Style and Technique
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.