Edgar Allan Poe probably remains, both in his life and in his work, America’s most controversial writer. Numerous biographical and critical studies did not succeed in rectifying the initially distorted “myth” of Poe, promulgated by his hostile first biographer, as a self-destructive, alcoholic, almost demoniac creature. Even today, after much serious research and analysis, the true Poe remains enigmatic and elusive. The same is true of his works. Experts as important and varied as D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, and Aldous Huxley differed greatly in assessing his works’ merits, with opinions ranging from extravagant eulogy to total dismissal. No work of his excited more diverse opinion or earned more conflicting analyses than his short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
The problem is that there are many completely different, yet seemingly valid, interpretations of the tale; contradictory readings can explain all of the story’s numerous ambiguities. However, clearly, as one prominent Poe critic lamented, the contradictory readings “cannot all be right.” Is there any way of choosing among these views or of synthesizing the best of them into a single one? Perhaps the task is not impossible if two important facts about the author are remembered: He was an adroit, conscious craftsman and critic who worked out his ideas with mathematical precision, and yet he was essentially a lyric poet.
These diverse readings can be divided roughly into three primary types: natural or psychological, supernatural, and symbolic. In the first approach, the analysis focuses on the “unreliable” narrator as he chronicles Roderick Usher’s descent into madness. As an artist, intellectual, and introvert, Usher becomes so lopsided that his prolonged isolation, coupled with the sickness of his sister, drives him to the edge of madness; along with the narrator, the reader sees him go over the edge. Another possibility is that the tale is simply a detective story minus a detective; Usher manipulates the narrator into helping him murder Madeline and then goes insane from the emotional strain. The crucial “fantastic” elements in the story—Madeline’s return from the tomb and the collapse of the house into the tarn—are “logically” explained in terms of the narrator’s mounting hysteria, the resulting hallucination, and the natural destructiveness of the storm.
According to the second general view, the actions of the characters can be explained only by postulating a supernatural agency: The Usher curse is working itself out; the house is possessed and is destroying the occupants; Roderick is a demon drawing vitality from his sister until, as a nemesis figure, she returns to punish him; Madeline is a vampire claiming her victim.
In the third view, the story is seen as an allegory: Roderick as intellect is suppressing sensuality (Madeline) until it revolts; Madeline is a mother figure who returns from the grave to punish Usher-Poe for deserting her and for having incestuous desires; Roderick is the artist who must destroy himself in order to create; the entire story is a symbolic enactment of the Apocalypse according to Poe.
Both as a critic and a writer, Poe was thoroughly aware of the machinery of the gothic, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a veritable catalog of devices from the genre—the haunted mansion, the artistic hero-villain, the twins motif, suggestions of vampirism, the dark crypts, the violent electrical storms. It does not follow, however, that because Poe utilizes the conventions of the form, he is also holding himself to the substance of them. It is precisely because he does not commit himself exclusively to a rational, supernatural, or symbolic reading of the tale that he is able to provoke emotional reactions by indirection and implication that would be impossible if he fixed his meaning more precisely. The technique is essentially that of the lyric poet who uses the power of image, atmosphere, and suggestion to evoke emotions and to produce exactly one emotional, not rational, effect on the reader—which was Poe’s stated aim as a short-story writer.
“I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive,” says Roderick Usher, “when I must abandon life and reason...
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