Literary Devices Used by Edgar Poe to Depict Decay in the Fall of the House of Usher
The Usher mansion is transformed into the lifeless counterpart of the inhabitants. It is a symbol and a valuable character that makes the transition between the realm of the dead and that of the living creatures; it symbolizes death and decomposition. Its walls are encapsulating and suffocating the Usher twins, bringing the fall both inwardly and outwardly. Poe transforms the archetype of the Jungian womb and maternal figure into a cold container that soon will destroy its “objects”, like a furnace.
Madness contaminates Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative from within. When the narrator observes the House from afar, his countenance and his spirit become poisoned with “an utter depression” and “insufferable gloom”. Although his mind attempts to exercise resistance, he finds that he is unable to keep the menacing presence of the house away. The “mansion of gloom”, with its “vacant and eye-like windows”, becomes the fourth character of the gothic novella. It inspires fear and gloom only by its architectural form: “an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart — an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime”. (pg. 116) Thus, the real terror of Poe’s literary construction is not the bundle of terrible elements that reside in the descriptive passages, but the idea of a sickening House that can curdle the capacity of the imagination of an individual. Once inside the house, the anonymous narrator suffers an ellipsis of spirits, like that of Roderick, and becomes a slave of the House, complying to the madness within his friend. The unhealthiness of the text is shown through various relations: the House and the twins, the narrator and Roderick, Roderick and Madeline, the narrator, and the House. Roderick Usher himself confesses to his friend a feeling that his malady is the consequence of his dwelling in the ancestral mansion. The tale’s representation of disease draws a clear link between the physical part and the psychological — a relationship between mind and matter.
Lady Madeline represents the reconciliation of Madness and Incestuous bonds. Even though she appears only three times throughout the text, the female instance is by far the most interesting character in all of Poe’s writings. She is used in the form of an aesthetic effect with which the writer traps the reader and renders him unable to look away. It’s nauseating. The passages in which Lady Madeline appears draw upon a distinct ethereal and vampiric atmosphere. Again, the double is one of the “specific elements of Poe’s lyrical and narrative patterns” (anca peiu pg 44). Psychologically, the aspect of the Twins (the Gemini, the Dioscuri) is a very fascinating subject, especially when talking about male and female siblings. In Freudian psychoanalysis, the Uncanny is usually mentioned when talking about the mental state of twins. Poe uses the Uncanny in several instances as a literary trope for the purpose of mystery and confusion. He plays with the six senses of the reader, making him feel a picture (the foreshadowing of the tomb painting that the narrator briefly describes when in the House) and to feel Roderick’s decomposing yells. We can also perceive an uncanny element in the maladies of the two siblings. There has been much academic analysis on the illness of Roderick and Madeline Usher, but their symptoms align mostly with a genetic disease — hence the incestuous undertone of the tale. Thus, the word “porphyria” describes a group of genetically inherited diseases that affect the skin and the nervous system. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” the symptoms of Roderick and Madeline are mostly neurotic, also showing physical signs on the skin, as seen from a description of the phantom Lady Madeline. The singular disease, then, is part of the grand mechanism of the destruction of history — of the line of the royal Ushers.
Concluding the first part of my critical essay, Edgar Allan Poe’s novella shifts Gothic terror through the usage of themes such as madness, history, incestuous love, disease, and decay, allowing the effects of the composition to deepen their roots into the reader’s mind and creating a kind of horror that builds up through foreshadowing and inward struggles, not only dusty graveyards and bad omens of romantic literature.
To make a solid and better connection between the visual part of the reading and the text, a brief definition of the chosen artistic medium is necessary. Thus, a linocut is a printmaking technique and a variant of woodcut, that involves the engraving of a piece of linoleum, or rubber, with sharp tools, such as “U” or “V” shaped gouges. The technique allows artists to make several prints of the same design, all the while having the original work as a “stamp”. Printmaking has been around for a couple of decades actually, but the concept of engraving on a simpler surface than wood, mainly on linoleum or rubber, is fairly new. The printmaking is done in a singular color, hence, when the print is ready, the paper would only have black and white (the color of the paper). This combination tends to add a more dramatic, if not, gothic vibe to the artwork. As Edgar Allan Poe’s novella is branded with a Gothic and dramatic atmosphere, I found it perfect to use printmaking to illustrate my rendition of his themes and to show the colors he uses to emphasize psychological and physical decline. Apart from linocut, the final artwork will also contain minor areas of oil painting, that will add details to the visual interpretation and will enhance the meanings behind every little element.
As mentioned in the earlier part of this essay, the House of Usher plays a major role throughout the text. Its physical decomposition is seen by the anonymous narrator at the beginning of the narrative and also at the end when the finalization of the deconstruction occurs. I transformed the idea of the House into a black form that roughly resemblances the geometrical drawings on Victorian book covers. The Victorian inspiration for the movements of the forms in my print help provides a better atmosphere and a connection between the text and the artwork. This geometrical form is engraved with asymmetric parts. The upper part of the structure is more “full” and linear. Opting for the fullness of the curved lines, that I decided to sketch for the female part of the design, the form of the “bank”, on which the sibling’s rest, symbolizes both Madeline’s tomb and the House. The idea here is the transition between the siblings’ halves. On Madeline’s part, the structure oozes femininity and plenitude, reminiscent of the psychological counterpart of the character, the id, and Madeline’s dominant personality through the narrative. Whilst the upper part is barely deconstructed, the lower region of the print, where Roderick’s body resides, is broken into pieces, following a rhythm of gradual descent. This breaking depiction arises from Poe’s exploitation of the decaying element and of the compulsive madness. The gradual descent in the drawing represents the fall into lunacy and the apparition of psychological tremors. The pieces that fall are both the physical fragments of the Usher mansion —the “crumbling condition of the individual stones” (pg 118) — and the segments of Roderick’s disturbed mind. Together with the asymmetry, the segments emphasize the status of each character. Lady Madeline, the id, is the wild part and the dominant and physical half of the doublet, while Roderick is the ego, the malleable and frail another half. Also to be noted here is the interesting idea of the gender traits that are switched: maleness is infected with hypersensitivity and melancholy while femaleness acts as the dangerous and aggressive element in the novella.
Continuing to follow the visual part of this essay, we shall observe that there are branches full of leaves peeking out from the sides and top of the black structure; a couple of them resemble the fallen segments and some blood and respectively flames. The web of leaves is most consistent at the top of the print, being almost intertwined and forming a garland above Madeline’s head.
In Poe’s text, the narrator observes the natural elements, some kind of a picturesque dead nature near the Usher mansion: “Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves” (pg118) These are organic metaphors, having inspiration in Gothic architecture, showing the state of decomposition. Fungi usually develop in moist, damp, suffocating, and dark environments. By referencing the natural kingdom, E. A. Poe accentuates the archetypal setting of the Gothic. Poe foreshadows his belief in the fusion of organic and inorganic elements. Botanical elements are usually aspects of the ethereal atmosphere, of bohemian architecture, but as in “The Fall of the House of Usher”, my printed tangling leaves are signs of disease and dissertation. The inhabitants of the House have been engulfed both physically and spiritually by the mansion. Because of the creeping fungi on the walls of the dwelling, aspects of humanity and sanity are erased altogether. The exterior mirrors the interior of the Usher twins. By choosing to portray the dead nature referenced in the text, I transformed the fungi and the “decayed trees” into a universal symbol: crawling leaves. Thus, the web-like “minute fungi”, illustrated in the text by Poe, is reminiscent of the web-work of the Gothic cathedral. Architecture and visual composition is a very important facet of the fantastic novella.
The reason behind the absence of leaves from the bottom half of the print — Roderick’s side — is supposed to represent the helplessness of the character itself. Madeline’s aura of creeping branches full of leaves serves as an element of wildness and corruption, intended to depict her aggressive behavior as the id in the Freudian trio. She’s the one that contaminates her brother at the end. Her ghastly appearance torments him and disturbs his mind; the climax consisting of Roderick being enclosed in her dead arms, just like the House is enclosed and suffocated by the dead nature — by the “minute fungi”.
The skulls are also part of the organic aesthetic props. They epitomize the royal bloodline of the Usher family. The twins are surrounded by the skulls of their family, a kind of memento mori that is always depicted in paintings. This is the twins’ destiny too, they are going to die, and together with their death, the Usher family will cease to exist. The present will become history. The leaves that branch out of the bony heads are indications that even the dead are contaminated.
The color red is also an important symbol in Poe’s novella. He uses the vibrancy of the color in culminating episodes. Madeline, after her escape from the tomb, is described as having blood smeared all over her white gown. There are also signs of struggle to get out of the tomb, which signals to the theme of the live burial: “There was blood upon her white robes and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame”. (pg 136) In Mircea Elide, live burial is considered to be an archetype and an important stage in the renovation process. From a Freudian perspective, Madeline’s vault and burial ceremony emulate Roderick’s intention of ignoring his repressed sexual desires. The return of Madeline at the end of the story is the return of the repressed. Hence, Madeline not only represents the repressed feelings of her brother, but she also represents an effect: The Uncanny. The color red is introduced in the novella as a feature of the horror. Rather than soaking Madeline’s clothes with red blood, I only painted the blood from her fingers, showing her struggle of returning as a repressed desire of Roderick. Although the sister is never depicted as having anything fluid dripping from her hands, I added the idea that her fingers are supposed to look tense, twitched in peculiar forms, with blood steeping down onto Roderick’s side. To make a connection between the theme of decay and that of the Freudian live burial, I painted the ends of the branches, that makeup Madeline’s garland, into red, trying to illustrate a transition from organic leaves into the organic fluid — little capillaries of blood seeping upwards and merging together to define the letter “M”.
Lady Madeline is a character constructed in parallel with the environment; never existing, almost like she’s just a part of Roderick and the House. The narrator glances upon her visage merely as she is passing through the room. He doesn’t describe her at all, but only as being identical with her sibling. Readers can solely interpret her as something cloaked in white and a blood-smeared figure of nightmares. In Poe’s narrative, Lady Madeline has become surreal. She’s an idea. Consequently, we don’t really know how Madeline looks like. I took the liberty to represent her in my print as a young, beautiful “nimphete”, with long locks of curly hair and two dotted cheeks as signs of her blush: “a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death”. (p. 129) The eyes are engraved as shut, only the lines can be distinguished. Though the figure of Lady Madeline is dressed in white robes in the text, I portrayed the two siblings in nude.
The print shows Madeline’s perky breasts, evidence of “maturity of youth”, and her tiny waistline. The bodies of the twins are intertwined and glued together. I wanted to replicate the theme of Incestuous bonds, the dual hallucination, and the connection between the id and the ego, the psychological half, and the physical one. They are nude because they are in the Freudian womb of repression, the vault from Poe’s novella; they are shown in their pure state.
The attachment of the siblings was done from the bosom down and the dissecting here is important: twins always mirror each other, be it in personality or physiognomy, which is why I wanted to portray the bodies as contrasting each other — like a mirror. The spectral little forms done in the area of the “knot” between the two are evocations of the undulating effects of mirror reflections of light. In my print, Lady Madeline is the most important character, Roderick seems more like a Jungian Shadow, a consequence of his sister’s existence. His body movements are those of a tormented individual — his arms are up, above and upon his face, in a defensive attitude. The posture in which I wanted him was that of a cowardly character. This is a depiction of Roderick at the end of “The Fall of the House of Usher”, where he is so devoured by madness and fear that he couldn’t stand to look at the figure of his sister. Again, the apparition of his repressed feelings and desires. On the other hand, the third and last appearance of Lady Madeline displays her ferocity and her aggressiveness. She is the whole mechanism of the story; she puts into motion everything.
Thus, while my visual interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s novella, “The Fall of the House of Usher” draws closely on the text, it does have new layers of meaning. In Poe’s narrative, the House is the ultimate archetype and the ultimate character. It is a projection of the writer’s feelings, of his melancholy. “FEAR!” represents the nucleus, the drive of the story, as well as of its characters. Transferring the text’s themes and connotations into a visual work adds more to the layers of the story and shows the abundance of interpretations of the same themes. The modern aspect of the linocut technique also enriches the experience of the reading.
It has been known that Edgar Allan Poe has entered the American literary canon for his merits of being a short story writer and the first to come upon the detective genre. But he’s also the first American writer that has quite the elegiac romance tones and Coleridgean self-development elements to his writings. Through titles such as “William Wilson”, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Black Cat”, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, E. A. Poe continued to illuminate his theories of Victorian and romantic visuals, intertwined with gothic elements of doom, decay, and death. His literary experiments are ponderings on the transition between life and death, two abstract notions that appear as substantial themes in his works.
The tales of this particular American writer are set upon the paper with great meticulous attention to what the alchemists used to call, “the six senses”. Poe’s interesting style of aestheticism is an amalgamation of neo-classic, pre-romantic, and romantic elements, that, fused together, transform the concept of reality into a mysterious, elevated, and irrational force. His characters are dead men walking, lunatics, disease-infested vessels of psychological disturbances and he toys with all of them in extensive descriptive passages through which the reader is compelled to “see”, “feel” and “smell”, from the narrator’s perspective, the haunting illusions and delusions that usually transcend and embellish his text.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” was first published in 1839 and is considered to be Poe’s best gothic-fantastic novella whose interesting view upon history subtly emerges from within the three characters’ destinies. With its widely popular gothic atmosphere and delirious horror hues, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is set within the walls of the archetypal house, a container, as Durand might observe, of horrible illusions, ghastly images, and ominous happenings. The three human characters, Roderick and Madeline Usher, together with the anonymous narrator, are the menage á trois of Freudian psychoanalysis, embodying the ego, id, and superego. The highly unsettling work deals with several important themes and symbols: decay or decomposition, history as a rotten material and a literary device, incestuous vampiric love, madness and psychosis, fear, and imagination. Managing to revitalize the Gothic genre of literature (now called “Southern Gothic”), Poe’s hypersensitivity birthed an interesting change to the genre of horror: turning the external horror into the macabre within — “the terror of the soul”, by using tropes such as foreshadowing, anadiplosis, enargia, personification (or pathetic fallacy), alliteration and synesthesia.
Following an anonymous narrator, the novella opens with the already set disintegration of the House and its inhabitants, the Usher twins. The opening paragraph transposes the reader in the realm of misty frightening surroundings, imbued with a dusty palette of greys and dull off-whites: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, 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 the view of the melancholy House of Usher”. (cititat prima pagina carte) Roderick Usher has invited his friend, the anonymous character-narrator, to come to see him, hoping that this friendly reunion will appease his internal whirlwind of sufferings. After we get introduced to Roderick Usher and his psychological decline, the narrator “showers” us with detailed information upon the history of the Usher family.
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