The Fall of the House of Usher (American History Through Literature)
"The Fall of the House of Usher" is a landmark in literary history. While telling an eerie tale of gothic horror, Edgar Allan Poe (1809849) manages to echo the literary past, embody contemporary ideas and imagery, and anticipate the development of modernism. This short story, which first appeared in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in September 1839, begins as Poe's nameless first-person narrator describes how he feels upon approaching the ancestral mansion of the Usher family where his boyhood friend Roderick Usher lives with his sister Madeline, the last descendants of a formerly grand family. The narrator first sees the house cloaked in shadow and considers it a melancholy sight, but he quickly modifies his reaction: he is overcome by "a sense of insufferable gloom," insufferable because the feeling is "unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible" (p. 145). The narrator is obviously used to taking pleasure in both the melancholy and the sublime. His inability to do so as he approaches the Usher mansion disturbs his equanimity. Try as he might he simply cannot achieve the pleasurable feelings he typically enjoys and sees that "no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime" (p. 145).
Poe's diction in this opening paragraph recalls literary concepts that had become prevalent in the critical discourse during the preceding century, when poets cultivated intense emotions to heighten philosophic contemplation and enhance aesthetic appreciation. Melancholya not unpleasing sadness," in Herman Melville's wordsmanates from the contemplation
Poe, it seems, has introduced these traditional concepts of late-eighteenth-century verse only to call them into question. Deprived of his usual, poetic way of coping with sadness and fear, the narrator has lost his moorings and must find new methods of dealing with what he encounters. One of these ways, his attempt to change his physical relation to the environment, fails, too. Recovering his presence of mind after this failure, he dismisses his attempt to adjust the physical world to suit himself as a childish experiment. As he looks at the house again, it seems as if "around the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity" (p. 145). Capturing the mansion as it appears to the narrator, Poe uses a method of description Nathaniel Hawthorne used so well: he depicts the ambiguity of individual perception. Poe's narrator sees the mansion enshrouded with a weird vapor but shakes off that impression and redoubles his efforts in order to perceive "the real aspect of the building," which may be best characterized by its profound decrepitude (p. 145).
THE GOTHIC AND POE
The gothic imagery that fills "Usher" reflects a style of literature that had emerged during the late eighteenth century and was flourishing in the early decades of the nineteenth. The large mysterious castle filled with dark corners and secret passageways had been an important feature of gothic literature at least since Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1765). Poe explicitly aligns "Usher" with such literature. Upon dismounting from his horse, the story's narrator enters "the Gothic archway of the hall" (p. 146). Once inside a valet leads him through "many dark and intricate passages" (p. 146). Having his narrator enter the mansion through a gothic archway, Poe identifies this short story as a piece of gothic fiction. Furthermore, he establishes a parallel between the narrator's experience and his reader's. Much as the narrator enters the gothic by entering the home, the reader enters the gothic by reading the story. Establishing such a parallel between reader and narrator, Poe incorporates a doppelgänger theme, another motif characteristic of gothic fiction. Poe's "William Wilson" (1839) is the classic story of a double or doppelgänger in the English language, but "Usher" also makes sophisticated use of this motif. Not only does Poe establish a parallel between narrator and reader, he also parallels the narrator and Roderick Usher, Roderick and his sister Madeline, and Roderick and the house itself.
Poe is the last great gothic writer, but his attitude toward the gothic often seems ambiguous. At times, he incorporates gothic elements only to spoof them. "The Raven" (1845), though a great example of the literary gothic, is not without satiric moments. Of course, the use of humor in gothic fiction was not unprecedented. As Benjamin Fisher has observed, humor had frequently been an element of the gothic before Poe's time. "Usher," however, treats the gothic with profound seriousness. Reading the story, one gets the impression that Poe set out to write the gothic tale to end all gothic tales.
In terms of the relationship of "Usher" to the American literature of its day, Poe's tale differs considerably. The middle third of the nineteenth century was a time of great literary jingoism. Numerous critics clamored for a national literature commensurate with the greatness of the nation and urged American writers to incorporate its mountains and rivers and plains into their work. Poe considered such jingoism, or extreme nationalism, hogwash. The way to make great national literature was not to make it represent the physical and political character of the nation: the way to make great American literature was to make it original. In so doing, it could stand on a world stage. Consequently, Poe seldom felt compelled to use American settings for his fiction. Instead, he frequently set his tales in the dark corners of Europe. "Usher" is no exception. The vault beneath the mansion dates back to "remote feudal times" and thus suggests an indeterminate European setting (p. 150).
CONTEMPORARY VISUAL CULTURE IN "USHER"
Many of Poe's gothic tales have similarly indeterminate time settings, but a bookish reference in "Usher" and the narrator's careful diction help give the story a contemporary setting. In no other tale does Poe describe a character's books in more detail than he does in "Usher." The narrator closely associates Roderick's personal character with the books he reads and lists several specific titles. One of the books is listed as "the Selenography of Brewster" (p. 149). The author Poe names, Sir David Brewster, was best known for his groundbreaking optical experiments. His Treatise on Optics (1831) and Letters on Natural Magic (1832) offered Poe rich sources of information about various optical phenomena. Poe gives "Usher" a contemporary setting with his reference to Brewster, whose most well-known works were published the same decade "Usher" appeared. Brewster never wrote a book called Selenography, however. What Poe had in mind was a work by Charles F. Blunt entitled Selenographia, a Telescopic View of the Moon's Disc (1833).
Attributing the Selenographia of Blunt to the more well-known Brewster, Poe allows himself to make optical phenomena an important aspect of the story. "Usher" also makes imaginative use of a popular entertainment that created optical illusions for purposes of amusement. As the valet first leads him through the mansion, the narrator describes what he sees: "The carvings of the ceilings, the somber tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode" (p. 146). The narrator's use of the adjective "phantasmagoric" to describe the furnishings of the Usher home calls to mind the contemporary phantasmagoria, a popular form of entertainment that used weird noise and lighting effects for the purpose of scaring audiences. Later in the story the word phantasmagoria specifically pertains to Usher's mental state. The narrator speaks of Usher's "phantasmagoric conceptions" and finds books in his library "in strict keeping with this character of phantasm" (p. 149). The narrator finds his own mental state influenced by the home's interior, too:
I endeavored to believe that much, if not all of what I felt, was due to the phantasmagoric influence of the gloomy furniture of the roomf the dark and tattered draperies, which tortured into motion by the breath of a rising tempest, swayed fitfully to and fro upon the walls, and rustled uneasily about the decorations of the bed. (P. 150)
Much as the producers of contemporary phantasmagoria shows did and much as he had done himself earlier in "Ligeia," Poe uses lighting effects, sound effects, and the semblance of movement in "Usher" to enhance the ghastly nature of the setting. Madeline Usher's reappearance at the story's end resembles the specters depicted in the denouement of a phantasmagoria show, as she is enshrouded with "blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame" (p. 152).
Discussing the history of the word phantasmagoria, Terry Castle has used "The Fall of the House of Usher" to show how the term underwent a paradigmatic shift from the external to the internal around the time Poe published the tale. The word originally entered the English language to describe a form of entertainment, but when the popularity of phantasmagoria shows waned, the word stayed in the language to refer to hallucinatory images conjured up by the mind. "Usher" finely captures this shift from the external to the internal. Though Poe uses the adjective "phantasmagoric" to describe home furnishings early in the story, before its end, he is talking about phantasms of the mind.
Poe's reference to Brewster and his use of the word "phantasmagoria" clearly fix the action of "Usher" in the present. The other books Roderick and the narrator read in the story help link past and future. Several of Usher's books describe imaginary journeys to utopias. In Iter Subterraneum (1741), for instance, the great Danish writer Baron Ludvig Holberg takes his fictional narrator, Nicholas Klimm, on an imaginary voyage underground to a fantastic place. Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (1623), another book Roderick reads, describes an ideal utopian society inspired by Plato's vision of the universe. As Priscilla Rice has suggested, Poe's reference to Campanella reinforces important themes of the story. Campanella posited that the health of the individual family reflected the health of the political state in which they lived. Implicitly, the unhealthfulness of the Usher family reflects the decrepitude of their home. The works by Campanella, Holberg, and others suggest that the books Roderick and the narrator read in the present come from the past yet anticipate life in the future.
Thoughts of the future send Roderick into a state of terror. As he tells the narrator: "I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of my soul" (p. 148). Roderick's comments are a reflection of his illness, which involves a hypersensitivity to any external stimuli. He can eat only the blandest of foods: mulligatawny has no place at his dinner table. He can tolerate the sound of no musical instruments save the quiet strumming of his own guitar. He exists by keeping himself in extreme stasis, by never trying anything new, never experimenting with anything unfamiliar, never leaving his house. He is an exile in time. Madeline Usher is afflicted with a different condition, but one that has much the same result. She is cataleptic. She literally exists in a state of physical torpor. She, too, seems trapped in an eternal present, never slipping back into a happier past, never going forward to an eternal future.
Roderick and Madeline possess these afflictions as the narrator arrives. Through much of his time in the mansion, their conditions only intensify. Roderick's sensitivity becomes even more acute. Madeline's catalepsy becomes so severe that it seems as if she has died. Her apparent death introduces a catastrophic element of change to Roderick's life. They entomb her in an ancient vault that forms a part of the dungeons from the feudal past. Entombed below the house, Madeline is removed from the present into the realm of the past. But hers, like those of so many other Poe characters, is a premature burial. She escapes her sepulchre to accost her brother. Her reappearance only precipitates the inevitable. She confronts Roderick, and the two die in each others's arms. The narrator flees the house. As he escapes, a huge crack forms in the masonry, and the house collapses into the tarn.
"USHER" AND THE AVANT-GARDE
"The Fall of the House of Usher" would be recognized by many as Poe's finest tale and, indeed, one of the best short stories in the English language. In the introduction to his edition of Poe, Padraic Colum, for example, calls the story "splendid" and names it as one of the "world's best tales" (p. 148). A reprinting of it in the New York Times (17 January 1909) to celebrate the centenary of Poe's birth introduced it with the headnote: "Students of Poe and his works hold differing opinions as to which of his tales is entitled to the first place among his prose writings. But certainly a large number of thesend possibly a majorityould give first place to 'The Fall of the House of Usher.'" The tale has inspired numerous other works including Claude Debussy's La Chute de la Maison d'Usher, an opera he left unfinished at the time of his death; Jean Epstein's impressionistic film, La Chute de La Maison d'Usher (1928); and The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), a highly experimental avant-garde short film created by James Sibley Watson Jr. and Melville Webber. The character of Roderick Usher also anticipates many of the protagonists of some of the most influential literary works of the modernist period. Allen Tate sees a little Roderick Usher in such literary characters as Stephen Daedalus, J. Alfred Prufrock, and Mrs. Dalloway. In Poe's story, neither Roderick nor Madeline have a future, but the story itself has had a profound influence on the development of modernism.
Some have claimed more credit for the story's influence on modernist art than it may deserve, however. During the course of the story, Roderick often amuses himself by painting. The narrator describes Roderick's paintings as "pure abstractions" that Roderick "contrived to throw upon his canvas" (p. 152). Roderick Usher is the first abstract expressionist, a few commentators have asserted. Such claims may be more clever than useful, but it is productive to see "Usher" as yet another of Poe's stories that symbolize the life of the artist. Roderick's paintings may identify him as an artist, but his mental and physical condition are more important for understanding his attitude toward art. Roderick is like many authors Poe critiqued in his day: he is afraid of the future. Consequently, he does not experiment; he does not take chances; he does not stray from what is comfortable, from what he already knows. His death in the story parallels the death of any artist who refuses to take risks.
The narrator, however, who alone survives to tell Roderick's tale, survives because he runs from the house. Instead of being immobilized like Roderick, the narrator possesses a dynamic quality that allows him to flee. Closing his narrative, he explains, "I saw the mighty walls rushing asunderhere was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand watersnd the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the 'House of Usher'" (p. 152). This is no statement of a man struck with terror who has just witnessed the death of a friend and his sister and has just barely escaped from death himself. This is the voice of a meticulous literary artist. The clever simile, the biblical echo (Ezekiel 43:2), the conjoined, alliterative word pairs: all bespeak a meticulous literary crafts-manship. "The Fall of the House of Usher" is the story of two artist figures, Roderick Usher and the narrator, but the narrator is the one Poe wants his readers to emulate. Artistic stasis leads to death. Dynamic experimentation leads to the future.
See also Gothic Fiction; "The Philosophy of Composition"; Short Story
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Fall of the House of Usher." Burton's Gentleman's Magazine 5 (1839): 14552.
Brennan, Matthew C. "Turnerian Topography: The Paintings of Roderick Usher." Studies in Short Fiction 27 (1990): 60507.
Castle, Terry. "Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie." Critical Inquiry 15 (1988): 261.
Colum, Padraic. "Introduction." In Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination, edited by Padraic Colum, pp. viiiv. London: J. M. Dent, 1908.
Fisher, Benjamin F. "Poe and the Gothic Tradition." In The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes, pp. 721. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Hayes, Kevin J. Poe and the Printed Word. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Howes, Craig. "Burke, Poe, and 'Usher': The Sublime and Rising Woman." ESQ 31 (1985): 17389.
Peeples, Scott. "Poe's 'Constructiveness's and 'The Fall of the House of Usher.'" In The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, edited by Kevin J. Hayes, pp. 17890. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Rice, Priscilla. "Poe and Campanella." Edgar Allan Poe Review 4 (2003): 10507.
Tate, Allen. "Three Commentaries: Poe, James, and Joyce." Sewanee Review 58 (1950): 15.
Walker, I. M. "The Legitimate Sources of Terror in 'The Fall of the House of Usher.'" Modern Language Review 61 (1966): 58592.
Kevin J. Hayes