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The Fall of the House of Usher | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


How does Poe allude to his own essay "Philosophy of Composition" in the opening paragraph of "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

When the narrator first approaches the House of Usher, he describes the mansion in some detail and relays his "utter depression of the soul" the best he can. He describes the approach to the House of Usher as unnerving, and attributes the affect to the "combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us." This statement works on two levels: first, it anticipates Roderick's theory of the sentience of inert objects by introducing the notion that careful arrangements and combinations of ordinary things can yield profound things; second, it reveals something of Poe's "Philosophy of Composition." The narrator reflects that a "different arrangement of the particulars of the scene ... the details ... would ... modify, or perhaps annihilate [the] sorrowful impression." This observation from the narrator reflects Poe's own belief that each detail of a creative work must be articulated just so to fully service the overall impression of the work.

How does Poe use metallic ringing sounds to merge Mad Trist with the main plot of "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

With the storm reaching epic proportions outside the house and the fear of a ghostly haunting preoccupying Roderick and the narrator, the narrator attempts to soothe Roderick (and possibly himself) by reading from Mad Trist. As the narrator reads parts of the story, the sounds described in the text can be heard in the House of Usher. When the narrator reads about the "mighty great and terribly ringing sound" in the book, he and Roderick hear in the House of Usher "a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation." By bringing the sounds of the book into the setting of the short story, Poe seamlessly melds the fantastic and the real. The choice of a metallic, clanging sound enhances the effect, as if the two worlds merged in the reverberations of the sound.

Why might Poe have wanted his readers to be able to read "The Fall of the House of Usher" in a single sitting?

Poe believed a work must have what he called a "unity of impression." This notion of unity is most likely adapted from the three unities of drama that French classicists distilled from Aristotle's Poetics: unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. Poe believed that "if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere" with the unity of impression, "and everything like totality is at once destroyed." The benefit of a single-sitting reading is evident in "The Fall of the House of Usher." Although this is one of Poe's longer short stories, it can still be managed in a single sitting. As with his other works, the effect of the story, or the impression it has on the reader, depends on the reader's full immersion into the sensory experience Poe creates with language. The success of "The Fall of the House of Usher" hinges on Poe's ability to build intrigue and mystery surrounding Madeline Usher's death, Roderick Usher's health, and the deterioration of the House of Usher. The momentum of this intrigue and mystery can be maintained only if the reader experiences the story in a single sitting.

Why might Poe have drawn on the widespread fear of being buried alive in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

Poe was fascinated by the human psyche, and his stories often explore the anxieties and preoccupations of his contemporaries. For example, his story "The Tell-Tale Heart" might have been inspired in part by the controversy in the 1840s over the invocation of the insanity defense in criminal trials. Like "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Fall of the House of Usher" draws on contemporary anxieties over being buried alive. By tapping into the fears and fascinations of his readers, Poe is able to use the readers' fear to manipulate them and create a deeply terrifying horror story that fully engages their imagination.

How does Poe's diction impact the overall effect of "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

A common characteristic across American Gothic writing is the use of elevated diction. This elevation is often characterized by obscure and archaic word choices. This effect is first established in the opening sentences of the story. The narrator relays his approach to the house as such: "at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher." Another striking example of this elevated diction from the first paragraph is "an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime." These sentences could read much more colloquially, but Poe intentionally endows his narrator with a formal, highly stylized language and complex syntactical patterns, as is customary in the Gothic genre. These choices connect the reader to archaic, medieval traditions. The removal from the traditional speech patterns of Poe's time also endows the story with a dreamy effect, one that blends fantasy and reality.

How does Poe use the long o sound to evoke sorrow in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

Poe gives great attention to the sound of language. In his essay "Philosophy of Composition" Poe identified "the long o as the most sonorous vowel," meaning that the sound of the long o could best produce a deep emotional resonance, likely a sorrowful one, within the reader. In "The Raven," for example, he achieves this with the repetition of the words Lenore and nevermore in the refrain. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" Roderick's song echoes some of the technique used in "The Raven." For example, in stanza four there is a description of "the fair palace door,/through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,/And sparkling evermore." This shift in language anticipates the evil and sorrow that is about to befall the palace in stanza five. The succession of long o sounds also gives the overall impression of a low, moaning sound, perhaps the kind of sound a reader might associate with a ghost's moan.

How does "The Fall of the House of Usher" anticipate a claim Poe makes about the most poetic subject in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition"?

Although Poe's essay "The Philosophy of Composition" was published in 1846, seven years after the publication of "The Fall of the House of Usher" in 1839, both works reveal an allegiance to a certain poetic ideal. In "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe wrote that "the death ... of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world." Of course Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" executes a plot about the death of a beautiful woman, Madeline Usher. Interestingly, in "Philosophy of Composition" Poe also wrote that "it is beyond a doubt that the lips best suited for such a topic are those of a bereaved lover." Poe seems to have arrived at this second conclusion by the time he wrote "The Raven," whereas the tale of death in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is told by a narrator who is not Madeline's lover.

How does the appearance of the House of Usher mirror the condition of Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher?"

When the narrator approaches the house, he gives multiple descriptions of the signs of decay of the House of Usher. The trees are decayed, and there is fungi covering the house's exterior. The narrator says of Roderick, "Surely, man had never before so terribly altered ... as had Roderick Usher." Roderick's health is deteriorating like the exterior of the House of Usher, though both still show signs of physical integrity. The house has "vacant eye-like windows" that parallel Roderick's "cadaverousness of complexion" and "hollow-sounding enunciation." Through these descriptions, Poe gives both the House of Usher and Roderick a distinct quality of the absence of life.

Why might the narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" compare both his own feeling and Roderick Usher's speech to that of an opium user?

As the narrator approaches the House of Usher, he describes the sensation he has as akin that that of "the after-dream of the reveller upon opium." Later he describes Roderick Usher's speech as that "which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium." When Poe was writing, it was not uncommon for people to smoke opium; Poe himself was known to have an addiction to opium, in addition to his heavy drinking habit. Given his habitual use of the drug, it makes sense that Poe would draw on the sensations of its effects. It is also possible that Poe was under the influence of opium when he conceived of and/or wrote the story. One final possibility is that the narrative itself is an opioid-induced delusion. This might account for its dreamlike quality.

How does Poe modulate the pacing of the final paragraph of "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

The final paragraph of "The Fall of the House of Usher," in which the narrator is fleeing from the house, can be considered as the falling action. The pacing of the final paragraph is much faster than the exposition or the rising action of the story, and Poe uses two strategies to create this effect. First, he shortens the length of the sentences. The first four sentences in the paragraph are much shorter than those a Poe reader has grown accustomed to. And while some of the other sentences in the paragraph, such as the one beginning "The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon," are over 40 words long, they move quickly through his use of punctuation. In particular, in the final, very long sentence, Poe uses a dash to break the words apart. This has the effect of moving the reader's eyes quickly through the text.

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