'The Fall of the House of Usher' - Edgar Allan Poe Lesson 1 | Setting the tone
As it is usually the case in Poe’s short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher” uses a first-person narration. The narrator is internal to the story. However, we are not given any description of the narrator, whether it be his age, his physical features or the purpose of his travel. Apart from his friendship with Rodrick, his personal background is unknown. This is meant to encourage the reader to identify with the narrator and to see himself in the situation. As a consequence, the reader becomes a participant in the story and experiences the fall of the house. Poe aims to inspire powerful emotional response from the reader: we find ourself alone with the narrator “within view of the melancholy House of Usher” (lines 5-6).
The General Atmosphere
This is not mere coincidence that the story is set in autumn: “(…) in the autumn of the year” (lines 1-2). This particular season is generally associated with mortality, melancholy and wistfulness (nostalgie). Autumn is the period when the days get shorter, with less sunlight, building toward the winter months. Life is slowly ebbing (with trees shedding their leaves), and a certain melancholy creep over us. The opening line of the story encapsulates the overall mood of the story: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year (…)” (lines 1-2). It is worth mentioning the alliteration in /d/ which clearly contributes to enhancing the gloomy atmosphere of the scene. Poe’s specific word choice is really significant as it clearly sets the tone: “the desolate or terrible” (line 11), “the bleak walls” (line 13), the “trunks of decayed trees” (line 15), “the ghastly tree-stems” (line 36). It seems that the house is as melancholy as its environment and surroundings. Our attention is constantly drawn to the bleakness of the area and the growing fear that it instils.
Gothic fiction is usually set in medieval-like settings; the “desolate”, ancient, and “decaying” House of Usher is perfectly suited for this story. The whole setting plays an integral part in the story, for it establishes an atmosphere of melancholy, gloom and decay.
A mere glimpse of the Usher mansion inspires in the narrator “an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart.” (alliteration in / s /). (line 19). To some extent one might say that the natural world is directly connected to the narrator’s interior feelings. It seems like the weather, as well as the overwhelming gloomy atmosphere of the scene, mirrors the narrator’s depressed emotions. Indeed, the opening paragraph of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a classic example of what is called pathetic fallacy. Pathetic fallacy is a literary device that attributes human qualities and emotions to inanimate objects of nature. To some extent it can be described as a kind of “personification of nature” – the natural world is treated as though it was experiencing human emotions.Poe employs this literary device in order to mirror the spiritual turmoil of the characters and the rising chaos of the House of Usher through the evolving weather conditions. When the narrator first arrives at the House of Usher, the weather is overcast - “The cloud hung oppressively low…” (line 2) contributing to the menacing dark atmosphere and the sinister tone.
“What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.”
By the sight of the house itself, the narrator is filled with a sense of dread. We have here a clear reference to the notion of sublime - the house is awe-inspiring. The house immediately stirs up in the narrator “a sense of insufferable gloom”.
The House is a character
The house is described as having “vacant eye-like windows..” – it is as though the house was watching us. This strengthens the overwhelming stuffy and oppressive atmosphere that prevails around the house. We are dealing here with a personification of the house, which becomes a character in the story.
The entire opening scene is steeped in blackness and melancholy. In the opening lines, it is evident that Poe is focusing on the senses in order to create an immersive menacing world. An emotional tone is clearly set, with a strong emphasis on feelings of fear and gloom. The plot and settings are so connected that they seem one; and from the first sentence to the last, the mood of desolation and impending doom never leaves.