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Symbolic Devices in Edgar Allan Poe’s Stories

Edgar Allen Poe stands as one of the greatest horror fiction writers in the history of literature. A troubled man plagued by numerous personal tragedies, Poe found inspiration in horror to create many classic pieces of horror fiction. This is a sample humanities research paper that explores the symbolic devices in Poe’s stories, and focuses heavily on “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Masque of the Red Death.”

Edgar Allen Poe’s literary devices

Edgar Allan Poe was America’s, and possibly the world’s, first true horror fiction writer. Then as now, fictional horror dealt with an audience’s primal fears: things that the conscious mind doesn’t want to confront directly but are still lurking under the carpet, as it were. In Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe uses many symbolic constructions, and a common theme is a building as confining and even vaguely malevolent rather than being a dwelling or shelter. The implied allegory is that life itself is a building inside which a person lives, and that confining oneself to a particular type or version of life is like imprisoning oneself inside that building.

Additional Reading: Learn more about Edgar Allen Poe’s life and works.

Using society to augment tragedy and fear

Poe lived and wrote in the early 19th century, during the enlightenment period when medical science had scarcely advanced beyond the Middle Ages. As a result, life expectancy was short, and because mankind was forming urban societies in ever-increasing number, diseases and pandemics were common. In fact, Poe had many struggles during his life and lost several members of his family to tuberculosis and other diseases; this no doubt had much to do with the morbidity found in most of his works.

Poe used real and imagined cultural fears

One of the most pervasive and primal fears in Victorian times was that of being (mistakenly, presumably) buried alive. In fact, people paid to have elaborate coffins constructed with little bell towers on them, with the idea that a person prematurely put in a coffin would be able to ring the bell, and show that he/she was still alive.

In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Roderick, because of his hypersensitive hearing, hears strange noises and infers (correctly, as it turns out) that his sister, who he put in her coffin eight days ago, may still be alive:

“The rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault! … Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart?” (Poe, “House of Usher”)

Roderick imagines the horror of being buried alive and the terrible revenge his sister might be bent upon as a result. In this case, the coffin is itself a symbol not so much of death as of the fear of death; it is a synecdoche for the human experience of death and of observing others die.

Analyzing Edgar Allen Poe’s works

Most of Poe’s works emphasized the fears and concerns of modern time (much like other epic Victorian authors of his time). He expertly played on those subconscious horrors and devised plots that seemed realistic and stirred deep beliefs that an unknown danger lurked around every corner.

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

The House of Usher has been confined to a single line of descent due to each generation only producing one male child. The physical house of Usher is similarly restricting and confining. The narrator frequently remarks that the house seems to have a malevolent will of its own, an impression that is fueled by his own imagination:

“I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves…a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued” (Poe, “House of Usher”).

The house symbolizes the unhealthy and restrictive life to which Roderick and his now-dead sister have confined themselves.

The narrator, when first observing the house, makes some singular observations. The building appears to be both decrepit and sturdy; the construction is haphazard and the individual stones are decaying, but to him, the structure seems basically sound. However:

“Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn” (Poe, “House of Usher”).

The house of Usher has a weakness, not immediately apparent to the naked eye. The “barely perceptible fissure” is a symbol for the inherent weakness of the metaphorical house (its sole line of descent) within which the members of the House confine themselves. Read more about the metaphor used in literature. The collapse of the house immediately follows the death of its last surviving member. This is a metaphor for the end of a line of:

“Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn” (Poe, “House of Usher”).

“The Masque of the Red Death”

In “The Masque of the Red Death,” the Red Death is clearly an allegorical reference to pandemics and plagues; no disease that kills in thirty minutes, as the Red Death in the story does, has every existed. Yet, that is necessary as a plot device. It is certainly true that many of the epidemic diseases of the day killed very swiftly.

The primary symbol here, as in the House of Usher, is the mansion in which the nobility has locked itself away in order to escape the effects of the Red Death. The mansion confines and restricts the nobility’s lives even as it protects them, a protection which turns out to be illusory. The mansion is stout:

“This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince’s own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts.” (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”)

However, everyone knows that you can’t cheat Death. The ultimately futile efforts of the prince and his court are symbolic of efforts to ward off death’s inevitability, causing mass anxiety similar to the Zika fear in Amerca. Poe’s views of such futility may well have been informed by his own experience of seeing so many of his loved ones die young.

Of course, the masked figure that infiltrates the masque is Death himself. His appearance leaves no doubt:

“The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave…His vesture was dabbled in blood – and his broad brow, with all the features of his face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror” (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death”).

The prominent symbol here is blood. Effusion of blood is the most horrifying symptom of the Red Death, but visible blood is in general symbolic of death, as in “bloodshed” being a term for violent death. The sight of blood smeared on the specter’s cloak reminds the prince and his guests that they, despite having shut themselves up in the abbey, cannot escape their mortality.

A further symbolic representation of mortality is the huge ebony clock in the great hall of the abbey. It commands the guests’ attention whenever it chimes, and though they want to ignore it, they aren’t able to for long:

“…the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound…of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour…there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and while the chimes of the clock yet rang. It was observed that the giddiest grew pale” (Poe, “The Masque of the Red Death).

Ebony (black) is the color of death; the clock is a symbol of the passage of time and inevitable mortality. The fact that it commands everyone’s attention and interrupts their revels symbolizes the fact that you can’t ignore your own mortality for very long; approaching death will impose itself upon your thoughts.

Why Edgar Allen Poe used these tactics

Poe’s work brilliantly referenced 19th-century society’s worst fears and phobias. It is a certainty, given his life experiences, that he shared those anxieties. For him, writing about death, fear, and madness may have been primarily cathartic; perhaps reading his work was similarly cathartic for his audience—his work was certainly popular. Many of the symbols he used in his work were the trappings of death and dying. Also, the characteristics of many of his characters bordered on madness, such as depression, substance abuse, and conditions such as hypersensitivity (Poe was an alcoholic and an opium addict). Many of the symbols he used seem almost clichéd or formulaic, but that is because so many writers and, later, filmmakers enthusiastically adopted them. Poe was a true pioneer of the macabre; he was a master of psychological horror.

Additional Reading: Read a summary about The Murders in the Rue Morgue, another one of his works.

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar Allan. (1839). The Fall of the House of Usher.

Poe, Edgar Allan. (1842). The Masque of the Red Death.


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