How is the relationship of reality vs. fantasy explored in both "Paul's Case" and "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Willa Cather's short story, "Paul's Case" and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," there is in each protagonist a disengagement from reality that leads to eventual destruction.

A love of the aesthetic that becomes illusionary

Paul is estranged from his family and neighbors of Cordelia street who sit on their front "stoops," talking of the kings of industry. He would rather be in the theatre, listening to a symphony, or in "a fairy world of a Christmas pantomime."

Likewise, Roderick Usher has always been reserved in the company of others, possessing instead "an excited and a distempered ideality."  He has

a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognizable beauties, of musical science.

Because beauty implies a certain artificiality, both Paul and Roderick Usher become removed from reality in their preoccupations with the aesthetic.  Cather writes of Paul, 

Perhaps it was because, in Paul's world, the natural nearly always wore the guise of ugliness, that a certain element of artificiality seemed to him necessary in beauty. Perhaps it was because his experience of life elsewhere was so full of Sabbath-school picnics, petty economies, wholesome advice as to how to succeed in life, and the inescapable odors of cooking, that he found this existence so alluring, these smartly clad men and women so attractive, that he was so moved by these starry apple orchards that bloomed perennially under the limelight.

And, Poe's narrator observes about Usher,

The words of one of these rhapsodies I have easily remembered.  I was, perhaps, the more forcibly impressed with it, as he gave it, because, in the under or mystic current of its meaning, I fancied that i perceived, and for the first time, a full consciousness...of the tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne.

An intolerance for their circumstances that leads to chimerical acts

After Paul steals money from his employer and flees to New York, hoping to live the life of the aesthete, he reads in the Pittsburgh papers of "the whole affair." Now, the

grey monotony stretched before him in hopeless, unrelieved years....[he] succumb[s] to attacks of nausea.

Paul takes a train to Newark and then a carriage to the country where he walks in the snow along the railroad tracks and, in his fantastic mind, commits the only act left for him:

[H]is mind, unable to cope with vital matters near at hand, worked feverishly and deftly at sorting and grouping these images.  They made for him a part of the ugliness of the world, of the ache in his head, and the bitter burning on his tongue....It was a losing game in the end....When the right moment came, he jumped...There flashed through his brain, clearer than ever before, the blue of Adriatic water, the yellow of Algerian sands.

In a similarly eccentric and fantastic manner, Roderick Usher is overcome with terror, as with his heightened senses, he hears his sister Madeline:  "We have put her living in the tomb!....Oh, whither shall I fly?" he cries.  But, it is too late as, trembling and reeling, his sister falls upon her brother in her final death agony, the very chimera he has contemplated.

Truly, the estrangement from humanity and the excessiveness of passion for the aesthetic of the protagonists of both Cather's and Poe's story leads to their illusions and separation from reality.

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