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Mood as a key concept in English: part one of three

A Contemplation of ‘Mood’

A still from Jean Epstein’s 1928 version of The Fall of the House of Usher

Whenever I think of the ‘mood’ of a text, I am reminded of The Fall of the House of Usher, for Edgar Allan Poe’s claustrophobic tale of premature burial, catatonic states, enervation, ennui, despair, and emotional as well as architectural decay, possesses a mood so utterly desolate that it is as if a funereal pall has been cast over each of its narrative elements.

But what do we mean by ‘mood’? It is used as a throwaway term, often used to describe a particular mode of human behaviour at a specific time: ‘he’s in a good mood’, ‘don’t be so moody’, ‘I’m in the mood for [insert subject]’, and so on. It is also used as a synonym for ‘emotion’, for example ‘you’re a moody so-and-so’, intimating that a person’s outward emotions are unpredictable. At its most sustained, mood can be equated with a psychological state of mind.

However, it’s not just used to characterise human behaviour and psychology: the notion of a ‘mood’ is applied to everything from works of art, music, the ambience of a room, the colour of paint even. In literature, a description of natural objects and phenomenon might connote a particular mood that reflects that of a character, a literary device referred to as ‘pathetic fallacy’. Likewise, we say that the visual image or the soundtrack evokes a particular mood or sensation that affects an audience in a particular way.

Mood, as a characteristic of narrative, has received little critical attention in comparison to other aesthetic concerns (Sinnerbrink, 2012), but recent work on mood, especially in film, argues for its significance as a significant subject of interpretation. Indeed, Carl Plantinga suggests that “mood is central to the experience of film, and that an understanding of mood is vital to film criticism, interpretation, and analysis” (2012: 456), a belief echoed by Robert Sinnerbrink for whom mood is essential to the realisation and the appreciation of a fictional world (2012: 163).

Mood is as much an aesthetic element as a psychological one. It is the mood of the story that lingers, but the mood of a work is evoked by the combination of its artistic elements. For Plantinga, there is an aesthetics of mood that can be defined as “the affective character of the complex of images, sounds, and fictional events and beings that allows for the unique experience the film offers” (2012: 455). From this, it can be argued that mood is the centripetal force of a text. All a story’s individual elements, from narrative devices such as characters and setting to its linguistic and structural patterns, contribute to the mood; like a black-hole, the mood of a story sucks everything in. And whilst we may forget characters’ names, or the minutiae of plot, it is often the mood of a story that lingers, and it is often the mood that we recall when reflecting on a film we have watched or a book we have read. In this sense, the choice of Poe as a writer to demonstrate this is appropriate in that he himself coined the phrase “unity of effect” to describe how a work should exhibit a harmony of its parts, that the denouement should be in dialogue with the opening, and that all elements work together to leave the reader with a long-lasting impression of the tale.[1]

Mood absorbs us into the fictional world, but it is important to understand that the mood of a work is distinct from the mood of the spectator. This is not to say that we are not affected by the mood or the narrative events. Indeed, we have all, at some point, jumped at the startling use of sound or editing in a film, or shared a character’s sense of foreboding as they creep through an abandoned house dripping with a history of fear. However, although we may experience, through the artistic construction of the text, the machinations of evil in a horror movie, we are not immediately threatened by the monster, and both Plantinga and Sinnerbrink distinguish between mood and emotion in order to explain the separation between reader and text. For them, the mood of a text is sustained and affectively charged; it is often a general feeling that is implied through the textual elements and diffused throughout. Emotions, on the other hand, are temporary and yet intense; they are reactions to the specifics of the narrative and are explicitly felt. Mood therefore biases readers towards particular emotional or cognitive responses.

Sinnerbrink talks of four different mood-modes in film and which are useful in applying to literature:  

  • The disclosive mood establishes that of the fictional world; for example, the mood evoked by the setting, the characters and their interactions, the genre, the narrative trajectory (in film this is accompanied by the music cues, the cinematography, the editing etc.).
  • Episodic moods are those mood-cues that recur throughout a narrative; these might be particular motifs that signal specific situations, or repeat gestures, musical motifs – I am reminded of John Williams’ score for Jaws (Spielberg, 1975).
  • Transitional moods interrupt the main narrative development, varying the tenor and emotional dynamics to prepare us for a different narrative sequence, thus depicting a shift in mood.
  • Finally, there is the autonomous or enveloping mood which emerges in scenes or narrative moments that might be disorienting; they might be scenes that are oneiric and strange in which a sudden shift in tone disturbs the fictional world – the films of David Lynch often employ such mood-shifts.  

The latter mood-mode is particularly relevant to Poe’s stories. You might say that each of his tales possesses an enveloping mood that disorients and disturbs. However, they are not necessarily autonomous moods, for in each the mood is also sustained. And so, when I read The Fall of the House of Usher, it is impossible to ignore the fact that there is an absolute crystallisation of a specific mood, one of eerie desolation that runs through the veins of the story as if it were its life-blood. Or, to use another analogy, mood becomes the centripetal force that sucks in each and every element of its construction. Furthermore, the story itself acts as a discourse on the importance of mood; in this way, The Fall of the House of Usher is a meta-critical text that explicates precisely the role of mood in determining a response to a text.

In the next blog, I will look more closely at the opening section of Poe’s story to examine how it conveys mood through it various narrative and linguistic elements.


[1]The phrase was originally used in his review of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales and is available here:  https://commapress.co.uk/resources/online-short-stories/review-of-hawthornes-twice-told-tales/. See also Poe’s Philosophy of Composition https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69390/the-philosophy-of-composition which provides an insight into his approach to the creative process.

Bibliography

Field, D. (2020) Edgar Allan Poe’s Notion Of “Unity Of Effect”. Available at: https://blog.bookbaby.com/2020/01/edgar-allan-poe-unity-of-effect/

Plantinga, C. (2012) Art Moods and Human Moods in Narrative Cinema. in New Literary History, Vol. 43:3

Sinnerbrink, R. (2012) Stimmung: exploring the aesthetics of mood. in Screen 53:2

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