Edgar Allan Poe probably remains, both in his life and in his work, America’s most controversial writer. Numerous biographical and critical studies did not succeed in rectifying the initially distorted “myth” of Poe, promulgated by his hostile first biographer, as a self-destructive, alcoholic, almost demoniac creature. Even today, after much serious research and analysis, the true Poe remains enigmatic and elusive. The same is true of his works. Experts as important and varied as D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Charles Baudelaire, and Aldous Huxley differed greatly in assessing his works’ merits, with opinions ranging from extravagant eulogy to total dismissal. No work of his excited more diverse opinion or earned more conflicting analyses than his short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
The problem is that there are many completely different, yet seemingly valid, interpretations of the tale; contradictory readings can explain all of the story’s numerous ambiguities. However, clearly, as one prominent Poe critic lamented, the contradictory readings “cannot all be right.” Is there any way of choosing among these views or of synthesizing the best of them into a single one? Perhaps the task is not impossible if two important facts about the author are remembered: He was an adroit, conscious craftsman and critic who worked out his ideas with mathematical precision, and yet he was essentially a lyric poet.
These diverse readings can be divided roughly into three primary types: natural or psychological, supernatural, and symbolic. In the first approach, the analysis focuses on the “unreliable” narrator as he chronicles Roderick Usher’s descent into madness. As an artist, intellectual, and introvert, Usher becomes so lopsided that his prolonged isolation, coupled with the sickness of his sister, drives him to the edge of madness; along with the narrator, the reader sees him go over the edge. Another possibility is that the tale is simply a detective story minus a detective; Usher manipulates the narrator into helping him murder Madeline and then goes insane from the emotional strain. The crucial “fantastic” elements in the story—Madeline’s return from the tomb and the collapse of the house into the tarn—are “logically” explained in terms of the narrator’s mounting hysteria, the resulting hallucination, and the natural destructiveness of the storm.
According to the second general view, the actions of the characters can be explained only by postulating a supernatural agency: The Usher curse is working itself out; the house is possessed and is destroying the occupants; Roderick is a demon drawing vitality from his sister until, as a nemesis figure, she returns to punish him; Madeline is a vampire claiming her victim.
In the third view, the story is seen as an allegory: Roderick as intellect is suppressing sensuality (Madeline) until it revolts; Madeline is a mother figure who returns from the grave to punish Usher-Poe for deserting her and for having incestuous desires; Roderick is the artist who must destroy himself in order to create; the entire story is a symbolic enactment of the Apocalypse according to Poe.
Both as a critic and a writer, Poe was thoroughly aware of the machinery of the gothic, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a veritable catalog of devices from the genre—the haunted mansion, the artistic hero-villain, the twins motif, suggestions of vampirism, the dark crypts, the violent electrical storms. It does not follow, however, that because Poe utilizes the conventions of the form, he is also holding himself to the substance of them. It is precisely because he does not commit himself exclusively to a rational, supernatural, or symbolic reading of the tale that he is able to provoke emotional reactions by indirection and implication that would be impossible if he fixed his meaning more precisely. The technique is essentially that of the lyric poet who uses the power of image, atmosphere, and suggestion to evoke emotions and to produce exactly one emotional, not rational, effect on the reader—which was Poe’s stated aim as a short-story writer.
“I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive,” says Roderick Usher, “when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.” Thus, Poe underscores “fear” as the central emotion he wishes to provoke, and the story can best be discussed in terms of how he develops this response.
The tale divides into five distinct parts: first, the description of the house and the background of the narrator’s relationship to Usher; second, his meeting with Usher that ends with his glimpse of Lady Madeline; third, the survey of Usher’s art, that is, music, painting, the recitation of the poem “The Haunted Palace,” Roderick’s theory of “sentience,” and the description of the library; fourth, Madeline’s “death” and entombment; and, fifth, her return from the crypt counterpointed against the narrator’s reading of “The Mad Trist” story that culminates in the death of the twins, the narrator’s flight, and the collapse of the house into the tarn. Each of these phases not only furthers the plot line but also intensifies the emotions provoked in the reader by means of the narrator’s progressive hysteria and the growing distortion of the atmosphere.
The narrator is quickly characterized as a skeptic, who attempts to explain everything rationally but who is, at the same time, quite susceptible to unexplained anxieties and undefined premonitions. His first glimpse of the Usher mansion provokes “a sense of unsufferable gloom.” As he describes it, the house resembles a giant face or skull with “eye-like windows” and hairlike “minute fungi” that almost seem to hold the decayed building together and has a “barely perceptible fissure” that threatens to rip it apart. He is even more horrified when he looks into the tarn (a small, stagnant lake in front of the house) and sees the house’s inverted reflection in the black water. Thus, in the first paragraph of the tale, readers are introduced to three crucial elements: the subjective reactions of the narrator, which begin with this furtive, general uneasiness and will end in complete hysteria; the central image of a huge, dead, decaying object that is, paradoxically, very alive; and the first of many reflections or doubles that reinforce and intensify the atmosphere and implications of the story.
When the narrator meets his old friend Usher, the other side of the death-life paradox is suggested. Whereas the dead objects seem “alive,” the “live” things seem dead. All the peripheral characters—the two servants, the doctor, the “living” Madeline—are shadows. Usher, with his “cadaverous” complexion, “large, liquid and luminous eyes,” “thin and very pallid” lips, and “hair of more than web-like softness,” seems more zombie than human. Moreover, his description mirrors that of the house’s exterior: His eyes are like the windows; his hair resembles the fungi.
Usher does, however, have a definable personality. For all of the spectral hints, Poe never abandons the possibility that Usher’s character and fate can be explained naturally. Although Usher’s behavior is violent and erratic, perhaps manic-depressive by modern clinical standards, tenuous rationalizations are provided for everything he does. Nor does Usher’s role as an artist resolve the questions about his character. The extended catalog of his artistic activities may seem digressive in terms of Poe’s strict single-effect theory, but it is, in fact, the necessary preparation for the story’s harrowing finale. Each of Usher’s artistic ventures conforms to both his realistic personality and the otherworldliness of the situation; they can either signal his descent into psychosis or his ineffectual attempts to understand and withstand the incursion of supernatural forces. His dirges suggest death; his abstract painting of a vaultlike structure previews Madeline’s interment. When he recites “The Haunted Palace” poem, he is either metaphorically recounting his own fall into madness, or he is, literally, talking about “haunting.” Usher’s statements about the sentience of all vegetable things—that is, the conscious life in all inanimate matter—brings a notion that previously was latent in the reader’s mind to the surface. Finally, Usher’s exotic library, made up almost entirely of books about supernatural journeys, suggests either a perversely narrow and bizarre taste or an attempt to acquire the knowledge needed to defend against demoniac intruders.
Nevertheless, for all of the mounting intensity of suggestion and of atmosphere, the actual story does not begin until almost two-thirds of the narrative has been completed. When Usher announces that Lady Madeline “is no more,” the story quickens. It is at this point that the narrator notices the “striking similitude between the brother and sister” and so emphasizes the “twin theme,” the most important reflection or double in the tale. As they entomb her, the narrator takes note of the “mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face.” Does this suggest a trace of life and implicate Usher, consciously or unconsciously, in her murder? Or, does it hint at an “undead” specter who, knowing that she will return from the grave, mocks the attempt to inter her?
Nowhere is the value of indirection in the maximizing of suspense more evident than in the last sequence of the story. Having established the literary context of the narrative, Poe then counterpoints the reading of a rather trite medieval romance against Madeline’s actual return from the crypt. At the simplest level, “The Mad Trist” tale is a suspense-building device that magnifies the reader’s excitement as the reader awaits Madeline’s certain reappearance. Thematically, it suggests a parallel—either straight or ironic, depending on the reader’s interpretation—between the knight Ethelred’s quest and Madeline’s return from the tomb. Reinforced by the violent storm, the narrator’s frenzy, and Usher’s violence, Madeline’s return, her mutually fatal embrace of her brother, the narrator’s flight, and the disintegration of the house itself fuse into a shattering final effect, which is all that Poe claimed he wanted, and a provocative insight into—what? The collapse of a sick mind? The inevitable self-destruction of the hyperintroverted artistic temperament? The final end of aristocratic inbreeding? Or incest? Or vampirism? Or the end of the world?
Although the meaning of “The Fall of the House of Usher” remains elusive, the experience of the story is powerful, disturbing, and lasting. In the final analysis, the experience of the story is where its greatness lies and why it must be considered one of the finest short stories of its kind ever written.