The unity effect in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2005 28 Pages

American Studies - Literature




Chapter 1 Tone
1. Unity of Tone in Theory
1.1. Unity of Tone in Theory
1.2 Unity of Tone in “Usher”

Chapter 2 Setting
2.1 Unity of Setting in Theory
2.2 Unity of Setting in “Usher”
2.2.1 Effect of Closed Space
2.2.2 Adoption of Blackness and Darkness
2.2.3 Contribution of Extreme Weather Condition

Chapter 3 Characters in “Usher”
3.1 The Narrator
3.2. Madeline Usher
3.3 Roderick Usher

Chapter 4 Plot
4.1 Unity of Plot in Theory
4.2 Unity of Plot in “Usher”
4.2.1 Brief Time Span
4.2.2 Coherent Plot Line
4.2.3 Mutual Relationship between Incidents


Works Cited

Table: Plot Structure in “Usher”

Figure: A Diagram of the “Fabric” of “Usher”


“A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents... In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design”[1]

Edgar Allan Poe, who was given the title of “one of the greatest journalistic critic of his time”[2] by Bernard Shaw, stressed unity, totality, and prescribed design in his review of Hawthorne’s “Twice-Told Tales” which has been seen as the best “summary of Poe’s theory on prose writing”.[3] While critics disagree on how seriously such a “mechanical” method of writing short stories should be taken and to what extent Poe himself adhered to his ideal theory in practice, they all agree that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is one of Poe’s best stories – some critics point out that “Usher” is Poe’s “finest experiment in the technique of fluid form.”(Ketterer 193) My intention of this research paper is, therefore, to examine the unity of effect in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”. It is true that a study of one individual text by Poe does not result in any conclusion on Poe’s adherence to his “single effect” principle in general. Nevertheless, that does not contradict my attempt to examine how Poe carried out his theory of “unity” and “totality” to achieve a desired effect in one of his best-known stories.

Consistent with Poe’s theory of “unity”, “totality” and “full design”, I will study four aspects in “Usher”, namely tone, setting, characters and plot through which Poe attempts to create a vision of “unity of effect” in this tale.

According to my close reading of “Usher”, I am above all impressed by the melancholic tone that Poe obviously intends to raise at the very beginning of this story. Subsequently, growing melancholy is the dominating tone in this story that accompanies my reading of all the events. For this reason, I will at first focus my study on the unity of tone. I will try to explore Poe’s emphasis on unity of tone in theory, and then to examine how it is fulfilled in practice.

Of course, tone should be identified with atmosphere. According to Poe, unity in setting is another important requirement for achieving the unity of effect in prose writing. Thus in my second section I will study the unity of setting in “Usher”. I will illustrate how Poe theorizes the significance of unity of setting and how he applies it in “Usher”. Obviously, the idea of a constrained space for the story to happen in, the role of blackness and darkness of the surroundings as an enhance of the gothic setting, as well as the use of extreme weather condition, are all effective devices which Poe used to attain the totality of effect in “Usher”, which will be explored in detail in the second section.

Character as an integral part of all stories is an important factor in “Usher” that I cannot afford to ignore in examining the unity of effect of this tale. If, as critics maintain, creating characters who are “skillfully adapted to the circumstances which surround them”[4] is a general device in Poe’s tales, it is in “Usher” in particular. Apparently, the lonely and isolated protagonists in Usher are properly employed to harmonize with the gloomy tone, and gothic settings. Thus in the third section of my study, I would like to show how characters are made to fit into the desolate house and dreary environment to achieve the desired effect in this tale.

Finally, with the ideal arrangement of effective tone, setting, characters, Poe gains his battlefield to carry out unity of effect in plot in “Usher”, on which I will focus my attention mainly in this study. In order to attain the unity of plot in literary writing, Poe stressed both “unity of time” and “unity of action”, as essential parts in his theory on unity of effect. In “Usher”, both of these aspects are completely fulfilled through the brief time span in which the story happens, a coherent plot line and a “mutual relationship” between incidents. Hence, it is my intention to examine Poe’s emphasis on unity of plot in theory, and how it is accomplished in “Usher” in the last section.

Chapter 1 Tone

Tone is an integral part of Poe’s work. In this section, the unity of tone both in theory and in “Usher” will be studied.

Chapter Overview

1. Unity of Tone in Theory
2. Unity of Tone in “Usher”

1.1. Unity of Tone in Theory

In “The Philosophy of Composition”, Poe writes, “having chosen a novel, first and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone … as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.”[5] Though Poe is outlining his theory of poetry here, the statement may apply as well to his theory on prose writing. For this reason, I will begin my study by analyzing how Poe used gloom as unifying tone as significant means of achieving the unity of effect in “Usher”.

1.2 Unity of Tone in “Usher”

The “The Fall of the House of Usher” begins with the impressive opening lines:

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.[6]

The long, efficient sentence is praised by many critics. It creates an “atmosphere without activity”[7] and leads the reader right into the story of “the melancholy house of Usher”. Phrases like “I found myself”, “I had been passing alone”, “found myself within view of…” express “motionlessness” and suggest the narrator’s depressive mood. The physical oppression of the weather condition conveys a psychological oppression as well. Poe stresses, “if his very initial sentence tends not to the upbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step” (Review 586). Thus if a feeling of depression is the writer’s predetermined tone for the whole story, which as it turns out to be, the opening sentence of “Usher” carries out the fullness of his intention. Further words and phrases in the first paragraph like “insufferable gloom”, “depression of soul”, “unredeemed dreariness”, “unruffled lustre”, “sorrowful impression”, “dreariness” and “iciness” serve to reflect “the morbid scene it describes”(Peeples 180) and establish the gloomy and dreadful atmosphere of the story.

If melancholy is the dominating tone for the story, there remains the question of how it can best be carried out throughout the composition. In the following paragraphs, the narrator recalls his early association with Usher and the reason for his decision to take “a sojourn of some weeks” in “this mansion of gloom” (398). In order to promote mystery and depression as impression of feeling, the narrator describes his further experience: In a spirit of “what must have been a dream”, he makes his way down the wall and encounters a servant who he recalls to be with “stealthy step”. He conducts the narrator “in silence” through “many dark and intricate passages” to the studio of his master; the physician of the family “wore mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity”, and “accosted me [the narrator] with trepidation and passed on.”(401)

While outside of the house, the scene is dreary, inside of the room everything is “comfortless, antique, and tattered”. “An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all” and the narrator “breathed an atmosphere of sorrow” (401).

Usher’s appearance is described as “incoherence” with “an habitual trepidancy - an excessive nervous agitation” marked by “a cadaverousness of complexion” “ghastly pallor of the skin”, and “unheeded” silken hair floating “about the face” so that “I [the narrator] could not, even with effort, connect its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity.”(402)

As the story moves on, “step by step, Poe has depicted the growing emotional intensity and agitation of the narrator”[8] and little by little, an atmosphere of horror is created. Further occurrences in the story including malady of the twins, entombment of Madeline, Roderick’s madness, till at the end of the story when complications intensify with the reappearance of Madeline and sudden collapse of the house of Usher, all these are narrated in a nightmarish yet terrifying atmosphere. For example, in the scene of Madeline’s burial, Poe was apparently concerned with transcribing a horrible atmosphere adapting to the plot of the story. The vault in which Madeline is placed is described as “small, damp, and utterly without means of admission for light” (410). Then the narrator gives detailed description when they “deposited our mournful burden upon trestles”. After the entombment, Roderick’s change is described as “The pallor of his [Usher] eye had assumed a more ghastly hue” so that “I [the narrator] felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his fantastic yet impressive superstitions.”(411) Till the end of story, at a “tempestuous” night with a “whirlwind”, “densely clouds”, and “unnatural light” “enshrouding the mansion”, “cracking sound”, and “commingled noises” together with Usher, the madman’s shriek, the sounds of footsteps of Madeline, buried alive and re-arisen, then “trembling” figure of the lady with “bloody white robes”, falling “heavily inward upon the person of her brother”(417), a horrible atmosphere reaches its culminating point. In the last long sentence, corresponding with the initial scene of the story, the ultimate fall of the house of Usher into “the deep and dank at feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the ‘ House of Usher ’” gives the reader a wonderful sense of “absolute finality.” (Chang 149)

From ominous melancholy at the opening scene of the story, till the nightmarish terror in the final episode, Poe was successful in mastering “a method for capturing and evoking in others his special type of imaginative experience”(Kumar 19) with the aid of a gloomy tone.

Moreover, in order to enhance the totality of mood, Kumar observes, Poe “was inspired by key words” in order to “maintain the inspirational flow and the unity of effect.”(Kumar 33) I notice that repeated uses of certain words and phrases are applied in “Usher”: “terror” (6 times), “ghastly” (6 times), “gloom” (7 times), “oppressive” (8 times), “agitation” (4 times), “sentiment” (4 times), “alone” (6 times), “decayed trees” (3 times) etc… As I quoted previously, Poe puts emphasis on that each word written “direct or indirect” should be “to the one pre-established design.”(Re view 586) A definite or an absolute value of each of these repetitions can hardly be examined, yet one thing is certain: It is through these repetitive uses of words of “Gothic mode of expression” that a mournful depression and totality of mood is improved so that the reader feels that the world of Usher is a universe of sorrow.

Apart from effective vocabulary, specific word choice and repetitions, the unity of setting is another significant factor helping produce the unity of tone in “Usher”.


[1] E. A. Poe, “Review of Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales” Poe: Essay and Review Ed. G. R. Thompson (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984) 586.

[2] Yaoxin Chang, A Survey of American Literature, (Tianjin: Nankai University, 1990) 140.

[3] David Ketterer, The Rationale of Deception in Poe, (USA: Louisiana State University, 1979) 70.

[4] Satish Kumar, Edgar Allan Poe: Style and Structure of His Short Stories. (Noida: Bahri Publications, 1989) 15.

[5] Edgar Allan Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition” Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. B (6th ed.), Ed. Nina Baym. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2003)1598.

[6] Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe: Tales and Sketches 1831- 1842 Vol. II. Ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott. (Cambridge Mass.: Belknap Press1978)397.

[7] Scott Peeples, “Poe’s ‘Constructiveness’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’” The Cambridge Company to Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Hayes, Kevin. (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002) 180.

[8] G. R. Thompson, “Poe and the Paradox of Terror: Structures of Heightened Consciousness in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’” Ruined Eden of the Present Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. Ed. G. R. Thompson & Virgil L. Lokke. (Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1981) 329.


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Edgar Allan Fall House Usher Hauptseminar Antebellum American Short Fiction

Title: The unity effect in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"