illustration of a dark, menacing cracked house with large, red eyes looking through the windows

The Fall of the House of Usher

by Edgar Allan Poe

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What does the ending of "The Fall of the House of Usher" imply?

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From the opening of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” to its ending, there is no question that the physical structure, the titular “house,” and its surroundings is a metaphor for the humans who inhabit it, Roderick and Madeline Usher.

Poe’s story is narrated by an old friend of Roderick’s whom had long fallen out of touch. Many years have passed since their last encounter. The narrator is a vehicle for the author to relate the details of the story, and it is in the narrator’s observations that the role of the house, both as a physical structure and as a reference to a lineage, is described.

As “The Fall of the House of Usher” begins, the narrator is arriving at the Usher home, and his description of the house and its surroundings is entirely bleak, providing the story that follows a sense of foreboding. Note, in the following passages from the story’s opening, the narrator’s observations:

... the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit ... I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain— upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows— upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.

That is not exactly the kind of description of real estate to which one is accustomed, except in the tormented mind of an author for whom terror and foreboding are a stock-in-trade. Upon reading such observations, the reader knows enough to expect that the interior of the house and its occupants are similarly destined for something bad.

The encounter between Roderick and the narrator that follows and the observations of Roderick’s twin sister, Madeline, make very clear that the house is as much a character in Poe’s story as the humans. The portraits of Roderick’s ancestors and relatives help set the stage for the atmosphere of doom that permeates the setting. This is a family stricken by insanity, and its demise—its “fall”—is as certain and welcome as the collapse of the physical structure that occurs in the story’s closing passages.

Following his unexpectedly protracted visit with Roderick and the horrific events surrounding Madeline’s premature burial, the narrator knows that the time to depart is upon him. The final demise of the Ushers—Roderick and Madeline—is accompanied by the final demise of the house itself. As the narrator flees the collapsing structure, he observes the final violent denouement:

... I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway ... for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me ... and [the] blood-red moon which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened—there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind ... my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the "House of Usher."

“House of Usher” refers both to the house itself, a character in Poe’s narrative, and to the lineage that has ended with the deaths of Madeline and Roderick. Generations of insanity have come to an end and with them the building that served as a metaphor for their tormented family. The final destruction of the house implies the final end of the Usher family.

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At the end of "The Fall of the House of Usher," the bloody Madeline appears, having clawed her way out of the crypt, and drops dead at Roderick's feet. These twins are psychically connected, so when Madeline dies, Roderick dies too. Even though there is a violent storm going on outside, the narrator flees "aghast" from the corpse-ridden house.

As Roderick dies, ending forever the genealogical house of Usher, the physical house itself begins to fissure and fall apart. The narrator sees this as lightning illuminates the home. Finally, as the narrator watches, the house collapses and disappears into the tarn.

There are several ways to interpret this ending. One is that the house is a projection of Roderick's fevered imagination, so that when he dies, the illusion collapses. However, the literalist in me wonders how an outside narrator could get so convinced of the reality of another person's delusion that he would think it was real.

A more persuasive interpretation is that the literal house of Usher is supernaturally connected to the hereditary line, so that when one "house" dies, the other must too.

It is also possible that the collapse of the literal house is an illusion on the part of the narrator, who is in a highly volatile emotional state after all he has witnessed.

The point is that Poe doesn't leave us with a clearcut answer to the question of the ending's meaning but with the implication that, somehow, the house of Usher and the family of Usher are intimately and supernaturally intertwined.

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The end of the story implies the complete mental disintegration of Roderick Usher. He was pretty unhinged to begin with, but as Madeline suddenly emerges from the confines of the family tomb, he loses his mind completely. With the fall of the House of Usher, both the family and the stately home in which they live, goes Roderick's last tenuous grip on reality.

His psychological death is a prelude to his physical death; first the mind went, then the body. This process is paralleled by the decline and fall of the House of Usher itself. The spirit went out of both the family and the old house long ago. But now, as Roderick's insanity reaches its cataclysmic peak, the physical structure of the building follows suit, cracking up in quite a literal sense.

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At the end of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," both Roderick and his sister Madeline, the last of the Usher family, are dead. More specifically, Madeline escapes from her tomb deep in the vaults of the house and locks her brother in a deadly embrace that results in the deaths of both siblings. It also motivates the narrator of the story to flee from the home (and its apparently crazy former inhabitants), whereupon he witnesses the house of the Usher family ruinously tearing itself in two.

In short, the ending of the story implies the destruction of the House of Usher in two ways. On a literal level, the actual house of the family (which potentially exerted a sinister will over the members of the family) is in ruins. On a more subtle level, the Usher family (or "house," as prominent families were sometimes called) has just gone extinct after generations of incestuous relationships. As such, at the end of the story we're not only witnessing the destruction of a physical house but also the disintegration of a familial line that has become weakened by incest. 

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