic atmosphere, the storm, the strangely incestuous couple, the fall of the house of Hunter, . . . [and] the unreliable and emotionally unbalanced narrator . . ." connect the story clearly to Poe (32). Gardner,s narrator actually makes four overt references to Poe, but none of these touches specifically on the "Usher" story either. Thus, while Gardner certainly challenges us to think Poe," he does not reveal "Usher" to be his obvious and unifying allusion. Close inspection of "Ravages," however, shows its plot structure, setting, narrator, paired images, and ultimate focus to be very closely aligned with that particular Poe work.

Both authors open and close their stories with scenes focused on the narrator. Both are structured around a powerful wind storm symbolizing the stormy terror alive within the characters. Each story generates action and conflict from the problem of the family lineage and its continuance. In "Usher," the narrator tells us he had learned . . . that the stem of the Usher race . . . had put forth at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain" (399). In "Ravages," Professor Hunter's descendants are his clones and, thus, as perfect a direct line of descent as can he imagined. The interesting and ironic problem in this story is that he has actually produced the offspring. As Gardner creates his plot structure. he frequently uses such opposites in alluding to the original Poe work - Hunter has children and Roderick does not; Poe's narrator says he is terrified and Thorpe insists he is not. If we remember, though, that "Usher" opens with a description of the narrator looking into the tarn at the "inverted images" (398) of the scene before him, we can see that Gardner's technique of "opposing" some of the Poe details is yet another clever allusion to the original work.

Other similarities abound within each story's plot. Crucial action derives from the great effect on the respective narrators of Roderick's and Hunter's agitation. Poe's narrator confesses that Roderick's "condition terrified . . . [and] infected" him (411). While Doctor Thorpe wants us to believe he "refused to be terrified" (59), he often loses the thread of his narrative, thereby revealing that he has been infected with terror during his experience in Hunter's house. References to dragons in both stories also suggest that both narrators face an antagonistic force involving great evil. In "Usher," this reference comes as the narrator reads to Roderick of Ethelred's slaying of the evil dragon in "The Mad Trist." In "Ravages," Dr. Thorpe describes his first sighting of Hunter's house thusly: "Whatever evil the place entertained, it did not come aggressively out to us, but waited, quiet and contented, like a sleeping dragon" (45). …

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