How does Poe use personification in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

Poe uses personification in "The Fall of the House of Usher" to describe the Usher mansion, which a number of scholars have called the "fourth character" in the story. Poe's use of personification makes the house more than just a backdrop to the story: it makes it come alive.

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Writers of Gothic literature often sought to inspire horror or fear within their readers. The Gothic was a sort of offshoot or subgenre of Romantic literature, and Romantics believed that intense emotion is more important to the human experience than just about anything else, including logic or reason. By expressing...

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Writers of Gothic literature often sought to inspire horror or fear within their readers. The Gothic was a sort of offshoot or subgenre of Romantic literature, and Romantics believed that intense emotion is more important to the human experience than just about anything else, including logic or reason. By expressing and eliciting intense emotion from readers, these writers hoped to capture something fundamental about being a human. There are few emotions more intense than horror or fear, and so Gothic writers often focused explicitly on the portrayal and creation of these feelings. They often use, in part, references to the supernatural—or at least the possibility of the supernatural—in order to produce these feelings. Poe personifies the ancestral home of the Usher family, giving it "vacant eye-like windows" that "sicken" the narrator's heart and make him feel rather depressed and "unnerved." He says,

I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

In other words, he believes that objects can absolutely have strange effects on us and that we are relatively powerless to figure out how or why because we are simply not capable of understanding everything, even when it comes to how our own minds work. Thus, Poe's use of personification, when it comes to the house itself, affects the mood of the story by inspiring the narrator's feelings of horror and, through him, our own.

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From the moment we're first introduced to the Usher mansion, it's clear that this is no ordinary house. For one thing, it induces a feeling of gloom in the narrator. It gives off bad energy that foreshadows the horrors to come. Furthermore, the house is described in human terms. For instance, the narrator informs us that it has "vacant, eye-like windows"; it is "melancholy", an old-fashioned word for "depressed". These are characteristics one would normally associate with a human being, not with a mere dwelling place.

But as the house itself has a life of its own, Poe uses personification in his descriptions of this extraordinary place. As we will discover right at the very end of the tale, the house has agency, it can make things happen just like a human being. And so it is entirely appropriate that Poe should use personification in describing this godforsaken place.

The house isn't just a place to live; it influences those who live within its dark, crumbling walls. Roderick Usher is sure that the house is responsible for his mental illness. As he tells the narrator the house is alive and has had a malignant effect upon his mind. Once again, we see an example of personification that drives home the fact that the Ushers's dark and creepy mansion is indeed a fourth character in the story.

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This is a very interesting question, because "Fall of the House of Usher" is very much a story shaped by its use of description, and its creation of atmosphere. In this sense, Poe certainly does use personification in its usual sense, as a form of descriptive language. Early on, he describes the house's windows as "eye-like." Additionally, it's worth discussing the storm at the story's end, which is described possessing "impetuous fury" and "wrath." But even beyond this, Poe's entire story is steeped in a second level of personification, seen in his treatment of the house.

As said before, personification usually exists as a kind of descriptive language (see the examples given above), but in this particular story, the house itself exhibits a kind of personality. It is not simply the setting of the story, the house actually emerges as a character within it. It is described as having a deeply oppressive atmosphere about it, to such an effect that Roderick himself believes that the house has some kind of animating force of its own. It's interesting, then, that Poe refers to Roderick Usher as "the master of the House of Usher," when, in many respects, the house exerts such an effect upon him, that one can easily cast that relationship as the other way around.

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Edgar Allan Poe uses personification in "The Fall of the House of Usher," giving human qualities to the house itself, in order to connect it to Madeline and Roderick Usher, almost as though it is also a member of the family.

The title of the story itself introduces this double meaning: the "House of Usher" is both the physical structure in which the siblings live (a dilapidated, Gothic mansion) and the family itself, symbolized by its last name. As the story begins, our narrator approaches the house. He immediately feels unsettled and uses an apt example of personification to describe the windows:

I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down -- but with a shudder even more thrilling than before -- upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

Those "vacant and eye-like windows" suggest both the emptiness of the house and its impending demise ("the fall"), as well as the eerie feeling that something is watching the narrator. Though most of the story's effect comes from Poe's wealth of vivid sensory detail, an example of personification like the one above (repeated twice in the first paragraph of the story) establishes the similarity between the house and its inhabitants. Fittingly, both the building and the family collapse at the end of the story, as all three crumble and die together.

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