How is "The Fall of the House of Usher" an example of Romanticism?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Taken by itself, the term Romanticism is not generally thought of in conjunction with horror. Nevertheless, even without reference to more specialized trends such as those we label Gothic and Dark Romantic, the generic concept of Romanticism encompassed qualities in evidence prior to Poe that he can be seen to...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Taken by itself, the term Romanticism is not generally thought of in conjunction with horror. Nevertheless, even without reference to more specialized trends such as those we label Gothic and Dark Romantic, the generic concept of Romanticism encompassed qualities in evidence prior to Poe that he can be seen to have used and developed further, in his unique way.

Elements of mystery and a fairytale atmosphere are present in the poetry of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats and in the prose works of German writers such as Tieck and Hoffmann. But these aren't fairytales for children. The House of Usher is a crumbling structure showing its age and its descent from a dark past:

I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodelled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.

There is a joining of the Romantic invocation and exalted description of nature with a fear of it, coupled with the suggestion of immense age. The past was an obsession of writers of the period. So was the ability of the human mind to create its own reality through dreams and the power of the imagination. The narrator, as is typical for Poe, asks directly, or by implication, if this is reality:

Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building...

Usher himself is a man separated from the world. His retreat into a self-contained and self-imposed exile from humanity is like that of Goethe's Faust and Byron's Manfred. Usher's "malady" is "a morbid acuteness of the senses." The story is shot through with a morbid fixation upon the essence of Usher's strange mentality, but also shows us a sense of pessimism and a rejection of the exuberant features of life that people normally celebrate and revel in. Usher has withdrawn into a private dreamworld.

It's a paradox that Romanticism often indulges in a celebration of man as an almost god-like being while simultaneously showing man as crushed, defeated by life. Shelley, whom Poe idolized, expresses this contradictory message in his "Ode to the West Wind," in which the speaker concludes with the exultant,

If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

But he has told us that his "leaves" are falling, like those of the autumn forest. Poe's stories are filled with characters who are deteriorating. This is as much a symptom of the Romantic mentality as is the remote, isolated setting. The decaying house of Usher represents a kind of symbiosis between the man and his surroundings. In Romanticism, the physical world is not just a reflection of people's inner state, but a projection of it. This corresponds to the philosophy of Kant—which, though incidentally ridiculed by Poe, was seminal in the development of the nineteenth-century mentality.

All of these elements we have named are not even necessarily among the usual ideas we associate with Poe, such as horror and terror. But they clearly are among the qualities that establish both his uniqueness as a writer and the fact of his obviously being an artist of his time, influenced by and influencing other key figures of the nineteenth century, the Romantic age. Preceding Poe and to some degree creating him are Shelley, Hoffmann, and others, while Poe's successors are figures as diverse as Baudelaire, Henry James, and Arthur Conan Doyle, among many.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Romanticism in American literature focuses on the individual. It rejects the rationalism that characterized its predecessor, the neoclassical period.  Spirituality, imagination, and the supernatural were interests of Romantic writers, and Poe was especially interested in exploring themes of the Gothic, the macabre, the past, and the mysterious and expressing them symbolically.

In "The Fall of the House of Usher," both Roderick and the narrator are interested in music and visual art and interested in reading philosophy, history, and ancient literature.  Roderick is the consummate imaginative artist; he loses himself in wild improvisation on his guitar, and he paints. His senses are hyper-attuned, and after Madeline's "death," he seems to exist with a foot in both life and death, an expression of the Romantic yearning to know what comes after death. 

Madeline's premature burial and brief return from the dead are a further expression of the Romantic obsession with the mystery of death.  Roderick and the narrator are reading a medieval romance when Madeline returns from the grave, and the long list of titles and authors the narrator describes as interests of himself and Roderick run the gamut of the fantastic—from Swedenborg to chiromancy, the reading of a person's fate from the palm.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

While at first glance it would seem that a gruesome story like "Fall of the House of Usher" has no Romantic qualities, if you look at a couple of the elements of Romanticism, it is easier to see how the story fits into the literary era.  Here are several Romantic elements and how Poe's story uses them:

1. Gothic style--The Gothic style in America became popular during the Romantic time period.  Poe and Hawthorne are great examples of authors who wrote Gothic works.  Several features of the Gothic style are a mysterious setting (think of the Usher house with its underground burial crypt), death or premature burial (think of Madeline in the story), and exotic elements (as the reader, you don't really know where the Usher house is, but it makes readers think of a castle-type structure or fortress, possibly in Europe).

2. Supernatural or unrealistic elements--the Romantic authors believed strongly in using their imaginations; so their works are not realistic and include elements of the supernatural.  In this Poe story, the idea that Madeline just happened to have a condition where she went into a coma-like state and ends up being buried alive while the narrator is visiting is highly unbelievable, but it works to help Poe's plot; so readers would have expected elements such as this.  Another example of this Romantic quality of supernatural elements is the destruction of the house in the storm at the same time that Roderick Usher dies.  The Usher house is destroyed as the same time as the House of Usher (the Usher bloodline)--interesting, but too coincedental for a realistic story.

3. Dark Romantic authors like Poe believed that man was born basically evil, and that humans must struggle their whole lives to keep their evil nature from overtaking them.  In this story, Roderick is in a battle against the powers of evil (psychological issues and his sister who is not in control of herself).

4. Symbolism--Romantic authors rely heavily on symbolism.  In "Usher," the narrator mentions a "fissure" (a crack) in the foundation of the Usher house.  While that is a literal crack or fracture, it is also symbolic of the "cracks" in the Usher family.  The last Ushers--Roderick and Madeline--are flawed just like the house, and therefore neither can survive.

I hope that this helps you.  I know that these literary styles such as Romanticism and Realism and Modernism can be rather confusing at first.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team