The role of fear in Poe’s “ the fall of the house usher” Analysis

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The role of fear in Poe’s “ the fall of the house usher”


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Edgar Allan Poe is a defining author in American Literature.  He is the perfect combination of poet and journalist.   He understood and promoted the idea that an author should take a critical approach to writing and his own prose.  His interests in science and fact combined with his almost obsessive pursuit, of capturing in writing, the human psyche and the nature of loss create literature that is both pragmatic, idealistic, and uniquely American.  Through the examination of Poe’s critical theories, poetry, and fiction it is clear that his writings exhibit a well calculated blend of Romanticism and Classicism.  He was a pioneer of the modern detective novel, and his short story plots continue to inspire writers of genres.  Peel away  Poe’s obsession with the supernatural, the death, and the character distention into depravity.  What remains is a demonstration of elegant, meticulously detailed, and carefully constructed prose which is undeniable unique.  Each of Poe’s short stories exhibit his dedication to structure, brevity, and the perfect execution of the English language.  His aptitude and grace as author can easily been seen in the quintessential Gothic horror short story “The Fall of the House Usher,” originally published in “Burton`s Gentleman`s Magazine” in 1839.   It is through the use of formal literary devices that Poe creates and manipulates his audience through fear.

                        One of the many narrative techniques that Poe employs is the use of alliteration and word play.  “The Fall of the House Usher” begins “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day …within view of the melancholy House of Usher “(1).  The multiple “d’s” followed by the Usher, can be rearranged to form the word shudder.  The word shudder, or shuddering appear on almost every page of this short story.  If you removed the d’s from shudder you are left with a word that sounds very much like Usher. (Ketterer 192).  Poe’s writing is very lyrical and rhythmic which offers a creepy background music to the entire text.  He uses repeated anapests which are a metrical foot consisting of three syllables, the first two short, or unaccented, the last long, or accented( Lammers 50).  Here is an example of Poe’s use of anapests

It was thus that he spoke of the object of my visit, of his earnest desire to see me, and of the solace he expected me to afford him. (2)

Many critics believe that most of Poe’s short stories are more like poetry than prose.  It is short, and tightly organized leading to a single overwhelming crisis similar to a lyrical poem (Lammers 25).  Additionally,              Poe uses mysterious and unusual names to create a mood of suspense and supernatural.  Roderick Usher and the narrator talk about the following books:  Directorium Inquisitorial of Eymeric de Gironne, Belphegor of Machiavelli, Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum, and Chorum Eccleside Maguntine.  They are unknown books with odd names and the reader wonders what these books truly contain.  H.P. Love-craft years later used the same technique in his writing.  Poe understood that leaving interpretation up to the human imagination was essential in creating fear.

            Poe’s short stories usually center around the evolution of insanity in the main character.  Mental disorders of the mind was and continues to be a societal fear.   The plot of the short story is driven by how insane the  is, and the story climaxes with the character has gone completely insane.  Poe also using the increasing amounts of terror to push the plot of  story along.  He uses what the reader fears to evoke not sympathy for main character but sympathy for ourselves if we were in that position.  Bob Baker, of the Los Angeles Times, states that “narrative technique means any technique that produces the visceral desire in a reader to want to know what happens next,” and in “The Fall of the House Usher” Poe does that but using insanity and terror.             Poe, “The Fall of the House Usher”,  chooses to use an extended metaphor to symbolize the mental degradation of the Usher Family.  “Usher’s psychological deterioration “as well as the dissolution of the Usher lineage, is mirrored in the decaying physical structure of the house itself. When Roderick’s sister Madeline falls atop him at the story’s climax, the House of Usher appears to respond directly to their unholy union as its walls crumble and collapse.(Magistrale 20).  Poe’s skillfully uses architecture to reflect the inner workings of the mind.  In this story the Usher’s house is falling apart which mirrors the mental decline of all the Ushers in the house.  The rotting house reflects the deconstruction of Roderick Usher’s mind

The sinking of the house into the reflecting pool dramatizes the sinking rational part of the mind which has unsuccessfully attempted to maintain some contact with the stable structure of reality outside the self, into the nothingness of within (Thompson 25).

Roderick struggles to maintain control of his mental state just as the house struggles to stand solid and erect.

            The most functional literary technique found in “The Fall of the House Usher“ is Poe’s unique use of the narrator.  In most of Poe’s short stories the main character and the narrator are one in the same, however this is not true in The Fall of the House Usher.  The narrator, in this case,  is an outsider who is merely watching the action in the house as it happens.  He is the sole consciousness of the short story.  The reader is at the mercy of the narrator and must accept his account and judgments of what is occurring and why.  The narrator explains his relationship to the Ushers:

Its proprietor, Roderick Usher, had been one of my boon companions in boyhood but many years had elapsed since our last meeting (Poe 117)

The reader learns about the actions, characters through the narrator’s eyes.  The audience knows nothing of the narrator other than he is male, and logical.  The narrator comments on why he  is afraid of the house:

Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror, and unaccountable yet unendurable, I threw on my clothes with haste, for I felt that I should sleep no more during the night and … but pacing rapidly to and for through the apartment (Poe 127).

The narrator is unable to give the reader insight into the minds of the other characters.  Only through their actions does the narrator and the reader start to piece together what is actually occurring in the house.  The narrator acts as a foil to Roderick Usher.  The narrator is logical, and reasonable.  On many occasions he stops to explain rational reasons that are the causes of the “supernatural” events in the house.   The narrator down plays much of action in the novel.  At one point Roderick points out and the mist and believes that a “supernatural” force is creating it.  The narrator tries to explain it away but saying it is caused by electrical charges.  Roderick is irrational in mind and body.  He does strange things and says strange things.  The narrator’s logic is balanced against the craziness of Roderick.  Poe carefully parallels the narrator’s (reader’s) stable mental to state to those of the User Family.  Poe’s main character “were studies of stages in consciousness when the real world  slipped away or disintegrated and the mind found itself fronting the “horror” of its own loneliness and loss.” (Davidson 122).

            The narrator is also a foil to the reader.  The narrator is too rational and too dense to figure out what is happening in the house.   He witnesses many things and accounts them to the reader.  But he is unable to draw any non-logical conclusions.  The reader on the other hand, can look at these clues and is smart enough to figure out what is happening.  Poe deliberately makes the narrator stupid and places faith in the detective skills of his audience.  This particular technique has been misinterpreted by many academics.  Critics believe that Poe was great at plot but not well equipped to fully flesh out characterization.  In this case Poe intentionally holds back the description of the narrator to make him anonymous, distant, and impartial.

            It is through the aggressive use of language, literary devices, and accurate interpretation of the human experience to create fear, that Poe is able to control the reader.  He utilizes that terror to manipulate and control what the reader feels and think.  “An impressible, tremor gradually pervaded my frame, and, at lengthy, there sat upon my very heart an imbus of utterly causeless alarm,” (Poe 126) states the narrator –  the reader does tremble.  In “The Fall of the House Usher” Poe employs the narrator to deliver several different types of narrative techniques.  He plays all the senses.  Through the use of rhyme, metaphor, word manipulation, and alliteration all seen through the eyes of the narrator, he weaves a tail of creeping horror and emotional breakdown.  Narrative technique is extremely important in  the story.  Without the narrator there is no story.  He is the sole witness of all the tragic events that occur, and the only person who lived.  While Poe’s contemporaries were comfortable with telling their audiences what to think and feel, he wrote to create something much more intimate.  He created a piece of prose, “The House of the Fall Usher,” in which the reader actually became a character within the story – feeling, thinking, and fearing.

Works Cited

Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge, MA: Belknap-Harvard   University Press, 1957.

Ketterer, David “”Shudder”: A Signature Crypt-ogram in “The Fall of the House of Usher””Resources for American Literary Study – Volume 25, Number 2, 1999, pp. 192-205.

Lammers, John. “Sentience and the False Deja Vu in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.'” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 22.1 (Spring 1996): 19-41.

Magistrale, Tony. Student Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Poe, Edgar Allan. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard U, 1969-

Thompson, G.R.  “The Face in the Pool: Reflections on the Doppelgänger Motif in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” from Poe Studies, vol. V, no. 1, June 1972, pp. 16-21.


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