Study Guide

The Fall of the House of Usher

by Edgar Allan Poe

The Fall of the House of Usher Essay - The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe

The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe

Introduction

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

“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.

Principal Works

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...

(The entire section is 91 words.)

Criticism

James W. Gargano (essay date 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 4588 words.)

Kent Ljungquist (essay date 1982)

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.”]

I

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...

(The entire section is 6082 words.)

Craig Howes (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 7116 words.)

Craig Howes (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 4670 words.)

Beverly R. Voloshin (essay date 1986)

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...

(The entire section is 5011 words.)

Cynthia S. Jordan (essay date 1987)

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.]

I

While the longstanding debates over Hawthorne's treatment of women characters have been reinvigorated and refined by feminist critics in...

(The entire section is 7439 words.)

Jack G. Voller (essay date 1988)

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...

(The entire section is 6896 words.)

G. R. Thompson (essay date 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 1962 words.)

Matthew C. Brennan (essay date 1990)

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....

(The entire section is 3015 words.)

Diane Long Hoeveler (essay date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 4547 words.)

Leila S. May (essay date 1993)

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.”...

(The entire section is 4483 words.)

Harriet Hustis (essay date 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 7201 words.)