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Tone in The Fall of the House of Usher

Gothic Horror: Many of Poe’s word choices have meanings and connotations that support the themes and tone of his Gothic literature. Notably, many of the words convey dark and ominous meanings, conveying a dulling of the senses and a lack of vitality. The culmination of these choices subdues readers into a kind of melancholy until the climax of the story, when all of the horror is revealed.

Tone Examples in The Fall of the House of Usher:

The Fall of the House of Usher

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"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.

"“And you have not seen it?” he said abruptly..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Roderick’s sudden question creates a moment of suspense for several reasons. His use of “And” at the beginning of his question suggests that he had been mid-conversation, perhaps with himself in his own head. The pronoun “it” is so broad that it encompasses an endless array of objects of interest, allowing the readers’—and the narrator’s—imagination to sprint full tilt into the most degenerate and frightening realms of the human psyche. Finally, the abruptness of Roderick’s question following a lapse of silence contributes to an atmosphere which is, for lack of a better word, creepy.

" and one wildly singular in its terror and its beauty...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The connection between terror and beauty is well established in Gothic literature. The storm is beautiful in the terror that it inspires in the onlookers. The mixture of emotions creates an apprehensive tone in the text as readers continue on to the climax of the tale.

"I uplifted myself upon the pillows, and, peering earnestly within the intense darkness of the chamber, hearkened—I know not why, except that an instinctive spirit prompted me..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The verb “to hearken” is an older word that serves as a synonym for “to listen” but conveys a little deeper meaning: to listen and comprehend what is heard. This means that the narrator expectantly listens to the sounds around him, seeking meaning. When he says “I know not why,” he means to say that he doesn’t know why he thinks he’ll hear something that will explain his fear. That he cannot identify the source of his horror adds to the fearful tone conveyed in the passage.

"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.

"the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The narrator claims that the mysterious malady has left Madeline’s body with a “mockery of faint blush.” The “faint blush” refers to a kind of red or pink coloring on the skin—which is usually associated with health and life. However, he calls it a “mockery,” suggesting that it is not a real effect and that the corpse simply looks more beautiful and life-like in death.

"a donjon-keep..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The noun “donjon” is an archaic spelling of the word “dungeon,” a dark prison or vault usually located underground. The narrator is saying that they are placing Madeline’s body in a vault located within the lower dungeons of the House of Usher—an action and location that are quintessentially Gothic.

"inappropriate splendour..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Since the noun “splendor” refers to something brilliant, magnificent, or splendid, pairing it with the adjective “inappropriate” is an odd combination. This pairing of words is somewhat contradictory: because splendor is such a positive quality, it’s incongruous to call it “inappropriate.” The resulting meaning conveyed is more nuanced and horrible as a result of this word choice.

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

Earlier, the narrator mentioned that Roderick plays the guitar. Here, he uses the word “dirges” instead of “songs” for a particular reason: “dirges” are songs of grief and lamentation, such as those played at a funeral. This word adds to the dark, brooding atmosphere that has taken hold of the narrator and Roderick as they anxiously await Madeline’s fate.

"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.

"I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Careful readers may note the inclusion of the word “alone” in this statement. While the narrator and Roderick Usher are together, this word emphasizes the isolation and loneliness present within the house. The pervasive loneliness of the narrator’s time in the House of Usher compounds with the demeanor of his friend Roderick and the mysterious malady of Madeline to add to the fearful atmosphere.

"the more bitterly did I perceive the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Despite becoming closer with Roderick, the narrator realizes that his desire to “alleviate the melancholy of [his] friend” is futile. As Madeline’s health fades, Roderick’s pervasive gloom deepens, darkening the environment in an “unceasing radiation of gloom.” The tone conveyed in this passage is one of hopelessness, and the strong connection between Madeline’s physical health and Roderick’s mental condition is emphasized.

"The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physicians...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Poe compounds the elements of fear and mystery by making Madeline’s disease undiagnosable. It’s possible that she suffers from an ennui similar to that of her brother, which means that these symptoms could be rooted in a profound unhappiness or depression. Her physical symptoms of “wasting away” may also suggest consumption, or tuberculosis, a disease that results in the body’s wasting away from a lack of resources.

"While he spoke, the lady Madeline (for so was she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Madeline’s entrance into the story takes the narrator by surprise. Her presence causes a “stupor” to oppress the narrator, and the fact that she doesn’t notice him and that she disappears rather quickly all suggest supernatural elements. Since Gothic literature is known for such things, Madeline’s presence is akin to that of a ghost’s haunting the apartment, creating a sense of dread in the narrator and conveying a fearful tone.

"A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The amount of description the narrator uses to describe Roderick Usher is similar to that which he used to describe the House. Like the House, Roderick has traits that are distinctly Gothic in that they represent both death and beauty: while his skin is pale, his body corpse-like, and his hair like cobwebs, he has bright eyes, beautifully curved lips, and a delicate nose.

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

Two adjectives in this line characterize the tone and the nature of the House of Usher: “dreary” and “melancholy.” The adjective dreary refers to something which has listlessness and discouragement, and which lacks anything to give cheer or comfort. The adjective “melancholy” refers to something which has an inclination to sadness, gloominess, or mournfulness. That the road to the House of Usher and the house itself are introduced as dreary and melancholy, respectively, firmly establishes the tone of this Gothic tale by emphasizing the lonely, sad environment in which the Ushers live.

"DURING THE WHOLE of a dull, dark, and soundless day..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Gothic literature has several core features that have defined the style since the 19th century: settings like castles, vaults, mansions; hauntings, ghosts, and the supernatural; blood, suspense, and death. This opening paragraph is an excellent example of Poe's Gothic style, which heavily drew on previous Gothic literature until his own work came to practically define the genre. From the “dreary tract of country” to “the melancholy House of Usher,” Poe establishes the atmosphere of this Gothic tale, leading us, along with the narrator, into an intimidating house full of memories, mystery, and horror.

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