Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Summoned to the House of Usher by a “wildly importunate letter,” which “gave evidence of nervous agitation,” the first-person narrator goes to reside for a time with the writer of this letter, Roderick Usher. Although Roderick had been one of his “boon companions in boyhood,” the narrator confesses early in the story that “I really knew little of my friend”; yet, by the end of this gothic tale, he has learned more about the occupants of the House of Usher than he is equipped to deal with. Indeed, one of these occupants is Roderick’s twin sister, Madeline Usher, who is suffering from an unspecified but fatal illness. One of the symptoms of this illness is catalepsy (muscular rigidity marked by a lack of response to external stimuli); significantly, this symptom is crucial to understanding what happens in the course of the story.
His sister’s illness is only one reason for Roderick’s agitation, one reason for his desire to have the “solace” of the narrator’s companionship; it is not the only—or most significant—reason. Usher himself is suffering from a “mental disorder,” which is “a constitutional and . . . family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy.” Why “evil”? one wonders, until one recalls that, in the third paragraph of this story, even before Roderick has been seen for the first time, the narrator mentions that the ancient “stem” of the Usher family never “put forth . . . any enduring branch . . . the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always . . . so lain.” In other words, Roderick and Madeline Usher are the products and inheritors of an incestuous family lineage—one that has remained predominantly patrilineal, so that the name of the family always remained Usher.
Roderick’s dilemma, therefore, is this: Madeline is the only relative he has left on earth, and the dictates of the Usher tradition require that, to perpetuate the race of Ushers and the family name, he marry his twin sister and—through incest—sire future Ushers. (It should be noted that at no place in the story does Roderick say any of this directly; while it is intimated throughout, his dilemma is made clearly apparent only by careful reading of his and the narrator’s words on this matter.) Thus, when Roderick refers to his “family evil,” the reader may better understand why the narrator earlier mentions, in the second paragraph of the story, that...
(The entire section is 997 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is Poe’s best-known and most admired story, and rightfully so: It expertly combines in a powerful and economical way all of his most obsessive themes, and it brilliantly reflects his aesthetic theory that all the elements of a literary work must contribute to the single unified effect or pattern of the work itself. The central mystery on which the thematic structure of the story depends is the nature of Roderick Usher’s illness. Although its symptoms consist of an extreme sensitivity to all sensory stimuli and a powerful unmotivated fear, nowhere does Poe suggest its cause except to hint at some dark family curse or hereditary illness.
The actual subject of the story, as is the case with most of Poe’s work, is the nature of the idealized artwork and the precarious situation of the artist. Roderick, with his paintings, his musical compositions, and his poetry, is, above all, an artist. It is the particular nature of his art that is inextricably tied up with his illness. Roderick has no contact with the external world that might serve as the subject matter of his art. Not only does he never leave the house, but he also cannot tolerate light, sound, touch, odor, or taste. In effect, having shut down all of his senses, he has no source for his art but his own subjectivity. The narrator says that if anyone has ever painted pure idea, then Roderick is that person. As a result, Roderick has nothing metaphorically to...
(The entire section is 549 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
As the visitor approaches the House of Usher, he is forewarned by the appearance of the old mansion. The fall weather is dull and dreary, the countryside is shady and gloomy, and the old house seems to fit perfectly into the desolate surroundings. The windows look like vacant eyes staring out over the bleak landscape. The visitor comes to the House of Usher in response to a written plea from his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher. The letter tells of an illness of body and mind suffered by the last heir in the ancient line of Usher, and although the letter strangely fills him with dread, the visitor feels that he must go to his former friend. The Usher family, unlike most, left only a direct line of descent, and perhaps it is for this reason that the family itself and the house became one—the House of Usher. As the visitor gets closer, the house appears even more formidable. The stone is discolored and covered with fungi. The building gives the impression of decay, yet the masonry did not fall. A barely discernible crack extends in a zigzag line from the roof to the foundation, but otherwise there are no visible breaks in the structure.
The visitor enters the house, gives his things to a servant, and proceeds through several dark passages to the study of the master. There he is stunned at the appearance of his old friend. In Usher’s cadaverous face, eyes are liquid and lips are pallid. His weblike hair is untrimmed and floats over his brow. All in all, he is a depressing figure. In manner, he is even more morbid. He is afflicted with great sensitivity and strange fear. There are only a few sounds, a few odors, a few foods, and a few textures in clothing that do not fill him with terror. In fact, he is haunted incessantly by unnamed fears.
Even more strangely, he is imbued with the thought that the house itself exerts great influence over his morale and that it influences his spirit. Usher’s moodiness is heightened by the approaching death of his sister, Lady Madeline. His only living relative, she is wasting away from a strange malady that baffles the doctors. Often the disease reveals its cataleptic (muscular rigidity marked by a lack of response to external stimuli) nature. The visitor sees her only once, on the night of his arrival. She passed through the room without speaking, and her appearance filled him with awe and foreboding.
For several days, the visitor attempts to cheer the sick master of Usher and restore him to health, but it seems, rather, that the hypochondria suffered by Usher affects his friend. More and more, the morbid surroundings and the ramblings of Usher’s sick mind prey upon his visitor. More and more,...
(The entire section is 1090 words.)
First published in the September, 1839 edition of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, "The Fall of the House of Usher" is widely acknowledged to be one of Poe's finest and most representative tales. The story begins with the first-person narrator riding on horseback toward the ancestral home of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher. In the opening paragraph, the narrator establishes an overwhelming atmosphere of dread. As he approaches his destination on a "dull, dark, and soundless" day, he notes that the clouds were hanging "oppressively low" in the sky over the "singularly dreary tract" where the "melancholy" House of Usher stood. The sight of the landscape filled him with an "insufferable gloom," while his initial view of the House of Usher itself evoked an "utter depression" in the narrator's soul. Although he was unable to grasp precisely why he is so unnerved by the house, the narrator makes a prominent reference to its "eye-like windows."
A dark mood now hanging over his story, the narrator tells us that he has been summoned through a "wildly importunate" letter from Roderick, in which the writer stated that he had become the victim of an "acute bodily illness---of a mental disorder which oppressed him." Roderick wrote that the narrator was his only personal friend, and pleaded with him to stay for a time at the House of Usher. The narrator now gives us some background about Roderick and the Usher family. He first admits that he actually knows very little about Roderick, who was shy and reserved as a boy even with his most "intimate" friend. He had not seen Roderick for many years, but recounts that the Usher family was an ancient one, distinguished by its artistic temperament and its many acts of charity. But he then implies that the Usher race is the product of inbreeding, intimating that close intermarriage, if not outright incest, had created a congenital deficiency that may have some part in Roderick's illness. In light of these recollections, the narrator scanned the landscape around him again; he experienced even greater anxiety and gloom.
The narrator reached the house itself and was taken by a servant into Roderick's large and lofty studio. Roderick's apartment was filled with antique furniture, books and musical instruments, but entirely devoid of vitality. The narrator says, "I felt that I had breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all." He was greeted cordially by Roderick, but he was taken aback by the change in his friend's appearance. Although he could still recognize the features of his former schoolmate, he was struck by the "ghastly pallor" of Roderick's skin and by the "miraculous lustre" in his eyes. His host's manner was equally disconcerting: Roderick's mood swung wildly between animated enthusiasm and sullen depression.
Roderick explained to the narrator that he is in the grips of a "constitutional and family evil," one of its symptom being an acute intensification of the senses. Usher then expressed his belief that the house itself was exerting a perverse influence over his spirit. Yet he also admitted that his depression might be related to the severe, prolonged illness that had taken hold of his twin sister, Madeline. As he spoke, the spectral figure of Madeline passed through the studio. She moved silently, without taking notice of her brother or the narrator, and then vanished. Roderick said that disease from which his sister suffers has baffled her doctors. He was now convinced, however, that Madeline will soon die and that this was the last time that they would see her alive.
During the next several days, the narrator and Roderick painted and read together. Roderick's paintings were so abstract that the narrator is unable to describe them. Roderick played on a guitar (his hearing had grown so sensitive that he could only tolerate the sound of stringed instruments). Poe now introduces the lyrics that accompanied one of the "rhapsodies" that Roderick played on the guitar in the form of a poem entitled "The Haunted Palace." The first four of the poem's six stanzas portray a radiant mythical palace in a green valley governed by pure Thought and inhabited by spirits who moved musically about in perfect harmony. But in the fifth stanza, "Evil things" assail Thought with sorrow, the movements of the spirits inside the palace become frenzied, and a "hideous throng" rushes out of it toward an inferred doom. Roderick used the poem to put forth his theory that certain inanimate objects, like the House of Usher, can develop a sentience or consciousness. The narrator and Roderick read through various arcane books, including one on the rituals of a "forgotten" religion.
One night, Roderick told the narrator that Madeline had died. Fearing that medical men would disturb her body, Roderick announced that he would temporarily place his sister's corpse in a vault within the gloomy house itself before taking her to the family cemetery. The narrator found this reasonable and agreed to assist him. They took Madeline's body and placed it in a tight coffin and then sealed the coffin in a vault guarded by an archway with a massive iron door. As the days passed, Roderick's condition deteriorated still further: his skin displayed an even ghastlier parlor, the shine in his eyes was gone. Roderick wandered the house aimlessly or merely sat and stared.
Seven or eight nights after Madeline's entombment, with a storm raging outside his bedroom, the narrator was struck by an irrepressible tremor. He believed that he could hear "certain low and indefinite" sounds amid the clamor of the storm. Overpowered...
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