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Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher". Horror, Fear and the Manipulation of the Reader

Hausarbeit 2011 14 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Unity of Effect

3. The Formation of Atmosphere
3.1 Effects of Fear and Decay
3.2 Roderick Usher and his Family

4. Change of the narrator

5. Influence on the Reader

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most famous American authors; however, he is “the most controversial”[1]. Not only his works fueled the debate on him, but also his almost scandalous biography, which includes alcohol, drugs, financial problems, a marriage with his only 13-year-old cousin and a strange personality, that gave him a reputation of a grumpy, even violent person. Nevertheless he had a great influence on American literature and the modern short story: Poe’s career as a writer began around 1931.[2] For American writers at that time it was very difficult to earn their living. Copyright law wasn’t established yet and so American publishers, instead of paying fee to American writers, just reprinted the more well-known British writers for free.[3] A writer like Poe had to earn their money as editors or lecturer. Poe was successful in both métiers. Furthermore he was an acutely observer and a spirited critic, who brought to bear literary criticism.[4] The vogue of the literary story, particularly in the horrific or Gothic mode, moved from Europe (especially Germany and Britain, where it was established) to America. The American writers did great effort to enhance the short story and literary theory.[5] It is significant that Poe began not as an imitator of the Gothic fad, but by satirizing and burlesquing it.[6]

The attention of this essay will be focused on Poe's means and methods of manipulating the reader with the effect of horror and fear. This shall be demonstrated on the example of “The Fall of the House of Usher”. The story was written in spring or summer of 1839 in Philadelphia.[7] It was published in September of that year in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, of which Poe was assistant editor. A collection of 25 stories named “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque”, including Usher, came out in December. Thomas Woodson describes Usher as “Succession of futile efforts to establish himself, to define a solid identity for posterity, for his contemporaries, and for himself. It is of course typical for him that he should try to construct his own literary personality by dramatizing the fall of a house and of a family.”[8]

2. Unity of Effect

The genre of gothic stories emerged in a time, when the world was starting to become insecure. Poe turned away from classic American short stories and their aesthetic and moral view of life, without any room for irrational and fantastical ideas. He sensed the need of the readers to get to know this dark side of life, the specialty of people out of the ordinary, even those with negative connotations.[9] Compared to the upcoming realism of for example Charles Dickens, Poe found the task of literature to be not the reflection of reality as a “second truth”. Kuno Schuhmann writes: “Sein Credo lautete: Es ist nicht Aufgabe der Literatur, das Vorhandene abzubilden. Dies wäre die erste Wirklichkeit, jene die zweite. Nein, umgekehrt: Die Poesie ist die erste, die höhere Wirklichkeit, und sie reicht hinüber in eine andere Welt. Sie kann das aber nur, indem sie eben nicht Nachahmung ist, sondern zur Imagination, zum reinen Bild und reinen Klang wird.“[10]

One instrument for influencing the reader is the so-called “unity of effect”: It was Poe’s conviction that literature has to be seen by its effect and that the focus of the writer should not be on truth or instruction, but on the agitation of the soul. This idea of the unity of effect is one of the most essential ones in Poe’s theory.[11] It implies that every literary piece needs an underlying structure that concludes in a final idea. Every action or description within the story, every word said, should be conducive to this one central idea: “the same leading thought shines visibly through every variety of attitude and scene”[12]. At the end all thought that have been introduces throughout the story have to merge to an accurate denouement. Not only should there be an overall effect comprehensible for the reader, but it should also evoke certain emotions within the reader to which he can react. To reach this result, purposeful brevity and a framing plot is required.

Furthermore Poe is not primarily interested in characterization: however, the ones he does give lead directly to the main motif of the story. No characterization stays without symbolic meaning or at least leaves clues to the essence of the story.

The unity of effect with its final climax and denouement is because of its brevity and immediacy an efficient device for arousing interest in the reader as well as tension for the outcome.

3. The Formation of Atmosphere

The atmosphere in “The Fall of the House of Usher” has a most powerful impact not only on all of the protagonists, but also on the reader, of which more later. From the first sentence on, Poe is endeavored to give a proper impression of the house, its surroundings and its inhabitants. The unity of all those description creates the atmosphere.

The house itself is described as utterly decayed, with “bleak walls”[13], “vacant eye-like windows”, “a few rank sedges” and “a few white trunks of decayed trees”. The narrator wonders what it is that bothers him so much about this place, but he cannot find an explanation: the “conclusion, that […] there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting [human beings]” does not satisfy him. The building itself, the windows, the rank-sedges, the trees – all these objects should not in themselves make him feel the way he feels. He reflects that it could be possible that a different arrangement of those objects would be enough to change or void this effect. Before the house lays a “black and lurid tarn” in which the environment is mirrored. In an effort to dissolve the effect that confuses him, he studies the reversed images of those objects in the tarn. But strangely this experiment only deepens his anxiety and provokes “a shudder even more thrilling than before”. Why? Thomas Woodson tries to clarify this question: “[Is it] because the unreal image, the mere reflection, seems to him more real and more threatening than the actual three-dimensional house, sedge, and trees which he has just observed before?“[14] To answer this question one has to go further.

A zigzag fissure which is “barely perceptible” runs through the walls of the house and points downwards into the tarn. It is the only visual symptom of decline in the fabric. This element bears a meaning as well and will be of more significance when contrasted to the family tree: an ancient entity with straight-lined succession of descendants, now for the first time split up in the current generation. According to that the two parts of the house can be seen representative to the Usher’s.

The inside of the house gives strong support to the outer impressions: “Much that I [the narrator] encountered on the way contributed […] to heighten the vague sentiments of which I have already spoken.” At his first meeting with his host Roderick Usher for example, he is sitting in a large and dark room in which, as he describes, all the furnishings “failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.”


[1]Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Fall of the House of Usher, ed. by Thomas Woodson, Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs 1969: 1.

[2] cf. ibid., 6.

[3] cf. Greiner, Ulrich: Wer war Edgar Allan?, (8/4/11)

[4] ibid.

[5] cf. Greiner 2009.

[6] Woodson 1969, 6.

[7] ibid, 4.

[8] ibid.

[9] cf. SCHUHMANN, Kuno, Die erzählende Prosa Edgar Allan Poes, Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1967: 29f.

[10] ibid., 148f.

[11] Woodson 1969, 15.

[12] Garmon, Gerald M., Emerson's ‘Moral Sentiment' and Poe's ‘Poetic Sentiment’ - A Reconsideration, (4/15/11)

[13] The Norton anthology of American literature, 6th edition. New York: Norton, 2003. All further quotes without precise citation details are from the story and refer to the same edition.

[14] Quinn, Patrick F., “’That Spectre in My Path’”, In Woodson, Thomas (ed.) Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Fall of the House of Usher, Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, 1969: 85.


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Titel: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher". Horror, Fear and the Manipulation of the Reader