Edgar Allan Poe, just mentions his name, and images of death, blood, and insanity fill the mind. Poe was a master of all things scary. He used terror to manipulate the emotions of his audience and succeeded time and time again. He was a pioneer of the modern detective novel, and his short story plots are used as backbones to some of the best horror movies ever made. Scrap away the supernatural, the death, and the character’s distention into depravity, and you are left with the writer of great skill and talent (Wagenknecht). His aptitude and grace as the author can easily be seen in the quintessential horror short story “The Fall of the House Usher.” Here, Poe demonstrates how to use the narrative technique in all its various forms to produce a story full of suspense, and intrigue.
One of the many narrative techniques that Poe employs is the use of alliteration and wordplay. “The Fall of the House Usher” begins “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day …within view of the melancholy House of Usher “(1). The multiple “d’s” followed by the Usher, can be rearranged to form the word shudder. The words shudder or shuddering to appear on almost every page of this short story. If you removed the d’s from shudder you are left with a word that sounds very much like Usher. (Ketterer 192) Poe’s writing is very lyrical and rhythmic which offers creepy background music to the entire text. He uses repeated anapests which are metrical foot consisting of three syllables, the first two short, or unaccented, the last long or accented( Lammers 50). Here is an example of Poe’s use of anapests:
It was thus that he spoke of the object of my visit, of his earnest desire to see me, and of the solace he expected me to afford him. (2)
Many critics believe that most of Poe’s short stories are more like poetry than prose. It is short, tightly organized leading to a single overwhelming crisis similar to a lyrical poem (Lammers 25). The reason that this technique is important is that it creates a sense of creepiness in the short story. The use of repetition of the same letter is like an echo in an empty hall, it creates a sense of mystery. If this particular technique was removed the short story would be less mysterious and not as much fun to read.
Poe uses mysterious and unusual names to create a mood of suspense and supernatural. Roderick Usher and the narrator talk about the following books: Directorium Inquisitorial of Eymeric de Gironne, Belphegor of Machiavelli, Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum, and Chorum Eccleside Maguntine. They are unknown books with odd names and the reader wonders what these books truly contain. H.P. Love-craft years later used the same technique in his writing. All the names in also create a sense of mystery.
The characters include Roderick and Madeline. Notice that they are no nicknames used in the story which keeps the tone very formal. It is also important to listen to how the names sound. Roderick has very harsh sounds in it. He is the dominating force between the two characters. Whereas, Madeline is very soft and her character is, indeed, submissive. The naming device is extremely important. Poe wants his characters taken seriously and with formal names it works. If these names were not formal then the story would be more humorous than terrifying.
A common narrative technique in Poe’s stories is the use of insanity of the main character to move along the story. The plot of the short story can be tracked by how crazy the main character is, and of course, the story climaxes with the character has gone completely insane. Poe also using the increasing amounts of terror to push the plot of the story along. He uses what the reader fears to evoke not sympathy for the main character but sympathy for ourselves if we were in that position.
Bob Baker who writes for the Los Angeles Times states that “narrative technique means any technique that produces the visceral desire in a reader to want to know what happens next,” and in “The Fall of the House Usher” Poe does that but using insanity and terror. It is important for the narrator to be slowly falling into insanity. It is a common human fear, to be out of one’s mind. If this was not used in the story, the audience would wonder why didn’t the narrator just leave when things got rough.
Another interesting narrative technique Poe is a master of is using architecture to reflect the inner workings of the mind. In this story the Usher’s house is falling apart which mirrors the mental decline of all the Ushers in the house. The rotting house reflects the deconstruction of Roderick Usher’s mind
The sinking of the house into the reflecting pool dramatizes the sinking rational part of the mind which has unsuccessfully attempted to maintain some contact with the stable structure of reality outside the self, into the nothingness of within (Thompson 25).
Roderick struggles to maintain control of his mental state just as the house struggles to stand solid and erect. The intricate architecture helps create a visual for the reader. If the architecture was not present the story wouldn’t make sense because there would be no crumbling house and no mental decline.
The most important narrative technique found in The Fall of the House Usher is Poe’s unique use of the narrator. In most of Poe’s short stories the main character and the narrator are one in the same, however this is not true in The Fall of the House Usher. The narrator is an outsider who is merely watching the action in the house as it happens. He is the sole consciousness of the short story. As the reader, we must trust his account and judgments of what is occurring and why. The narrator explains his relationship to the Ushers
Its proprietor, Roderick Usher, had been one of my boon companions in boyhood but many years had elapsed since our last meeting (Poe 117)
The reader learns about the actions, characters through the narrator’s eyes. The audience knows nothing of the narrator other than he is male, and very logical. The narrator explains that he is afraid of the house
Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror, and unaccountable yet unendurable, I threw on my clothes with haste, for I felt that I should sleep no more during the night and … but pacing rapidly to and for through the apartment (Poe 127).
The narrator is unable to give the reader insight into the minds of the other characters. Only through their actions does the narrator and the reader start to piece together what is actually occurring in the house. The narrator acts as a foil to Roderick Usher. The narrator remains nameless because it the unknown is very scary. The audience never really knows what do think of the narrator. If he was named he would seem like mysterious and more real – less scary.
The narrator is logical and reasonable. On many occasions, he stops to explain rational reasons that are the causes of the “supernatural” events in the house. The narrator downplays much of the action in the novel. At one point Roderick points out and the mist and believes that a “supernatural” force is creating it. The narrator tries to explain it away but saying it is caused by electrical charges. Roderick is irrational in mind and body. He does strange things and says strange things. The narrator’s logic is balanced against the craziness of Roderick.
The narrator is also a foil to the reader. The narrator is too rational and too dense to figure out what is happening in the house. He witnesses many things and accounts them to the reader. But he is unable to draw any non-logical conclusions. He isn’t so bright. The reader on the other hand, can look at these clues and is smart enough to figure out what is happening. Poe deliberately makes the narrator stupid and places faith in the detective skills of his audience. This particular technique has been misinterpreted by many academics. Critics believe that Poe was great at plot but not well equipped to fully flesh out characterization. In this case, Poe intentionally holds by the description of the narrator to make him anonymous, distant, and impartial.
“An impressible, tremor gradually pervaded my frame, and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an imbus of utterly causeless alarm,” (Poe 126) states the narrator. And so feels the reader. In The Fall of the House Usher Poe employs the narrator to deliver several different types of narrative techniques. He plays all the senses. Through the use of rhyme, metaphor, word manipulation, and alliteration all seen through the eyes of the narrator, he weaves a tail of creeping horror and emotional breakdown. The narrative technique is extremely important in the story. Without the narrator, there is no story. He is the sole witness of all the tragic events that occur, and the only person who lived.
- Brown, Gillian. “The Poetics of Extinction.” The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. 330-44.
- Ketterer, David “”Shudder”: A Signature Crypt-ogram in “The Fall of the House of Usher””Resources for American Literary Study – Volume 25, Number 2, 1999, pp. 192-205.
- Lammers, John. “Sentience and the False Deja Vu in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.'” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 22.1 (Spring 1996): 19-41.
- Thompson, G.R. “The Face in the Pool: Reflections on the Doppelgänger Motif in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” from Poe Studies, vol. V, no. 1, June 1972, pp. 16-21.
- Poe, Edgar Allan. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard U, 1969-
- Wagenknecht, Edward. Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend. New York: Oxford UP, 1963.