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Being, perhaps, one of the most famous short stories written by Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is often considered his crowning achievement in creating the realm of horror and insanity. The short story is praised for a number of reasons. However, it is the subtle line between the madness and the mundane of 19th-century England that creates a surreal environment and builds up the tension that is finally resolved at the end of the short story.
A closer look at the narrative shows that a range of literary devices is used to blur the line between what is real and what is unreal. For instance, the symbolism of the short story contributes to the unrealistic experience, whereas the passages that do not contain any symbolic messages create a juxtaposition that sets a very uncomfortable mood (Jones 11). In particular, the scene in which the narrator describes the interior of the house shows the twofold nature of its environment: the “Gothic archway of the hall” (Poe 3) contrasts sharply with the “vivacious warmth” (Poe 3) of the host and his, initially, joyful attitude. The scene mentioned above serves as the gateway to the insanity into which the lead character spirals as the horrendous story of a woman buried alive unfolds in front of him (Bloom 171).
Similarly, the surreal realm of isolation in which the protagonist is trapped in the story contributes to the development of a mysterious environment in which reality is mixed with out-of-this-world elements. For instance, the description of the house interior also renders the feeling of crippling loneliness and isolation from the rest of the world, which becomes especially explicit in the following passage: “immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device” (Poe 3). The reference to Madeline being buried alive that shines through the description of the vault seems to serve as a thin barrier between the reality and the irrational emotions that overwhelm the lead character, making him eventually give in to his insanity (James and James 15).
The way in which the author compares past and present can also be viewed as a means of drawing a line between the surreal environment of the house, and the elements of reality that work their way into the dark and gloomy realm of the House of Usher (Jackson 29). The author’s vivacity and curiosity are made explicit at the beginning of the short story, even though he is evidently wary of the house and its mysterious look: “I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of excessive antiquity” (Poe 2). However, as the story starts to unravel, the protagonist changes, gradually becoming depressed and obsessed with the horrific mystery of the house and its residents: “An intensity of intolerable awe” (Poe 5) both astonishes and frightens him. Thus, the lead character walks the road from sanity to madness throughout the short story (Punter 487).
Poe uses a wide range of tools to create an uncomfortable mood, yet it is his ability to maintain the balance between reality and madness that shines through the whole story. The inability to know for sure how much of the insanity actually occurs, and how much of it takes place in the minds of the protagonists, creates the unsettling feeling that keeps readers on the edge of their seats right till the very end. Thus, the story remains timeless and retains its air of surrealism, making it all the more frightening.
Bloom, Harold, editor. Edgar Allan Poe’s the Tell-tale Heart and Other Stories (Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations). Infobase Publishing, 2014.
Jackson, Holly. American Blood: The Ends of the Family in American Literature, 1850-1900. OUP USA, 2014.
James, Bruce, and Elizabeth James. Method to the Madness: A Common Core Guide to Creating Critical Thinkers through the Study of Literature. Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.
Jones, Darryl, editor. Horror Stories: Classic Tales from Hoffmann to Hodgson. OUP Oxford, 2014.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Fall of the House of Usher. Xist Publishing, 2015.
Punter, David. A New Companion to The Gothic. John Wiley & Sons, 2015.