Whether one reads this story as metaphysical speculation on the identity of matter and spirit, or as a psychological study of the powerful influence a deranged mind may have on a sane one, or even simply as a Gothic horror chiller, it remains a genuine masterwork of American fiction.
The narrator of the story tells of an autumn visit to the House of Usher, the family home of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher. He finds the house to be old and decaying, with a minute fissure zigzagging down from the roof to the waters of a stagnant tarn at its foundation. The gloomy landscape, the forbidding house, and the miasmic fog that hangs over the tarn depress the narrator and weaken his resistance to the mental atmosphere of the Usher family.
Roderick and his sister Madeline have been living relatively isolated in the house and have grown unnaturally close as she weakens with a terminal illness. After her death and burial in a sealed vault beneath the house, the sensitive and artistic Roderick becomes increasingly the victim of his fear and horror at his sister’s death. As a storm roars around the house, he convinces himself that Madeline was buried alive and that she has forced her way out of the tomb and is coming to confront him.
The force of his conviction in mad harmony with the raging storm causes the narrator to share Roderick’s hallucination, and he actually sees Madeline enter the room and die clutching the body of her fatally terrified brother. He rushes out into the storm as the house itself splits and falls into the tarn.
The interplay of solidly realistic detail and rich symbolic ambiguity gives the story an artistic texture of great intellectual as well as emotional force.
Beebe, Maurice. “The Universe of Roderick Usher.” In Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Robert Regan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Discusses the cosmological theory that underlies “Fall of the House of Usher.” Claims that an understanding of Poe’s Eureka helps the reader understand the story as symbolic drama.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. A personal study of the mind of Poe, containing an extensive discussion of doubling and desire in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Argues that the story is a catalog of all Poe’s obsessional themes.
May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A study of Poe’s development of the short story as a genre; discusses “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an esthetic, self-reflexive fable of the basic dilemma of the artist. Also includes an essay with a reader-response approach to the story by Ronald Bieganowski.
Robinson, E. Arthur. “Order and Sentience in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’ ” PMLA 76 (1961): 68-81. One of the most extensive studies of the story; focuses on its underlying pattern of thought and thematic structure.
Thompson, G. R., and Virgil L. Lokke, eds. Ruined Eden of the Present. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1981. Contains a debate between G. R. Thompson and Patrick F. Quinn about the psychic state of the narrator in the story.