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 are examples of symbolism in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

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Some examples of symbolism in "The Fall of the House of Usher" include the state of disrepair of the house, the inverted reflection of the house, the tarn, the causeway that the narrator crosses over, and the dark draperies. There are many other symbols in this masterfully-crafted short story, as well.

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As the narrator approaches the house, he notes that it is in a great state of disrepair. It is covered in fungi, and the stones themselves are crumbling. This state of decay symbolizes the deteriorating health of the house's inhabitants: Roderick and Madeline Usher.

The narrator also realizes that...

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the house is "inverted" in its reflection in the tarn, or lake. This upside-down image is a symbol of the physical and mental health of the Ushers. It can also symbolize the false sense of reality that the narrator will encounter inside the house, which itself is full of mystical elements. The tarn can symbolize the way Madeline and Roderick, who are twins, seem to reflect each other's images. In the end, the house collapses into the tarn, symbolizing a burial of the Usher family line.

A causeway is a bridge-like construction resting on a raised section of earth rather than pillars. As the narrator approaches the house, he first journeys over a causeway, symbolizing that he is the only connection between the Ushers and the outside world. They are otherwise isolated.

When the narrator is inside the house, he realizes that the walls are covered by dark draperies. The health of the siblings is failing, and these draperies symbolize the way death seems to press in on them from all sides.

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It is also the case that the twins Madeline and Roderick are also symbolic in their nature.  For Poe, the story itself is about the duality of human nature and the struggle between the dualism of emotion/body and rationality/mind within the individual.  Roderick represents the human innate mental capacity as he is a character who is all mind in a weak and deteriorating body.  Roderick is constantly engaged in the intellectual; he engages almost entirely in reading, making music, and creating art.  Conversely, his doppleganger Madeline, is entirely a description of her body without reference to her mind.  Madeline is "the gradual wasting away of a person" and most notably a body/corpse in the end of the story.  The two are unable to survive without one another as demonstrated by Madeline's return from the tomb to reclaim her twin.  This symbolism suggests that the human body and mind struggle to exist within the same individual but are ultimately necessary to complete each person.  Moreover, denial of the body or the mind results in an untenable existence and the only way to achieve true harmony is to accept the necessity of both the mind and the body.  

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You can actually start with the title of the story, which alludes to the absolute chaos that lurks within the mansion. This "broken" house is "falling" in every way. Genetically speaking, the Ushers clearly sound like they are the product of generations of inbreeding, or else generations of careless mating. They are a sickly clan, vulnerable, and weak. 

He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odours of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror. 

The Ushers' penchant for isolation also places them in a somewhat supernatural realm where they exist with the world, but not "in" the same world as everyone. It is as if "the house of Usher" is the only niche where they can actually exist...and now, it can no longer resist it: it is falling apart. 

The house, as well as its resident, is described:

with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium--the bitter lapse into everyday life--the hideous dropping off of the veil

All of this is symbolic of the mental, spiritual, and physical state of this rare family, which (as it is debated) could even represent a fragment of the narrator's own state of mind. As "a house", the "house of Usher" really encompasses the entire generation of Ushers. They are a dying race; they are disappearing and the house is falling from its foundation. 

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There are quite a few symbols used in this short story -- some are more easily noticable than others.  The first symbol, and probably the most important, is the Usher's Mansion which symbolizes the deterioration or decline of the Usher family; later on in the story, the collapsing mansion becomes a symbol of the actual fall of the Usher family.  Another symbol here is the lake that surrounds and reflects the image of the mansion.  This lake symbolizes how the Ushers try to isolate themselves from society and its reflection symbolizes Madeline as Roderick's twin.  The bridge that goes over the lake symbolizes the narrator as the only link that Roderick has with the outside world.  Finally, the storm represents the mood and the violent and unstable emotions that the characters experience throughout the story.

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The fissure (split) in the Usher mansion is another symbol. This represents the split of the twin personalities of the surviving Ushers, predicting the destruction of the family and the house.

Roderick's lyric, "The Haunted Palace", is another symbol in the book. It represents death and madness. His abstract painting is a "phantasmagoric" idea of the narrator and represents the "fantastic character" of his guitar playing.

The inability of Madeline to have children symbolizes the end of the Ushers. When Roderick dies, there will be no one to carry on the name.

According to Poe, the whole story is symbolic of the Apocalypse, the end of the world.

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The decrepit nature of the house itself symbolizes the deconstruction of the Usher family. Also, the storm is symbolic for the events that occur to the characters. The "vacant-eye"-like windows mirror those seen in Roderick and Madeline. All symbolize a lifelessness.

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What figurative language is used in ''The Fall of the House of Usher''?

Figurative language appeals to readers' senses (imagery, alliteration, onomatopoeia) and/or uses words to create significant nonliteral meanings (allusions, metaphors, similes, analogies) to add depth, interest, insight, and impact to texts. Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Fall of the House of Usher" is filled with figurative language. Let's look at some examples.

We find vivid imagery in the very first paragraph when we read "the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens." The sensory details and near-personification of the clouds help us picture the weather and also sets a dark tone for the story. A few lines later, the narrator uses a common but still effective simile in his description of the house: "vacant eye-like windows." He continues with a metaphor as he speaks of his state of mind. He compares his "utter depression of soul" to "the after-dream of the reveller upon opium" and the "hideous dropping off of the veil." He seems to be sinking into a state of gloom and terrifying reality as if he were coming down off the high of a drug.

A bit later, when the narrator is examining the exterior of the house, he once again uses metaphor, noting that the structure's stones remind him of "old wood-work which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air." We also notice some foreshadowing in his comparison, for a vault will play an important role in the story later on.

When the narrator first sees Roderick Usher, he again uses metaphor and simile to describe his old friend. Usher exhibits a "cadaverousness of complexion." His hair is "web-like" in "softness and tenuity" with a "wild gossamer texture." This figurative language helps us picture Usher much better than if the narrator had merely said that he was extremely pale and had fine, fluffy hair.

As the story progresses, the narrator describes his time with Usher and the diversions they share. He remarks, however, that "an excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all." There is something uneasy, disordered, almost hellish ("sulphureous" points to this latter idea) about the entire experience.

In the poem at the center of the story, we discover a range of figurative language, including reference to a palace that rears its head, the "monarch Thought's dominion," and "gentle air" that dallies (personification); a "winged odor" (metaphor and imagery); "a lute's well-tuned law" (alliteration and metaphor); and "Echoes" (an allusion to Greek mythology).

As the story draws to its horrifying close, the narrator offers us a detailed description of the vault in which Madeline Usher's body is placed, appealing to all our senses. We can see the copper on the walls, hear the "sharp, grating sound" of the door, and almost smell or taste the remnants of the "highly combustible substance" once stored there.

Then on the seventh or eighth day after Madeline's entombment, the narrator lies awake in his room. "Sleep came not near my couch," he explains, personifying sleep. He vividly describes the strange whirlwind, again appealing to readers' senses with images like "huge masses of agitate vapor" and the "life-like velocity" of the winds that "flew careening from all points against each other." The narrator reads to Usher in an attempt to calm his friend, but the story's sounds actually echo throughout the house (a delightfully spooky device). Finally, the narrator flees in terror after witnessing the fall of the House of Usher on two levels: the house itself and the family within.

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What figurative language is used in ''The Fall of the House of Usher''?

The narrator uses a metaphor to describe the "utter depression of soul" that he feels when he looks at the home and its environs. He compares this depression to "the after-dream of the reveller upon opium." A metaphor is a comparison of two unalike things where the speaker says that one thing is another. This comparison emphasized the deadening feeling he gets just by looking at the house. He also says that he felt an "iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart." This is another metaphor where the speaker compares the feeling of dread, of foreboding, to being cold.  His heart is not actually getting colder or sinking down.  

When the narrator describes the letter he received from his old friend, Roderick Usher, he describes the request for him to visit and "the apparent heart that went with his request . . . " This line employs a figure of speech called metonymy: when the writer replaces a detail associated with a thing for the thing itself. In this case, what the narrator means is that the request was made with so much feeling, and since we associate feelings with the heart (however erroneously), heart can replace feeling for emphasis and remain understandable. 

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What figurative language is used in ''The Fall of the House of Usher''?

Throughout the short story "The Fall of the House of Usher," Edgar Allan Poe uses figurative language to describe the environment and events of the story as well as emphasize various characteristics of the home and its objects and tenants. Poe incorporates a literary device known as personification throughout the story.

Personification occurs when an inanimate object is given human attributes. While the unnamed narrator is commenting on the various activities that he participated in to cheer up Roderick Usher, Poe writes,

"We painted and read together, or I listened, as if in a dream, to the wild improvisations of his speaking guitar" (11).

The guitar is personified when it is given the human quality of speech. Poe also incorporates the literary device known as hyperbole throughout the short story. Hyperbole is an exaggeration that is used to add emphasis to whatever the narrator is addressing. When the unnamed narrator describes the mournful songs that Roderick sings, he says,

"His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears" (Poe 11).

Commenting that the dirges will "forever" play in his ears is hyperbole. The narrator is exaggerating the lasting impact that Roderick's mournful songs will have on him by stating that they will last "forever."

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What figurative language is used in ''The Fall of the House of Usher''?

You might like to look at the ending for an excellent example of figurative langauge that Poe employs to help convey the horror and terrror in this excellent story. Let us remember that figurative language takes the form of comparing one thing to something else, either through use of a simile, a metaphor, or personification. As the narrator flees the house and turns back, note how a simile is used to describe the sound of the House of Usher as it, like its owners, meets its end:

...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."

Note how the supernatural end of the mansion is stressed through the comparison of the sound it makes in its final moments to the "voice of a thousand waters." Hopefully this example will help you go back and spot and analyse other examples of figurative language in this excellent short story. What, for example, is suggested by the windows of the house being described as "eye-like" as the narrator first looks upon the House of Usher?

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