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Literary Devices in The Fall of the House of Usher

First-Person, Unreliable Narrator: The story is told through the first-hand account of a narrator who claims to have known Roderick Usher in childhood. Since the events are told from this narrator’s perspective, readers get access to a more intimate look at the narrator’s perception of events, dramatically emphasizing the unnatural environment and unusual occurrences. The narrator’s attempts to rationalize his fears and present the account objectively only serve to undermine the veracity of his account, and when it’s clear that the narrator cannot be trusted, the terror of the tale increases.

The House as a Symbol and Foreshadowing: Multiple locations within the text state that the House serves as a symbol for the Ushers, so much so that its fate is connected with that of the family. With this in mind, the fissure that the narrator sees running through the span of the house serves as foreshadowing for what happens at the story’s climax.

Literary Devices Examples in The Fall of the House of Usher:

The Fall of the House of Usher

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"a place of deposit for powder, or some other highly combustible substance,..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The presence of the powder hoard directly invokes a dramatic principle known as Chekhov’s gun. Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright and story writer, wrote in an 1889 letter to a colleague that “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep.” The implication is that, when handled correctly, such a detail—be it a rifle or a basement full of gunpowder—ought to reappear in a meaningful way later on in the plot.

"the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The noun “satellite” as used here refers to a small celestial body which orbits a larger one. Here the satellite in question is the moon. The image of the moon, crimson, low, and winking through the mansion’s fissure from behind, explodes. It is the image that bursts, not the moon itself. The source of the bursting is likely the powder hoard in the mansion’s basement, pointed to earlier in the story. Thus, as the mansion is sundered in a flaming explosion from its foundation, the fissure widens and the red moon in the center of the scene participates in the widening conflagration, at least from an imaginal perspective.

"the echo..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Echoes are a central motif of the story. The echo here is a physical echo within the reality of the story; it is also an echo of the echo in the “Mad Trist” story and also an echo of the echoes in “The Haunted Palace,” the poem within the story. These echoes signify the powerful echoes of history and lineage, as can be seen in the role of the stories and poems within the story which serve to foreshadow the plot. The echoes also represent the atmosphere of the Usher mansion itself, with its eerie, echo-filled hollowness.

"draperies, which, tortured into motion by the breath of a rising tempest, swayed fitfully..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

In a classic example of the pathetic fallacy—a device in which an environment is described so as to reflect the subjectivity of the beholder—, the narrator can be found painting his emotions onto his surroundings. The breeze-ruffled curtains become tortured and fitful because the narrator’s inner reality is tortured and fitful.

"No sooner had these syllables passed my lips, than—as if a shield of brass had indeed, at the moment, fallen heavily upon a floor of silver became aware of a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The story-within-the-story structure, with its repeated breaking down of the walls between real and fictional worlds, implicates us as readers. When we witness the clamorous events of the “Mad Trist” tumbling out of the book and into the Usher mansion, we are invited to envision these same clamorous echoes ringing out of Poe’s story and into our respective realities.

"a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

As the narrator and Roderick look out the window at the strange scene—a misty, thickly overcast landscape eerily illuminated by an unseen source—, the narrator personifies the weather. The mist and vapors are an “exhalation.” On some level, this is a tonal effect, creating a creepy atmosphere. Yet, because the mansion is so richly and purposefully personified, one wonders “who” is exhaling and why.

"the physique of the gray walls and turrets..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

This passage offers another instance in which the metaphor of the mansion as human is underscored. Rather than arising through an explicit simile, however, the metaphor emerges through the word “physique.” The word works literally here, to be sure: "physique” refers to the physicality of an object. But the connotation of human anatomy is inescapable. The house is figured as a body.

"he so cracked, and ripped, and tore all asunder,..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The words in this passage employ the auditory and visual senses, creating an image of a drunken, mad hero tearing down a door. Ethelred’s drunken fury, and the imagery the story conveys, parallels the violence of the storm as it batters the House of Usher.

"But my efforts were fruitless...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The narrator attempts to rationalize the feelings that are coming over him, but he states that they “were fruitless,” meaning that his attempts did not work. The lack of sleep and the terror that has “infected” him have affected his ability to deal with his nervousness and the events around him in reliable ways, increasing the terror of the story by emphasizing the narrator’s helplessness.

"Sleep came not near my couch..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Sleep is depicted here as having a kind of agency, or an ability to act. It keeps away from the narrator, not daring to come near him. This increases the sense of isolation that the narrator is experiencing, and the lack of sleep likely contributes to his inability to properly reason.

"It was no wonder that his condition terrified—that it infected me...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

An em dash (—) has several purposes, one of which is to signal an abrupt, emphatic shift in thought. In this line, the narrator begins to state that Roderick’s behavior terrified him, but then he quickly recasts it to say that “it infected” him. The abrupt shift shows a kind of self-correction: the narrator admits that the terror, madness, and paranoia of Roderick and the House have become a part of him as well. If he has become infected by these things, then the truth of his story should be questioned: his mental condition is not stable, and so he likely cannot accurately relate events.

"I will not deny that when I called to mind the sinister countenance of the person whom I met upon the staircase..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Earlier in the text, the narrator said that this person “wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity” and that the man “accosted [him] with trepidation.” This earlier description, while not very positive, is far from the “sinister countenance” that the narrator now ascribes to the man. Given his time in the House of Usher, it’s possible that the narrator’s perception of people and events either has been altered or that he’s not accurately portraying things as they are.

"“The Haunted Palace,”..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

This is a poem by Poe, which is often printed separately from this story. It was first published in April of 1839 but did not find initial success, possibly leading to Poe’s including it in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The poem relates the events of a king from long ago who fears the evil forces that plague him and his palace. The poem serves as an allegory for the House of Usher, foreshadowing the impending doom Roderick faces.

"a sulphureous lustre..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The noun “lustre” (in American English, “luster”) refers to a glow of light or the glow of a reflection. It can also be used metaphorically to refer to the presence of something more abstract, such as radiant beauty. Here it is paired with the adjective “sulphureous,” which generally refers to the presence of sulfur but can also refer to the presence of demons or hell. The combination of words then conveys a particular notion: the temperament of the narrator and Roderick casts a dark, sinister shadow over all events happening in the house.

"a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

A fissure, or crack, along the entirety of the house suggests that the foundation and supports have been compromised, meaning that the house is unstable. Since much has already been said about the House and the Usher family being essentially one and the same, the presence of this fissure serves as a symbol for the fate of the family.

"Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Readers ought to notice the narrator’s refusing to acknowledge the reality of his situation by claiming that feelings of apprehension and ill will are simply “a dream.” The narrator’s refusal should give readers pause about how accurately he is portraying the events in the house. If the narrator cannot trust his own senses, then readers should not fully trust the narrator’s point of view in the story.

"I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

In this famous quote, the narrator looks upon the House of Usher and immediately feels “a sense of insufferable gloom.” The house itself serves as a symbol for the family that lives within it, nearly becoming a character itself—a popular aspect of Gothic literature. The house fills the narrator with horror, its presence elevating events in the story towards their frightful climax.

"Son cœur est un luth suspendu; Sitôt qu'on le touche il résonne. —De Béranger...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

“Son cœur…il rèsonne.” – [French] “His/her heart is a suspended lute; as soon as one touches it, it resonates.” This epigraph is attributed to Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780–1857), a French lyric poet, and it appears to come from his song Le Refus. Since epigraphs give readers insight into how to read stories, here we see a lonely heart that will resound if it is touched. Loneliness pervades the story, and the idea here that something is waiting to be touched creates a sense of anxiety or expectancy as readers begin the tale.

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