Brief sentences in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”
Terror in the soul of an individual was one of the main topics in the work of 19th century American writer, poet, journalist and literary critic Edgar Allan Poe. Inspired by the English Gothic novel, he tried to depict the horrors and fears in human life. In his case, however, it was not outward places that caused these terrors; they came from the human core itself. He did not achieve this goal only by using specific, vivid vocabulary but also through the length of the sentences in which those words appeared. Reading his short stories, we may notice that the lengthy, descriptive sentences are sometimes followed by the short ones which makes the reader’s heart beat faster and his body shiver with terror. In what cases and for what other reasons do these sentences appear? A few illuminating answers are offered by examples from Poe’s short stories “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
Both of the selected short stories have quite a few things in common. The narrator is in each case unreliable, and we do not know much about him. “The Tell-Tale Heart” narrator’s condition resembles the condition of Roderick Usher, as they both claim to have hypersensitivity, though it may be just their imaginations at play. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” killed a man and Roderick Usher in a way caused the death of his sister. Both of the stories also lead to grand, quite surprising finales, towards which Poe directs us using a gradation which is achieved with the help of the short sentences.
“Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the beating grew louder, louder! I though the heart must burst. And now the anxiety seized me – the sound would be heard by a neighbour! The old man’s hour had come!”
“Oh! Wither shall I fly? Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste? Have I not heard her footstep on the stair”?
These short sentences are put together to form gradation towards the climax of the story; they cause suspense in the reader and make him breathe faster. They, in a way, also transfer the terror from the character of the story to the reader.
Poe’s short stories, however, do not contain only short sentences which are next to each other. We can quite often encounter one of the brief sentences surrounded by sentences consisting of longer clauses or more clauses, or both. This type of short sentence usually interrupts the descriptive part of the story and raises questions which are often not easy to answer, as these sentences tend to be quite ambiguous. Poe’s stories are generally symbolical and often have several levels of meaning which lead into the border areas of consciousness and insanity. These brief sentences function as the escalation of the descriptive portions, giving the raising terror an actual form.
[…]I talked more quickly – more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations, but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone?
[…] No sooner had these syllables pass my lips, than – as if a shield of brass had indeed, at the moment, fallen heavily upon a floor of silver – I became aware of a distinct, hollow, metallic and clangourous, yet apparently muffled, reverberation. Completely unnerved, I leaped to my feet; but the measured rocking movement of Usher was undisturbed. I rushed to the chair in which he sat.
These sentences stop us from reading and make us think; they give us time to recollect what happened and make us nervous about what is about to follow. They increase the suspense by interrupting the flow of the previous sentences.
In “The Tell-Tale Heart” we encounter more short sentences than in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where the brief sentences occur only sporadically. These elements of “The Tell-Tale Heart” are connected with the personality of the narrator, who claims that he is not insane. Yet the stream of his thoughts, intensified considerably with the usage of short sentences, proves him wrong. The arrangement of these sentences, not to mention their content, very much gives the impression of him being a madman. The culmination of such passages leads to the concluding part of the story, which is wholly composed of only brief sentences. These heighten the terror Poe was building throughout the story.
[…] I felt that I must scream or die! – and now – again! – hark! louder! louder! louder! louder! – ‘Villains!’ I shrieked, ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed! – tear up the planks! – here, here! – it is the beating of his hideous heart!’
The usage of brief sentences in Poe’s short stories varies. “The Tell-Tale Heart” consists mostly of them, whereas “The Fall of the House of Usher” prefers long sentences with only occasional interruption by the brief ones, which are mainly situated at the end of the story. However, these short figments of thought have an important part in both of the stories. The former uses brief sentences to heighten the nervousness, to depict the narrator about whom we otherwise know almost nothing. Their culmination towards the end functions as a support of the carefully built element of terror, which grows stronger as the story leads towards its climax. “The Fall of the House of Usher” presents lengthy, describing sentences which are replaced by the briefer ones at the end of the story. This method makes the climax even more terrifying, as it happens suddenly and strikingly, as opposed to the protracted revelation that ends “The Tell-Tale Heart”.
 Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” 270.  Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher,“ 95.  Wagner. A history of British, Irish and American literature. 328.  Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” 271.  Poe, “The Fall of the House of usher,” 94.  Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” 272.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In Selected Tales. Edgar Allan Poe, 267-273. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In Selected Tales. Edgar Allan Poe, 76-96. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.
Wagner, Hans-Peter. A History of British, Irish and American Literature. Trier: WVT, 2010.
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