Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is Poe’s best-known and most admired story, and rightfully so: It expertly combines in a powerful and economical way all of his most obsessive themes, and it brilliantly reflects his aesthetic theory that all the elements of a literary work must contribute to the single unified effect or pattern of the work itself. The central mystery on which the thematic structure of the story depends is the nature of Roderick Usher’s illness. Although its symptoms consist of an extreme sensitivity to all sensory stimuli and a powerful unmotivated fear, nowhere does Poe suggest its cause except to hint at some dark family curse or hereditary illness.
The actual subject of the story, as is the case with most of Poe’s work, is the nature of the idealized artwork and the precarious situation of the artist. Roderick, with his paintings, his musical compositions, and his poetry, is, above all, an artist. It is the particular nature of his art that is inextricably tied up with his illness. Roderick has no contact with the external world that might serve as the subject matter of his art. Not only does he never leave the house, but he also cannot tolerate light, sound, touch, odor, or taste. In effect, having shut down all of his senses, he has no source for his art but his own subjectivity. The narrator says that if anyone has ever painted pure idea, then Roderick is that person. As a result, Roderick has nothing metaphorically to...
(The entire section is 549 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Fall of the House of Usher Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Summoned to the House of Usher by a “wildly importunate letter,” which “gave evidence of nervous agitation,” the first-person narrator goes to reside for a time with the writer of this letter, Roderick Usher. Although Roderick had been one of his “boon companions in boyhood,” the narrator confesses early in the story that “I really knew little of my friend”; yet, by the end of this gothic tale, he has learned more about the occupants of the House of Usher than he is equipped to deal with. Indeed, one of these occupants is Roderick’s twin sister, Madeline Usher, who is suffering from an unspecified but fatal illness. One of the symptoms of this illness is catalepsy (muscular rigidity marked by a lack of response to external stimuli); significantly, this symptom is crucial to understanding what happens in the course of the story.
His sister’s illness is only one reason for Roderick’s agitation, one reason for his desire to have the “solace” of the narrator’s companionship; it is not the only—or most significant—reason. Usher himself is suffering from a “mental disorder,” which is “a constitutional and . . . family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy.” Why “evil”? one wonders, until one recalls that, in the third paragraph of this story, even before Roderick has been seen for the first time, the narrator mentions that the ancient “stem” of the Usher family never “put forth . . . any enduring...
(The entire section is 997 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
As the visitor approaches the House of Usher, he is forewarned by the appearance of the old mansion. The fall weather is dull and dreary, the countryside is shady and gloomy, and the old house seems to fit perfectly into the desolate surroundings. The windows look like vacant eyes staring out over the bleak landscape. The visitor comes to the House of Usher in response to a written plea from his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher. The letter tells of an illness of body and mind suffered by the last heir in the ancient line of Usher, and although the letter strangely fills him with dread, the visitor feels that he must go to his former friend. The Usher family, unlike most, left only a direct line of descent, and perhaps it is for this reason that the family itself and the house became one—the House of Usher. As the visitor gets closer, the house appears even more formidable. The stone is discolored and covered with fungi. The building gives the impression of decay, yet the masonry did not fall. A barely discernible crack extends in a zigzag line from the roof to the foundation, but otherwise there are no visible breaks in the structure.
The visitor enters the house, gives his things to a servant, and proceeds through several dark passages to the study of the master. There he is stunned at the appearance of his old friend. In Usher’s cadaverous face, eyes are liquid and lips are pallid. His weblike hair is untrimmed and floats over his brow. All in all, he...
(The entire section is 1090 words.)
First published in the September, 1839 edition of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, "The Fall of the House of Usher" is widely acknowledged to be one of Poe's finest and most representative tales. The story begins with the first-person narrator riding on horseback toward the ancestral home of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher. In the opening paragraph, the narrator establishes an overwhelming atmosphere of dread. As he approaches his destination on a "dull, dark, and soundless" day, he notes that the clouds were hanging "oppressively low" in the sky over the "singularly dreary tract" where the "melancholy" House of Usher stood. The sight of the landscape filled him with an "insufferable gloom," while his initial view of the House of Usher itself evoked an "utter depression" in the narrator's soul. Although he was unable to grasp precisely why he is so unnerved by the house, the narrator makes a prominent reference to its "eye-like windows."
A dark mood now hanging over his story, the narrator tells us that he has been summoned through a "wildly importunate" letter from Roderick, in which the writer stated that he had become the victim of an "acute bodily illness---of a mental disorder which oppressed him." Roderick wrote that the narrator was his only personal friend, and pleaded with him to stay for a time at the House of Usher. The narrator now gives us some background about Roderick and the Usher family. He first admits that he actually knows very little about Roderick, who was shy and reserved as a boy even with his most "intimate" friend. He had not seen Roderick for many years, but recounts that the Usher family was an ancient one, distinguished by its artistic temperament and its many acts of charity. But he then implies that the Usher race is the product of inbreeding, intimating that close intermarriage, if not outright incest, had created a congenital deficiency that may have some part in Roderick's illness. In light of these recollections, the narrator scanned the landscape around him again; he experienced even greater anxiety and gloom.
The narrator reached the house itself and was taken by a servant into Roderick's large and lofty studio. Roderick's apartment was filled with antique furniture, books and musical instruments, but entirely devoid of vitality. The narrator says, "I felt that I had breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all." He...
(The entire section is 2304 words.)
"The Fall of the House of Usher" is one of Poe's most popular short stories. Moreover, analyzing this story provides a basis for understanding Poe's gothicism and his literary theories. As in all of Poe's short stories, "The Fall of the House of Usher" concentrates on a "single effect"—in this case, the degeneration and decay of the Usher house and family. In the story's opening, for example, the narrator comments upon the "insufferable gloom" that pervades his being as he notices the "few rank sedges," the "white trunks of decayed trees," the unruffled luster of the "black and lurid tarn," and the house's vacant "eye-like windows." Once inside, the details increase: the "antique and tattered" furniture and the other furnishings that "failed to give any vitality to the scene."
In addition, the narrator emphasizes Roderick Usher's wildly fluctuating physical and mental states and Madeline Usher's "settled apathy" and gradual wasting away. Not only do these details highlight the mystery on which the tale develops, but they also foreshadow the story's denouement when Roderick, Madeline, and the dark house itself, all crash into the dark waters of the tarn. Indeed, with its unity of character, setting, tone, and action, "The Fall of the House of Usher" epitomizes Poe's literary skills and techniques.
(The entire section is 212 words.)