These two stories make for an interesting comparison. They were both written in the same literary period, the early nineteenth century, with the Irving tale preceding Poe’s only by some fifteen years. What is interesting is that they share such similar concerns and tone, while coming from the pen of two very different writers. Both stories fall under the heading of gothic; both feature a very dark gloomy setting, and deal in an intriguing mix of psychological horror and supernatural terrors. One is written by an acknowledged master of horror, but the other is by a writer more generally recognized for his humorous and genteel tales.
Both the stories feature a main character who is of a most gloomy and brooding disposition, seemingly more or less cut off from normal human intercourse. These characters – Gottfried Wolfgang and Roderick Usher - are however highly literate and intelligent individuals, who take an interest in the arts, and, in particular, are voracious readers. But their solitary, despondent state of mind is exacerbated by their choice of reading material, such as the supernatural speculations of writers like Emmanuel Swedenborg. Indeed it seems that they might have become more or less unhinged by their unhealthy interests in the world of the occult, the darkly mystical, the realm of strange ideas and hidden desires. Wolfgang’s literary researches are described thus:
Sometimes he spent hours in the great libraries of Paris, those catacombs of departed authors, rummaging among their hordes of dusty and obsolete works in quest of food for his unhealthy appetite. He was, in a manner, a literary ghoul, feeding in the charnel-house of decayed literature.
This is a memorable description, accentuating the sense of Wolfgang’s diseased, indeed, almost death-like condition even before he meets the girl who, he comes to believe, was really an evil spirit luring him to his destruction.
Both the stories take time to paint the picture of a most desolate, forlorn setting. In 'Usher', this takes the form of an ancient decaying manor, while 'Student' is set in Wolfgang’s rundown lodgings in Revolutionary Paris with the grim spectacle of the guillotine lurking in the background. Such depressing surroundings are fit for characters such as Roderick and Wolfgang and their fevered imaginings and beliefs which lead them to the very border between life and death. Both seem obsessed with a female figure: Roderick is plagued by the presence and the sufferings of his sister Madeline, for whom he possibly harbours some incestuous desire; Wolfgang is tormented by recurring visions of a dark beauty whom he finally meets and falls in love with, but with catastrophic results.
It is also interesting to compare and contrast the narrative approach in either story. Neither Roderick nor Wolfgang tell their own story directly, but are filtered through the medium of an external narrator. In 'Usher', this narrator also takes part in the story, but in 'Student' the tale is relayed by a frame narrator, who does not appear in the story. Yet, at the same time, the narrative is essentially restricted to the point of view of Wolfgang himself; the only information we are given is what he himself knows, or comes to learn, or believe. It is the story that he tells the narrator from the confines of a madhouse, but we not placed sufficiently at a distance from his perspective to be able to ascertain just how true his story is. In 'Usher', meanwhile, the narrator stays with Roderick long enough to become susceptible to the same kind of fears, but on the whole he maintains a fairly rational tone, and Roderick is filtered entirely through his perspective. Unlike many of Poe’s other tales, the fevered agitated character, suffering from mental if not quite supernatural terrors, does not dominate the entire narrative here.