Monday, November 1, 2010

E.A. Poe and the use of Anthropomorphism or "burnin down the house"

One of the literary tools used by Edgar Allen Poe to emphasis the dark side of Romantic literature was the use of Anthropomorphism. Poe uses this device in “Fall of the House of Usher” in order to, “attribute uniquely human characteristics to non-human creatures and beings, natural and supernatural phenomena, material states and objects or abstract concepts” ( Subjects for Poe’s anthropomorphism included animals such as the Orangutan mimic killer in “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Human characteristics are projected upon the bird and his repeated croaking of “nevermore” in “The Raven.” Edgar Allen Poe possessed the capacity to project human characteristics in this way in his literature. Poe creates a relationship between the living things and inanimate objects in “Fall of the House of Usher.” The dying Roderick Usher believes there is a relationship between the mansion and his destiny. This evidenced by the “eyes” of the mansion, objects in the house and supernatural weather.

As a result of the Transcendentalism movement popular in the nineteenth century, a “Dark Romanticism” emerged in the writings of such authors as Herman Melville, Nathanial Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe. The works of these authors were darker in theme than were other American Romanticists. Nowhere in Poe’s dark romantic literature is anthropomorphism used more effectively than in “Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe discusses the forces of nature such as wind or storms as having human qualities in reference to the crumbling Usher mansion. The House of Usher has eyes that the narrator noticed as well as other observations as he approached the mansion. The narrator states, “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” ( Belasco/Johnson 1031 ). It is obvious that the narrator has the impression that even though they are vacant, they still resemble “eyes. He had not yet seen his boyhood friend Roderick Usher, but he makes this observation about the state of the mansion itself, “there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones” (1032). Poe uses the phrase “House of Usher” to refer to both the crumbling physical structure and the last two remaining members of the Usher family. So interconnected are the Mansion and the family that the narrator observes, “which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the “House of Usher” - an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion” (1031). The physical structure of the mansion is mimicking the genetic patterns of the family. As many years of in family breeding have taken place, and the DNA of the Usher family has also been compromised, it is impossible to maintain the health and well being of Roderick or his sister. At this point we can observe that the Mansion is alive as the Usher twins, but also very ill. The narrator describes his feeling of awe and doom in viewing the mansion from the outside when he states, “but with a shudder even more thrilling than before - upon the remodeled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows” (1031).

One of the themes of Edgar Allen Poe’s works is “impending death. Poe uses Anthropomorphism to illustrate impending death even before he enters the Usher House and discovers the physical condition of Roderick Usher. In a similar way that the death of Fortunato in “Cask of the Amontillado” is foretold through the description of the “dead” catacombs beneath the Montressor estate, Usher’s death is foretold by the description of “this mansion of gloom” (1031). The narrator then describes, “I again uplifted my eyes to the house itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy - a fancy so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me” (1032 ). The narrator believes that there is something dark and wrong with the mansion as he approaches but barely notices the crack running down the entire length of the mansion from top to bottom. He observes that this crack or fissure, “made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn” (1033).

The marriage of the House of Usher and its inhabitants as the narrator will soon discover is soon to be dissolved. The family line of the Usher clan is rotting away as is the mansion. It is interesting to note that the other characters in the story, the servant, valet and the physician are not ill and dying as are the others. This is an Usher family issue of bloodline continued through the ages that has to do with the single branch of the family tree. Usher thinks that the stones of the house have a life of their own, and that they hold the fate of the Usher family. "He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence for many years, he had never ventured forth” (1034).

The narrator finally enters the house and is shocked by the scene before him. He describes, “the somber tapestries of the walls” (1035 ), and the appearance of his old friend Roderick Usher as having, “ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now miraculous lustre of the eye, above all things startled and even awed me” (1034). The eye of Usher is in direct synchronization with the eyes of the Mansion as seen from outside. This is significant because Usher cannot see the outside world because he will not venture outside. Any outward “eyes” belonging to the house were looking inward to the inhabitants inside. This is why the window eyes seemed vacant from the outside. The narrator observes the state of the windows from inside and notices, “No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendor” (1036). The “living mansion” had a light source all of its own creation, so it assumes a character of its own.

Poe uses the objects in the house to create Anthropomorphism and to illustrate the idea of impending death. Upon entering the area where Usher resides, he notices books and musical instruments lying about the room. The significance of the positioning of the objects suggests death because they are not being used and are in a silent state. He describes the feeling the objects have given him when he states,” I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all” (1033). Usher gives the reader insight into what he feels his future holds when he states, “I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.” Usher must face his worst fears in relation to the mansion’s deterioration, “brought about upon the morale of his existence” (1035). He is also hiding from death in the “safety” of his family home much like Prince Prospero in Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”. The Prince hope to avoid a horrible disease by hiding in his Abbey, but death finds him even in a safe place. In “Fall of the House of Usher,” the mansion is an accomplice to the death of Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline.

The narrator tries to calm Usher by a reading of “The Haunted Palace,” which contained a reference to the windows much like the windows on the House of Usher, “Through two luminous windows saw Spirits moving musically” (1037). This is in direct contrast to what is happening with the eye of Roderick Usher at the same time. The narrator notices, “The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue - but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out” (1037). Usher believes that the mansion controls his behavior, and what eventually will become of him, he begins to waste away as the crumbling of the mansion. The mansion that for centuries was as Usher described it, “for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him what I now saw him - what he was” (1038). Usher has no control over his destiny as “the wrath of the storm increased, and the mansion began to shake and crumble” (1044). Dark forces are at work and Roderick feels helpless to stop them. Usher, Madeline and the family Mansion are consumed while the narrator flees for his life. The storm takes on a life of it’s own as it participates in the destruction of the Usher house. The fissure or crack that seemed unimportant at the beginning of the visit now is splitting the mansion in half and sending it to the ground.

The use of Anthropomorphism as literary tool in “Fall of the House of Usher” explains how the Usher family lives in and are eventually destroyed by their own family history. Giving human qualities to the mansion, the stones, belongings in the house and even an electrical storm help the reader understand Roderick Usher and his destiny in relation to the human/inanimate objects around him.

Works Cited

"Anthropomorphism Definition
Definition of Anthropomorphism at" Web. 29 July 2009. .

Belasco, Susan, and Linck Johnson. The Bedford Anthology of American Literature. Vol. One. Boston/NY: Bedford/St. Martins, 2008. Print.