The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe
The Fall of the House of Usher Edgar Allan Poe
The following entry presents criticism of Poe's short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). See also, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym Criticism. For additional information on Poe's complete career, please see NCLC, Volumes 55 and 117.
A Gothic horror story, Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” was written in 1839 and was collected among his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840). A tale of sickness, madness, incest, and the danger of unrestrained creativity, this is among Poe's most popular and critically-examined horror stories. The ancient, decaying House of Usher, filled with tattered furniture and tapestries and set in a gloomy, desolate locale is a rich symbolic representation of its sickly twin inhabitants, Roderick and Madeline Usher. Besides its use of classical Gothic imagery and gruesome events—including escape from live burial—the story has a psychological element and ambiguous symbolism that have given rise to many critical readings. Poe used the term “arabesque” to describe the ornate, descriptive prose in this and other stories in his collection. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is also considered representative of Poe's idea of “art for art's sake,” whereby the mood of the narrative, created through skillful use of language, overpowers any social, political, or moral teaching.
Plot and Major Characters
Told from an unnamed narrator's perspective, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is the story of a gentleman's visit to an ailing boyhood friend and his dreary ancestral home. It opens as the narrator sits astride his horse and contemplates the house before him; he feels a strange “insufferable gloom” as he notes the darkness of his surroundings, the oppressiveness of the clouds above, and the decaying Usher mansion in the distance. This overwhelming sense of gloom continues as the narrator is brought through the dark house, past its ancient and shabby furnishings, to his host. Overcome by the change in his friend's appearance, the narrator is struck by the singular, cadaverous, ghastly appearance of Roderick Usher. Roderick explains that he suffers from a family illness, which he first calls “a family evil” and then dismisses as a “mere nervous affection”. As a result, Roderick claims to have a heightened sensory acuteness, with the blandest food, the slightest touch, and the faintest sounds causing him great pain. The narrator, who was aware of the Usher family's peculiar creativity, also knew of the weakness of the family bloodline. The ancient but inbred family had resided in the House of Usher for so long that for many of their neighbors, the house and the family had become one in the same. During the course of this discussion, the narrator learns that Roderick has a twin sister. Also suffering from a more debilitating form of the undiagnosed and incurable illness, Madeline Usher is Roderick's only living relation. She makes a fleeting appearance, but says nothing to the narrator or her brother, and passes ghost-like on to another part of the house. Roderick explains that his sister is far too ill for the narrator to see her, and will likely never leave her bed alive again. Disturbed by this finding, the narrator sets out to cheer his old friend. In addition to reading aloud and conversing, the narrator attempts to raise Roderick's spirits by listening to his extemporaneous musical compositions, and discussing Roderick's abstract painting. The two spend a great deal of time together in these creative pursuits, but after her first, brief appearance, Madeline is not seen again. Several days later, Roderick's prediction about his sister's demise comes to pass, and he asks the narrator to help him entomb Madeline in a vault deep beneath the house. Roderick wanted to preserve her corpse for a fortnight before its final interment. The narrator was struck by this strange decision, but nevertheless helped his friend bring Madeline's body to a copper-lined vault—formerly a dungeon in ancient times—where it was placed in a coffin and closed behind a large iron door. Almost immediately, Roderick's disposition changed; he became restless, even more pale, and was racked with terror. This senseless fear was contagious and the narrator was also overcome by a dreadful terror. About a week after Madeline's body was placed in its vault, on a particularly wild and stormy night, both the narrator and Roderick were overcome by their disquieted senses, and unable to sleep. The narrator read aloud from an old romance to ease their spirits. In several uncanny coincidences, just as a particular action was read, a similar noise was heard from the depths of the ancient house. At last, unsettled by the noises, Roderick, in a fit of agitation and distress, proclaims that for several days he'd heard his undead sister's struggle as she tried to free herself from her tomb. He feared that she would come after him to exact revenge for her premature burial. Just as he proclaims that she is at that moment standing outside their door, the storm blows the door open. There stands Madeline, covered in her own blood, and battered from her struggle out of the vault. She falls forward into her twin brother's arms. Roderick dies immediately from the horror and shock of the sight. The narrator flees from the horrific scene, and runs from the house. Behind him the crumbling house cracks down the center, collapses, and is swallowed up by the tarn that spread before it.
In “The Fall of the House of Usher” Poe explores such topics as incest, terminal illness, mental breakdown, and death. As is typical of the gothic genre, the story is set in a dark, medieval castle, and uses a first-person narrator to instill a sense of dread and terror in the reader. While many critics contend that Poe intended this story to demonstrate his idea that fiction should be devoid of social, political, or moral teaching, the heavy-handed use of symbolism throughout the tale has led others to suggest that “Usher” addresses the nature and causes of evil. The descriptions of the Usher family home and of Roderick and Madeline create an atmosphere of evil and dread that permeates the narrative from the very beginning. The house itself is referred to as a “mansion of gloom” that seems to cast its shadow over its occupants—both Roderick and Madeline have a ghostly pallor, arousing feelings of unease in the narrator. Many interpretations of the story have explained the evil behind the curse Roderick speaks of as the result of a long history of incest and inbreeding in the Usher family. According to this interpretation, the brother and sister are suffering the physical and emotional consequences of the guilt associated with such universally condemned behavior. Yet others see the evil and sense of foreboding in the story as something of a purely supernatural nature; this version characterizes Roderick's behavior as a natural response to the otherworldly forces that are haunting his home. Roderick speaks several times about the mysterious maladies from which he and his sister suffer. His increasingly unstable mental condition and eventual emotional breakdown at the end of the story have led many to view “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an exploration of the themes of madness and insanity. Madeline's illness—a condition that causes extreme muscle rigidity and periods of unconsciousness—is quite possibly misunderstood (or even purposely construed) as death by her mentally unstable brother, whose irrationality directs the story.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” was first published in 1839 during a time when most popular literature was highly moralistic. In contrast, Poe's stated intent in writing this and several other tales was to create powerful emotional responses in his fiction through the use of language. Several of his stories depicted psychologically unstable characters and were very different from the typical writing of the time. Poe was often dismissed by contemporary literary critics both because of the unusual content of his stories, and because the short story genre he employed was not yet regarded as serious literature. Ironically, in later years, it was Poe's own writing that was regarded as an instrumental force in establishing the short story as a legitimate and powerful genre. Poe's reputation as a writer with contemporary critics had suffered greatly due to the mishandling and misrepresentation of his life and letters by his literary executor, R. W. Griswold. In a memoir published shortly after Poe's death, as well as a collection of letters that were later found to be forgeries, Griswold portrayed Poe as a bizarre and menacing character. This, coupled with Poe's own deliberately constructed mysterious and poetic persona led many critics to confuse his personal life with the morbid and unnatural characters he created in his writing. Eventually, however, through the scholarship of such critics as A. H. Quinn and others, his reputation has been slowly re-established based on his work rather than on the sketchy details of his personal life. “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been lauded by scholars as a prime example of the Gothic short story. Over the years, there have been many interpretations of the story, and much recent scholarship has viewed the tale as a fictional representation of many of Poe's own literary theories. For example, in an essay discussing the Burkean theory of the sublime, Jack G. Voller notes that Poe uses this story to reject the optimistic aesthetic offered by Burke and instead presents a powerful vision of the terrors and emotions that cannot be easily explained in the context of a sublimely unified existence. In contrast, Craig Howes has interpreted the tale as an original retelling of the elegiac romance. According to Howes, the narrator in “Usher” mirrors the role of protagonists in other romances, telling us a moving story following the death of a heroic figure. In general, “Usher” is acknowledged as one of Poe's most cerebral tales, with little or no action to carry the plot. Because of this, the story has lent itself to numerous interpretations, eliciting a large amount of scholarship that continues to explore the text in new and interesting ways.
Tamerlane and Other Poems. By a Bostonian (poetry) 1827
Poems. By Edgar Allan Poe. Second Edition (poetry) 1831
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket, North America: Comprising the Details of a Mutiny, Famine, and Shipwreck, During a Voyage to the South Seas; Resulting in Various Extraordinary Adventures and Discoveries in the Eighty-fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude [published anonymously] (novel) 1838
Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque 2 vols. (short stories) 1840
The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe (short stories) 1843
Tales (short stories) 1845
The Raven and Other Poems (poetry) 1846
Eureka: A Prose Poem (essay) 1848
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SOURCE: “‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: An Apocalyptic Vision,” in University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. 3, 1982, pp. 53-63.
[In the following essay, Gargano theorizes that the inability of the characters in Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” to explain their ordeal is a result of the apocalyptic vision of the narrator, who views events in the Usher house as symbolic representations of the destruction of the world.]
Any new discussion of “The Fall of the House Usher,” no matter how adventurous, must be a sort of outgrowth of the accumulated wisdom of George Woodberry, Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edward Davidson, Maurice Beebe, Richard Wilbur, and many other interpreters of Poe's fictional masterpiece.1 The variety of critical response elicited by the tale has an almost infinite suggestiveness: Poe emerges, among other things, as an expert in creating gratuitous terror, as a parodist, a depth-psychologist, a student of vampires, and a master of pure artistic form. Fortunately or unfortunately, criticism multiplies routes into and out of Poe's story, and new interpretations, for better or for worse, seem to discourage critical consensus and to invite fresh explorations. Poe's multi-faceted work, it appears, will continue to resist definitive “solution” about the significance of the narrator's journey into a “singularly dreary tract of land” that he regards as...
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SOURCE: “Poe and the Picturesque: Theory and Practice,” in University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. 3, 1982, pp. 25-39.
[In the following essay, Ljungquist discusses Poe's pictorial technique and the role of neoclassical and Romantic aesthetic theories in the context of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”]
Critical studies demonstrate the role neoclassical and Romantic aesthetic theories have played in enhancing Poe's pictorial techniques. The primacy of the concept of beauty receives detailed acknowledgement,1 and more recent analyses stress the importance of the aesthetic of the sublime for evoking terrifying but delightful effects.2 Another aesthetic category that deserves greater attention is the picturesque.3 The sublime, the picturesque, and the beautiful constituted for Poe an approved triad that allowed him to develop subtle effects from the accepted aesthetic theories of his time. Although Poe generally exploited the sublime to describe scenes of vastness and grandeur, the picturesque was suited to more circumscribed settings. J. Lasley Dameron documents Poe's interest in this subject by indexing fifty-five uses of the adjective “picturesque” and twelve uses of the noun “picturesqueness” in the criticism alone.4 This index represents only Poe's explicit terminology and does not include similar...
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SOURCE: “Teaching ‘Usher’ and Genre: Poe and the Introductory Literature Class,” in Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 29-42.
[In the following essay, Howes explores “The Fall of the House of Usher” as it relates to the concept of genre, focusing on the way the tale goes beyond the limitations imposed by stylistic conventions.]
Every work of art should contain within itself all that is required for its own comprehension.1
In any introductory literature class, the teacher has traditionally faced two challenges: engaging the students with the specific text, and also suggesting that the poem, story, or novel has qualities found in many other works. Meeting the first challenge will raise the students' interest in the text at hand. Meeting the second will make the students more sensitive to literature in general. Our textbooks show how encoded these two goals have become in our profession. Some loosely group stories around dominant characteristics—“Character,” “Setting,” and “Theme,” to cite a few of the most common. The anthologies by Brooks and Warren, Tate and Gordon, or their many offspring can stand as examples here. Some more ambitious—or less trusting—textbooks insert poems or stories into a series of lectures on literary universals. Perrine's Sound and...
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SOURCE: “‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and Elegiac Romance,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1, Fall, 1986, pp. 68-78.
[In the following essay, Howes presents an interpretation of “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an elegiac romance, a form of storytelling that blends romance and elegy to present the tale of a heroic figure through the eyes of a narrator embarked on a quest.]
One of the central concerns in “Usher” criticism has been the relationship between Roderick and the narrator. At the poles lie treatments that deal primarily with one character or the other. Thus we find essays on Roderick as vampire, practitioner of incest or necrophile, heroic artist moving into the intense inane, or object lesson in fatalism.1 Essays on the narrator present him as a successful or defeated representative of reason, a portrait of mental collapse, or even a heroic figure.2 “Usher” criticism's middle ground concerns itself with how the two characters interact: Roderick draws the narrator into madness; Roderick initiates him into “modern” metaphysics and aesthetics; Roderick is the narrator's double.3 This range of approaches has a kaleidoscopic effect: many bright fragments refract the light of Poe's story, forming an apparently arbitrary, expanding mass.
In 1971, Kenneth A. Bruffee published “Elegiac Romance,” an...
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SOURCE: “Explanation in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 419-28.
[In the following essay, Voloshin examines “The Fall of the House of Usher” as a unique variation of the gothic genre of short fiction that blends natural, preternatural, and supernatural elements to create an unusually haunting effect.]
I shall argue here that in his masterwork, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe produces a unique turn to the possibilities the gothic genre had developed for explaining its mysteries. While mysterious and frightening appearances in gothic fiction exist partly and sometimes largely for their shock value, they are also expressive of the epistemological dilemmas of an enlightened age. Beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, gothic fiction opened out what was problematic in the epistemological component of the enlightened bourgeois order. This epistemology was given its fullest expression in John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (first edition, 1690), which constructed a model of mind suited to the new mechanical science of nature. Both the new science and the new psychology overturned older hierarchical models; the mind no longer had innate knowledge of or direct access to the highest principles of life or to the divine; knowledge was largely reduced to the collection and arrangement of “ideas”...
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SOURCE: “Poe's Re-Vision: The Recovery of the Second Story,” in American Literature, Vol. 59, No. 1, March, 1987, pp. 1-19.
[In the following essay, Jordan focuses on Poe's treatment of crimes against women, comparing his writing to that of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jordan proposes that Poe's women-centered tales allow him to explore issues that go beyond the imaginative limits of male-authored fiction, and that “The Fall of the House of Usher” marks the beginning of this style of storytelling for Poe.]
While the longstanding debates over Hawthorne's treatment of women characters have been reinvigorated and refined by feminist critics in the last fifteen years or so, feminist criticism has as yet had little to say about Poe's women-centered fictions.1 This lack of attention might have surprised—or more probably, annoyed—the egotistical Poe, since he himself suggested the terms by which his treatment of women characters might be compared with Hawthorne's. In an 1842 review of Twice-Told Tales, Poe praised “The Minister's Black Veil” as “a masterly composition” whose underlying meaning would probably be lost on most readers, for the “moral put into the mouth of the dying minister will be supposed to convey the true import of the narrative; and that a crime of dark dye, (having reference to the ‘young lady’) has been committed,...
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SOURCE: “The Power of Terror: Burke and Kant in the House of Usher,” in Poe Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3, December, 1988, pp. 27-35.
[In the following essay, Voller contends that “The Fall of the House of Usher” represents a rejection of the theories of sublimity offered by Burke and Kant, and instead focuses on terrors and emotions that could not be easily explained in the context of the optimistic aesthetic proffered by Burke and Kant.]
It has been established that Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) is in part a commentary upon the Burkean sublime,1 but the full extent of Poe's critique of sublimity remains to be determined. The tale certainly articulates, as Craig Howes has shown, Poe's dissatisfaction with Burke's silence on certain abstract sources of terror,2 but “Usher” does not rest here in its unsympathetic examination of the sublime. Writing a tale directed against established theories of sublimity, Poe is not likely to have overlooked Kant's “Analytic of the Sublime,” and indeed “Usher” is, I would like to suggest, as much concerned with Kant's aesthetic as with that offered by Burke and his inheritors.3
We may go further: “Usher” finally records not merely Poe's rejection of two particular theories of sublimity, but of the possibility that the sublime can provide a meaningful or even competent accounting of...
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SOURCE: “Locke, Kant, and Gothic Fiction: A Further Word on the Indeterminism of Poe's ‘Usher,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 547-60.
[In the following essay, Thompson analyses “The Fall of the House of Usher” as a tale of Gothic fiction.]
In her article “Explanation in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’”1 Beverly R. Voloshin offers a “Lockean” perspective on the idea of “merging” objective and subjective in “gothic fiction” and in Poe's story in particular. Her observations about the multiplicity of merged interpretations of gothic events parallel my own in several studies she does not cite,2 and in two studies she does cite.3 Therefore I was a little surprised to read that “though in the past several decades much important criticism of Romantic poetry has analyzed it as a response to the crisis in epistemology, gothic fiction is less often seen as having a similar philosophical substratum” (420, n. 2). I was even more surprised to read that while she agrees with my general claim for multiple interpretation of events in “Usher,” her “premise about gothic fiction,” her “account of multiple interpretations in ‘Usher,’” and her “conclusion about the conclusion of ‘Usher’” differ “in almost all points” from my own analysis (420, n. 4). I should have thought her claims for a gothic...
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SOURCE: “Poe's Gothic Sublimity: Prose Style, Painting, and Mental Boundaries in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Vol. 11, No. 3-4, August, 1990, pp. 353-59.
[In the following essay, Brennan proposes that Poe used an ambiguous prose style in “The Fall of the House of Usher” to convey the psychotic condition of Roderick Usher's mind. Brennan also draws a parallel between the abstract-expressionism of Roderick's painting and actual nineteenth century art.]
Several recent critics of Gothic fiction—notably David Morris and David Saliba—have connected this genre to such features of the sublime as obscurity and terror. For example, Morris has written that “in its excessive violations of excess sense, Gothic sublimity demonstrates the possibilities of terror in opening the mind to its hidden and irrational powers” (306). In the case of Poe's gothic short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the sublime's obscurity and terror not only account for Poe's choice of an ambiguous prose style; these features also help express the disintegration of Roderick Usher's mind—his psychotic condition and weakening grasp of the boundaries of reality, both internal and external. Furthermore—what has been noted with less frequency and emphasis—Roderick's painting both corresponds visually to Poe's obscure, sublime prose and embodies through its...
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SOURCE: “The Hidden God and the Abjected Woman in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 385-95.
[In the following essay, Hoeveler examines the figure of Madeline Usher, whose tomb seems to offer the reader some ultimate truth; however, it is, according to the critic, a truth that does not actually exist.]
D. H. Lawrence once observed, “Poe is rather a scientist than an artist” (Lawrence 65). According to Lawrence, Poe believed there was a substratum that existed beneath all the ornamentation, the distractions that Culture has conspired to erect to conceal the “truth.” Getting at this buried body of knowledge constitutes the excavation work that we as readers undertake when we begin to delve beneath the artifice that Poe has spun so deceptively for our amusement. But at the core of Poe's deep truth, according to Lawrence, is Madeline, “the mystery of the recognition of otherness” (76), as well as its concomitant destructive compulsion: “To try to know any living being is to try to suck the life out of that being” (70). But if Lawrence would have the reader getting at some ultimate truth, it is perhaps more accurate to claim that Poe's text explores what Derrida has called the “trace.” In this more radically discontinuous model, Derrida posits the trace as the basis of a “chain” of history, a history...
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SOURCE: “‘Sympathies of a Scarcely Intelligible Nature,’: The Brother-Sister Bond in Poe's ‘Fall of the House of Usher,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30. No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 387-96.
[In the following essay, May discusses sibling relationships in the context of nineteenth-century literature, citing “The Fall of the House of Usher” as a prophetic tale anticipating the collapse of a society that assumed the security of the family bond.]
Matthew Arnold was in a distinct minority when, in 1853, he criticized the action of Sophocles's Antigone, saying that it “is no longer one in which it is possible that we should feel a deep interest.” Arnold finds that we moderns cannot use as a model “that which is narrow in the ancients, nor that with which we can no longer sympathize” (Arnold 12). Unfortunately, he thinks, such is the case with Antigone, “which turns on the conflict between a heroine's duty to her brother's corpse and that to the laws of her country.” Arnold's condemnation is uncharacteristic—both of Arnold himself, who revered everything classical, and of his age.1 For, as George Steiner, in his work Antigones, says:
Between c. 1790 and c. 1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, scholars, that Sophocles' Antigone was not only that finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to...
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SOURCE: “‘Reading Encrypted but Persistent': The Gothic of Reading and Poe's ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 3-20.
[In the following essay, Hustis provides a brief history of Poe's reception as a writer within American critical circles, noting that the ambiguity of Poe's texts, among them “The Fall of the House of Usher,” has led to debate on whether his writings belong within the American literary canon.]
Trickery, hoaxes, hieroglyphs, and ciphers: few writers have foregrounded such mechanisms of duplicity in their fiction as did Edgar Allan Poe. This is perhaps why the status of Poe's texts within the American literary canon has been so fiercely contested and debated. As many critics have noted, it is precisely the prevalence of such motifs of ambiguity and linguistic, hermeneutic, and ontological uncertainty that have led to the resurrection and revaluation of texts such as “The Purloined Letter” and “The Raven.” And yet Poe's status was never in question within the framework of the French tradition, for example; Poe was always more famous and his works better appreciated in Europe than in the United States. Debates about the place of Poe's texts within the canon are always “American” debates, since elsewhere the point is strangely moot.
Interestingly, whereas French theorists such as Lacan...
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Bieganowski, Ronald. “The Self-Consuming Narrator in Poe's ‘Ligeia’ and ‘Usher.’” In American Literature 60, No. 2 (May 1988): 175-87.
Explores the self-focused nature of the narrators in “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” noting that both characters seem to pay more attention to their own reaction than they do to the action around them.
Clifton, Michael. “Down Hecate's Chain: Infernal Inspiration in Three of Poe's Tales.” In Nineteenth-Century Literature 41, No. 2 (September 1986): 217-27.
Analyzes three of Poe's short stories as revealing an intricate pattern of internal inspiration, that links together Poe's fears about the creative subconscious.
Fenlon, Katherine Feeney, “John Gardner's ‘The Ravages of Spring’ as Re-Creation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’” In Studies in Short Fiction 31, No. 3 (Summer 1994): 481-87.
Contends that John Gardner's “The Ravages of Spring” is an ingenious re-creation of Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Howes, Craig. “Burke, Poe, and ‘Usher’: The Sublime and Rising Woman.” In ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 31, No. 3 (1985): 173-89.
Argues that Poe draws on conventional notions of the sublime to present a devastating analysis...
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