"The Fall of the House of Usher": A Cerebral Story

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1834

Of the many short stories Edgar Allan Poe wrote, "The Fall of the House of Usher" is likely the most cerebral. There is little action to carry the plot, no trips into a catacomb, no descent into a whirlpool, no crimes to be solved. Everything that occurs is told by the narrator. Despite this lack of physical action, this gothic story has remained one of Poe's most popular.

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In "The Philosophy of Composition" Poe says, "If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression." Furthermore, he says, "It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art—the limit of a single sitting—and that, (except in certain cases), it can never be properly overpassed." Poe developed and refined the genre of the short story based on this philosophy. His effort was so successful that this genre was taken up by authors from France as well as from the United States. This type of fiction is still popular among writers of today.

But if brevity is the rule, then intensity of presentation must accompany it. It is important to note that a short story is more a "style" than a "length," although most will have less than thirty pages of text. Short stories have few characters and the development of those characters will be limited and sharply focused.

When discussing a short story, or any piece of literature, several options may be considered. These include discussions of plot (the order of the events in the story), theme (what the story means), imagery (descriptions), dialogue (how and what characters say), historical context (its relation to events that occurred when it was written), characterization (who the characters are and how they got that way), literary techniques (the use of puns or binary oppo-sites), and even the reliability of the narrator (is he or she telling the truth?), especially one who is apart of the story itself. In the following discussion two of these options will be examined: the reliability of the narrator and the use of binary opposites.

Since this story is a first person narrative (it is told by a narrator from his, and only his, point of view), we have to make a decision about his reliability. (Remember, the narrator of a story is a creation of the author, NOT the author himself.) During the first passages of the story, the narrator gives us clues to his reliability. As he looks at the house he says that what he sees is more like "the after-dream of a reveller upon opium." Later, still looking at the house, he says, ''Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned ... the building." Taking these two statements together, the narrator seems to be dreaming more than dealing with the reality before him. By his own admission, then, his narration must be scrutinized with great care.

Additionally, as the narrator contemplates the purpose of his trip and the mystery that is before him, he says, "What was it—I paused to think— what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluable." Later he says, "...the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth." Now, despite his admission that the mystery is beyond solution, he enters the house and attempts to solve it for the reader. Another aspect of the narrator's character which is cause for our concern is his shift from telling about Roderick's madness to revealing his own madness. During their first meeting, he describes Roderick's manner with the following words: incoherence, inconsistency, excessive nervous agitation, and ''lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium." Alone, these would not describe madness, but together they create the image of madness. Add to this Roderick's inability to endure harsh sensations of any kind, and we have a more convincing picture of a madman.

The most compelling discussion of this madness comes in the final scene when Roderick comes to the narrator's room. He enters the room, very agitated, and opens a window to the raging storm. As the narrator reads from the novel Mad Trist Roderick sits sullenly in a chair looking at the door. They both hear noises outside the door and Roderick speaks, "Said I not that my senses were acute?" Roderick explains that he has heard noises from the tomb for several days because of his acute hearing, and, like the narrator in "The Tell-tale Heart," claims to hear Madeline's heart beating. In one final cry, he screams, "Madman! I tell you she now stands without the door!" Madeline appears when the door is blown open. She lunges toward him and they fall to the floor, dead.

In these last scenes some of Roderick's madness is transferred to the narrator. In the beginning the narrator thinks that what he sees is a dream, yet for the first several days he is at the house, he seems sane and in control of his senses. But after Madeline is entombed, the narrator becomes more agitated, just as Roderick does, and on the evening of the "seventh or eighth day" he is so uneasy that he cannot sleep. He is nervous and bewildered but he rationalizes that this is the result of sleeping in a room with drab and gloomy furniture. As the night progresses, he loses more and more control. "An irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame." The madness ascribed to Roderick is now afflicting the narrator.

As the final scene unfolds, the narrator also claims to hear the noises from the tomb. He dismisses this since the window was still open and there was a great deal of noise coming from the storm. As he reads more of the novel, Mad Trist, he stops abruptly and says, "I did actually hear... a low and apparently distant ... sound." By his own admission, the narrator reveals his own acuteness of hearing, an aspect that he uses to define madness in Roderick. Now, the narrator himself has succumbed to the same madness.

Binary opposition is (he literary technique of setting two situations, persons, or objects in opposition to one another. Some examples are good and evil, light and dark, open and closed, near and far, or any set of items or concepts that can be reduced to two aspects. Of course, in most situations, things are more involved and complicated than this. But for our purposes, as well as for use in analysis of other literature, the use of binary opposites provides a focal point for discussion. But what is more important than just listing binary oppositions is determining the sense of conflict that the opposites create in the story. (Remember, if there is no conflict in a tale, there is no interest generated by it.)

In "The Fall of the House of Usher" one such binary opposition is the male/female opposition of Roderick and Madeline. This is especially intense knowing that they are twins. To demonstrate how this simple opposition works, imagine how different this story would be if Roderick's twin had been another male character. The tension of Madeline's passage through the corner of the apartment (possibly wearing a flowing gown, making her seem ghostlike), of her untimely death, and especially of her return from the tomb, would be lost. Additionally, since the two lived alone in the house, some critics believe that there was an incestuous relationship between them. If they had been brothers, this kind of sexual innuendo would have to include a homosexual relationship. For Poe, writing about that sort of relationship in the early 19th century would have been almost impossible. Therefore, the binary opposition of male/female served Poe well in creating tension and conflict.

Regarding the male/female conflict, we see certain aspects of Roderick that can be called "feminine.'' His delicate features, his aptitude for the arts, and his frailty, all add up to a feminine character. Madeline, on the other hand, summons up strength to break the bonds of the tomb and to slay her brother in the final scene. These qualities might be seen as masculine. It is in the subtle shifts in our expectations of the character that tension and conflict are developed. (The aspects of feminine and masculine should not be misunderstood in sexist or sexual ways. Rather, the broadest stereotypical definition of these terms is desired.)

Another important binary opposition is the difference between sanity and madness. At first the narrator seems to be a sane person going to visit a friend who (he believes) is going mad. During the first meetings he describes Roderick's personal and psychological weaknesses. Roderick is feeble, shaking, and his voice is unstable. He looks ashen and cadaverous. He is also described as "alternately vivacious and sullen" which is a description of manic depression, a mental illness.

In contrast, the narrator tells of his own calmness and control of the situation. He says that he tried to calm his friend as they painted, wrote poetry and read novels together. Even in the final scene, when Roderick appears to have lost all sanity, the narrator reads to him in a vain attempt to calm the storm in Roderick as well as the storm outside the window. (It is ironic that the narrator tries to soothe his "mad" friend by reading from a novel entitled Mad Trist.)

It is the binary opposition of sanity/insanity that is the main focus of this tale. Many critics and students have wrestled with the issue of who is or is not insane in the story. This question rests upon the reliability of the narrator. If the narrator is fully reliable, then it is relatively easy to come to the conclusion that Roderick is mad. But if the narrator is not telling us the truth, or if the narrator is mad himself, then our conclusion will be somewhat less certain. The reader must grapple with the uncertainty along with the narrator. The issue of madness vs. sanity provided Poe with the grist for many of his stories, including "The Tell-tale Heart" and "The Black Cat."

As we can see, there are a variety of approaches to short story interpretation. None is exclusive of another; they may all contribute to our understanding. We cannot see binary oppositions in Roderick and the narrator without also seeing their characters and character development. We cannot examine the narrator alone without looking at his surroundings. The most important thing in any analysis is to trust the text itself. Two different interpretations may arise from one passage, as long as both derive from the text. We canot make up things, but we may interpret them.

Carl Mowery, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, l997. Mowery holds a doctoral degree in rhetoric and composition and has taught at Southern Illinois University and Murray State University.

What Happens in "The Fall of the House of Usher"

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1973

What happens in "The Fall of the House of Usher"? This story contains many suggestions of psychic and supernatural influences upon the feelings of the narrator and the nerves of Roderick Usher. But the influences are not defined. No ghosts appear. Surely, Poe as craftsman intended the story to do what it does, to arouse a sense of unearthly terror that springs from a vague source, hinted and mysterious. Poe stated that his aim in tales of terror was to create "terror... not of Germany but of the soul," or not of the charnel but of the mind. He wrote to Thomas W. White, owner of the Southern Literary Messenger, that tales of terror are made into excellent stories by "the singular heightened into the strange and mystical." The influences that seem to drive Roderick Usher to madness, to kill him and Madeline, and even to destroy the House are certainly strange and mysterious. They seem rooted in some postulate of the supernatural, but the postulate is concealed....

Roderick seems engaged in a struggle against a power that he feels to be supernatural. Apparently, as in the strange books he reads, he seeks knowledge of this power and how to combat it. He has found some explanations in a quasi-scientific theory about the sentience of vegetable matter. He seeks the help of objective reason by calling upon the narrator, to whom he repeatedly attempts to explain the nature of his invisible foe. But the narrator refuses to believe that the threatening power exists outside Roderick's imagination....

Hints that may suggest a vampire appear in the first view of the House. The vegetation around the House is dead; though water is usually a symbol of life, the "black and lurid tarn" seems dead. It amplifies the House, reflecting it in "remodelled and inverted images." The narrator feels "an ici-ness" and "a sickening of the heart." He sees ''about the whole mansion ... a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible and leaden-hued." On entering the House, the narrator meets the family physician, whose countenance wears "a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity." The physician accosts him "with trepidation."

Certain details about Roderick Usher seem significant. As a boy in school he displayed a hereditary "peculiar sensibility of temperament." This sensibility would make Rodenck an easy prey to psychic or supernatural influence. His present illness has developed since he has lived in the House, "whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth." Thus, some influence in the House is suggested. It may be vampiric. Montague Summers's study of vampire lore states that when a person psychically sensitive even "visits a house which is powerfully haunted by malefic influences ... a vampirish entity may ... utilize his vitality,'' causing "debility and enervation" in the victim....

Let us turn to the events of the story to discover what [Rodenck] possibly knew. As the narrator approaches the House, he observes that the windows are "eye-like." Roderick's poem later gives the palace the features of a human head. These suggestions seem to mean that the House itself has some evil, destructive life, manifest in a spirit faintly visible as a vapor. Can it be regarded as a kind of vampire? In vampire lore, places or houses may be possessed: "Even to-day there are places and there are properties in England which owing to deeds of blood and violence ... entail some dire misfortune upon all who seek to enjoy ... them."...

Roderick's symptoms include "a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors 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." These are specific symptoms of vampiric attack. Vampires, if not always their polluted victims, seldom touch ordinary food. Though some vampires, for instance Ruthven in Polidori's The Vampyre, wear ordinary clothing, most vampires appear in the garments of the grave. If Poe had vampire lore in mind, why did he say ''the odors of all flowers"? We may look first at odors. Disgusting odors are associated with vampires. A vampire's breath is "unbearably fetid and rank with corruption, the stench of the charnel." This is the very material Poe rejected. The House draws vitality instead of blood; flowers seem a similar substitute for heightening the gory into the strange and mysterious. Poe's "all flowers" had to be left vague. If Poe had mentioned garlic and its whitish flower, universally accepted specifics against vampirism, he would have given away the secret he sought to suggest, but conceal. It seems significant that Poe mentions flowers at all. No garden can grow near the House; no flowers would be ordered from a tenant or a market if Roderick finds them oppressive. The mention seems Poe's tauntingly deliberate effort to be faithful to the lore he was using, without defining it. Perhaps the odors of flowers were ''oppressive,'' rather than welcome to ward off attack, because Roderick was already polluted to the extent that he shared the aversions of the vampire. Most vampires cannot endure daylight; they must return to the tomb at the first hint of dawn. Roderick's horror of all sounds except those of stringed instruments seems natural for anyone who senses the presence of a demon. Poe often associates stringed instruments with angelic forces.

After detailing his symptoms, Roderick cries out: "I must perish in this deplorable folly." What folly? for none is mentioned. Perhaps his folly is that, through living as a recluse in the House and through curious reading, Roderick had laid himself open to attack. A ''Vampire was often a person who during his life had read deeply in poetic lore and practised black magic.'' Roderick says, "I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results." Perhaps he does not dread death, but fears becoming a vampire if killed by a vampire.

At this point Roderick states—specifies—that the attack upon his vitality comes from the House. The narrator, reporting with scorn, says: "He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted ... in regard to an influence... which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion had ... obtained over his spirit—an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they looked down, had ... brought about upon the morale of his existence."

Madeline seems a victim of the same attack, and she dies. When? On the evening of the first day Roderick tells the narrator ''with inexpressible agitation" that Madeline had "succumbed ... to the prostrating power of the destroyer." But she is not declared dead, that she ''was no more'' and is ready for burial, until several days later. Perhaps in the interval she is undead, "living" as a vampire. All definitions say that a person killed by a vampire becomes a vampire with a craving to pass on the pollution....

During the entombment, the narrator notices a "striking similitude between the brother and sister." Roderick explains that he and Madeline "had been twins" and that "sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them.'' What were these sympathies? T. O. Mabbott has stated, I think rightly, that "Poe's twins share their family soul with the house, and Roderick knew it.'' If Madeline was destroyed by the House, she is now a vampire; a vampire attacks first its closest blood-kin. A French writer on vampire lore, Augustin Calmet, says: "Cette persecution ne s'arrete pas a une seule personne; elle s'etend jusqu'a la derniere personne de la famille." This feature of vampirism is presented in Lord Byron's "The Giaour." A curse dooms an Infidel to become a vampire and to...

suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter, sister, wife
At midnight drain the stream of life?

Thus, just because he is a twin, Roderick has reason to be terrified of Madeline....

If Madeline were an ordinary vampire buried in a cemetery, she could dematerialize, escape through crevices, and rematerialize. But how could she escape from a sealed coffin in an airtight vault closed and secured by an iron door? I suggest that Poe established these seemingly impossible conditions because he had in mind a supernatural agency in Madeline's escape. If she is now a vampire killed by the House and therefore the agent of the House, the House might help set her free. To do so, it seems, required the total vitality of the House, with added draughts from Roderick's life, all redoubled in power by the full moon, and engaged in the violent effort manifested in the storm. How could the House help set her free? Let us observe below how it opened heavy doors for her to reach Roderick.

Roderick hears her approach and asks, "Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste?" He may mean his haste in sealing her in the vault before his own death. Perhaps Roderick knows that when he dies—if he can die before Madeline sucks his blood—the House and Madeline must also die in ''final death-agonies."

As Madeline approaches with a "heavy and horrible beating of her heart," typical of the vampire, Roderick speaks in his ''gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of [the narrator's] presence." What is he saying? Perhaps part of his monologue is an incantation from the Vigilia. When Madeline reaches the "huge antique panels" of the chamber, she simply stands there waiting. The doors open. The narrator says, "It was the work of the rushing gust." How can this be? These doors face the interior of the House, not the storm outside. The casement has been closed. This gust may be the spirit of the vampire House, rooted in Madeline's vault, and manifest in the forces of the storm. When the doors of the chamber throw "slowly back ... their ponderous and ebony jaws," between these jaws stands the ''lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher," with "blood upon her white robes." Are these images a symbolist painting: between the jaws of the vampire House stands its white and bloodstained tooth poised to plunge into Roderick's life-stream?

For a moment, Madeline "remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold.'' Perhaps she wavered between remnants of human compassion aided by Roderick's incantations, and the evil power driving her onward. But she "then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated." Was Roderick's death heart failure? The narrator does not stop to observe: he "fled aghast." But the somewhat erotic embrace of its victim, the prone position for the kill, and the moan of pleasure are commonplaces of vampire lore. In terms of this lore, Madeline reached the jugular vein. But as Roderick dies, Madeline and the House die, for their source of vitality is cut off. Does Roderick continue undead, a vampire by pollution, as "he had anticipated"? When a vampire is destroyed, it squeals or screams horribly. As the fragments of the House sink into the tarn, there is a "shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters." Perhaps, as both Madeline and the House die in the instant of Roderick's death, the curse is fulfilled, and Roderick's soul is, after all, saved by the finally innocuous water. The narrator observes no more except the "full, setting, and blood-red moon."...

Source: J O Bailey, "What Happens in 'The Fall of the House of Usher,' "in American Literature, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, January, 1964, pp. 445-66.

Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher'"

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

In "The Fall of the House of Usher," Edgar Allan Poe entices his readers to view the narrator's experiences as a dream. Many critics have noted the tale's iterative images of water, mist, sleep, and descent, connoting the subconscious, as well as the explicit verbal clues Poe provides in such passages as "I looked upon the scene before me ... with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the afterdream of the reveller upon opium..., ''Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream ...," and "...I listened, as if in a dream, to the wild improvisations of his speaking guitar." No critical attention, however, has yet been given to the significance of Poe's allusion to the eighteenth-century artist John Henry Fuseli.

Describing the paintings of Roderick Usher, Poe's narrator observes:

If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least—in the circumstances then surrounding me—there arose out of the pure abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvas, an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which felt I ever yet in the contemplations of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli.

Why did Poe choose Fuseli as the one artist with whom to compare Usher? The answer is that Fuseli shared Poe's preoccupation with the realm of the subconscious. Indeed, he based his career upon his oft-cited aphorism: "One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams...."

The work upon which Fuseli's fame rests and the work which Poe evokes in his tale is The Nightmare, which the artist painted in 1781 and exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. The Nightmare is an unforgettable, to many viewers even shocking, canvas composed of three key elements: a beautiful woman, dressed in virginal white, lying prostrate upon a bed; an incubus, or demon, crouched maliciously upon the woman's breast; and a horse's head with fiery eyes emerging from a shadowy background. Intending to depict a general rather than an individual experience of the bad dream, Fuseli combines evil spirits from Germanic folklore with an Enlightenment medical belief that the nightmare is caused by sleeping on one's back. This position creates a difficulty in circulation that induces frightful visions and a feeling of weight upon the chest.

That Poe knew Fuseli's painting is highly likely. The exhibition of The Nightmare became a cause celebre. Soon engravers disseminated prints of it throughout Europe and then America, while cartoonists amused the public with their vulgarized burlesques of Fuseli's demon-tormented sleeper. However, it is the text of ''The Fall of the House of Usher'' that provides the most compelling evidence of Poe's familiarity with Fuseli's composition; for shortly before the appearance of the specter-like Madeline, arisen from the crypt, Poe's narrator assumes the exact position of Fuseli's dreaming damsel. Retiring to his sleeping apartment—a chamber directly above the vault in which Madeline has been buried, the narrator rests fitfully. He then reveals, ''An irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm." This description of a demon upon the narrator's breast and his subsequent feeling of "an intense sentiment of horror" suggest strongly that his final vision of Madeline and Roderick's embrace of death is, in fact, a nightmare.

Source: Lynne P Shackelford, "Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher'," in Explicator, Vol.45, No 1, Fall, 1986, pp. 18-9.

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