Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In an 1842 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales (1837), Poe discusses the importance of “effect” in stories, and he suggests that a “wise” writer will not fashion “his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique and single effect to be wrought out, he then . . . combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect.” He also asserts that the first sentence of a given story must contribute to the “outbringing of this effect.” Essentially, then, according to Poe a good story need not be believable to be successful, so long as the integrity of its effect is not disturbed. Applying Poe’s credo to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the reader must admit that, yes, this story is a success for its effect.
The first sentence sets the mood, begins to create the overall effect, as the narrator describes the day as “dull, dark, and soundless,” the clouds hanging “oppressively low.” When he arrives at the house, he is struck by its “melancholy” appearance, and his spirit is overwhelmed by a sense of “insufferable gloom.” Not only is Poe working to create the story’s mood in the first paragraph (as he does throughout the story), but he is also intent on personifying the house when he has his narrator describe its windows as “eye-like” and the fungi implicitly as hair-like, “hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
House of Usher
House of Usher. Home of the madman Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline. Located in an unspecified place, the house and its bleak surroundings are primarily described in terms of the impressions they create in the narrator’s mind. He is unnerved by the building itself, with its “vacant eye-like windows,” but he takes worse fright from its image reflected in the “black and lurid tarn” which lurks around and beneath it. The house is connected to the surrounding land by a narrow causeway, but the link is tenuous and precarious. The atmosphere above and around the house has been poisoned by the exudations of the tarn, becoming eerie and pestilential.
The house is ancient, its whole exterior being infested by fungal growths. Although it retains its form when the narrator first sees it, he is aware that every individual stone comprising its walls is on the point of crumbling. He also observes an almost imperceptible crack extending in a zigzag fashion from the roof to the foundations.
The storm which precipitates the final destruction of the edifice is manifestly unnatural, originating within rather than without. The vaporous clouds which gather about the turrets of the house are lit from below by luminous exhalations of the tarn. These clouds part just once, as the narrator flees from the house, to display a blood-red moon. It is by the ominous light of that celestial lantern that he sees the...
(The entire section is 511 words.)
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Beebe, Maurice. “The Universe of Roderick Usher.” In Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Robert Regan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Discusses the cosmological theory that underlies “Fall of the House of Usher.” Claims that an understanding of Poe’s Eureka helps the reader understand the story as symbolic drama.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. A personal study of the mind of Poe, containing an extensive discussion of doubling and desire in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Argues that the story is a catalog of all Poe’s obsessional...
(The entire section is 239 words.)