“The Fall of the House of Usher,” written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1839, is regarded as an early and supreme example of the Gothic horror story. However, Poe ascribed the term “arabesque” to this and other similar works, a term that he felt best described in its flowery, ornate prose. In place of a moral, Poe creates a mood-terror, in this case- through his use of language and imagery, which is especially evident in this opening extract. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is typical of Poe’s short stories in that it presents a narrator thrust into a psychologically intense situation in which otherworldly forces conspire to drive at least one of the characters insane. Firstly, the setting of “The Fall of the House of Usher” plays an integral part in the story because it establishes an atmosphere of the dreariness, melancholy, and decay. The intro takes place in the Usher family mansion, isolated and located in a “singularly dreary tract of country.”
The personification and description through layers of images of the house immediately stir up in the narrator “a sense of insufferable gloom,” and it is described as having “bleak walls,” “vacant eye-like windows,” and “ghastly tree stems.” This diction is extremely descriptive, with abundant negative connotations and evocations of ominous gloom that ‘seeps’ into the narrator’s and reader’s consciousness. This atmosphere initiates a sense of foreboding and depression, even before anything concrete has physically occurred, thus suggesting that the tone of melancholy and gloom is merely inherent in the narrator’s mind. This reveals an element of his characterization, a sense of ambiguity and a capacity for acute analysis. In turn, this develops the idea of his relationship, albeit unfounded, with the ominous sublimity of the surroundings; how an atmosphere impacts the human mood/psyche. This is evident when “I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn…I gazed down” This shows that the surroundings affect the narrator’s actions.
Secondly, the syntax and structure of the sentences contribute to the characterization and creation of an atmosphere in the opening. For example, “That half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment.” This shows a confused diction, which may convey an already confused state of mind in the narrator. Furthermore, a sense of pace is induced from the very first line, with the alliteration of the cold, hard ‘d’ sounds: “during the dull, dark, and soundless day.” This suggests a tone of bitterness from the narrator and reinforces the sense of foreboding in the reader. The same effect is achieved through the use of sibilance when describing the scene before him: “There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart” Therefore, through the use of complex figurative language, layers of imagery and characterization, Poe creates an atmosphere of foreboding and gloominess, and a psychologically intense situation in the opening of the story, setting the scene for later events.