Summoned to the House of Usher by a “wildly importunate letter,” which “gave evidence of nervous agitation,” the first-person narrator goes to reside for a time with the writer of this letter, Roderick Usher. Although Roderick had been one of his “boon companions in boyhood,” the narrator confesses early in the story that “I really knew little of my friend”; yet, by the end of this gothic tale, he has learned more about the occupants of the House of Usher than he is equipped to deal with. Indeed, one of these occupants is Roderick’s twin sister, Madeline Usher, who is suffering from an unspecified but fatal illness. One of the symptoms of this illness is catalepsy (muscular rigidity marked by a lack of response to external stimuli); significantly, this symptom is crucial to understanding what happens in the course of the story.
His sister’s illness is only one reason for Roderick’s agitation, one reason for his desire to have the “solace” of the narrator’s companionship; it is not the only—or most significant—reason. Usher himself is suffering from a “mental disorder,” which is “a constitutional and . . . family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy.” Why “evil”? one wonders, until one recalls that, in the third paragraph of this story, even before Roderick has been seen for the first time, the narrator mentions that the ancient “stem” of the Usher family never “put forth . . . any enduring branch . . . the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always . . . so lain.” In other words, Roderick and Madeline Usher are the products and inheritors of an incestuous family lineage—one that has remained predominantly patrilineal, so that the name of the family always remained Usher.
Roderick’s dilemma, therefore, is this: Madeline is the only relative he has left on earth, and the dictates of the Usher tradition require that, to perpetuate the race of Ushers and the family name, he marry his twin sister and—through incest—sire future Ushers. (It should be noted that at no place in the story does Roderick say any of this directly; while it is intimated throughout, his dilemma is made clearly apparent only by careful reading of his and the narrator’s words on this matter.) Thus, when Roderick refers to his “family evil,” the reader may better understand why the narrator earlier mentions, in the second paragraph of the story, that “of late” the family has received some recognition for “repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity.” Such alms, it should be understood, have been given penitently, in the hope that they will absolve the “evil” of incest germane to the Usher tradition. Nevertheless, absolution comes to the Ushers in no form other than complete annihilation.
During the term of the narrator’s visit with Roderick, they read to each other literature concerning classical myth, penitential rituals, theology, physiology, supernaturalism, and demonism—all of which are meant to indicate to the reader Roderick’s preoccupation with anything that might help him understand his and his sister’s dilemma. What he comes to feel certain about is that the house itself—because it was built and lived in by his forefathers, and because he believes there is “sentience [in] all vegetable things” (and the house consists of such sentient things)—has a “terrible influence” on him and Madeline, and that it has “made him.”
The House of Usher becomes a living, feeling character in Poe’s story, and one that, Roderick suggests, may be urging the two remaining Ushers to commit incest; although the narrator attempts to convince the reader that he is too rational and realistic to be taken in by Roderick’s hypochondriacal theories, he gradually begins to feel “infected” by his host’s condition: “I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his . . . fantastic yet impressive superstitions.” Thus, the stage is set for the story’s horrifying climax, beginning one evening when Roderick informs his guest that Madeline is dead.
Rather than burying his sister in the family cemetery some distance from the house, Roderick decides to keep her body for two weeks in one of the many vaults within the house—for, after all, one suffering from catalepsy may seem dead but not, in fact, be dead; it would be horrible to bury Madeline alive. In short, the narrator assists his host in entombing the body temporarily in, first, a coffin with its lid screwed down, and then in a vault behind a massive iron door of profound weight. There she remains for a week, as Roderick roams through his house aimlessly, or sits and stares vacantly at nothing for long hours.
One tempestuously stormy night—a “mad hilarity in his eyes”—Roderick enters the narrator’s bedroom, where they sit together, the narrator reading to him and both of them trying to ignore the terrible grating sound they hear coming from below the bedroom (the vault into which they placed Madeline’s body is directly below this bedroom, and the heavy door to that vault always makes a loud grating sound when it is being opened). As the sound continues more noticeably, Roderick suddenly informs the narrator that he has been listening to noises downstairs for many days, but—apparently fearful that his sister was still living, and that he would again have to face the evil prospect of perpetuating his family’s tradition of incest—he says, “I dared not speak!” Abruptly, the bedroom door swings open and Madeline, her white robes bloodied by her struggle to escape the coffin and vault, falls into the room and on Roderick, who, “a victim to the terrors he had anticipated,” hits the floor “a corpse.”
The narrator flees the house, and from a short distance away he turns to look back and sees the House of Usher split in two and crumble into the dark waters of the tarn before it.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is Poe’s best-known and most admired story, and rightfully so: It expertly combines in a powerful and economical way all of his most obsessive themes, and it brilliantly reflects his aesthetic theory that all the elements of a literary work must contribute to the single unified effect or pattern of the work itself. The central mystery on which the thematic structure of the story depends is the nature of Roderick Usher’s illness. Although its symptoms consist of an extreme sensitivity to all sensory stimuli and a powerful unmotivated fear, nowhere does Poe suggest its cause except to hint at some dark family curse or hereditary illness.
The actual subject of the story, as is the case with most of Poe’s work, is the nature of the idealized artwork and the precarious situation of the artist. Roderick, with his paintings, his musical compositions, and his poetry, is, above all, an artist. It is the particular nature of his art that is inextricably tied up with his illness. Roderick has no contact with the external world that might serve as the subject matter of his art. Not only does he never leave the house, but he also cannot tolerate light, sound, touch, odor, or taste. In effect, having shut down all of his senses, he has no source for his art but his own subjectivity. The narrator says that if anyone has ever painted pure idea, then Roderick is that person. As a result, Roderick has nothing metaphorically to feed upon but himself.
The house in which Roderick lives is like an artwork—an edifice that exists by dint of its unique structure. When the narrator first sees it, he observes that it is the combination of elements that constitutes its mystery and that a different arrangement of its particulars would be sufficient to modify its capacity for sorrowful impression. Moreover, Usher feels that it is the form and substance of his family mansion that affects his morale. He believes that, as a result of the arrangement of the stones, the house has taken on life. All these factors suggest Poe’s own aesthetic theory, that the “life” of any artwork results not from its imitation of external reality but rather from its structure or pattern.
The only hold Roderick has on the external world at all is his twin sister, who is less a real person in the story than the last manifestation of Roderick’s physical nature. By burying her, he splits himself off from actual life. Physical life is not so easily suppressed, however, and Madeline returns from her underground tomb to unite her dying body with Roderick’s idealized spirit. As the story nears its horrifying climax, art and reality become even more intertwined. As the narrator reads to Roderick from a gothic romance, sounds referred to in the story are echoed in actuality as the entombed Madeline breaks out of her vault and stalks up the steps to confront her twin brother. Madeline, Roderick, and the house all fall into the dark tarn, the abyss of nothingness, and become as if they had never been. In Poe’s aesthetic universe, the price the artist must pay for cutting himself off from the external world is annihilation.