How can we describe Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher as radiant and funereal at the same time?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The previous answer repeatedly refers to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher as a poem; it is, in fact, a short story punctuated by a poem previously written by Poe, the text of which provides the starkest contrast between radiant and funereal images.  In a gothic horror story, examples of funereal imagery are not hard to identify.  Indeed, from Poe’s earliest passages, the prevalence of funereal images are evident.  Witness, for example, the opening paragraph of the story, in which Poe’s narrator describes both the atmosphere and the haunting vision of the Usher mansion that awaits him:

“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. . . 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. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?”

It would be hard to read such an opening to a story and not anticipate additional imagery ahead ultimately culminating in a horrific climax, anticipation certainly fueled by the author’s reputation for the macabre.  The narrator, however, is no stranger to the Usher household, as he reminiscences about his earlier relationship with Roderick Usher, the last surviving male of that once munificent clan (“the last of the ancient race of the Ushers),” and it’s within the parameters of that history that the story’s some of the examples of radiance appear, as in the following passage in which the narrator describes the once-respectable reputation of this now-doomed family:

“I was aware, however, that his very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested, of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity, as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognizable beauties, of musical science.”

The confluence of radiance and funereal is also apparent in the narrator’s description of his once vibrant friend’s current appearance – an appearance clearly displaying the ravages of time and illness:

“A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity . . .”

Similarly, descriptions of Roderick’s sister Madeline reveal a woman of once-unsurpassed beauty now suffering the effects of the illness that has condemned generations of Ushers to morbid endings: “a tenderly beloved sister, his sole companion for long years, his last and only relative on earth. “

As noted earlier, however, this confluence of imagery is most apparent in Poe’s insertion into The Fall of the House of Usher of his poem “The Haunted Palace.”  “The Haunted Palace” is about a village’s increasingly intense concerns about the nature of the inhabitants of the castle that looms above them and that dominates their lives.  Read, for instance, the evolution of the poem as revealed in the following stanzas:

“In the greenest of our valleys,

 By good angels tenanted,

Once a fair and stately palace—

 Radiant palace—reared its head.

In the monarch Thought’s dominion—

 It stood there!

Never seraph spread a pinion

 Over fabric half so fair. . .

 “Wanderers in that happy valley

 Through two luminous windows saw

Spirits moving musically

 To a lute’s well-tunèd law . . .

 “But evil things, in robes of sorrow,

 Assailed the monarch’s high estate;”

These passages from “The Haunted Palace” demonstrate well Poe’s mental agility (irrespective of the influences of external stimuli on the author’s demeanor) for manipulating images so that beauty is invariably marred by tragedy.  In a story about a wealthy, artistically-inclined and once-munificent family that has since descended into the depths of its own private hell, and that takes place in a once-magnificent estate now reduced to the status of an elaborate tomb, the convergence of imagery that permeates Poe’s story cannot help but be striking.

klizgilson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Radiant" refers to something sending out light, something shining or glowing. There are many radiant images in the poem. Most of these images occur at the middle and dramatic end of the poem. There is an image described in the poem where there is a storm with lightening. Then, Roderick comes to the narrator's bedroom, and opens the window in the room. He notices that the area around the outside of the house seems to be glowing mysteriously. The next incident of a "radiant" image is as the narrator flees from the House of Usher and turns to see the house slit in two in a flash of moonlight. 

The term "funereal" means having the mournful, somber like at a funeral. This poem has a somber tone because of the supposed death and burial of the Usher sister.

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The Fall of the House of Usher

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