Show how Poe uses language to create atmosphere and describe the state of mind of the murderer and Roderick Usher. Consider how the modern reader might respond to these stories.
Daniel Tiernan 4U
Edgar Allen Poe was an American short story writer, editor for magazines and poet during the early to mid 19th century. Two of his short stories, ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ were both written during the Victorian times when Gothic literature was at it’s height in popularity.
The main thesis and features of Gothic literature are mystery, terror, supernatural, big decaying houses or castles and the dead.
The Victorian readers were fascinated by the supernatural especially, with many still believing in witches and black magic. Ideas like these are still found in horror stories today and also in films, however the main attraction for horror movies has changed from supernatural, to audiences wanting to be frightened. Poe was a prolific idea of Gothic literature, and his main base for writing was madness, which features in both stories that we have studied.
His writing does not just include madness, but also its implications and what it can result to if left untreated.
In the opening sentences Poe captures the reader’s attention with Capitalisation, the use of exclamation mark, repetition and a rhetorical question. ‘True! – nervous – very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad?’ The narrator is communicating with us from the outset and the capitalisation of the word True, which is not normally used to open a sentence.
He also uses an exclamation mark on the opening word True which makes the reader feel as though he has shouted the word out, which is quite bizarre.
The repetition and staccato likeness of the opening words sets a fast tempo to the story, which ignites the reader’s attention and, lends to the reader’s opening theory that the narrator does not have a level headed mind. The rhetorical question that Poe uses, ‘why will you say that I am mad?’ is a good literary device as it involves the reader and builds a relationship through the dialogue between the narrator and the reader, engaging the audience and makes the reader believe that maybe the narrator doubts the stability of his own mind. All these factors show the reader the narrator has an agitated mind and strongly suggest the narrator’s insanity.
Poe develops an image of a disturbed person in the first paragraph, who hears voices in his head. ‘I heard all things in heaven and in Earth. I heard many things in hell,’ This makes the reader suspect that the narrator is unstable and his actions are the commands of the voices in his head, when referring to hell we suspect that some of these voices are evil and dark in their nature. A foreboding atmosphere is thus produced and it makes the reader to read on with excitement mixed with also a little nervous anticipation.
Poe builds up suspense extremely well by using imagery and he also slows the tempo down to describe how slowly he was moving his own hand, comparing its speed to that of the minute hand of a clock. ‘A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine’. This description of how slow he moved his hands makes the reader wonder about his mental health and lends to the theory that he is maybe a schizophrenic with much paranoia and an extremely strong desire to kill. The modern reader would like this because in today’s stories and films it is often that there is a madman with a mental condition who is the villain and/or murderer.
Midnight was a time when many Victorians believed that supernatural forces were at work. Poe uses this myth to create a dark foreboding atmosphere. The narrator tells the reader that he entered the old mans room every night ‘about midnight’ and reinforces the atmosphere by the use of repetition of the idea of the witching hour. ‘Every night just at midnight’ and ‘Just at twelve’. The narrator is building up suspense for the reader by placing his evil deed during what the Victorians called the witching hour. For a Victorian reader they would know the mythological idea that dark powers were at their strongest at midnight, for the modern reader however this probably would not have the same suspenseful effect.
Poe uses hands of a minute clock when describing how slowly the narrator moves his own hands. It is a clever play on words, but has good effect as it builds suspense and makes the reader wonder about the stability of the narrator’s mind. ‘A watch’s minute hand moves more quickly than did mine’ This sentence paints the picture of the narrator very very slowly entering the room and it is quite frightening to imagine, it makes us wonder what the narrator is thinking.
Poe describes how powerful and confident the narrator is feeling in his own wiseness, this underlines the growing feeling of menace. This produces a strong sense of foreboding and tension, ‘Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers – of my own sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph.’ This sentence is very sinister, as it shows the narrators confidence and audacity in his actions and so called ‘Powers’. It shows how he is almost giddy and very excited about his evil plan. This would be attractive for modern readers as it is quite threatening and makes us want to read on to discover his plan in full detail. A modern reader can relate this in many modern day films.
Poe increases the tension when describing how the narrator took an hour to put his head into the door opening. The narrator gives the impression that his sanity has been questioned before, and therefore he asks us candidly. ‘Ha! Would a madman have been so wise as this,’ This adds to the overall effect of horror by the narrator continuously stressing to us that he is not mad and tries to convince us of this by detailing how carefully the murder was planned. By doing so Poe assures our convictions that the narrator is insane. Poe understands that deranged people often try to convince that they are sane when to an outsider they clearly are not. It bridges a gap that is quite awkward in real life and he has introduced it into his story.
The narrator is distressed by the old man’s clouded cataract like eye. It disturbs him so much that he says it is the reason he must kill the man. ‘… resembled that of a vulture – a pale blue eye with a film over it.’ Poe uses a metaphor to compare the eye to that of a vulture, a scavenger which feeds off the dead remains of animals. This introduces the idea of death, and coldness and makes one apprehensive of the eye. The description of the pale blueness of the eye, could suggest that the narrator feels the eye looks right into him and his conscience, and that this scares him. Poe emphasizes the old man’s eye describing it as, ‘. . evil eye’ the modern reader can relate to this belief as it is still prevalent in many cultures today.
Poe builds the anticipation to a climax when he describes the old man’s fear. ‘Groan of mortal terror’ Poe uses emotive language here and continues to build the suspense; the reader can empathise with the old man as indeed does the narrator. ‘I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him’ this is in direct conflict with the narrator’s actions, he then went to say, ‘. . . although I chuckled at heart.’ This demonstrating that he ignores his conscience and follows his overriding intention from his heart to kill. The ‘mortal’ is very suggestive that the old man knows his doom.
Poe then uses the devices; personification and metaphor when he says that, ‘death . . . stalked with his black shadow before him, and enveloped the victim.’ This is very potent as it gives the impression of death being a living malevolent force. It is fear-provoking as it suggests that we will be followed before we die and be sucked into a hellish vacuum. The modern reader could link this idea with the infamous Grim Reaper. He is a legend that is supposed to take us from this earth to the afterlife.
Poe raises the tempo of the story to an electric climax describing the beating of the old man’s heart. ‘It grew quicker and quicker, louder and louder every instant.’ This use of repetition is demonstrating the old man’s fear and replicating the beat of his racing heart, and so we read each word like on heart beat.
The raise in tempo of the Old man’s heart is relative to the raise in the narrator’s fury. ‘It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.’ This suggests that he feels that he is being encouraged from a higher power, and his obeying orders (perhaps voices in his head). In addition it is saying that his cause is just and he is innocent like a soldier in a just war.
When the narrator murders the old man, Poe is quite vague about the details. Much is left to the imagination of the reader after reading the description of how he died. ‘I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him.’ For the modern reader this would not be satisfactory as nowadays we watch films with much more graphic details, and need to clearly picture how the murder was committed.
The actual murder itself is an anti-climax. In a manner if fact fashion, the narrator ‘dismembered the corpse. I cut off the head and the arms and the legs.’ This makes the reader wonder if the narrator has a conscience at all as he is able to do this without a hint of guilt, as he mutilated a corpse. At this point in the story, the narrator feels he is all powerful and has got away with the murder.
‘I smiled, — for what had I to fear?’ However the anxiety starts to increase again when the narrator hears the old man’s heart beating again. ‘It grew, louder — louder – louder!’ The narrator is clearly suffering from hallucinations, perhaps brought on by guilt. The policemen present can hear nothing. The narrator then starts to lose his mind completely. ‘I foamed – I raved – I swore!’ The feeling that the narrator’s guilt starts to crescendo to it’s peak when he blurts out a confession, in front of the startled police officers. ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed!’
In the story of ‘The fall of the house of Usher’ the scene is set by a Poe’s description of a gloomy atmospheric setting. ‘The clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens’ suggesting threat. Also Poe uses personification when he describes the House of Usher as ‘melancholy’. He starts extending the personification of the House later on in the paragraph, when he writes, ‘the vacant eye-like windows’.
All these descriptions thus portray an image of a desolate, ominous place. The narrator compares seeing the House of Usher to the horrible reality of somebody for whom the effects of opium are wearing off, revealing a horrible reality. ‘The bitter lapse into everyday life-the hideous dropping of the veil.’ The modern reader would associate this with going ‘Cold Turkey’. This is good imagery from Poe as it shows clearly that this is not a place someone would like to be and as a result sets a very foreshadowing beginning to the story.
Just before the narrator enters the house he describes an exterior with some neglect including, ‘Minute fungi’. This suggests decay as Fungi lives off dead remains. Thus firmly setting the story in an atmosphere of gloom and decay.
Poe also writes of a barely visible crack extending from the roof to the bottom of the house. ‘Barely perceivable fissure’ this is very foreboding as the reader is already contemplating the significance of the crack in this atmosphere of decay. He is also hinting strongly at what is going to happen to the house. The modern reader is familiar with the genre of the haunted house tales, which is typically set in a place like this. However they would not like the idea of being told the outcome of the story early on, as today stories and movies usually have a big climax where the ending is then discovered.
When the narrator enters the house the atmosphere of foreboding continues to build, there is nothing cheerful to be seen. ‘The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique and tattered’ also Poe describes ‘an atmosphere of sorrow’. Thus making the reader feel wary of the House.
The narrator then focuses on the appearance of Roderick Usher. ‘A cadaverousness of complexion’ we feel the extent of the narrator’s shock as Poe has used emotive language; ‘cadaver’ is a dead body.
To add to this disturbing appearance the narrator describes Roderick’s mental state, ‘An excessive, nervous agitation’ this would suggest that Roderick does not have a level headed mind and that he suffers from extreme anxiety. Also we can see he is frightened of the future, ‘I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR’ This shows the depth of Roderick’s despair and we can feel his terror, however question the stability of his mind.
Poe then introduces Madeline, Roderick’s sister into the story. She appears and disappears almost in a ghostly fashion. The narrator is ill at ease ‘I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread’ this creates and apparition- like image of Madeline, which again is a popular theme in modern day horror stories.
The sense of foreboding continues when Roderick informs the narrator that Madeline has died. Roderick did not want to consult Madeline’s physicians because of the bizarre nature of her illness. He told the narrator he did not want them probing her corpse for medical science. ‘An unnatural precaution’. This is peculiar and unusual on the part of Roderick because in the strong religious times that the tale is set, a normal person would want the body buried on holy ground very quickly.
Poe adds a sensation of claustrophobia when he writes about Madeline’s burial. ‘Half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere.’ The burial tomb being very confined could be a metaphor for the lives they are trapped in.
The narrator is unable to sleep after Madeline’s burial, he goes to Ushers room where he notices a deteriortion in Roderick’s demeanour. ‘A species of mad hilarity’ and ‘His air appalled me’. To become uncontrollable is very typical of an insane person and so this heightens the stories suspense and sense of foreshadowing.
Poe uses the technique of foreshadowing to hint to the reader of what will be Roderick’s demise. The narrator reads to Usher to try and calm him down as he is very troubled, however all of the tales three main plots are echoed by what is happening in the house; shrieks are heard, a metallic reverberation is heard, cracking and ripping sounds are heard. Roderick is very distressed and this adds to the reader’s apprehension of what is going to happen next. The modern day reader is very familiar with the genre of someone coming back at night. Poe also uses the technique the rule of three, with three main plots in the tale which the narrator reads to Usher, this is effective because three is a number used commonly in literature and in the New Testament.
Poe introduces the idea of the supernatural when Madeline, appears resurrected after being ‘encoffined’ and being shut behind a door of, ‘massive iron’ This is a very frightening image, and terrifies the reader and entices the reader as they are compelled to find out what happens next.
The full horror of Roderick’s fear is then realised when he dies of fright after Madeline attacks him, ‘A victim to the terrors he had anticipated’ The reader had also anticipated Roderick’s doom almost from the beginning of the story by reading the title of the story. Poe builds the suspense consistently throughout the story.
Poe concludes the story in a shocking and dramatic manner, the narrator ‘fled aghast’ away from the house and turns back to see a ‘blood red moon, shining through a crack in the house’ Thus symbolising the death of the house of Usher. This is very eerie and metaphoric as not only has the House of Usher fallen but so has the ancient family line. The suspense is maintained to the very end of the story when Poe uses personification ‘Long tumultuous sound, like the voice of a thousand waters’ when he describes how the lake entombs the House and all its occupants
Whilst Poe is studied at school for academic purposes, I do not think that his books would be the first choice for the modern reader who is reading for pleasure. This is for many reasons.
Firstly, the language used is very sophisticated and antiquated, and as in the ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ large tracts of literature are used as a device to increase tension. The modern reader has to have lots of patience to fully understand Poe’s writing and a high level of literacy is assumed by the author. Modern novels are much less literary and a much more basic vocabulary used. At the same time the modern reader expects more graphic details of murders than is provided in either the ‘Tell-Tale Heart or The Fall of the House of Usher’ Poe writes in such a way that much is left to the reader’s imagination and this is unsatisfactory nowadays when so much can be shown to the modern reader via other genres such as film and television. like music
Moreover both of these novels are very much a product of Victorian times with their emphasis on night time terrors which reflected the beliefs of society at that time. Today’s society tends to dismiss these beliefs as old fashioned and irrelevant. However Poe’s writing is very skilful in his use of various techniques and I admire him for that, but I strongly feel that he would not be such a successful writer if he was alive today.