The Assignation – An Analysis

In 1834 Edgar Allan Poe‘s The Assignation was published. This short horror story takes place over a night and morning in Venice.

In the tale, an unnamed narrator travels in a gondola down the Grand Canal and is startled by a scream. At the edge of the water stands the beautiful Marchesa whose child has fallen into the water. The old Mentoni to whom she is married is only incidentally concerned by the child’s fall into the black waters and resumes the playing of his guitar. Suddenly, a young man approaches and dives into the water, soon re-emerging with the child. The Marchesa says, ‘thou hast conquered—one hour after sunrise—we shall meet—so let it be!’

The narrator offers this man a ride in his gondola and promises to call on him in the morning. At that time he is shown into the man’s abode and spends some time being subjected to the man’s ramblings. Some time later the man takes a drink of some liquid and collapses, suddenly a page from the Mentoni house burst into the room screaming that the Marchesa is dead. The narrator turns to the man and finds that he’s succumbed to the poison he drank.

The first thing to strike me in The Assignation is how Poe uses every minutia of scenery to drive and enhance the tone of the piece.

The ethereal waterways, phantas-tic bridges, and ‘pitchy darkness’ are a perfect setting in which to begin. As the quiet of the canal is broken by that wild scream, so are the reader’s easy meditation and ‘sophist speculations’ shattered by sudden trepidation and intrigue. We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the narrator – observing what he observes, reacting as he reacts, to the action unfolding before us.

Poe uses an interesting metaphor here. As the shriek pierces the night, the gondolier loses his oar, leaving them to drift, without guidance, towards the scene of the tragedy. It signifies, perhaps, that what is about to take place is beyond our narrator’s control to affect or dictate.

Setting is again used to highlight the tone the following morning when our narrator meets with the man who rescued the child. Mirroring the manic overtures of the host, the apartment seems a bedazzlement of the grotesque. We are told of decor that follows no theme, but wanders higgledy-piggledy from Greek to Italian to Egyptian. Poe describes curtains that roll out ‘like cataracts of molten silver,’ and of ‘rich, liquid – looking’ carpets of ‘Chili gold.’

The host finds a home in this schizophrenic despair, laughing at the narrator’s (justified) bewilderment before informing us that to ‘die laughing must be the most glorious of all glorious deaths.’ This segues into the host’s boasting about the singularity of his design and the honor our narrator ought to feel at being allowed to experience it.

The mania continues. As the host vacillates between Cimabue (Cima-who?) and the Venus, Guido to the Apollo, his ‘mingled tone of levity and solemnity’ begin to concern the narrator greatly. And Poe carries us through a rapid increase in tension and decrease in coherence to the denouement of the tale.

It is an exquisite example of how setting can be used to not only set, but drive, the tone of a piece.

My favorite passage:

“Who does not remember that, at such a time as this, the eye, like a shattered mirror, multiplies the images of its sorrow, and sees in innumerable far-off places, the woe which is close at hand?”

Have you read The Assignation? What did you think?