“There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart -an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.”
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is a gothic short story written by Edgar Allen Poe, which tells the tale of the narrator’s unnerving and discomforting visit to the house of Rodrick Usher, a severely mentally ill and oppressed old friend, who has become a drunkard and opium-eater enchained by fatalistic superstitions. After arriving and consoling Usher in the gloomy, dull and decayed house, the narrator and Usher bury the presumably deceased body of his sister. Some days after, during a tempestuous storm, a series of peculiar events occur which leads to Usher to reveal that they’d actually buried his sister alive. Soon after revealing this, the trembling and bloodied walking corpse of his sister lunges at Usher and collapses dead, Usher being terrified to death and dying alongside his sister. After fleeing, the narrator witnesses the entire mansion collapse whilst the red moon beams down on the ruined remains of the House of Usher. Poe develops an unnerving and gloomy setting which discomforts the reader whilst also helping the reader interpret the novel’s hidden meanings due to Poe deliberately conjuring the setting into its own character. In this report, I will be explaining how I believe Poe effectively achieves this through a collection of language features, examples of features used are descriptive imagery and connotative language to develop the unnerving setting and personification and symbolism to help the reader decipher the messages within the text and how it evoked fear and edginess within me.
Poe uses descriptive imagery and connotative language in order to intricately describe the story’s saturnine setting, allowing the reader to develop a vivid mental image of the House of Usher and it’s surroundings. Descriptive imagery allows understanding of how the narrator perceives the discomforting and weary setting, the reader being unnerved with the setting alongside the narrator. Beginning the story is a description of the weather, the autumn, dull and dingy sky holding “clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens.” Clouds in this setting act to prevent any heavenly spirits and sunlight from seeping into the atmosphere, preparing the reader for a bleak and joyless journey. These ideas presented through imagery, I believe metaphorically paints the house as hell itself, according to religion, hell typically being portrayed as beneath heaven, indicating that the Ushers are miserably trapped within these grounds and await eventual death or punishment similarly to those who spend eternity in hell. Further expanding of this idea is Poe’s later descriptive imagery later established when “an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which reeked up from decayed trees… -a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.” Negative word connotations such as dull, sluggish and leaden-hued to describe the mystic vapour also indicates that the setting can be metaphorically compared to hell, being devoid of any heavenly air, the reader vividly percieving a monochromatic and depressing atmosphere. Surrounding the house are ghastly, decayed trees, described as looming gloomily upon a few rank sedges, further adding to the setting’s “utter depression of soul”. Lacking care or attention, the trees indicate that the Ushers -or their servants- aren’t phased by their rotting surroundings, I believe due to the Ushers being so wrapped up in their deep descent into insanity. The heavily detailed and intricate description enabled me to become transported, placed into the scene and picture vividly the morbidity and despair of this house and its residents. Poe allowed me to truly feel how the setting evoked fear in the narrator and understand the apprehension that one would experience upon encountering this hellish wasteland.
Itself, the house can be described as typical gothic architecture, having towering, daunting and commanding stature over the narrator, omitting “a sense of insufferable gloom” in his spirit. Upon entering through the Gothic archway of the hall, -a staple of gothic architecture-, further use of descriptive imagery is used whilst Poe describes the interior of the large and lofty house. Clarified through imagery are notable architectural descriptions such as “carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestries… ebon blackness of the floors… phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled.” In my opinion, this passage indicates that the house may have possibly been built during the medieval age, the description giving me an image of the interior of a dark stone castle through connotative language such as armorial, tapestries and ebon blackness. Overall, due to Poe’s descriptive imagery being effective in adding to the setting’s gloomy and unsettling manner, I personally felt scared and unsettled whilst I read the story at the peak of midnight just like the narrator. I too eerily heard a low howling noise whilst reading the unsettling passage ” … the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly)… disturbed me.” just like the narrator did when noises described in the novel he read to Usher simultaneously occurred within the house.
Helping to develop the story’s setting is Poe’s use of personification and symbolism, these features helping the reader interpret the novel’s hidden meaning. Holding an almost supernatural power and sorrowful influence on both the Ushers and the narrator, the house is given a personified liveliness. Although painted as a lively entity, Poe describes it as deteriorated and in rotting condition, giving the house the human attribute of dying. This use of personification is affirmative by his mentioning of the house’s “vacant eye-like windows” which gives the house the human attribute of sight, the house watching the narrator in a lifeless and empty manner. I believe this vacuous fixation could possibly be symbolic of someone who is dying, glaring expressionlessly into the distance which therefore compares the house to the Ushers themselves who are being consumed by insanity. This could possibly foreshadow them collapsing dead along with the house, falling victim to their illness. Personally, the use of personification of the house aided in my understanding of just how broken and moribund the Ushers are as a ‘house’ or family. What unsettled me was its almost supernatural influence on others and what disturbed me was the house’s symbolism of foreboding death for the Usher twins.
Further symbolism is established in the setting with the “barely perceptible fissure… extending from the roof of the building… down the wall in a zigzag direction until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.” Symbolism is used to explain the fissured relationship between the Usher twins, the ‘house’ being unstable due to the fissure which splits it in two. Poe further expands on this idea, in that once Usher neglectfully buries his sister alive and once she resurfaces a walking corpse and terrifies her brother to death, this barely discernible fissure eventually “rapidly widens” which causes the house to collapse, ultimately this broken relationship being the cause of the ‘fall of the house of Usher’. This fissure can also be interpreted as the line between the living and the deceased, Usher not wishing to die and thus would rather murder his ill-fated twin half to appease the insanity within himself. To further expand on this, I believe that “the radiance… of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly…” indicates that once both Usher twins have deceased and the house has collapsed into fragments the moon is symbolic of the union of a divided family, both being deceased and free of paranoia, no longer having to suffer living in the house. These various cryptic symbols scattered throughout the text made me inquisitive and really have to think about what these symbols represent and their relevance to the characters and overall message of the story.
I admire that Edgar Allen- Poe clearly and intricately describes his gothic settings to give the reader an intense discomfort. As explained before, I believe that through effective use of language features such as descriptive imagery, connotative language, personification and symbolism in the story, the reader being able to experience the setting through the narrator’s eyes and allow us to interpret the meanings behind the story. Now having read two of Poe’s works I am definitely keen to read more due to his captivating description and application of common gothic elements into his works.