Terror as a Method of Manipulation in
“The Fall of the House of Usher”
Edgar Allan Poe’s uses of terror and dark imagery have earned him a place among classic 19th century authors. The décor of his writing includes such familiar gothic set pieces as castles and mansions with human characteristics, underground passages, and characters with eclectic decorative tastes and creepy sexualities. These props are carefully placed within the context of a story in order to give Poe a strong impression of control: not only over his characters, but also over his audience by manipulating our senses and emotions, and forcing us to view things from different perspectives. He does this in several ways, using descriptive passages to introduce the mood of his unfolding drama, and a first person narrator to give his audience a sense that they are a part of the story. His method of presenting the details of a dramatic situation adds a sense of mystery that contributes to the fearful surroundings and helps build towards a climax.
Poe’s ability to take even the most supernatural and unnerving details from his stories and make the emotions that they evoke apply to his audience suggests that the fear and terror associated with his stories are universally applicable and gives his writing a sublime flavor. In the beginning of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator immediately sets a murky tone to the story by describing the scenery as he approaches Roderick Usher’s house.
“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 earthy sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium—the bitter lapse into common life—the hideous dropping off of the veil” (Poe 1508).
Immediately we know that something is not right. Gone are the undertones of normalcy usually present in a description of a friend’s home, and in their place are discordant images of a disturbing nature. These undertones remain throughout the story, and provide a nagging sense of expectation tinged with fear.
Terror, through the experience and perceptions of the narrator, gives Poe instant access to the minds of his audience. This is why a first-person perspective is so often employed in his works. Through the writing of a story, Poe allows himself to become intimately acquainted with the narrator or “I” of the story, and is thus able to better understand and/or predict his audience. We, as readers, are limited in our ability to understand the events of the story as they unfold because the narrator is also limited in their ability to understand. In this way, Poe is able to control not only the events, but also our perception of the events, and the tumult of feelings that ultimately ensues.
For example, in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” if the story were told from Roderick’s point of view we would be automatically gifted with a much more in-depth knowledge of the family’s history and an immediate knowledge of the role of incest in the family tree. However with the help of a third, uninvolved party, we are able to see the remarkable resemblance between Roderick and his sister Madeline, analyze their interactions, observe their bizarre illnesses, and thus deduce that there is some sinister sexuality that is being suggested rather than boldly acted out.
When Roderick thinks on his relationship between himself and his sister, his comments on Madeline’s impending death do not immediately seem to make sense:
“Her decease,” he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, “would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers” (Poe 1512).
Though he certainly would be the only remaining Usher, we are given no indication-aside from his weak state of health-as to why this situation must continue. The Usher family has lasted for several generations, and there is, at this early point in the story, no reason that we should doubt his ability to marry.
This portrayal of Usher gives us new insights into his situation, and we are allowed to look into his life and maybe feel dark similarities from a safe distance. As an audience, we are given the ability to feel the horror of the narrator as we come to conclusions about Usher’s history, and at the same time, the ability to choose between the dark side of ourselves (as represented by the relationship between Usher and his sister) and the safer, easier repulsion (and then terror) that is our public reaction as unseen events cause horrible consequences.
Often with stories of Poe’s generation, the audience is left with some kind of moral, however in Mr. Poe’s case, the line isn’t so easily drawn. He writes his characters in a way that allows us to be able to simultaneously see the socially correct solution and feel some dark inner part of ourselves echoing the negative situation. For example, in “The Fall of the House of Usher” we know that incest is bad or wrong in a social context, but may feel ourselves drawn to the forbidden drama like Adam to the apple.
The narrator knows this, and from Usher’s behavior, we may assume that he knows this also. He has lost his sister, who presumably either was, or would have been his lover. His lust for life has all but gone… But surely he cannot remain in the depths of despair! No, because within a page we see that his acute senses have caused him to go mad!
“And now, some days of bitter grief having elapsed, an observable change came over the features of the mental disorder of my friend. His ordinary manner had vanished. His ordinary occupations were neglected or forgotten. He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step. The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue—but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out”(Poe 1517).
It is just this kind of build up that Poe is known for. Poe uses short, choppy sentences to create tension and a sense of suspense. He builds each paragraph up with sentences full of details that left alone, or put in a different context would mean nothing!
This skillful use of the pen has us waiting for the sense of dread that has been building up for the duration of the story to come to an exciting conclusion. We are waiting for something, and by the time that Lady Madeline appears bloodied at the door, we are ready for anything. Therefore, even though it is not a surprise when both Usher’s die (after all, Poe’s audience has been craving this moment since page one), it is still shocking to see that the association between the physical “house” of Usher, and the actual family of Usher really exists. We realize this at the same moment that the narrator realizes it, and escape just in time to watch the House crumble.
Poe’s use of details and his skillful application of a first person viewpoint certainly contribute to “The Fall of the House of Usher.” However, it is the author’s use of fear that drives the story. He could have chosen among a great many feelings, but terror, being among the most extreme of the identified emotions, is a powerful force, giving Poe the opportunity to manipulate what we think and feel.
Node your homework.
Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature
. 5th ed. New York: Norton 1998.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Baym
Essay partially based on comments and notes from Professor Bergman's Enlt 224 class.