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The Gothic novel dominated English literature from 1764 when ‘The Castle of Ortranto’ by Horace Warpole was published, until the early to mid 19th century. The Gothic novel is characterised by darkness, dense forests, old castles, dreary rooms and melancholy characters. Although Gothicism began to relinquish its dominance around 1815, it influenced many emerging genres and can still be seen in some of today’s popular styles. Stephen King, a famous horror writer, draws on suspense, the fear of loneliness and the fear of the unknown whilst Anne Rice, the current ‘queen’ of gothic fiction draws on much the same themes as ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.
Her latest novel ‘Blackwood Farm’ is set in a huge house in the middle of nowhere and tells the story of a young man trapped in a neither living nor dead world where he is haunted by a spirit which prevents him from belonging anywhere.
The Fall of the House of Usher is set on a ‘dark, soundless day in the autumn’, an ideal setting for a Gothic tale.
Autumn, with its cold dreary months following the warmth of summer and nothing to look forward to apart from the hardships of winter, gives an immediately depressing feel to the story. The clouds are said to be “low in the heavens” making the reader aware of a grey oppressive sky, again referring to darkness and shortage of sunlight. As the narrator approaches of the house he describes it as having “bleak walls” and “eye like windows”.
The latter of these gives the reader a feeling of the house watching him like a person. The reader can sense the narrator’s apprehension. Poe uses descriptions such as “rank”, meaning a strong rancid odour, a certain indication that something in some way has gone bad. And then he describes the “white trunks of decayed trees” thus highlighting the ghostly, “death like” setting. The narrator seems very unnerved by the setting and this is portrayed when he says “nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies the crowded upon me as I pondered”, as if he is scared or wary of the objects around him.
The plot fits perfectly into the Gothic genre. It contains a strange man with an unknown illness, a house which in some way has a powerful negative effect on the family and a person who either returns from the dead or was entombed alive. All this is set in a vast and ancient decaying house surrounded by a bleak forest. The background to the story is that the narrator has been asked to visit by the owner of the house who was a boyhood companion of his. The narrator hasn’t seen or even given much thought to this man for many years. We are made aware of the loneliness of the life Roderick Usher, the owner, when the narrator speaks of not really knowing his friend very well. As a child Roderick was excessively reserved. It seems strange that the only person he feels able to call on in his time of need is someone who doesn’t feel he knows him very well. We are also told that there are no other branches of the Usher family. The story starts with the narrator approaching the house alone through the bleak setting. The reader is aware of his vulnerability and starts to feel concerned about what lies ahead.
The narrator approaches the house nervously and trying to calm his anxiety, looks into a lake. The image reflected, however, is even more horrific and chaotic than what he was imagining previously and this throws the narrators mind into a state of temporary disarray. This is a theme prevalent throughout the story but is usually displayed by Roderick Usher not the narrator. Nearing the house the narrator notices a fissure running from the roof of the house to the ground, this is not dwelt on at the time but is very relevant to the ending of the story. Once inside the house the narrator is led through many “dark and intricate passages” to meet Roderick Usher. He finds him much changed and describes him as “terribly altered”. Not only does Usher look physically ill but he also seems to been in a very agitated state of mind “alternately vivacious and sullen”. There are moments when Usher seems hopeful that his guest will be able to help him and talks of “the solace he expected me (the narrator) to afford him”.
At one point he describes his illness as a “constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy” but then immediately says that it is a “mere nervous affection” which will soon pass. He seems almost haunted by the things he is afraid of and confides in the narrator as to what he feels will be the death of him. It is fear, a most crucial component of Gothic literature. Our introduction to Lady Madeline, Usher’s twin sister, is brief, no more than a sighting but we are told of her mysterious illness and later her death. The narrator assists Usher, who is anxious to prevent doctors from interfering with his sisters body, to entomb Madeline in a vault. After this Usher’s mental health goes into rapid decline. On the “seventh or eighth night” after her entombment the narrator retires to his room but feels troubled and cannot sleep.
Usher knocks at his door, also troubled and demanding in a rather hysterical manner “And you have not seen it?” In an effort to calm him the narrator grabs a book and starts reading to Usher. As he reads, noises described in the book seem to be mirrored within the house. Even after this has happened twice the narrator tries to remain calm so as not to further excite the unstable Usher. However when it happens a third time the narrator can no longer contain his alarm and rushes over to Usher who seems to be having a complete breakdown.
Usher declares that the noises were Madeline breaking free from her tomb were they had placed her still living. Terrified he feels her presence outside the door ” I tell you that she now stands without the door”. The door flies open and there is Madeline who falls heavily upon her brother who dies of fright just as he predicted. The narrator flees from the house and looking back from a safe distance sees the fissure which he had noticed on his arrival widening and then the walls of the house collapsing until the whole building disappears into the tarn.
Poe plays with the readers emotions by alternating the dramatic and sinister with the relatively normal.
The typically gothic setting at the beginning of the story and the narrators reaction to it “a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit” draw the reader in and create an unsettling mood. Poe depicts the house and its surroundings in detail so we are thoroughly immersed in it. In the opening paragraph Poe describes the setting and the narrators feelings in great detail. In this part of the piece Poe is unrestrained by having to follow the details of the storyline. He is free to show off his talents at description of both setting and human emotions whilst creating a powerfully gothic atmosphere.
“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 gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows”
Once settled into the house the narrator appears to develop some sort of routine to his days with Usher. Whilst the narrators life is not exactly normal in the strict sense of the word as Ushers grip on sanity is fragile and some of his behaviour very peculiar, the reader is reassured by the calm and sensible voice of the narrator. Though even within this period of relative calm Poe often inserts accounts of some of Usher’s bizarre behaviour such as his improvisations on guitar. The apparent death of lady Madeline signals the start of the build in tension to the climax of the story. The narrator has to help Usher deposit her coffin in a small, damp, copper lined vault which lies “at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment”.
The vault is sealed with a massive iron door after the coffin lid has been screwed down. On the final night of the story the narrator is anxious, too anxious to sleep. The reader is not used to this so feels anxious too. We are told of the tattered draperies which “swayed fitfully to and fro upon the walls” it creates unease. When Usher comes into the narrators room he is in a very agitated state.
He throws open the window to the storm and to the “unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation ” which enshrouds the mansion. The ghostly sight makes the narrator shudder and he tells Usher that the air is “chilling and dangerous to his frame”. The suggestion of cold chilling air makes goose bumps rise on the readers skin, the same effect that fear would have. Then the narrator reads to Usher taking the reader away from the unnerving atmosphere in the room only to be brought back suddenly when noises in the house mirror the noises described in the story. This becomes increasingly alarming as it happens not twice but three times.
The reader identifies strongly with the narrator and so feels the fear that he feels. By the time Madeline appears at the door the reader is at his most anxious and it would probably be very anticlimactic if the story didn’t climax with the violence that it does.
Poe’s use of intricate language is extensive and well structured. In the first paragraph he uses a large number of adjectives as this is the most descriptive part of the story. He refers to the “melancholy House of Usher”. Here he uses personification to assign a human emotion to the house. This could refer back to the narrators own emotions but I think it probably reflects the atmosphere of the house, also described as “dull” and “dark”. Poe also compares the narrators feelings to the “after dream of the reveller upon opium”. The experience of opium taking would have been well known to his readers as it was readily available and frequently taken among the middle and upper classes. The effect of opium taking that he is referring to is not the ‘high’ but the terrible low as one plunges back into reality after the ‘high’. Poe tends to use words that sound old-fashioned (archaic nouns) and also words that give his descriptions more atmosphere.
When he writes “no goading of the imagination could torture into the aught of the sublime”, we are given perfect examples of both of these devices. He could have used ‘shape’ or ‘create’ instead of ‘torture’ but to add to the sinister feeling of the first paragraph he uses the later word which carries much more painful connotations. He also uses the word ‘aught’ an archaic noun meaning ‘anything’. Again he could have used a much simpler word but ‘aught’ gives his writing weight. The use of archaic nouns would make his writing seem old fashioned which would be beneficial to Poe, firstly because readers of his work at that time would consider him a greater writer, and secondly because the use of archaic nouns give his writing a stronger link with the medieval foundations of Gothicism.
Poe also strengthens the gothic feel of his story by commenting on the architecture. In the sixth paragraph he refers to a “”Gothic archway”. The archway is symbolic of entering so he is reminding the reader that they are entering a Gothic world, one where anything could happen. In the same paragraph he also has the narrator led through “many dark and intricate passages” by a silent valet, these things are commonplace in Gothic novels. The valets silence is menacing and the dark, intricate passages give a claustrophobic feel to the house, much the same as the windows which are said to be “so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within”. This is most certainly symbolic Poe is giving the reader a sense of the difficulty of escape and of being trapped. Poe uses symbolism a lot to reflect the sate of mind of the characters. He writes “musical instruments scattered about”, we know that music is an important part of Ushers heritage and something which he is fond of .
One would expect these instruments to be treated with care and the fact that they are scattered about mirrors Ushers disordered state of mind. Poe also uses complex adjectives such as “phantasmagoric”, in this case to describe the armorial trophies. Phantasmagoric means an effect where objects appear to rush towards the observer with increasing size. This makes the trophies very threatening and creates a feeling of paranoia. Later in the story, when Madeline is taken to the vault Poe mentions a “donjon-keep” used in feudal times. Another archaic word (meaning dungeon) but also alluding to a more sinister background behind the ancient family and its mansion than the art, music and charity that the narrator has spoken about. A dark and sinister past is very typical in Gothic novels. In the dramatic final speech that Usher makes Poe uses repetition to great effect. “Not hear it? – yes I hear it, and have heard it. Long – long – long – many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it….”
This draws attention to Ushers agitated state of mind. He cannot speak without repeating himself. We are given the impression that he is hurrying his words mumbling them intensely like a madman. To give us this impression Poe, for the first time in the story uses a lot of short simple words. He builds up the pace of the speech until just before the end using “the horrible beating of her heart” to pre climax the words “MADMAN! I TELL YOU SHE NOW STANDS WITHOUT THE DOOR!” The first part of the speech is very effective at building tension so that when her beating heart is mentioned the readers heart is racing. The climax line is delivered with the opening word “MADMAN”. Usher seems to be addressing everyone, not just the narrator but himself and the reader as well because if we believe she is alive then we are ‘mad’ too. There was not enough air in the vault to keep her alive for so long.
‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ meets the conventions of Gothic fiction well. The Gothic novel was characterised by intense images of vast dark forest landscapes, large castles with dreary interiors and forlorn characters. All of these are portrayed to full effect and the use of adjectives which may have seemed a little excessive, tied in with the atmosphere of the story and actually played off the excessive madness of Usher. The house provides a supernatural mystic background, it is very old with many dark and sinister secrets and the “donjon-keep” provides a direct connection to the medieval roots of the Gothic.
Poe creates for the reader a feeling of apprehension and unease which leads to fear and then to terror. All are essential elements for the Gothic novel. This novel still has an appeal to readers in 2002 as a classical book but at the time it was originally published its genre was fairly common and that’s why when he could, Poe had to use is talent of manipulating the readers mind to full effect. Although his style seems old fashioned to us, I feel that this style of writing has greater impact on the reader than a modern gothic author such as Ann Rice because the language ties in more closely with the roots of the gothic.
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