The Fall of the House of Usher (Edgar Allan Poe)
In my last blog, I wrote about the importance of mood as a means of examining texts. In this blog, I am going to apply some of these principles to a reading of the opening scene of Edgar Allan Poe’s story, The Fall of the House of Usher. The narrative is well known, and more words have been expended on it than probably any other short story. Still, that doesn’t stop me writing some more!
For the uninitiated, you can read the story here: https://poestories.com/read/houseofusher; or you can read on whilst I subject you to a brief summary that in no way does it justice. The tale is told by an unnamed narrator who recounts his visit to the ancient house of an old school friend, Roderick Usher. Usher, a physically weak man who also suffers from a debilitating mental illness, lives in his ancestral home with his twin sister, Madeline, herself afflicted by states of catatonic paralysis, and who, according to Usher, is living out the last of her days. Haunted by the oppressive house, and his sister’s impending death, Usher becomes increasingly paranoid and unstable, to the despair of his friend.
During his stay, the narrator catches only glimpses of the almost-spectral Madeline, at least whilst she is still alive, but her presence haunts the time he spends with his friend until, abruptly, Usher informs him of her demise. Instantly, and with a creepy zeal that belies Usher’s state of enervation, the two men proceed to entomb Madeline in a vault beneath the house. Copper-lined and secured by an iron door, the vault served first as a dungeon and then a gun-powder store, and it is here, with her coffin screwed shut, that the unfortunate woman is laid to rest.
This, however, is not the end, and Usher becomes even more wildly agitated in the aftermath of the burial, his deranged state inevitably affecting the narrator’s own equilibrium. Then, one night a week or so after Madeline’s interment, a furious storm accompanied by “low and indefinite sounds” disturbs the narrator’s sleep, followed by the arrival of a hysterical Usher to his room. In an attempt to becalm his friend, the narrator begins to read from a book of old Gothic tales of chivalry and romance, but as he reads on to describe one protagonist’s attempt to slay a dragon, the violent sounds recounted in the story are replicated by the increasing intensity of noises heard elsewhere in the house. The sympathy between reality and the story read by the narrator continues in its coincidence until Usher, at the point of his mind breaking, declares with horror that his worst fears have proved true, that they have buried his sister alive, and that the terrible sounds they can hear are those made by Madeline in her attempts to escape her tomb. At the last, Madeline finds her way to the narrator’s room and falls dead upon her brother who is now also lifeless. Suitably terrified, the narrator flees the house just as it collapses in on itself and disappears into the black waters of the tarn that lies just outside its walls.
Mood and The Fall of the House of Usher
The mood of the story is, as I have said, oppressive and desolate throughout, and is a case study in the significance of mood as a vital element in understanding visual and written texts. If we are to understand mood as the combination of the different narrative and linguistic elements (see the diagram opposite) then, in House of Usher, Poe binds these elements together as securely as Usher entombs his sister. The different features of the story, character types, narrative time and place, structure, word palette, tropes, and even the ‘things’ in the text (from trees to coffins), all contribute to the crystallisation of its mood. However, we can also see the story, particularly its opening scene, acting as a meta-critical observation on mood, with the house and the tarn functioning as objective correlatives to the story construction. In arguing for mood as the story’s primum mobile, I am not discounting all those other psychoanalytic observations, or those that tie the story biographically to Poe himself. What I am doing is looking at the formal properties of the text alongside an aesthetics of affect which evokes a lingering sense of desolation that stays with the reader after the event. First of all, let’s take the story’s opening sentence:
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.
The story-mood is evoked from the outset through a number of narrative and linguistic elements, immediately conjuring up an impression of isolation and melancholy: the alliteration on ‘d’ with ‘dull, dark and soundless day’ strikes a drumbeat of inexorable doom that fades to the quieter, whispered sibilance on ‘oppressively’, ‘passing’ etc.. The return of the plosives later on in the sentence, with ‘dreary’ and ‘shades’, creates a syncopated rhythm, foreshadowing the similar disturbances we will encounter in the narrative. The arrangement of the landscape (and here, it is useful to see the sentence as a visual image and consider its mise-en-scène) signifies the narrator’s isolation therein. Clouds squeeze him into the visual frame, his isolation reinforced by the position of the pronouns in the middle of the sentence, flanked either side by spatial and temporal signifiers of silence and an enveloping atmosphere of darkness reinforced by an autumnal setting that completes the sense of life passing. Finally, notice how the name of ‘Usher’ is buried at the end of the sentence, beneath the adverbial phrases and narrative clauses, foreshadowing the theme of entombment and the ultimate destruction of Usher beneath the weight of an oppressive history.
Now let’s move on to another section of that first paragraph:
I know not how it was –but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me –upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain –upon the bleak walls –upon the vacant eye-like windows –upon a few rank sedges –and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees –with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium –the bitter lapse into everyday life –the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart –an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.
Given the power of the opening sentence and its evocation of mood, the sentence that opens this section is perhaps the most disingenuous observation by any narrator. He says “I know not how it was” that the image of the house has affected him with a “sense of insufferable gloom” even though the description that follows deconstructs perfectly the picture before him. Already isolated within the landscape, the disclosive mood (see previous blog) becomes an all-enveloping one, its oneiric tone demonstrated through the personification of the house and the pathetic fallacy that imbues the landscape with the same mood felt by the narrator. Although he rejects a romanticising of the image of the house by denying any sublime impression it may have upon him, the narrator yields to it nevertheless, as Jonathan Cook also observes (2012). There is a unity of effect in the house itself that provokes the narrator to feel the sense of unease, and in his deconstruction of the whole into its individual parts (the “bleak walls”, the “vacant eye-like windows”) he, and thus Poe, proceed to foreground the affective impact of its aesthetic design. Indeed, as the narrator admits in the next few sentences, the gloom that pervades his spirit is in fact the very mood evoked by the various elements of the house:
What was it –I paused to think –what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.
The narrator unconsciously draws attention to the unity of effect created by the combination of the different features of the house, and in doing so, Poe is reminding us of the importance of the sensory impressions wrought by the text itself, derived from its various compositional elements. What reinforces the meta-criticality of the story, however, is the narrator’s subsequent actions. In an attempt to interrogate the source of the mood evoked by the house, the narrator steps back to analyse its composition:
It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down –but with a shudder even more thrilling than before –upon the remodelled and inverted images of the grey sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.
Here, the narrator’s deliberate action of looking into the tarn to examine the ‘text’ of the house replicates the critical/readerly act of analysing the narrative. It is interesting that his reaction to the image of the house in the screen that is the surface of the tarn belies his earlier rejection of the sublime effect. The house as image, as Romantic painting, creates even more excitement than its original. Cook (2012) argues for this inversion as evidence finally of the narrator’s recognition of the house’s sublime impact on his consciousness. The references to abysmal depths (“precipitous”) are accompanied by a physical and sensory affect (“shudder”, “thrilling”), and the repetition of the different elements of the house in its mirror-image is enhanced by how the narrator catalogues its features: the sequence of windows, sedges, and then trees noted in the first sighting is now reversed as trees, sedges, windows, and these reversals and inversions contribute to the uncanny effect of house-as-text. Consequently, as he goes on to reveal a few paragraphs later, the aesthetic effect of the house’s individual elements combine with the whole to dominate the narrator’s mood. Despite the rearrangements of its pieces in its mirror-image, the house-as-text cannot be interpreted any other way. Each element contributes to the sense of decay and dissolution:
I have said that the sole effect of my somewhat childish experiment –that of looking down within the tarn –had been to deepen the first singular impression. There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition –for why should I not so term it? –served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have been for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy –a fancy so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity-an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the grey wall, and the silent tarn –a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.
The tarn and the reflected image of the house are significant on several levels. Firstly, it functions as a frame for the image of the house, a surface impression which only enhances the thrill of the original. Secondly, the pervasive air of decay emanating from the tarn functions metaphorically as the manifestation of an all-consuming mood that, in its oneiric intensity, equates to Sinnerbrink’s notion of the enveloping mood-mode. Finally, the appearance of the house in the water’s surface is a premonition, with the house ultimately consumed within the tarn’s dark oblivion. In this way, the tarn becomes a textual representation of the house and is also the literary embodiment of ‘mood’ itself: if mood is the centripetal force of narrative, then the tarn is the black hole into which all the elements of the story collapse at its denouement.
The story itself is an exercise in what Poe refers to as the “unity of effect” and which I explained in my last blog as follows:
In this sense, the choice of Poe as a writer to demonstrate this is appropriate in that he himself coined the phrase “unity of effect” to describe how a work should exhibit a harmony of its parts, that the denouement should be in dialogue with the opening, and that all elements work together to leave the reader with a long-lasting impression of the tale
I read the story as a boy, and its impression has remained with me ever since. Whilst there have been several film versions (Jean Epstein’s is by far the most atmospheric, but I love Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s version), Poe’s original is worth returning to again and again, in an eternal cycle of uncanny repetition…
In the next instalment of this blog series, I will show how I’ve used this notion of mood in the classroom and with teachers.
Cook, J. (2012) Poe and the Apocalyptic Sublime: “The Fall of the House of Usher.” in Papers on Language & Literature; Winter2012, Vol. 48 Issue 1, p3-44,
Field, D. (2020) Edgar Allan Poe’s Notion Of “Unity Of Effect”. Available at: https://blog.bookbaby.com/2020/01/edgar-allan-poe-unity-of-effect/
Plantinga, C. (2012) Art Moods and Human Moods in Narrative Cinema. in New Literary History, Vol. 43:3
Sinnerbrink, R. (2012) Stimmung: exploring the aesthetics of mood. in Screen 53:2
Sontag, S. (2009) Against Intepretation and Other Essays. Harmondsworth, Penguin.