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Vocabulary in The Fall of the House of Usher

Dark Connotations and Gothic Word Choices: Many of the vocabulary choices that Poe uses in "The Fall of the House of Usher" create and maintain a tone of Gothic horror throughout the short story. Many words have archaic meanings and usage, conveying the dark and fearful events that the narrator experiences.

Vocabulary Examples in The Fall of the House of Usher:

The Fall of the House of Usher

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"the dry and hollow-sounding wood alarumed..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The word “alarum,” a synonym of “alarm,” derives from an Old French word that means “all arm!”—a literal call to arms. In this case, the verb “alarum” refers to the way a sound rapidly spreads through an environment. With its connotations of military alertness, however, the word conveys a distinctly startling tone.

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

At several points throughout the story, the narrator refers to Roderick Usher as a “hypochondriac.” In modern usage, the word is associated with hypochondriasis, a neurological condition in which the patient is gripped by an anxiety that they are in a state of disease and decay. In its original usage, hypochondriacs are those with a gloomy, melancholy, and depressive disposition. Roderick—and Madeline, too, for that matter—are hypochondriacs in every sense of the word.

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

The adjective “doughty” describes someone as brave, capable, and virtuous, and it regularly pairs with nouns like “heart,” “knight,” and “resolution”—words that are often associated with heroes from stories, such as the one the narrator is sharing with Roderick Usher.

"In an instant afterward he rapped, with a gentle touch, at my door..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

One of the meanings of the verb “to rap” is to strike or hit something. In this example, “he rapped” is synonymous with “he knocked.” Rapping conveys a sense of urgency, and Poe was certainly fond of the word as it features prominently in the first stanza of his poem “The Raven.”

“As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”

"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.

"and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

An “incubus” is an evil spirit or demon that originated as a personification of a nightmare. This demon supposedly descends on sleepers, sitting on their chests and bringing them nightmares. Here, the narrator states that this demon has created a waking nightmare for him. This line also serves as a visual callback to his earlier mention of Fuseli, the painter whose work “The Nightmare” depicts just such an incubus sitting on a sleeping woman’s chest.

"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.

"that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The word “sympathies” refers to an affinity or connection between particular things, and the noun phrase “scarcely intelligible nature” suggests that the “sympathies” are not well understood or comprehensible to outsiders like the narrator. Basically, Roderick is telling the narrator that he and his sister share a special kind of connection.

"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.

"the Vigilae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The title of this text can been translated as Vigils for the dead according to the use of the church at Mainz. While few details exist about the actual text, its subject matter fits thematically with the other texts in Roderick Usher’s collection: its focus is on burial rights for the dead.

"the old African Satyrs and Ægipans..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Satyrs and Aegipans are both goat-like, mythological creatures typically associated with drinking, dancing, and wild parties. Such creatures became symbols of sin and temptation for the Catholic church, representing devils who come to tempt humanity.

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

The noun “pertinacity” refers to a perversely persistent and stubbornly tenacious adherence to an opinion, view, or belief, and is synonymous with words like obstinacy and resoluteness.

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

The adjective “porphyrogene” refers to someone born into royalty, such as the child of a ruling king, queen, or monarch.

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

Short for “seraphim,” the word “seraph” refers to a particular class of angel in the Christian tradition. The seraphim are typically associated with love and the color red.

"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.

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

This adjective refers to a state in which consciousness and feeling are lost. Such a state usually results in the body’s assuming a death-like rigidity or a kind of lifelessness.

"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.

"(when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance)..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The noun “abeyance” refers to a state of temporary suspension or inactivity. The narrator suggests that Roderick’s voice and mannerisms are most tame and timid when the “animal spirits” have paused their raging. Animal spirits here likely refers to basic, primal impulses.

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

Poe’s narrator provides a gloss for this word (“an excessive nervous agitation”). Furthermore, the noun “trepidancy” can refer to anyone’s trembling with fear, agitation, or anxiety.

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

The adjective “arabesque” can refer to an intricate ornamentation and patterned design. Poe’s narrator uses it here to suggest that Roderick Usher’s face, body, and expression all represent an elaborate combination of different features that it make it very difficult not only to determine what he is thinking but also to find “any idea of simple humanity.” So, the initial characterization of Roderick is one of incongruity, of cadaverousness, and of exaggeration, suggesting that he is an inscrutable and unstable person.

"of the constrained effort of the ennuyé man of the world...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The word “ennui” means a feeling of weariness, dissatisfaction, or a general boredom with life and events. The narrator states that Roderick makes an effort that is overly cordial—that is, too warm and welcoming—which suggests that Roderick’s seclusion has made him inept at proper greetings and affections.

"so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the “House of Usher”—an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The noun “appellation” simply means an identifying name or title. In this line, “appellation” is preceded by the adjective “equivocal,” making the meaning clear: the “House of Usher” is the same name and title for both the family and the physical house. As Poe’s narrator continues to say, the peasantry (and readers) see the family and the house as inextricably intertwined—as if they share the same fate.

"The MS. gave evidence of nervous agitation...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The abbreviation “MS.” here refers to a “manuscript.” However, a rarer meaning, which Poe employs here, is that MS. stands for someone’s handwriting. The narrator says that the “MS. gave evidence of nervous agitation.” This means that the writing is likely neither uniform nor clean, possibly with wavering lines and other elements that would make it a little difficult to read.

"a black and lurid tarn..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

A "tarn" is a small mountain lake that generally has no significant rivers or tributaries connected to it. Since tarns have no contributing waterways, they are often still and dark, or as Poe states “black and lurid.” This geographical feature adds to the unsettling environment surrounding the House of Usher.

"—the hideous dropping off of the veil...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Generally speaking, a veil is something that conceals something else. In this case, the narrator’s mention of a removal of the veil suggests that he is seeing something more clearly, as if he sees the hideous truth of this house and land. This notion is common in Gothic literature, in which characters witness the “reality” of the situation as one that is ambivalent, dark, and horrible.

"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.

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