How to Study Fiction, Part 20: The Fall of the House of Usher

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

So let’s start breaking down “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  Please note that I realize that you didn’t actually type it in, despite all the times that I’ve advised you to do so.  This series of increasingly-complex posts is at least partially about convincing you to try!

As beginning writers, we tend to accept writing advice from an actual, working writer (or even just someone who speaks with authority) as being from on high, not to be questioned.

As intermediate writers, that’s a big no-no.  A lot of good writing advice will not work for you.  If you listen to it, it can wreck your career.  You can find out whether it’s good or not by testing the advice in your own writing, or testing the advice against the work of writers you love.

If you think typing stuff in is laborious…it is.  But it’s less laborious than trying to write several novels using someone’s technique to see if it works for you.

Maybe that should be a side note: of all the things that you can do to support your career long-term, listening to other people’s advice without questioning and testing it isn’t it.  Critique group giving you advice that doesn’t make sense?  Type in some of your favorite writers’ work and see whether that advice applies to what you want to write.  If it doesn’t, that advice may not be for you.

Let’s go down the list from last week on basic-level analysis:

  • How long are the words?  What level of vocabulary are we talking here?

Here’s the first paragraph:

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 view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was 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. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

In order to study the lengths of the words here and what kind of vocabulary that Poe uses, you could use one of several different techniques.  You might make a general impression after typing in a passage.  Or you might run the paragraph through an analysis program that counts word lengths and how many unique words there are.

For this example, I’m going to go with a middle route.  Here, I removed the words that make the sentence make sense–words mostly there for grammar purposes.  We need those words to help analyze the sentence structure, but, because they’re pretty common to every sentence, we don’t need to look at them as indicators of vocabulary. For example, “the” isn’t the world’s most exciting vocabulary word, and it doesn’t tell us much at this level.  Let’s leave it out.

So, removing the “grammar” words that stick the sentences together but have no real personality of their own, we’re left with the following:

whole dull dark soundless day autumn year clouds hung oppressively low heavens passing alone horseback singularly dreary tract country length found shades  evening drew view melancholy house Usher know first glimpse building sense insufferable gloom pervaded spirit feeling unrelieved half pleasurable poetic sentiment mind receives sternest natural images desolate terrible scene mere simple landscape features domain bleak walls vacant eye windows rank sedges white trunks decayed trees utter depression soul compare earthly sensation properly dream reveller opium bitter lapse life hideous dropping veil iciness sinking sickening heart unredeemed dreariness thought goading imagination torture sublime paused think unnerved contemplation mystery insoluble grapple shadowy fancies crowded pondered forced fall unsatisfactory conclusion doubt combinations simple natural objects power affecting analysis lies considerations depth possible  reflected mere different arrangement particulars scene details picture sufficient modify annihilate capacity sorrowful impression acting idea reined horse precipitous brink black lurid tarn lay unruffled lustre dwelling gazed shudder thrilling remodelled inverted images gray sedge ghastly stems

I tried to remove duplicate words, but I may have missed a few.

When I thought about Poe’s writing before typing it in or analyzing it, I would have guessed that he used big vocabulary words to the point of being confusing and annoying.  I had this impression of Poe as pretentious.

When I looked at the actual words he used, however, I found that, while the vocabulary he used wasn’t simple, none of the words he used were so sesquipidalian as to be frustrating to read.  My impression is that the vocabulary is in line with Gothic novels of that era.  Another impression is that Poe uses polysyllabic words because they sound right.

I’m going to call this a medium to medium-high vocabulary, thoughtfully used.

  • Can you hear an “accent” to the words that place the narrator’s background?

The narrator seems like a generic “Gothic” narrator, a fellow from some anonymous but well-bred place in Britain.  Poe was from the United States.  I suspect Poe removed as many U.S.-sounding regionalisms as he could, but didn’t really understand U.K. accents.  He may have also “aged” the language a little to make the 1840 story sound like it happened even earlier.

Jane Austen was writing satires of Gothic novels in 1816, with the original Gothic The Castle of Otranto being written in the 1700s and purporting to be a “discovered” manuscript from the 1500s.  Trying to sound old-fashioned and mysterious was an accepted mode of writing, one that readers liked.

Another side note: What you notice will differ.  That’s just part of your fingerprint as a writer.  What you notice about a work reflects the way you see the world and how you write about it.  Don’t take my word for what’s in Poe’s work:  it should be different for you.  Your high school English teacher may have been authoratative about what books meant, but I’m not!  This example of analysis is more to show you that you can connect your subconscious to your conscious understanding of a story, and of writing in general, than to tell you what to do.

In addition, please note that you do not need to follow the same process every time:  when you type things in, you do not need to analyze the individual words.  When you feel confident that you have a feel for the kinds of words that an author is using, then you can stop thinking about the individual words–until you find an author who uses words in a way that doesn’t make sense. Then take a deeper look.

Next time, more on sentence analysis.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Herald, here!


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