The Fall of the House of Usher Edgar Allan Poe
The following entry presents criticism of Poe's short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). See also, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym Criticism. For additional information on Poe's complete career, please see NCLC, Volumes 55 and 117.
A Gothic horror story, Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” was written in 1839 and was collected among his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840). A tale of sickness, madness, incest, and the danger of unrestrained creativity, this is among Poe's most popular and critically-examined horror stories. The ancient, decaying House of Usher, filled with tattered furniture and tapestries and set in a gloomy, desolate locale is a rich symbolic representation of its sickly twin inhabitants, Roderick and Madeline Usher. Besides its use of classical Gothic imagery and gruesome events—including escape from live burial—the story has a psychological element and ambiguous symbolism that have given rise to many critical readings. Poe used the term “arabesque” to describe the ornate, descriptive prose in this and other stories in his collection. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is also considered representative of Poe's idea of “art for art's sake,” whereby the mood of the narrative, created through skillful use of language, overpowers any social, political, or moral teaching.
Plot and Major Characters
Told from an unnamed narrator's perspective, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is the story of a gentleman's visit to an ailing boyhood friend and his dreary ancestral home. It opens as the narrator sits astride his horse and contemplates the house before him; he feels a strange “insufferable gloom” as he notes the darkness of his surroundings, the oppressiveness of the clouds above, and the decaying Usher mansion in the distance. This overwhelming sense of gloom continues as the narrator is brought through the dark house, past its ancient and shabby furnishings, to his host. Overcome by the change in his friend's appearance, the narrator is struck by the singular, cadaverous, ghastly appearance of Roderick Usher . Roderick explains that he suffers from a family illness, which he first calls “a family evil” and then dismisses as a “mere nervous affection”. As a result, Roderick claims to have a heightened sensory acuteness, with the blandest food, the slightest touch, and the faintest sounds causing him great pain. The narrator, who was aware of the Usher family's peculiar creativity, also knew of the weakness of the family bloodline. The ancient but inbred family had resided in the House of Usher for so long that for many of their neighbors, the house and the family had become one in the same. During the course of this discussion, the narrator learns that Roderick has a twin sister. Also suffering from a more debilitating form of the undiagnosed and incurable illness, Madeline Usher is Roderick's only living relation. She makes a fleeting appearance, but says nothing to the narrator or her brother, and passes ghost-like on to another part of the house. Roderick explains that his sister is far too ill for the narrator to see her, and will likely never leave her bed alive again. Disturbed by this finding, the narrator sets out to cheer his old friend. In addition to reading aloud and conversing, the narrator attempts to raise Roderick's spirits by listening to his extemporaneous musical compositions, and discussing Roderick's abstract painting. The two spend a great deal of time together in these creative pursuits, but after her first, brief appearance, Madeline is not seen again. Several days later, Roderick's prediction about his sister's demise comes to pass, and he asks the narrator to help him entomb Madeline in a vault deep beneath the house. Roderick wanted to preserve her corpse for a fortnight before its final interment. The narrator was struck by this strange decision, but nevertheless helped his friend bring Madeline's body...
(The entire section is 65,225 words.)