Edgar Allan Poe’s short life bequeathed mankind the material for a fascinating discussion of a writer whose death at the age of 39 was thematically consistent with the body of work he left behind. No lesser an authority on personality disorder than Sigmund Freud, as quoted in the attached essay, referred to Poe as “a great writer with pathological tendencies.” Poe’s most well-known works – “The Black Cat,” “The Tell Tale Heart,” “The Pit and the Pendulum” – all vividly depict descents into madness. Poe’s struggle with alcoholism and premature death of undetermined causes lend his narratives a particular insightfulness into what may have transpired within his own brain.
Poe’s work is permeated with the theme of insanity, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” is no exception. The narrator is summoned by his friend to the latter’s vast estate. The friend, Roderick, complains of an unusual condition common to the Usher family throughout the generations. As described by the narrator,
“He entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady. It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy . . . It displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations. . . . He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses . . .”
Roderick’s sister, Madeline, is also said to be afflicted with a medical condition that defies rationalization and remedy:
“The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character were the unusual diagnosis.”
In addition to the obvious subject of author psychoanalysis, one could ponder why Poe would have his seemingly normal narrator select a story to read to his emotionally-unstable companion titled “The Mad Tryst,” which involves a medieval knight confronting and killing in graphic detail a dragon, the death throes of which coincide with the structural sounds of Roderick’s house settling and shifting on its foundation. The telling of this violent medieval story proceeds against a backdrop of a raging storm outside, the continued creaking of the house, and the subject of Madeline’s apparent death and entombment. That Madeline has, in fact, been buried alive, the nature of her illness being concealed by Roderick, leads into fertile ground for another discussion that revolves around this story and Poe’s own mental condition. Poe was obsessed with the notion of being buried or entombed alive, which the narrator finally comes to understand has been the case with regard to Madeline:
“We have put her living in the tomb! . . . I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them—many, many days ago—yet I dared not—I dared not speak! And now—to-night—Ethelred—ha! ha!—the breaking of the hermit’s door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangor of the shield—say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault!"
The convergence of the story of Sir Launcelot and the dragon with the revelation of Madeline’s premature burial provides an interesting juxtaposition of narratives – one that provides the basis for a worthwhile discussion itself.