How to Study Fiction, Part 25: 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.

Last time on “The Fall of the House of Usher” study, we looked at the paragraphing throughout the story to see how Poe handled the paragraphs.  The paragraphs, dear reader, were long, resuling in very slow pacing…except for a few little things:

  • The epigraph, or short quote/poem at the beginning of the story.
  • A poem, in stanzes.
  • Another short quote, near the end of the story.

Now, whenever a good, skillful writer changes pacing, it’s a sign to the reader that something has changed in the content.  A story that goes from slow pacing to fast pacing might indicate a shift from thoughtful reflection on the forest surrounding the narrator to an attack by bears.*

Because of what we’ve looked at in previous areas of this story, I’m going to say that, for the most part, Poe’s long paragraphs are:

  • Slow paced.
  • Reflective in mood (literally so, in places).
  • Deceptive, possibly with buried clues and implications.
  • Indirect (the sentences are also long and twisted; it’s possible to have long paragraphs and short sentences together, so the long sentences in the long paragraphs are also a nuance of pacing).

So what purpose do these shorter, faster-paced sections serve?  Probably, they serve to mark some change in content, because of the nature of pacing in fiction.

However, there’s another element to consider:  where those changes occurr.

The three locations are:

  • Beginning.
  • Midpoint.
  • Near, but not at, the end of the story.

Why is the location important?  Why did Poe put those things there?

In order to answer those questions, we have to look back to how stories are structured.  Where something is located in a story is important, because Western fiction is based on a pretty typical structure:

  • Setup
  • Conflict
  • Resolution

There are all kinds of way to expand on that structure, but that’s generally how it goes.  Sometimes (in other stories), Poe will take the resolution, slice it into bits, and hide it inside the rest of the story, so that the story ends at the exact moment of the greatest conflict.  (In “Usher” he does not; one of the stories he does that in is “Ligeia.”)

A slightly expanded version of the traditional Western structure might go like this:

  • Setup (10-15% section of the story).
  • Initial conflicts (lower stakes) (up to the 50% mark of the story).
  • Reversal/twist (generally at the 50% mark).
  • Stakes raised (50%-75% section of the story).
  • Final conflict (75-95% section of the story).
  • Resolution (final section of the story).

Side note: A very short story will tend to have fewer structural pieces; a longer story will tend to have more of them.  “Usher” is over 7K, which is at the long end of short stories (2.5K-7.5Kish), and has more structure than “The Cask of Amontillado,” at ~2300 words.  There tend to be very few Hero’s Journey stories at the 2300-word length!

To predict what content each of the three pieces marks a change in, without actually reading or rereading “The Fall of the House of Usher”:

  • The epigraph near the beginning will reflect the theme of the story–possibly a hidden theme.
  • The poem will reflect a reversal in the conflicts of the story.
  • The short quote near the 75% mark of the story will reflect something that either sets off the final conflict, or that marks “the beginning of the end.”

Let’s see if I’m right.

The initial quote:

Son cœur est un luth suspendu;
Sitôt qu’on le touche il résonne.

De Béranger


Their heart is a poised lute;
as soon as it is touched, it resounds.

Knowing what we know about “Usher,” we have three characters:

  • Usher.
  • His sister.
  • The narrator.

Whose heart is being played?  We know from reading the story that Usher’s heart isn’t touched by, really, anything, other than feeling sorry for himself.  His sister’s heart is never touched; she’s barely a character, wafting in and out of rooms.

The narrator, though.  He gets played like a lute.

“Hey,” says Poe, “the key to this story is that the narrator is being lied to.”

The poem:

In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion,
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow
(This—all this—was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A wingèd odor went away.
Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute’s well-tunèd law,
Round about a throne where, sitting,
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn!—for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody;
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh—but smile no more.

The content of the poem is basically (by stanza):

  • Once upon a time there was a beautiful palace, the capital of Thought itself.
  • This place was great.  It even smelled nice. (This cracked me up.)
  • Looking in through two windows of the palace, visitors could see the king of Thought.  The palace is probably some dude’s head.
  • Noise exits the mouth, singing the king’s praises.  (Usher speaking well of himself, that is.)
  • But then bad things came from outside the palace.  (Usher blames his issues on external influences.)
  • The palace of Thought is now lit with red lamps, and full of crazy-ass dancers, which spew from the mouth.

What we know from the story overall is:

  • Usher is insane, and probably a narcissist and committing incest to help preserve the family name.

Before the poem, he’s kind of weird, and you sort of want to feel bad for him, although not too bad.  After the poem, he starts talking about how the house of Usher (the actual building) is sentient, and, in fact, is to blame for everything that’s going wrong with him, Usher, personally.

I well remember that suggestions arising from this ballad, led us into a train of thought wherein there became manifest an opinion of Usher’s which I mention not so much on account of its novelty (for other men* have thought thus), as on account of the pertinacity with which he maintained it. This opinion, in its general form, was that of the sentience of all vegetable things. But, in his disordered fancy, the idea had assumed a more daring character, and trespassed, under certain conditions, upon the kingdom of inorganization. I lack words to express the full extent, or the earnest abandon of his persuasion. The belief, however, was connected (as I have previously hinted) with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers. The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones—in the order of their arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around—above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn. Its evidence—the evidence of the sentience—was to be seen, he said, (and I here started as he spoke), in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls. The result was discoverable, he added, in that silent yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him what I now saw him—what he was. Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none.

Side note: the asterisk ends up at the end of the story, and might be considered another change to the pacing:

* Watson, Dr. Percival, Spallanzani, and especially the Bishop of Landaff.—See “Chemical Essays,” vol. v.

I tracked this down to a reference in Family Secrets and the Psychoanalysis of Narrative, by Esther Rashkin (Princeton University Press, 2014), which says that those three men were…talking about something completely different: cross-fertilization between species.

So the footnote is there to show (if you knew the reference) that Usher is unable to grasp the idea of cross-fertilization.  I wonder what that says about the possibility of incest in his freaking screwed-up family.

However, I don’t think Poe would have thought that the majority of his readers were familiar with the text.  I suspect it’s just a joke that he wrote for his own amusement.

The quote near the end:

Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin;
Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win.

The quote is in the middle of a goofy story about a knight named Ethelred (I don’t think this is supposed to be Aethelred the Unready?) that the narrator grabs and reads to Usher in order to help calm him during the storm.  Ethelred, a doughty knight, forces his way into the hovel of a hermit who just pissed him off.

At the same time that the narrator is reading the story, the sister is breaking out of her tomb.

Ethelred expects to face a hermit, but instead faces a dragon:

“But the good champion Ethelred, now entering within the door, was sore enraged and amazed to perceive no signal of the maliceful hermit; but, in the stead thereof, a dragon of a scaly and prodigious demeanor, and of a fiery tongue, which sat in guard before a palace of gold, with a floor of silver; and upon the wall there hung a shield of shining brass with this legend enwritten—

Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin;
Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win.

After which, once again, comes evidence of the sister breaking out of the room with her tomb in it.

This goes back and forth a few times, story…uncanny noise…story…uncanny noise.

Then, finally, Usher breaks down and admits that he’s known for days that his sister was still living in the tomb, and that she is now coming for him, just like Ethelred came for the dragon, presumably to kill him.

As she should.

The story of Ethelred serves as a contrast to Usher’s story:

  • Medieval cheesiness versus Usher’s pretentious poem.
  • To show that Usher isn’t the good guy in this story (he’s not the knight in shining armor).
  • To be the narrator’s last, failed attempt to instill some sanity in Usher.

The quote itself raises the stakes to life and death, and hints that it’s not gonna be life in the final outcome.

I think I nailed it on my prediction of the epigraph and poem, but bunted on the other quote:  It’s not really the quote that is the major turning point, but the story of Ethelred itself.  But I was close.

Next time:

The final “Usher” episode to follow, where we will focus more on the structure of the story.  We touched on it here, but I’m going to go into more depth–and color.

The world is madness which can only be combatted with sly nonsense.  Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Heraldhere!


*If you’re not sure about how pacing changes content, please see the series on pacing.


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