Edgar Allan Poe is a well-known Gothic writer who wrote The Fall of the House of Usher, one of the most famous stories of all time, which illustrates the mastery of the terrifying Gothic genre. Gothic literature is a subgenre of Romanticism marked by gloomy settings, grotesque action, supernatural elements, romance, and exoticism that emerged in the 18th century. Absolute terror usually entertains the reader. Poe’s writings are typically set in isolated ruined settings such as old dismal castles, mansions, and monasteries. This article will explore Poe's use of Gothic elements such as a dreary setting, decay, an atmosphere of mystery and suspense, isolation, tortured characters, madness, and the supernatural in this work. Poe is in fact excellent at using profound imagery to create each of these themes, bringing every aspect of the story to life.
The House as a Gothic Being
From the beginning of the story, Poe describes the dreary setting and eerie surroundings to intensify the narrator’s terror and engage the reader using phrases such as, “during the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day" (Poe, 1839, p. 3), “dreary tract of country" (Poe, 1839, p. 3), and “the ghastly tree stems" (Poe, 1839, p. 4). The description of the environment is important since it helps to build a vivid image of the place and develops the mood of the narrative. Themes of fear and evil drawn from Gothic architecture are other examples that Poe uses in Gothic literature. He refers to the house as “the melancholy House of Usher” (Poe, 1839, p. 3) and “mansion of gloom” (Poe, 1839, p. 4), suggesting that the house plays a significant role in the story and may foreshadow future events. As the narrator approaches the house, he depicts the windows as "vacant eyes" (Poe, 1839, p. 4); the terrain decaying the entire scene fills the narrator with dread, acknowledged by his comment “… the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit” (Poe, 1839, p. 3). Once having entered the house, the narrator describes every object in the room using gloomy imagery such as, “dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered” (Poe, 1839, p. 7). Then, the narrator makes the strangest and most unsettling observation of all, “a barely perceptible fissure, which extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn” (Poe, 1839, p. 6). The crack seems to indicate that the house is very old and ruined and that it could collapse at any time. However, symbolically, it represents a very different story: the end of the Usher family line. Strangely enough, despite noticing this, the narrator continues making his way towards the house.
The Role of Decay from External Appearance to Interior Feeling
Decay is another aspect of Gothic literature that plays a role in the narrator’s fear of the place. He describes the scene by saying, “the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar… which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the grey walls, and the silent tarn” (Poe, 1839, p. 6). Details of the house show many years of deterioration: “minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves” (Poe, 1839, p. 6). The old house and Poe’s gloomy imagery imply uncertainty as to whether the building has occupants or not: “… rotted for years… with no disturbance from the breath of the external air” (Poe, 1839, p. 6). Another display of decay, probably one of the most obvious examples of all, is the decaying of both Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline. These two are the main characters in the story and the only two surviving members of the Usher family. Their mental states mirror the physical state of the house, and as the house deteriorates, the more impact it has on their mental states. In other words, the house has contributed to their illnesses, suggesting that the house has a powerful and influential role in their lives.
Achieving Suspense and Raising Mystery
Throughout the story, there are moments where Poe incorporates an atmosphere of mystery and suspense that characterizes the entire visit of the observant character to the mansion. The only information given to readers on the narrator's motives for visiting Roderick is a letter from Roderick himself. Usher was suffering from an acute illness, a mental disorder that was oppressing him, and sought help from his friend to determine what was wrong with him. Although they were friends in childhood, the narrator actually knows very little about Usher, only that the proprietor was always excessively reserved. This uncertainty of why Usher wants the narrator to visit sets the tone for suspense. Another example of the unknown heightening terror is when characters barely catch a glimpse of something that is eerie. Often, the plot is based around a mystery; for instance, the first time the narrator sees Madeline, he states, “… the lady Madeline passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared” (Poe, 1839, p. 10). What is more mysterious is that neither the narrator nor Usher disclose her name, despite the fact that they had known each other since childhood. Instead, Roderick refers to her as “her decease” (Poe, 1839, p. 10), omitting the fact that she is his sister and most importantly, she resembles a living corpse in his eyes. It is not until the entombment that the narrator sees a striking resemblance between Roderick and Madeline, finally understanding that that they were twins.
The Consequences of Living in Isolation
The narrator’s description of the house as deserted and enveloped in an eerie gloom immediately conveys a sense of isolation and sorrow. Since the narrator does not know much about his close friend because he kept to himself, the description of him as excessively reserved sets the tone for the story’s theme of isolation. One example of isolation is the narrator’s explanation of the Usher family’s lineage, which begins, “I had learned… the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch” (Poe, 1839, p. 5). Roderick and Madeline, in other words, are the family’s last two descendants. Their desire to live alone in an isolated location appears to have contributed to their illness as seen by their quirky behaviour. In the story, the narrator sees Madeline for a brief moment, but she is not seen again until the discovery of her supposed death, thus providing a demonstration of her solitude. When the narrator assists Usher with Madeline’s entombment after she appears to be dead, the biggest display of solitude occurs, “the vault in which we place it (and which had been so long unopened) … was small, damp, and entirely without means of admission for light” (Poe, 1839, p. 17). Burying someone alive is the ultimate expression of isolation.
The Decline of the Characters in Mind and Behaviour
Roderick and Madeline are unusual people in the story. Many critics point to the family background as evidence of incest between brother and sister, as well as to the unique connection the two siblings have. When Madeline first appears in the story, the narrator points out immediately how her brother behaves in her presence, “he had buried his face in his hands” (Poe, 1839, p. 10) implying that he was ashamed of her, or that he was ashamed of himself and therefore covering his eyes in order not to to not look at her face. The narrator also observes a change in Roderick after the burial. “His ordinary manner had vanished… there were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret…” (Poe, 1839, p. 18). Again, the narrator suspects that Roderick is hiding a secret because of the change in his friend's behaviour. While Roderick is characterized as a neurotic and superstitious individual (Poe, 1839, p. 10), Madeline is described as affected by “a gradual wasting away of the person” (Poe, 1839, p. 11) and symptoms that mimic death. Roderick buries Madeline too soon, and the scene in which she returns from the grave and walks towards Roderick is one of the most terrifying scenes in the story. That scene could imply that she needed to look Roderick in the eyes one final time before she died (Poe, 1839, p. 25), seeking closure before she dies. Their entire relationship could explain their psychological issues as well as their comparable peculiar characteristics.
A Mind Into Madness
In Poe’s stories, the psychological decline of characters is particularly noticeable. Often narrators or other characters sink into madness. As Roderick is already apprehensive and superstitious, Madeline’s deterioration appears to push him over the edge. His behaviour becomes progressively more disturbing until the premature burial of his sister. In fact, Roderick’s weakened mental state renders him unable to distinguish between the real and the imagined. Madeline’s madness, on the other hand, is described in the story as “a gradual wasting of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis” (Poe, 1839, p. 11). Her insane behaviour can be seen in her brief appearance in front of the narrator and then in her disappearance, as though she is scared of any type of civilization. After her intense struggle to break free from her tomb, she attacks Roderick, demonstrating one last form of madness.
Explaining the Supernatural
Many Gothic works such as Poe’s use supernatural phenomena to frighten both the characters and readers only to reveal true and logical explanations for seemingly bizarre events later on. As described in the beginning of the story, Usher’s house is depicted with a supernatural and unusual atmosphere. The dungeon, windows, bricks, and every other exterior element are all used to create the illusion of a haunted house. Madeline’s premature burial and the disturbing events leading up to her real death are the most uncanny displays of Gothic influence, and they are eerie in every sense of the word. When Roderick tells the narrator that “the lady Madeline was no more” (Poe, 1839, p. 16) and that he intends to bury her body in one of the many vaults within the main walls of the building, she looks to be dead in his imagination. It was not until seven or eight days that the narrator heard “the echo… of the very cracking and ripping sound” (Poe, 1839, p. 22) and unusual screaming somewhere in the mansion. Roderick is horrified to the point of hysteria at the possibility that she could have been buried alive. Madeline soon appears, introducing spookier overtones by portraying herself as a resurrected ghost wearing clothes drenched with blood. It is clear at this point that she was not dead and was only trying to escape from her tomb. Madeline is the representation of two different personas in the story: one who is fragile before her burial and another who is strong enough to break free from her tomb, almost having supernatural abilities.
Poe incorporates Gothic aspects such as the house being a gothic being, the role of decay, suspense, living in isolation, the decline of the characters, madness and the supernatural in which the element of fear is produced in its fullest form. The dark imagery establishes the tone for the plot and what is to come. As the plot continues, Poe's choice of language in the story also helps expose deeper Gothic concepts. It is for the above-mentioned reasons that The Fall of the House of Usher is an excellent example of well-written Gothic literature.
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