illustration of a dark, menacing cracked house with large, red eyes looking through the windows

The Fall of the House of Usher

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Imagery: How does Edgar Allan Poe use imagery to further the plot in "The Fall of the House of Usher"? Be sure to consider exposition, complication (rising action), falling action (denuent), and resolution (harmatia).

In "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe uses the imagery of the house and the tarn to highlight the plot elements of the dying and finally extinguished Usher family line. The fissured, mildewed house exterior reflects the background of the Usher family, while the house's dim, claustrophobic interior mirrors the disturbed mental state of Roderick in the rising action. The collapse of the house into the tarn then symbolizes the story's resolution as the Usher family is extinguished.

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In the long opening descriptive paragraph of "The Fall of the House of Usher," the narrator crosses an isolated, relentlessly bleak landscape marked by a dark lake or tarn to arrive at a mildewed, fissured home. The imagery of the home and its dismal, dreary surroundings reinforces the isolated, incestuous exposition or background story of the Usher family.

Within the house, ebony floors and pointed Gothic windows, as well as a confusing maze of corridors, stairs, and rooms, mirror the crabbed, neurotic mind of the high-strung Roderick Usher. A setting amid discordant music, dismal poetry, and the flickering shadows of a dying sister who eventually is entombed alive reflect the rising action, which is characterized by an increasing sense of horror. This culminates with the bloody Madeline escaping her crypt to die at her brother's feet, his death following immediately after.

The resolution is made clear as the narrator flees the house, leaving inside the corpses of the dead brother and sister. When the house cracks and collapses into the tarn, we are left with a definitive image of the end both of the physical house and the genetic line of the Usher family.

Poe was a master at understanding that descriptive details evoke emotion and uses his skill with imagery in this story to underscore the major plot points.

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In the exposition, Poe describes the house of Usher using imagery that creates a sense of foreboding. As the narrator approaches the house, he notes the "bleak walls" and "vacant eye-like windows" and comments on how gloomy the sight makes him feel. The vegetation is also off-putting; there are "rank sedges" and "decayed trees" that do not suggest healthy, vibrant natural life. The crack in the house itself foreshadows its eventual collapse and makes the reader wonder about its safety for Roderick, Madeline, and the narrator.

The rising action of the story continues to utilize imagery to deepen the incipient horror of Roderick and Madeline's relationship. They are the last descendants of the Usher family, which has come down to its end because of inbreeding. The image the narrator offers is that of a family tree that "had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch." Consequently, Roderick is horrifying looking, with his "cadaverousness of complexion" and large "liquid" and "luminous" eyes.

The falling action of the story is also rich in imagery. After Madeline's premature entombment, escape, and return to her brother's side, the house collapses into the tarn during a violent storm. The narrator is able to get out safely and offer a final glimpse of "the mighty walls rushing asunder" and then the dark, silent waters of the tarn removing all trace of the house, Roderick, and Madeline.

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Edgar Allen Poe's use of imagery is essential in establishing tone in order to create a vivid world of horror both in mood and in plot.   At the beginning of the story, the opening description of the dank tarn, and the fact that the narrotor feels, "an iciness,...

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a sinking, a sickening of the heart" provides a dark and dreary world in terms of setting.   To understand the Usher family, Poe describes a traditional family tree which is typically intricate; however, the Usher family tree "lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain."  This imagery provides a description of the degeneracy of the situation:   the Usher family has a history of inbreeding.  

While the setting appears to be a dying world, so do the characters of the play:  Roderick Usher is described as having a "cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid and luminous beyond comparision; lips somewhat thin and very pallid.." Poe provides an excellent description which captures many of the senses of imagery:  sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.   This Mr. Usher is not easy on the eyes because of his look of death.   

By including a poem of rich imagery, "The Haunted Palace," Poe drives the reader to see the upcoming downfall of the Usher family.   Where once the kingdom was described as having "banners yellow, glorious, golden" quickly becomes a place where "evil things, in robes of sorrow, assail[ing] the monarch's high estate;"  This poem is an allegory, a story in which characters/setting represent abstract ideas or qualities.    The poem's effect is one of foreshadow because it predicts the downfall of the Usher family.   

Lastly, the demise of the Usher family comes to total fruition at the end of the story by the whirlwind.   The narrator describes the scene as being, "long tumultous shouts sounding like the voice of a thousand waters...and the deep and dark tarn at my feet clos[ing] sullenly and silently over the fragments of the "House of Usher."   

By the use of vivid imagery, Poe creates a story of terror and madness. Yet, the imagery he uses to describe the brother and sister surrounding the approaching climax does indeed help drive the plot as it is the psychology revealed in the imagery that develops and realizes the climax then moves the falling action. So, yes, imagery does indeed help move the plot. 

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