That is not to say I have not found some really fine Poe short stories. “The Cask of Amontillado” is a perfect little jewel. “The Mask of Red Death” is fascinating. His mystery stories are good, especially when you consider he may have invented the form. “William Wilson” is another fine story, though the ending seemed overly melodramatic. But I have to say that the story I will review here, just in time for Halloween, though I have to admit I didn’t plan it this way, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” is a masterpiece. Let’s explore it, though I think this will take up more than one post.
Poe starts the story off with a quote from a French poet named Pierre-Jean de Beranger, from a poem named, "Le Refus:” I know nothing of this poem or poet, but here is the
Son cœur est un luth suspendu;
Sitôt qu'on le touche il résonne.
Sitôt qu'on le touche il résonne.
It translates to:"His heart is a lute strung tight;
As soon as one touches it, it resounds."
It certainly speaks to the nature of the story’s central character, Roderick’s Usher.
I would like to look at the first paragraph in detail. All quotes will be taken from the PoeStories’ posting of the story. I will be citing by numbering the paragraphs (par. 1 equates to paragraph 1) from the top of the story.
First, that opening sentence is beauty of structure and rhythm. It must be highlighted in isolation:
“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country ; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.”
That “d” alliteration in that first phrase is wonderful and so memorable. And he smatters a couple of “d” alliterations further in the sentence with “dreary” and “drew” to create a rhythmic pattern. And in parallel with the “d” alliteration is the “h” alliteration” “whole,” “hung,” “heavens,” horseback,” “House.” Five “d” alliterative words form a sort of helix intertwining with five “h” alliterative words. This is the first of many instances in the story that Poe gives us doubles in a reflective pattern as I’ll point out later. Here it’s an aesthetic representation of a major motif that will be central to the story. This isn’t just good, it’s absolutely brilliant.
Let’s return to that first sentence. Poe goes at great length to create the ambiance of the scene. The day is “dull, dark and soundless,” and not just for part of the day, the whole day. The clouds don’t just hang low in the sky, but in the “heavens.” The evening doesn’t just get dark, the “shades” draw. There is an incredible power vested in the atmosphere, and in contrast, the narrator speaks of his actions in the passive voice: he “had been passing alone” and then “found” himself “within view” of Usher’s house. The contrast is striking, powerful nature, passive individual.
Third, and still on that first sentence, notice the rhythmic movement of the sentence. Through the repetition and pacing of the prepositional phrase pattern and the anticipation generated by holding the key noun phrase (“House of Usher”) to the end of the long sentence, Poe propels the sentence forward as a slow dreary trot. Here are the phrases: “during the whole” “in the autumn,” “of the year,” “when the clouds,” “in the heavens,” “through a…tract,” “as the shades,” “of the evening,” “of the…House.” It’s as if Poe is placing you, the reader, on that horse and in the narrator’s shoes feeling the oppression of the surroundings when suddenly, out of nowhere, the House of Usher comes upon you.
Let’s look at the next four sentences:
I know not how it was - but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable ; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. 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 earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium - the bitter lapse into everyday life - the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart - an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.
These are the narrator’s first impressions he feels as he looks upon the house. There’s more fine writing in there, especially the use of the “s” alliteration. I’ll leave that for the reader to find and appreciate, but let me point out the motifs which will get repeated throughout the story. His soul feels “insufferable gloom,” like someone who has reached a drug induced high but now comes crashing down. This is exactly how Usher feels throughout the story, with the word “gloom” repeated often. The narrator, who is unnamed throughout the story, becomes a double of Roderick Usher. The trees are decayed, reflecting the decay of the house and of Usher’s family house. The house is personified with “vacant eye-like windows.” It too becomes Usher’s double. Finally, the narrator uses the metaphor, “the hideous dropping off of the veil,” as the analogy for seeing nature’s true reality. In essence, that is what happens to Usher at the climax of the story when he realizes his sister Madeline, though entombed, is still alive. And allow me to stretch this a little more. The dropping of the veil is a severing act, severing what obscures reality. The motifs of doubles, of decay, and of fragmentation will be a central part of the story.
The first paragraph concludes in a reflective pondering by narrator:
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. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression ; and, acting upon this idea, 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.
Two observations from that section. First, the relationship between the environment and the individual’s psyche is a mystery. One can poke at it and but at bottom it’s unfathomable; it’s “beyond our depth.” Poe’s diction throughout the paragraph—“mystery,” “heavens,” “shades,” “soul,” “unredeemed”—seem to suggest a spiritual relationship. This is amplified later when the relationship between death and living comes at the heart of the story. And even “the dropping of the veil” suggests the veil separating the Holy of the Holies in the Old Testament Temple. Second, just as the narrator seems to think that a rearrangement of the environmental effects could “annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression,” he comes upon the reflecting image of the house, “remodeled and inverted,”—meaning it’s been rearranged for him—and yet he feels the very same shock. Whatever causes this relationship between soul and nature is deep and not superficial.
So in this first paragraph we see the key elements that form the story. But we still haven’t gotten to its theme, or its central character. That will come in the next post.