Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical 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 eaves.” Symbolically, the web of fungi, the house itself, and the “black and lurid tarn,” which lies near the house, are all extensions of the Usher family’s heritage and psychology; the atmosphere around this family reeks “a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish . . . and leaden-hued.”

However, while Poe’s story is a success for its overall effect, the problem that exists in his credo extends into the story—that is, reason and probability are treated as unimportant. How, a reader must ask, does Madeline escape her coffin, the lid of which was screwed on, survive in the airless vault for seven or eight days without nourishment, and then escape the vault by forcing open the immensely heavy iron door? What causes the House of Usher to break in half and crumble into the tarn? No doubt Poe would have dispensed with such questions by pointing to the source of his story’s lasting success, its gothic and gloomy effect.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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 narrow crack widen, tearing the house apart from top to bottom so that its debris might collapse entirely into the tarn.


Hallway. Entered through a Gothic archway, the hallway has black floors. Its walls are covered with somber tapestries and its corridors decked with creaky relics of ancient arms and armor.

Roderick’s studio

Roderick’s studio. Large but the narrow windows, set high above the floor, let in so little light that it is exceedingly gloomy; it is abundantly, if rather shabbily, furnished and chaotically cluttered with books, musical instruments and Roderick’s phantasmagorical paintings.


Vaults. Numerous chambers contained within the walls of the building, in which Roderick’s ancestors are entombed. It is in one of the deepest of these—a cramped, damp and lightless covert used in olden times as a dungeon—that Roderick and the narrator place the body of the seemingly dead Madeline Usher. Following her interment the house becomes noisier than before, even from the viewpoint of the narrator. The hypersensitive Roderick hears the miscellaneous knocks, creaks, and rumbles even more keenly, and the transformations imposed upon them by his vivid imagination are fed back into the fabric of the house.

The frequent use of the castles and mansions that are the centerpieces of most gothic novels to model the troubled minds of their owners was not always as deliberate, but Edgar Allan Poe understood exactly what was going on when such edifices were afflicted by supernatural visitations and battered by storms. No one else had drawn such parallels so minutely, nor mapped the course of a symbolic tempest so accurately.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

"The Fall of the House of Usher" was first published in 1839 in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. At a time when most popular...

(The entire section is 333 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

With the exception of "The Gold Bug" and "Murders in the Rue Morgue," Poe's settings are usually remote in time and space, enhancing the...

(The entire section is 163 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

"The Fall of the House of Usher" centers on Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline, the last surviving members of the Usher family....

(The entire section is 750 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Poe's literary skill is readily apparent in "The Fall of the House of Usher," and one of his most vivid techniques is the story's tone. Poe...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is one of Poe's most popular short stories. Moreover, analyzing this story provides a basis for...

(The entire section is 768 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1830s: Common belief dictates that odors from water—such as the tarn outside the Usher house— could cause mental illness...

(The entire section is 185 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Poe precedes his stories with prefatory quotations that relate to theme and plot. Explain how de Beranger's quotation applies to "The Fall...

(The entire section is 304 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. After explaining Poe's "single effect" theory, apply it to one or two of Poe's other stories by narrowing the focus and concentrating on...

(The entire section is 261 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Examine the lyric "The Haunted Palace" written by Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher'' and discuss how it reflects Roderick's...

(The entire section is 81 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

For a more comprehensive understanding of Poe's literary philosophy, one should read his "Philosophy of Composition," in which he discusses...

(The entire section is 288 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

"The Fall of the House of Usher'' was adapted to film in 1952. Directed and produced by Ivan Barnett, this black and white, 70-minute film...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Poe's epic poem "The Raven," published in 1845, centers on a young scholar who is emotionally tormented by a raven's ominous repetition of...

(The entire section is 197 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Further Reading
Abel, Darrel. "A Key to the House of Usher," in University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol XVH, No....

(The entire section is 529 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 themes.

May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A study of Poe’s development of the short story as a genre; discusses “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an esthetic, self-reflexive fable of the basic dilemma of the artist. Also includes an essay with a reader-response approach to the story by Ronald Bieganowski.

Robinson, E. Arthur. “Order and Sentience in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’ ” PMLA 76 (1961): 68-81. One of the most extensive studies of the story; focuses on its underlying pattern of thought and thematic structure.

Thompson, G. R., and Virgil L. Lokke, eds. Ruined Eden of the Present. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1981. Contains a debate between G. R. Thompson and Patrick F. Quinn about the psychic state of the narrator in the story.

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Allen, Hervey. Israfel: The Life and Times of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: George H. Doran, 1926. This is the first definitive biography...

(The entire section is 482 words.)