The Fall of the House of Usher Essays and Criticism
by Edgar Allan Poe

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

(Short Stories for Students)

Henry Fuselis painting The Nightmare, which may have inspired Poe. Published by Gale Cengage

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.

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...

(The entire section is 4,385 words.)