Gothic Elements in Edgar Allan Poe's Story "The Fall of The House of Usher"

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Gothic Elements in Edgar Allan Poe's Story "The Fall of The House of Usher" essay
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Keywords: Gothic literature, Edgar Allan Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher, Horror fiction, Dark romanticism, Psychological terror, Symbolism, Supernatural elements


The etymology of “Gothic” originated from the French term gothique and in Latin, Gothic. It means something that is no classical. It was a medieval style of art as well as architecture in Northern Europe in the 0661s. It later became a literary style of writing in literature in the 02th century1 it employed medieval settings to provide horror and terror. Originating in England and Germany in the later part of the 01th century, it grew out of Romanticism, a strong reaction against the Transcendental Movement. Dark Romanticism draws from darker elements of the human psyche, the evil side of spiritual truth. Gothic literature took that further, involving horror, terror, death, omens, the supernatural, and heroines in distress. The first recognized Gothic novel was Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (American..).

A gothic short story or novel typically includes a gothic hero about who the story is about. In his book, David Morse believes that “A major problem in the Gothic centers on the notion of involuntary action. The Gothic protagonist typically finds himself performing actions that de did not necessarily intend or envisage. He becomes tied in knots of his own devising and bound by previous involvements and commitments”. (011)

Gothic elements include the following:

Firstly, setting in a castle or old mansion. The action takes place in and around an old castle or an old mansion, or the ruins of an old castle or mansion. Sometimes the edifice is seemingly abandoned, sometimes occupied, and sometimes it's not clear whether the building has occupants (human or otherwise). The castle often contains secret passages, trap doors, secret rooms, trick panels with hidden levers, dark or hidden staircases, and possibly ruined sections. The castle may be near or connected to caves, which lend their own haunting flavor with their darkness, uneven floors, branching, claustrophobia, echoes of unusual sounds, and mystery.

Secondly, an atmosphere of mystery and suspense: the work is pervaded by a threatening feeling, a fear enhanced by the unknown. This atmosphere is sometimes advanced when characters see only a glimpse of something--was that a person rushing out the window or only the wind blowing a curtain? Is that creaking sound coming from someone's step on the squeaky floor, or only the normal sounds of the night? Often the plot itself is built around a mystery, such as unknown parentage, a disappearance, or some other inexplicable event. People disappear or show up dead inexplicably (Harries).

Thirdly, supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events: Dramatic, amazing events occur, such as ghosts or giants walking, or inanimate objects (such as a suit of armor or painting) coming to life. In some works, the events are ultimately given a natural explanation, while in others the events are truly supernatural. As you might imagine, Hollywood uses special effects to a large degree to provide fire, earthquakes, moving statues, and so forth, often blurring the line between human- produced, natural, and supernatural events.

Fourthly, high, even overwrought emotion: The narration may be highly sentimental, and the characters are often overcome by anger, sorrow, surprise, fear, and especially, terror. Characters suffer from raw nerves and a feeling of impending doom. Crying and emotional speeches are frequent. Breathlessness and panic are common. In the filmed Gothic, screaming is common (Harries).

Fifthly, women in distress. As an appeal to the pathos and sympathy of the reader, the female characters often face events that leave them fainting, terrified, screaming, and/or sobbing. A lonely, pensive, and oppressed heroine is often the central figure of the novel, so her sufferings are even more pronounced and the focus of attention. The women suffer all the more because they are often abandoned, left alone (either on purpose or by accident), and have no protector at times. (In horror-Gothic films, when the guy tells the girl, 'Stay here; I'll be right back,' you pretty much know that one of them will soon be dead.)

Sixthly, women threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male. One or more male characters has the power, as king, lord of the manor, father, or guardian, to demand that one or more of the female characters do something intolerable. The woman may be commanded to marry someone she does not love (it may even be the powerful male himself), or commit a crime. In modern Gothic novels and films, there is frequently the threat of physical violation (Harries).

Finally, psychological portraits. Themes of madness and emotional distress characterize the psychological emphasis of gothic literature. As the genre matured into the 91th century, writers began to portray the internal horror of psychosis, as in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Poe’s “The Telltale Heart,” which examines the psychology of guilt, stands as an earlier example of this tendency (Douglas).

This paper aims to apply the gothic elements on The Fall of the House of Usher. The paper is divided into four parts: the first part discusses the psychological portraits of the characters. The second part sheds the light on the gothic atmosphere and events of the story. Meanwhile, the third part discusses the supernatural events in the story and how they cause overwrought emotions. The final part shows how Lady Madeline was victimized by her brother, Roderick Usher.

Psychological Portraits

In a deceptive universe that does not provide for individual immortality, Poe’s heroes and heroines vainly struggle to find order and to preserve their lives. Yet they are at the same time fascinated with death as the ultimate fact of existence, lies beyond death. But in Poe’s universe, there is nothing beyond death, nothing beyond this life (Thompson 66). In this short story, Poe keeps both his characters' and his readers' nerves on edge, which is an essential element in fantastical tales. This fear slowly increases until the final end night, when the narrator is 'overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror, unaccountable yet unendurable' (Bright Summaries 01).

Roderick Usher is a primary character in the story. Poe paid great attention to every fine change in Usher’s psychotic brain; on the other hand, he placed a friend beside Usher in order to observe him, and then the man came back and told the terrible process of how Usher died (Sun 25). Roderick Usher is the owner of his gothic house. The house’s melancholic atmosphere is affecting him terribly. He and his sister suffer from untreatable conditions that are inherited to all the members of the family and that it was “family evil” (Poe 011) causing “nervous affection” (011). Usher’s mental condition can be interrupted in various ways according to his utterance and behavior in a different situation throughout the story. Firstly, he suffers from hypochondria which is, according to Wikipedia, a condition in which a person is excessively and unduly worried about having a serious illness (Hypocondriasis). Usher “suffered fro morbid acuteness of the senses.'

The narrator explains Usher’s mental illness by showing another feature of it. He perceives that Usher is affected by certain “superstitious impressions' (011). Secondly, Roderick Usher seems to suffer from bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is a mental illness that causes dramatic shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to think clearly. People with bipolar experience high and low moods— known as mania and depression—which differ from the typical ups-and-downs most people experience. Usher could go through some days feeling cheerful and have “particular moments of the highest artificial excitement” (Poe 019). The narrator described the moments of the highest excitement as artificial because they are not realistic at all due to Usher’s illness. Whereas, he could also have days when he is totally depressed and miserable.

To illustrate, even though Usher’s bipolar condition seems to be untreatable to narrator, he still tries to lift Usher’s mood up and “to alleviate the melancholy of my friend” (010) by several activities such as painting, reading books together, especially Mad Trist by Sir Launcelot Canning, and playing music “the wild provisations of his speaking guitar” clearly reflects Usher’s melancholic psychological and mental condition. Usher is interested in reading books that narrate stories related to his psychological condition and reflect his imagination and thoughts.

Additionally, this kind of books seem to express in their own way how he feels and describe the mess that is running inside his head “Our books-the books which, for years, had formed no small portion of the mental existence of the invalid-were, as might be supposed, in strict keeping his character of phantasm” (015). However, the narrator realizes that he failed in trying to offer a psychological support to his friend “I perceive the futility of all the attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness” (010). Finally, the final scene of the story shows that Usher has schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by abnormal behavior, strange speech and a decreased ability to understand reality (Schizophrenia). To illustrate, he starts hallucinating that he is talking to somebody. When the narrator says “a sickly smile quivered about his lips; and I saw that he spoke in a low, hurried, gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of my presence” (000). Then the narrator heard Usher saying words that the narrator did not understand “Not hear it?-yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long-long-long many times, many hours, many days, have I heard it- yet.. I dare not speak!” (000).

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Poe puts between us and Usher a narrator, a third person who, like us, comes only slowly to know the elements of this tragedy of mind (Davidson xvi). The narrator seems that he has a mental condition called defense mechanism. According to Wikipedia, a defense mechanism is an unconscious psychological mechanism that reduces anxiety arising from unacceptable or potentially harmful stimuli. Defense mechanisms may result in healthy or unhealthy consequences depending on the circumstances and frequency with which the mechanism is used. In psychoanalytic theory, defense mechanisms (German: Abwehrmechanismen) are psychological strategies brought into play by the unconscious mind to manipulate, deny, or distort reality in order to defend against feelings of anxiety and unacceptable impulses and to maintain one's self-schema or other schemas (Defense..).

The narrator believes that he is infected by Usher's mental illness after a week of burying Lady Madeline ''it was no wonder that his condition terrified –that it infected me' (Poe 017) as much as he felt 'creeping' upon him. He tries to figure out the reasons that make him believe that he may have gone crazy 'I endeavored to believe that much if not all of what I felt, was due to the bewildering influence of the gloomy furniture of the room–of the dark and tattered draperies, which, tortured into motion by the breath of a rising tempest, swaged fitfully to and fro upon the walls, and rusted uneasily about the decorations of the bed' (017). This gothic atmosphere is making the narrator feel quite horrified to the point where he thinks that he was suffering from the same mental illness of Usher's. Therefore, his defense mechanism is shown in denying the fact the he could be mentally not well. However, all his attempts of denial are 'fruitless.' Moreover, he denies that he is '[o]verpowered by an intense sentiment of horror, unaccountable yet unendurable,' (017).

The narrator goes through a situation that makes him experience several feelings and emotions. To illustrate, when he goes into Usher's house, he walks through the 'Gothic' (Poe 21) archway on his way to the studio of Usher. He then explains that he is having some 'vague sentiments' (21) that he is unable to interpret. This may have happened because of the gothic atmosphere that included elements that describe how the castle look like from the inside such as 'carvings of ceilings,' 'somber tapestries of the walls,' 'the ebon blackness of the floors' which evoked some sort of discomfort to the narrator.

Poe wanted to use the physician of the family as an introducer of the narrator to the melancholic house and its inhabitants. Even though he is a secondary character, his role and behavior mark a hint of what is to come. He meets the narrator in a way that appeared to be strange to the narrator himself. The physician 'wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity' (Poe 21). This shows the state of feeling the physician is in. To illustrate, he is trembling while guiding the narrator to Usher's room as if he does not want the narrator to meet Usher. In other words, the physician's attitude indirectly foreshadows that the supernatural incidents that take place in the mansion in addition to Usher's mental condition are so frightening so that he cannot keep his cool in front of the narrator. The physician is greatly affected by the atmosphere of the mansion and by Usher himself. He seems to have sent some indirect warning signs to the narrator through his behavior to alarm him of the honorific upcoming incidents.

Gothic Setting and Atmosphere

The setting of a gothic short story usually takes place in a castle, or an old mansion in a horrific atmosphere that reflects what happens. In The Fall of the House of Usher, the events occur in Usher's terrific house in an isolated, remote area that nobody goes to. When the narrator goes to visit Usher, he was astonished by the atmosphere that surrounds the house. There was a tremendous tempest that was in the area of the mansion that occurred in a 'tempestuous yet sternly beautiful night' (Poe 011), and the storm itself seemed to have 'collected its force' in their 'vicinity' and it was so tense to the extent that they 'had no limps of the moon or stars-nor was there any flashing for the lighting' (011).

The narrator in this quotation is using a highly descriptive language. In other words, he describes every single detail of the atmosphere that terrifies him greatly. He mentions the elements of the atmosphere which are the decayed trees, gray walls, silent tarn, a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, and sluggish. He is amazed by its intensity as it rarely happens in a way like this in other places. The continuously high lightening of atmosphere, anti-closure, the readers are experiencing the invisible fear. Through all these means, Poe tried his best to construct an intact and uniform, mysterious and shaking effect (Sun 26). The park around the house is depressingly gloomy: the narrator leads his horse to 'the precipitous brink of a black and lurin tarn' and looks at the 'white trunks of decayed trees' (Bright Summaries 01).

This atmosphere, however, is liked by the narrator. This shows a contradiction that lies in him. To illustrate, this gothic atmosphere makes him have inner terrific feelings, meanwhile, he believes that the atmosphere is beautiful even though it terrifies him. He also describes that night as a 'terrible one.' In my belief, the narrator did not realize that the stormy weather is indirectly foreshadowing what is to come inside Usher's mansion. The atmosphere fits the events that take place in the mansion. The house can be considered as a character on its own right. It is described in great detail and plays an active role in the story. It reflects and influences its owner's moods (Bright Summaries 7).

The gloomy and decadent environment the narrator described set the tone of the readers' imagination (Sun 25). By way of illustration, if Poe had portrayed a quiet atmosphere with a sunny weather and wonderful breeze, it would not have matched the gothic events in the mansion and vice versa. Additionally, the psychological portrayal of the characters themselves is melancholic. Hence, if they had lived in sunny days with no storms, the story's plot would have fallen apart and would not have been considered as a gothic one. In Poe's works, we have profound comprehension that all the terrifying souls were fully immersed in all the atmosphere of the gothic horror Poe had depicted for them into reality with his imagination and formidable narrative ability (26).

Supernatural Events and High Emotion

Supernatural events have a dominant place in gothic literature. In The Fall of the House of Usher, this kind of events is very obvious. As aforementioned, the narrator paid a visit to Usher in order to help him and make him get better.

Roderick asked the narrator to read for him his favorite volume Mad Trist by Sir Launcelot Canning and something supernatural takes place while the narrator was reading. The scene the narrator was reading in started to happen in reality 'At the termination of this sentence I started... there came, indistinctly to my ears, what might have been, in its exact similarity of the character, the of the very cracking and ripping sound which Sir Launscelot had so particularly described' (Poe 012). The narrator kept on reading and then out of the blue the supernatural event reached its climax! To illustrate, the door of Usher's room opened suddenly and Lady Madeline was standing before it as a “living corpse” (Perrg and Sederholm 65) 'Madam! I tell you that she now stands without the door!' (000).

With reference to the pervious quotation, it should be said that what the narrator was reading, which was A Haunted Palace, could be some kind of wicked prophecy. As to say, because of burying Lady Madeline alive, the whole house became cursed and damned because of this terrible action. She kept trying to escape from her tomb and get revenge of Usher because of his misbelief in her being dead while she was actually alive but seemed to be dead because of her illness.

Supernatural events typically result in overwrought, high emotions. However, this does not apply on the narrator. Since he was in such a horrific situation witnessing supernatural power taking place, the readers were expecting him to be afraid or at least run away. On the other hand, he was filled with courage and an 'excited fancy' that is not always present in such terribly situations especially the ones related to ghosts and demons. To illustrate, he kept reading the story in spite of its consequences. On the contrary, Roderick Usher was tremendously terrified. His guilt was taking over him. He knew what he did was extremely wrong and a horrendous betrayal. He is, therefore, considered a traitor who did not show respect to his sick sister. Hence, he was completely aware of what is come when the narrator reads the story.

Victim or Victimized?

Women in gothic in literature are mostly victims. They are usually in distress. As to say, they face horrible situations or occasions that can make them end up dying. Lady Madeline is considered as a primary character even if the readers do not notice this from the very beginning of the story. She was not present during most of the incidents of the story. Therefore, the main focus was on the narrator and Usher as well as what was happening to them over the course of the story. Nevertheless, Lady Madeline’s role turns out to be powerful by the end of the story.

Lady Madeline is victimized by both her illness and Usher. To illustrate, she suffered from “a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character were the unusual diagnosis” (Poe 010). The narrator in this quotation informs the readers of Lady Madeline’s illness condition. His words can be regarded as justification of her coming actions so that the readers show her some sympathy because even her physicians could not treat her due to not diagnosing her conditions correctly. Lady Madeline is totally under the control of catalepsy. Catalepsy does not only make her a victim of Usher’s burrier of her, but also makes Usher a victim of his mind. To illustrate, Usher thought that she is dead. In other words, he was unaware that his sister could not move for a few moments because of her illness. Therefore, the fear that lied in him gave him the drive to bury her in the tomb because he did not want the doctors to use her body for scientific examinations. “We have put have her living in the tomb!” (000). As a result, Usher kept on hearing the sounds that were caused by Lady Madeline trying to get herself out of the tomb.

The narrator saw Lady Madeline walking slowly at the beginning of the story. He says “I learned that the glimpse I had obtained of her person would this probably be the last I should obtain-that the lady, at least while living, would be seen by me no more' (Poe 010). The narrator believed that the time he saw her would be last. However, neither he nor the readers had any clue that this would not be the last time he sees her. As to say, he did not know that her disappearance would be only temporary and that she would come back to take revenge. He did not even understand how terrible her condition was to the point where he helped Usher in burying her. How come he did not notice that she was breathing during the burying process? Why did not he even prevent Usher from preserving her “corpse” and did not give him a second opinion? A part of the blame of why Lady Madeline is victimized lies in the narrator himself.

Roderick Usher plays an important role in the idea of victimizing his sister. At the beginning of story, he was truly a loving brother who felt sorry for the bad condition of his sister. According to the narrator, Usher called her a “tenderly beloved sister” (Poe 011) whom he loved with all his heart. He was filled with sorrow because he wanted her to live the normal life that he could not have. Since she was his twin, he thought that she suffers from an illness just because she is this twin sister. Even though Usher showed the readers as well as the narrator that he had a tenderness of heart, his way of thinking completely changed when he thought that Lady Madeline died. This could have resulted from his shock when he knew this news. He did not want to bury her in dust probably because he wanted her to stay close to him for a little while in spite of the fact that she appeared to be a dead body to him. He did not want to lose her because she and he were the last two family members of the Usher family. He wished that he wanted to die with her.

However, what he did was not right at all and turned totally against him. Edward H. Davidson has a different viewpoint from what has been aforementioned. He states that “Roderick Usher knows, at every turn, the extent of his own disintegrating mind; his twin sister, a part of him, he tries to destroy because her removal might free him from a painful physical life; but he knew as soon as she dies, he dies too; thus he tries to bury her alive” (XVI). He perceives that Usher intended to bury Lady Madeline alive. He mistakenly thought that he is going to be able to obtain his peace of mind as well as healing by getting rid of her. However, he knew that the exact opposite was going to happen as soon as she dies because he is going to die with her as well. Since she is his twin sister, he did not bear in mind that whatever happens to her is going to happen to her as well. Therefore, he completely surrendered to his devilish thinking.

Lady Madeline was “a victim of the terrors he had anticipated’' (Poe 000). She must have filled betrayed by being buried by her brother whom she trusted the most. She felt imprisoned when she was stuck in the tomb. She struggled to manage to her get out of the tomb to the extent that when she finally showed up in the mansion “There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame” (000). There was blood all over her body that cruelly reflect how harsh she struggled was to save her life. The narrator’s description of her struggle as “bitter” is powerful and shows that she could not save her life easily. All in all, Lady Madeline’s role as a female character turned out to be such a very powerful one.


We can therefore conclude that Poe employed the gothic elements in an accurate a way. He used each and every element as way to evoke fear and suspense in the readers. Poe also showed the readers what sickness can do to drive people to commit horrible deeds. Roderick Usher and Lady Madeline Usher are fine examples of betrayal versus revenge.

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Expert Review
This essay embarks on a comprehensive exploration of Gothic literature's essence, focusing on the elements that constitute its eerie allure. The introduction adeptly traces the origins of "Gothic," deftly tracing its evolution from a medieval art and architectural style to a literary genre steeped in mystery and horror. The essay then delves into the various hallmarks of Gothic fiction, dissecting each element with fervent analysis. The exploration of psychological portraits of characters, the unsettling atmosphere, supernatural occurrences, heightened emotion, and the role of women as victims demonstrates the author's deep understanding of the genre. However, some paragraphs could benefit from enhanced transition, allowing for a more fluid narrative flow. The critical analysis applied to Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" showcases the writer's ability to unravel layers of meaning within a specific work. The essay presents a thoughtful dissection of how Gothic elements manifest in the story, yet the conclusion might be expanded to provide a more resonant closure.
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What can be improved
Transitional Flow: Refine transitions between paragraphs for a smoother and more coherent progression of ideas. Introduction Hook: Consider starting the introduction with a captivating hook to engage the reader's interest from the outset. Quotation Integration: Seamlessly integrate quotes to maintain a natural flow in the essay. Conclusion Depth: Expand the conclusion to offer a more profound reflection on the significance of the essay's findings and their broader implications. Proofreading: Correct minor grammatical errors and typos to enhance the essay's clarity and professional presentation.
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