The Fall of the House of Usher Poe, Edgar Allan
"The Fall of the House of Usher" Poe, Edgar Allan
American short story writer, novelist, poet, critic, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher," first published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, September, 1839. See also, "The Cask of Amontillado" Criticism and "The Tell-Tale Heart" Criticism.
Poe's stature as a major figure in world literature is based in large part on his ingenious short stories and critical theories, which established highly influential models for the short form in both fiction and poetry. Regarded by literary historians as the architect of the modern short story, Poe is credited with the invention of several popular genres: the modern horror tale, the science fiction tale, and the detective story. Twentieth-century scholars have discerned in such well-known short stories as "The Fall of the House of Usher" a seminal contribution to the development of various modern literary themes, including the alienation of the self and the nature of the subconscious. The critic Allen Tate has even identified the tormented Roderick Usher as a prototype for the self-conscious hero in modern fiction. Although nineteenth-century critics generally failed to recognize the full extent of Poe's contribution to the form, he is now acclaimed as one of literature's most original and influential practitioners of the short story.
Plot and Major CharactersSummoned by a mysterious note, the unnamed narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" arrives to find his childhood friend Roderick Usher fearful and depressed in his decaying family mansion. Roderick attributes his morbid condition to the influence of the gloomy house and the imminent death of his beloved twin sister Madeline, his only surviving relative. The narrator's futile attempts to distract his host with art, literature, and music are interrupted when Roderick abruptly announces that Madeline has died. Anxious to preserve her corpse before burial, Roderick persuades the narrator to help him convey the coffin to a former dungeon beneath the house. In the next few days, Roderick's state declines into madness. Increasingly unnerved himself, the narrator is woken one night by certain curious noises. He finds Usher in a state of escalating hysteria and attempts to calm him by reading "Mad Trist," the story of a dragon-slaying knight. At the climax of the story, both hear an ominous clanging sound within the house. The door opens to reveal the emaciated, bloodspattered figure of Madeline, who had been buried alive. Tottering on the threshold, she falls forward heavily, killing her brother in her violent death agony. As the narrator escapes from the house, a zigzag fissure opens in the structure and the house of Usher collapses in on itself.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" is known for its remarkable structure, in which major themes emerge through an elaborate network of repeated images. The prominent theme of duality is expressed primarily in several parallel structures, including the symbiotic bond between Roderick and his sister Madeline. The theme also appears in the opening image of the mansion reflected in a dark tarn, as well as in the metaphor of a mind infected with madness, suggested by Roderick's poem "The Haunted Palace." Also, while Roderick's declining mental condition is echoed in the crumbling house, overgrown with parasitic plants and wrapped in a sort of unpleasant swamp gas, the fissure which finally destroys the Usher mansion literally brings the theme of dualism to a crashing climax. Roderick's extreme sensitivity to Romantic literature and his inordinate desire to preserve Madeline's corpse hint at other important themes, those of decadence and decay. Thus, Poe presents Roderick as a tragic aesthete, who, though completely alienated from mundane reality, succeeds in arousing pathos in the reader. As more than one critic has observed, the fall of the house of Usher describes the decline of an incestuous, decaying family, with all of its psychological implications, as well as an actual, if improbable, physical event.
Readers of "The Fall of the House of Usher" have long associated the melancholy Roderick Usher with Poe himself. Indeed, the story's themes of destructive division, family decline and morbid imagination offer intriguing parallels to the author's fragmented life. However, Poe's own book reviews from this period indicate his preference for suggestive, "mystic" literature over didactic allegory—an attitude that explains the multiple interpretations which "The Fall of the House of Usher" continues to elicit. While critics such as Richard Wilbur and Louise Kaplan have seen the story as an exploration of the frightening depths of the human psyche, other scholars have detected a more parodic note. Much of the controversy over the meaning of "Usher" has centered on the reliability of the story's anonymous narrator. Where Patrick F. Quinn sees the narrator as a model of common sense, G. R. Thompson and Frederick S. Frank propose a naive—even malign—aspect to this character. Recent criticism has focused on the sadistic, possibly perverse, overtones of Usher's relationship with his sister and some feminist critics have interpreted the story as a parable of patriarchal destructiveness.
SOURCE: "Edgar Allan Poe," in The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Versions of 'Studies in Classic American Literature/ Centaur Press Limited, 1962, pp. 115-30.
[Lawrence was a modern English novelist, poet, and essayist noted for his introduction of the themes of modern psychology to English fiction. In his lifetime, he was a controversial figure, both for the explicit sexuality he portrayed in his works and for his unconventional personal life. Much of the criticism of Lawrence's works concerns his highly individualistic moral system, which was based on absolute freedom of expression, particularly sexual expression. Human sexuality was for Lawrence a symbol of the Life Force, and is frequently pitted against modern industrial society, which he believed was dehumanizing. In the following excerpt, originally published in 1919, Lawrence describes Poe's portrayal of love as a "destructive force" in his short stories.]
It seems a long way from Fenimore Cooper to Poe. But in fact it is only a step. Leatherstocking is the last instance of the integral, progressive, soul of the white man in America. In the last conjunction between Leatherstocking and Chingachgook we see the passing out into the darkness of the interim, as a seed falls into the dark interval of winter. What remains is the old tree withering and seething down to the crisis of winter-death, the great white race in America keenly disintegrating,...
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SOURCE: "A Key to The House of Usher," in Interpretations of American Literature, edited by Charles Feidelson, Jr., and Paul Brodtkorb, Jr., Oxford University Press, 1959, pp. 51-62.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1949, Abel offers a symbolic interpretation of "The Fall of the House of Usher. "]
By common consent, the most characteristic of Poe's "arabesque" tales is "The Fall of the House of Usher." It is usually admired for its "atmosphere" and for its exquisitely artificial manipulation of Gothic claptrap and décor, but careful reading reveals admirable method in the author's use of things generally regarded by his readers as mere decorative properties. . . .
Too much of the horror of the tale has usually been attributed to its setting superficially considered. But the setting does have a double importance, descriptive and symbolic. It first operates descriptively, as suggestively appropriate and picturesque background for the unfolding of events. It later operates symbolically: certain features of the setting assume an ominous animism and function; they become important active elements instead of mere static backdrop.
Descriptively the setting has two uses: to suggest a mood to the observer which makes him properly receptive to the horrible ideas which grow in his mind during the action; and to supply details which...
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SOURCE: "Three Commentaries: Poe, James, and Joyce," in Memoirs and Opinions, 1926-74, The Swallow Press, 1975, pp. 155-69.
[Tate's criticism is closely associated with two critical movements, the Agrarians and the New Critics. The Agrarians were concerned with political and social issues as well as literature, and were dedicated to preserving the Southern way of life and traditional Southern values. The New Critics, a group which included Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, among others, comprised one of the most influential critical movements of the mid-twentieth century. A conservative thinker and convert to Catholicism, Tate attacked the tradition of Western philosophy, which he felt has alienated persons from themselves, one another, and from nature by divorcing intellectual from natural functions in human life. For Tate, literature is the principal form of knowledge and revelation that restores human beings to a proper relationship with nature and the spiritual realm. In the following excerpt, originally published in 1950, he identifies Roderick Usher as a prototype of the modern fictional hero.]
["The Fall of the House of Usher"] is perhaps not Poe's best [story], but it has significant features which ought to illuminate some of the later, more mature work in the naturalistic-symbolic technique of Flaubert, Joyce, and James. Poe's insistence upon unity of effect, from first word to last, in the...
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SOURCE: "The House of Poe," in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Criticism Since 1829, edited by Eric W. Carlson, University of Michigan Press, 1966, pp. 255-77.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture to the Library of Congress in 1959, Wilbur discusses Poe's allegorical representation of the poetic soul in conflict with the external world, especially as it is demonstrated in "The Fall of the House of Usher. "]
A few weeks ago, in the New York Times Book Review, Mr. Saul Bellow expressed impatience with the current critical habit of finding symbols in everything. No selfrespecting modern professor, Mr. Bellow observed, would dare to explain Achilles' dragging of Hector around the walls of Troy by the mere assertion that Achilles was in a bad temper. That would be too drearily obvious. No, the professor must say that the circular path of Achilles and Hector relates to the theme of circularity which pervades The Iliad.
In the following week's Book Review, a pedantic correspondent corrected Mr. Bellow, pointing out that Achilles did not, in Homer's Iliad, drag Hector's body around the walls of Troy; this perhaps invalidates the Homeric example, but Mr. Bellow's complaint remains, nevertheless, a very sensible one. We are all getting a bit tired, I think, of that laboriously clever criticism which discovers mandalas in Mark Twain,...
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SOURCE: "The Vampire Motif in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'," in College English, Vol. 24, No. 4, March, 1963, pp. 450-53.
[Kendall is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he views Madeline Usher as a vampire.]
The often expressed conventional interpretation of ["The Fall of the House of Usher"] is summarized and expatiated upon in Arthur Robinson's "Order and Sentience in The Fall of the House of Usher.'" My own view of the story, although admittedly whimsical, is that in concentrating upon symbolism, upon psychological aberration, upon its connection with Eureka (first published some years after the story) and with certain aspects of nineteenth-century culture, critics of "The Fall of the House of Usher" have almost universally failed to recognize that it is a Gothic tale, like "Ligeia," and that a completely satisfactory and internally directed interpretation depends on vampirism, the hereditary Usher curse. Madeline is a vampire—a succubus—as the family physician well knows and as her physical appearance and effect upon the narrator sufficiently demonstrate. The terrified and ineffectual Roderick, ostensibly suffering from pernicious anemia, is her final victim.
It is not my purpose here to trace sources and analogues, for example, the body of a murdered person hidden in a makeshift coffin in the haunted wing of a castle (Clara Reeve, The Old...
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SOURCE: "The Haunted Palace of Art," in The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James, Wesleyan University Press, 1969, pp. 60-9.
[Porte is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he observes a conflict between Romantic and Realist attitudes in "The Fall of the House of Usher. "]
Beginning with Poe and continuing as a strong current in the works of Hawthorne, Melville, and James, the desire to test and evaluate the opposing claims of novelistic "good sense" and romance "wildness" finds expression in the very fabric of American fiction. "Art" as an implied or explicit theme and the frequent use of "artist" figures become characteristic of the American romance—indeed, are among the criteria that define it—as our authors argue out for themselves the question of daylight versus night.
It might seem odd to mention "The Fall of the House of Usher" in connection with such a formulation, but this familiar tale is an especially interesting illustration of the foregoing thesis. The reader first must be asked to shift his attention slightly from the gothic horrors depicted in the story to the subtle opposition set up between the character of Roderick Usher and that of the narrator. Usher is a portrait, somewhat caricatured, of the artistic temperament in its most decadent—that is, romantic—state. He has a "remarkable" face, with large and...
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SOURCE: "The Face in the Pool: Reflections on the Doppelgänger Motif in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'," in Poe Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, June, 1972, pp. 16-21
[In the following essay, Thompson offers a reading of
uThe Fall of the House of Usher" that highlights its parallel structures and ironic tone. ]
In Heart of Darkness (1898-99), Joseph Conrad's first narrator comments on the conception of the meaning of a narrative held by Marlow, who is himself the narrator of the basic tale of his pursuit of his psychological double, Kurtz, and to whom Conrad's first narrator listens as one sitting in darkness waiting for light. The first narrator comments that Marlow, unlike other tale-spinning sailors, saw the significance of a narrative not as a core meaning of some kind but as a system of structures: "The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. [But to Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine." So it is with Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), a tale that bears a number of similarities in theme, imagery, and structure to Heart of Darkness. Poe's tale is a...
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SOURCE: "Poe's House of the Seven Gothics: The Fall of the Narrator in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'," in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1979, pp. 331-51.
[Frank is an American educator and critic with a special interest in Gothic literature. In the following essay, he argues that the true villain of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is the narrator himself who has failed to recognize the limitations of his narrowly rationalistic mind.]
Between the meditative arrival of the friend of Roderick Usher and his panic-stricken exodus from the vanishing mansion there lies the story of the humiliation of reason within the palace of art. Like his counterpart, the curiosity-driven hero who descends into the maelström, the naive voyager who narrates "The Fall of the House of Usher" makes the special journey inward which demands a reversal of vision and a relinquishment of ego in order to attain what Emerson called "an invisible, unsounded centre in himself." Both explorers enter the deadly mouth of an apparently chaotic world and both explorers are confronted with the necessity for absurd choices in order to pass the aesthetic test and solve the problem in form posed by the dissolving house and the perilous whirlpool. While the maelström narrator deliberately descends into an aquatic version of the Gothic castle, the Usher narrator merely falls. The aesthete who surrenders to the fatal grip of...
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SOURCE: "A Misreading of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher'," in Ruined Eden of the Present, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe: Critical Essays in Honor of Barrel Abel, edited by G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke, Purdue University Press, 1981, pp. 303-12.
[In the following essay, Quinn opposes G. R. Thompson's contention that the narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is unreliable.]
D. H. Lawrence advised trust the book and not the author, but he neglected to say what or who should be trusted when the book consists of a story told by a narrator who is unreliable. Presumably one then looks for guidance from that convenient abstraction, the critic, who, along with his other duties, attempts to clarify the author's intention and to unmask narrators with bogus claims to credibility. In Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (1973),G. R. Thompson argues that it was part of Poe's intention as an ironical author to make the most of the unreliable narrator device, and that he did so in a good many of his most famous tales, including "MS. Found in a Bottle," "Ligeia," and "The Fall of the House of Usher."
Having long believed that Poe wanted his readers to give credence to, indeed to the identify with, the visitor to Usher's house, and finding myself unpersuaded by the opposite proposals in Thompson's book, I should like to review the matter in some detail. Taking up...
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SOURCE: "Playful 'Germanism' in The Fall of the House of Usher': The Storyteller's Art" in Ruined Eden of the Present, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe: Critical Essays in Honor of Darrel Abel, edited by G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke, Purdue University Press, 1981, pp. 355-74.
[Fisher is an American educator and critic with a special interest in the work of Edgar Allan Poe. In the following essay, he analyzes "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a parody of Gothic literature.
During the past thirty years, few approaches to Poe's great tale have failed to pay respects to Darrel Abel's "A Key to the House of Usher," first published in 1949 and several times reprinted, wherein he analyzes the centrality of symbolism embodying the conflict between life-reason and death-madness. In no way will I challenge this or other readings that argue for serious import inherent in "Usher," although I wish to examine a facet of Poe's technique not charted by Abel, nor by many others who use his justly famous essay as a foundation for their theories. My aim is to illuminate Poe's comic impulses, as I discern them, in this tale. Comedy and burlesque, to be sure, have been noticed, but not extensively treated, by James M. Cox, G. R. Thompson, and, implicitly, Daniel Hoffman. External and internal evidence support a comic perspective within "Usher," as I will show. Although my "key" may unlock only the back door of the...
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SOURCE: "Malady and Motive: Medical History and The Fall of the House of Usher'," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 10-22.
[In the following essay, Uba diagnoses the cause of the Ushers ' strange maladies by relating them to medical and psychological knowledge current at the time Poe wrote "The Fall of the House of Usher. "]
When the narrator of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" first glimpses the Ushers' manor and demesne, he suffers a marked depression, which he likens to a "bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil" of the opium eater. This description is surprising in light of the tale's subsequent developments, with their stark removal from the "everyday" and the hallucinatory quality of their description, but it points to Poe's own clear perception of how his tale's dramatic tension is to be maintained. For if "The Fall of the House of Usher" is distinguished by its forays into the fantastic and the grotesque, it also remains tethered to the real. What I am calling reality is most usefully apprehended in this case from the perspective of medical history. An understanding of such history not only affords insight into the maladies of both Roderick and Madeline Usher but suggests both how and why the latter suffers premature burial at the hands of the one person who loves and needs her most.
Thrice in the course of the...
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SOURCE: "Reflections On, and In, The Fall of the House of Usher'," in Edgar Allan Poe: The Design of Order, edited by A. Robert Lee, Vision Press Ltd., 1987, pp. 17-34.
[Kinkead-Weekes is a South-African born English educator and critic. In the following essay, he focuses on the reliability of the narrator in "The Fall of the House of Usher. "]
What is immediately impressive about 'The Fall of the House of Usher' is the care with which it sets out to establish the kind of reader it requires. As opposed, it turns out, to Coleridge's notion of an aeolian lute, which resounds to every capricious gust of feeling or idea, there is to be scruple and discrimination, a challenge to put imagination, and feeling, and critical intelligence to work, in controlled harmony. The mode then is not merely Gothick, but rather a 'Gothick' which at every turn signals a consciousness of its own operation, its own language and vision. From the outset we have before us, too, a narrator we must both respond to, and carefully watch responding:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it...
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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 undertakes a feminist analysis of the relationship between Madeline and Roderick Usher, and its implications in Victorian society.]
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." 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. 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 perfection than any other produced by the human spirit.
Steiner goes on to point out that, after 1789,...
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SOURCE: "The Perverse Strategy in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'," in New Essays on Poe's Major Tales, edited by Kenneth Silverman, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 45-64.
[Kaplan is an American psychoanalyst. In the following essay, she presents a psychoanalytic interpretation of "The Fall of the House of Usher."]
Edgar Allan Poe was a dissembler, a hoaxter, a liar, an impostor, and plagiarizer. He was secretive about his true identity and frequently masqueraded under one of several aliases. Deception and mystification were Poe's stock-intrade. Nevertheless, about some things we take him at his word. He truly was, as he boasted, a master of perversion, that most deceptive of mental strategies. We have only to recall his persistent and active pursuit of mental and physical self-destruction—the drinking, his habits of provocative and violent argumentation, the alienation of his guardian and other authority figures who might otherwise have given him support, the pedophilic-incestuous undercurrents of his marriage. Then there is the miasma surrounding his death—was it the outcome of one of his provocations, or disease, alcoholism, suicide, dementia? In living his life and even in his manner of negotiating death, Poe was a captive of the imp of perversity. But with Art as his shield, the realms of perversity became a haven for his troubled soul. He left to posterity a documentation of the spirit...
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Blackmur, R. P. "Afterword to 'The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales.'" In Outsider at the Heart of Things: Essays by R. P. Blackmur, edited by James T. Jones, pp. 223-30. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press,1989.
Comments on the extraordinary appeal of Poe's stories, with reference to "The Fall of the House of Usher."
Booth, Wayne C. "Manipulating Mood." In The Rhetoric of Fiction, pp. 200-05. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961.
Analyzes the rhetorical development of mood using "The Fall of the House of Usher" as an example.
Caws, Mary Ann. "Tarn and Tunnel: Falling into Text." In Reading Frames in Modern Fiction, pp. 109-14. Princeton,N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Offers a deconstructionist reading of frame devices in 'The Fall of the House of Usher."
Dayan, Joan. "The Dream of the Body." In Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe's Fiction, pp. 199-200. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Briefly comments on Madeline as representing the idea of the body.
Haggerty, George E. "Poe's Gothic Gloom." In Gothic Fiction/Gothic Form, pp. 81-106. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.
Discusses Poe's fascination with the mechanics of Gothic literature, with...
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