The Fall of the House of Usher Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The Fall of the House of Usher

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 “of late” the family has received some recognition for “repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity.” Such alms, it should be understood, have been given penitently, in the hope that they will absolve the “evil” of incest germane to the Usher tradition. Nevertheless, absolution comes to the Ushers in no form other than complete annihilation.

During the term of the narrator’s visit with Roderick, they read to each other literature concerning classical myth, penitential rituals, theology, physiology, supernaturalism, and demonism—all of which are meant to indicate to the reader Roderick’s preoccupation with anything that might help him understand his and his sister’s dilemma. What he comes to feel certain about is that the house itself—because it was built and lived in by his forefathers, and because he believes there is “sentience [in] all vegetable things” (and the house consists of such sentient things)—has a “terrible influence” on him and Madeline, and that it has “made him.”

The House of Usher becomes a living, feeling character in Poe’s story, and one that, Roderick suggests, may be urging the two remaining Ushers to commit incest; although the narrator attempts to convince the reader that he is too rational and realistic to be taken in by Roderick’s hypochondriacal theories, he gradually begins to feel “infected” by his host’s condition: “I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his . . . fantastic yet impressive superstitions.” Thus, the stage is set for the story’s horrifying climax, beginning one evening when Roderick informs his guest that Madeline is dead.

Rather than burying his sister in the family cemetery some distance from the house, Roderick decides to keep her body for two weeks in one of the many vaults within the house—for, after all, one suffering from catalepsy may seem dead but not, in fact, be dead; it would be horrible to bury Madeline alive. In short, the narrator assists his host in entombing the body temporarily in, first, a coffin with its lid screwed down, and then in a vault behind a massive iron door of profound weight. There she remains for a week, as Roderick roams through his house aimlessly, or sits and stares vacantly at nothing for long hours.

One tempestuously stormy night—a “mad hilarity in his eyes”—Roderick enters the narrator’s bedroom, where they sit together, the narrator reading to him and both of them trying to ignore the terrible grating sound they hear coming from below the bedroom (the vault into which they placed Madeline’s body is directly below this bedroom, and the heavy door to that vault always makes a loud grating sound when it is being opened). As the sound continues more noticeably, Roderick suddenly informs the narrator that he has been listening to noises downstairs for many days, but—apparently fearful that his sister was still living, and that he would again have to face the evil prospect of perpetuating his family’s tradition of incest—he says, “I dared not speak!” Abruptly, the bedroom door swings open and Madeline, her white robes bloodied by her struggle to escape the coffin and vault, falls into the room and on Roderick, who, “a victim to the terrors he had anticipated,” hits the floor “a corpse.”

The narrator flees the house, and from a short distance away he turns to look back and sees the House of Usher split in two and crumble into the dark waters of the tarn before it.

The Fall of the House of Usher Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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 feed upon but himself.

The house in which Roderick lives is like an artwork—an edifice that exists by dint of its unique structure. When the narrator first sees it, he observes that it is the combination of elements that constitutes its mystery and that a different arrangement of its particulars would be sufficient to modify its capacity for sorrowful impression. Moreover, Usher feels that it is the form and substance of his family mansion that affects his morale. He believes that, as a result of the arrangement of the stones, the house has taken on life. All these factors suggest Poe’s own aesthetic theory, that the “life” of any artwork results not from its imitation of external reality but rather from its structure or pattern.

The only hold Roderick has on the external world at all is his twin sister, who is less a real person in the story than the last manifestation of Roderick’s physical nature. By burying her, he splits himself off from actual life. Physical life is not so easily suppressed, however, and Madeline returns from her underground tomb to unite her dying body with Roderick’s idealized spirit. As the story nears its horrifying climax, art and reality become even more intertwined. As the narrator reads to Roderick from a gothic romance, sounds referred to in the story are echoed in actuality as the entombed Madeline breaks out of her vault and stalks up the steps to confront her twin brother. Madeline, Roderick, and the house all fall into the dark tarn, the abyss of nothingness, and become as if they had never been. In Poe’s aesthetic universe, the price the artist must pay for cutting himself off from the external world is annihilation.

The Fall of the House of Usher Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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, Usher holds that the house itself molded his spirit and that of his ancestors. The visitor is helpless to dispel this morbid fear and is in danger of subscribing to it himself, so powerful is the influence of the gloomy old mansion.

One day, Usher informs his friend that Madeline is no more. It is Usher’s intention to bury her in one of the vaults under the house for a period of two weeks. The strangeness of her malady, he says, demands the precaution of not placing her immediately in the exposed family burial plot. The two men take the encoffined body into the burial vault beneath the house and deposit it upon a trestle. Turning back the lid of the coffin, they take one last look at the lady, and the visitor remarks on the similarity of appearance between her and her brother. Then Usher tells him that they are twins and that their natures were singularly alike. The man then closes the lid, screws it down securely, and ascends to the upper rooms.

A noticeable change now takes possession of Usher. He paces the floors with unusual vigor. He becomes more pallid, while his eyes glow with even greater wildness. His voice is little more than a quaver, and his words are utterances of extreme fear. He seems to have a ghastly secret that he cannot share. More and more, the visitor feels that Usher’s superstitious beliefs about the malignant influence of the house are true. He cannot sleep, and his body begins to tremble almost as unreasonably as Usher’s.

One night, during a severe storm, the visitor hears low and unrecognizable sounds that fill him with terror. Dressing, he paces the floor of his apartment until he hears a soft knock at his door. Usher enters, carrying a lamp. His manner is hysterical and his eyes those of a madman. When he throws the window open to the storm, they are lifted almost off their feet by the intensity of the wind. Usher seems to see something horrible in the night, and the visitor picks up the first book that comes to hand and tries to calm his friend by reading. The story is that of Ethelred and Sir Launcelot, and as he reads, the visitor seems to hear the echo of a cracking and ripping sound described in the story. Later, he hears a rasping and grating, of what he knows not. Usher sits facing the door, as if in a trance. His head and his body rock from side to side in a gentle motion. He murmurs some sort of gibberish, as if he is not aware of his friend’s presence.

At last, his ravings become intelligible. He mutters at first but speaks louder and louder until he reaches a scream. Madeline is alive. He buried Madeline alive. For days, he heard her feebly trying to lift the coffin lid. Now she has escaped her tomb and is coming in search of him. At that pronouncement, the door of the room swings back and on the threshold stands the shrouded Lady Madeline of Usher. There is blood on her clothing and evidence of superhuman struggle. She runs to her terrified brother, and the two fall to the floor in death.

The visitor flees the house in terror. He gazes back as he runs and sees the house of horror split asunder in a zigzag manner, down the line of the crack he saw as he first looked upon the old mansion. There is a loud noise, like the sound of many waters, and the pond at its base receives all that is left of the ruined House of Usher.

The Fall of the House of Usher Extended Summary

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...

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The Fall of the House of Usher Overview

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is one of Poe's most popular short stories. Moreover, analyzing this story provides a basis for...

(The entire section is 212 words.)