How to Study Fiction, Part 21: 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.

Today, in “Let’s pull The Fall of the House of Usher to pieces,” we’re going to work on sentences.

  • How long are the sentences?
  • Are the sentences straightforward or complex (a good rule of thumb is that complex sentences get a lot of punctuation)?

Last time, we discovered the Poe uses a lot of different, medium-length words, but none are super-long or complex (which wasn’t what I’d expected, personally).

I’m expecting a lot of super-long, super-complex sentences.

You can find a link to the Project Gutenberg version of The Fall of the House of Usher here.

I’m going to use the first paragraph as our example again, but I’m doing to insert  a line break after every sentence.  “Punct.” is short for punctuation marks; I’m not counting apostrophes and hyphens.

1. (60 words – 10 punct.) 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.

2. (22 words – 4 punct.) I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.

3. (32 words – 4 punct.) 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.

4. (80 words – 10 punct.) 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.

5. (29 words – 4 punct.) 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.

6. (22 words – 3 punct.) What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?

7. (21 words – 1 punct.) It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.

8. (42 words – 5 punct.) 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.

9. (95 words – 14 punct.) 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.

That first paragraph is 403 words, 9 sentences, or about 45 words per sentence.  I used to be a technical writer and editor.  Our sentence-length guideline was to stay at 20 words or fewer; 20 words was considered a long sentence at the outside edge of what a reader could pay attention to without losing the train of thought.

It would be easy to accuse people of being poorer readers or just less intelligent in general these days.  Let’s not.  There are plenty of texts from the same time period that have long sentences and which make my head hurt, and I’ve studied philosophy from that era with relative ease.  Something about how Poe wrote made his long sentences easy to read.  Not as easy as a short sentence, but easy enough.

First, let’s take the lengths of the sentences:  they vary.  The longest sentences are separated from each other as well.  So it’s not a constant stream of super-long sentences.  No, it’s super-long sentences interrupted by merely long ones 🙂

Next, let’s look at how much punctuation there is, as being an indication of how complex a sentence is.  The longer sentences have more punctuation.  There are 55 punctuation marks (not including apostrophes and hyphens), or about 6 marks per sentence.

Here’s what I did on the paragraphs above, from “That first paragraph…” to “…about 6 marks per sentence”:

  • 212 words total.
  • 4 paragraphs, or about 50 words a paragraph.
  • 15 sentences, or about 14 words a sentence (the longest is 36 words; shortest, 2).
  • 28 punctuation marks, or about 2 per sentence.

I would consider my ordinary blogging style pretty complex, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Poe.

Please note that in the last paragraph of the original tale, while the narrator is staring into a tarn (a small mountain lake) and looking at the reflection of the House of Usher, he stops to say, “I reflected,” because apparently Poe couldn’t leave a good pun alone.

In the above paragraph, from “Please note…” to “…couldn’t leave a good pun alone,” there is one sentence of 48 words.  There are 9 punctuation marks, much higher than for my natural writing style.  And yet it’s not impossible to read.

  • My best guess here is that Poe used a lot of punctuation marks to help keep his sentences readable.
  • My best guess, which unfortunately may not be accurate, is that Poe’s punctuation marks, much like the sections of a plastic pillbox, helped keep his words organized.

In modern times, we tend to use shorter sentences with less punctuation.  Because we’re more direct?  Or because we tend to break down more complex sentences, starting with the same words we would have used, had we packed everything into a single sentence?

Maybe punctuation density is important!  Poe’s, for that first paragraph, is ~7 words per punctuation mark. Mine, for my more natural writing selection, is about one per 10 words.  Maybe Poe’s denser punctuation makes his long sentences easier to read–and it’s punctuation density, not sentence length, that we should be measuring.

(If I haven’t recommended it lately, a lot of the discussion here points back to what I learned in Joseph M. Williams’s Style: Toward Clarity and Grace.  Why is one writer’s style different than another’s? Why choose one pattern of writing over another?  The book has the answers.)

To conclude, Poe’s sentences are super-long and super-complex, as anticipated.  But they’re written with sufficient clarity to still be readable today.  This may be due to his skillful use of punctuation.

Next time:  Content vs. pacing in sentences.  Why are some of those sentences longer than others?  And why are they placed in the order they are?

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