illustrated portrait of American author of gothic fiction Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

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In Poe's literary works, how does he generally create mood?

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The mood in a story is the atmosphere that pervades the work with the intention of evoking a certain emotion or feeling from the reader. Edgar Allan Poe evokes specific moods in his short stories in several ways.  Most of his stories are gloomy, horrific, and eerie.  Poe was a master at producing a particular mood, usually within the first paragraph of the story. 

Poe wrote an explanation of the short story.  He listed several important ways to establish atmosphere.

Poe believed that a story should create a single effect on the audience.  In Poe’s writing, this effect was usually terror or horror. 

Poe believed that the first sentence in the story should begin to set the mood of the story.  Look at the story “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher....

This is not a story that is going to be humorous or sentimental.  The words that set the ambience of the story include "dull," "dark," "oppressively dreary," and "melancholy."  The atmosphere begins to weave its way into the reader’s mind.

Another rule that Poe used in his writing was that everything in the story had to speak to the desired effect.  No extraneous side stories or words were needed.

Poe believed that the character had to behave in a believable manner based on his intellectual, emotional, and physical makeup.  Truth was a necessity for effective writing. 

Utilizing the same kind of elements to set the mood, Poe created main characters who were often irrational, eccentric, and bizarre. The protagonist spends much of the story trying to convince the reader that he is not insane and that something else forced him to behave or do what he has been accused of in the story. 

Another element which impacts the atmosphere comes from the setting.  Usually the story’s main setting is dark, oppressive, and unconventional.  The house or place of the action in the story almost serves as a character.  It brings its own peculiar weirdness to the mood of the story. The palace, the catacombs, the dungeon, the coffin, the mansion—all add to the singular effect desired by Poe.

The narration of the story also supports Poe’s overall effect.  He uses monologues, dialogues, and descriptions to keep the reader waiting and wanting more. Often the story is narrated in the first person, from the point of view of the main character.  Think of these narrators and their bearing on the mood:

  • Montresor (who has been "insulted" by Fortunato)
  • The man who hates the “vulture eye”
  • The man who cuts out the eye of the cat he loves

These men are not only “mad” but shocking in their desire for vengeance or violence.

Poe developed the modern short story and inspired the mystery and horror story.  His impact on American literature is unsurpassed in his genre.  Establishing the mood and atmosphere was his area of expertise.

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