illustration of a dark, menacing cracked house with large, red eyes looking through the windows

The Fall of the House of Usher

by Edgar Allan Poe

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James W. Gargano (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4588

SOURCE: “‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: An Apocalyptic Vision,” in University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. 3, 1982, pp. 53-63.

[In the following essay, Gargano theorizes that the inability of the characters in Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” to explain their ordeal is a result of the apocalyptic vision of the narrator, who views events in the Usher house as symbolic representations of the destruction of the world.]

Any new discussion of “The Fall of the House Usher,” no matter how adventurous, must be a sort of outgrowth of the accumulated wisdom of George Woodberry, Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edward Davidson, Maurice Beebe, Richard Wilbur, and many other interpreters of Poe's fictional masterpiece.1 The variety of critical response elicited by the tale has an almost infinite suggestiveness: Poe emerges, among other things, as an expert in creating gratuitous terror, as a parodist, a depth-psychologist, a student of vampires, and a master of pure artistic form. Fortunately or unfortunately, criticism multiplies routes into and out of Poe's story, and new interpretations, for better or for worse, seem to discourage critical consensus and to invite fresh explorations. Poe's multi-faceted work, it appears, will continue to resist definitive “solution” about the significance of the narrator's journey into a “singularly dreary tract of land” that he regards as both portentous and utterly confounding.

My essay takes its departure, in a general and perhaps idiosyncratic way, from those critics who have emphasize the relationship between the theme of “Usher” and Poe's philosophical-cosmological views. I also share Herbert F. Smith's opinion that Poe's theory of sentience—a theory whose source Smith traces to Richard Watson's Chemical Essays—pervades the story, but I can not accept Smith's contention that Usher goes mad because his belief in sentience is “too peculiarly self-oriented.”2 I propose that the action of Poe's narrative takes place in a unique context that accounts for the major characters' unique emotions and their inability to explain their ordeal. The narrator, I maintain, sees an apocalyptic vision of the destruction of the world in the extraordinary events enacted in Usher's domain. The predetermined collapse of separateness and identity into unity, the apparently purposeful fury of whirlwind and clouds, and the final, appointed submergence of Usher's mansion into the waiting tarn suggest Poe's concern with eschatalogical issues. Indeed, the almost concurrent publication of “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” a visionary work in which a comet destroys the earth, and “Usher” indicates Poe's imaginative preoccupation in 1839 with the idea of the world's end. Although I do not wish to attribute to T. O. Mabbott notions which he may not have held, his notes to “Usher” imply that he saw a connection not only between that tale and “Eiros” but also between it and the biblical prophecy of universal catastrophe in Revelation.3 The abnormalities and singularities that oppress Poe's narrator are, I am convinced, much more adequately explained by the gradual build-up of an imminent cataclysm than by his exposure to ghoulish vampirism or incest.

A corollary to my interpretation of “Usher” is that Poe intended his narrator to have a limited understanding of his experience. In a sense, the narrator's bewilderment makes him an ideal reporter because he must recount what happens to him in affective and connotative terms full of wonder and alarm; he feels himself an explorer in a region in which cause-and-effect relationships have broken down. I cannot regard him, as Darrel Abel does, as a “mere point of view for the reader to occupy.”4 His tale is the ironic drama of a...

(This entire section contains 4588 words.)

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tormented soul adrift in a universe no longer stable or comprehensible. In his futile shifts to cope with the derangement of his world, he has a remarkable affinity to other Poe narrators who encounter the incalculable and end up uttering passionate outcries about the mysterious process in which they are trapped. His situation, however, is more elemental in that it represents mankind's cosmic plight.

In “Usher,” Poe deals on the simplest level with three interlocking themes: the physical and psychic breakdown of one man, Roderick; the end of a once-eminent historic dynasty; and the seemingly sinister power of nature in effecting the destruction of both the individual and the ancient family he represents.5 Of course, Poe complicates his fiction by telling it through a narrator who confesses himself confused, horrified, and awed by what he sees and reports. The narrator's intellectual and emotional responses clearly establish Usher's domain as an eerie outpost where the laws of the normal, quotidian world no longer operate. Thus, Poe locates his action in a “singular” land where the collapse of ordinary logic and easy rationality compels not only mystification and wonder but a search for new logic and explanation. The narrator's bewilderment obviously results from an understandable habit of seeing with conventionalized vision, thinking with inapplicable thought processes, and confronting the unexpected with customary expectations. Poe requires his reader, however, to profit from, rather than imitate, the narrator's intellectual helplessness. The artistic strategy of “Usher,” then, incites the reader to enter unexplored territory as an observer of the observer, as a third consciousness probing the meaning of the narrator's sensations while he effectually analyzes Usher's beliefs and dreads.

It may be profitable to begin my analysis with preliminary observations on Poe's narrator and on the histrionic context in which Poe places his major actions. For all his similarity to them, the narrator in “Usher” is unlike the narrators in “Ligeia,” “William Wilson,” “Morella,” “Berenice,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Cask of Amontillado”; he does not commit a murder or relate the story of his life with women he either loved or hated. Critics often label him a rationalist, but in the first paragraph he writes he exhibits a panicky distrust of reason: he “explains” the depression caused in him by the sight of the house of Usher as a “mystery all insoluble”; when he employs reason in an attempt to overcome his depression, he acts on what he calls an “unsatisfactory” premise; and he constantly surrenders himself to extreme emotional states in a manner remarkable for a rational man. Throughout his psychological adventure in a world that defies intellectualization, he may give the impression of rationality by belittling as folly and superstition the enigmas he encounters; in truth, he is a man who would like to believe in reason, who spins theories in order to keep his courage up. Not so surprisingly, he can talk as if from first-hand knowledge, about “the after-dream of the reveller upon opium,” and he is all-too-ready to be impressed by reflections in a tarn, “eye-like windows,” “bleak walls,” “rank sedges,” poems, and paintings. His very language, with its intensities and metaphoric radiations, characterizes him as someone who extracts emotional value from objects, colors, and sounds. Although some of his hypersensitivity may be ascribed to his unique situation, he seems at least as impressionable as he is “reasonable.”

Poe, then, has created an ambivalent narrator who energetically tries to suppress the authority of his acute feelings. His intellectual posturings take the preposterous form of protecting him from his valid insights and apprehensions and preventing him from examining the consequences of what he really experiences; for example, he rejects as a “fancy” too “ridiculous” to be entertained the discovery that the house of Usher and its environs are enclosed in “an atmosphere peculiar to themselves,” an otherwordly “atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of Heaven.” The mind will not legitimize what the eyes see and the feelings vividly apprehend. Throughout “Usher,” the narrator's so-called rationality functions as a refuge from the “facts”; far from helping him to get to the meaning of anything, it offers trivial “reasons” for dismissing almost everything that will prove “real.” Obviously, a major motif of Poe's story resides in the sharp irony that the intelligence evades what the emotions take in. The narrator, thus, can be described as bringing a closed mind and an open sensibility to his journey into the unknown.

The context in which the narrator finds himself is a symbolic world to which he must make an imaginative rather than a purely cerebral adjustment. Assuredly, Poe, whose settings can often be disparaged as aggressively functional, carefully designed Usher's estate out of spiritualized Gothic material: it is an emblematic, fantasy region where the real world comes to meet its destiny, and the house may be seen as a sort of perilous chapel where man can be shown the relation of his own life to cosmic necessity. In the microcosm that the narrator enters, unity inevitably prevails, everything is interrelated, accident is not tolerated, and “unnatural” phenomena are part of a universal scheme. House and occupants fuse into one identity; brother and sister cannot be separated; Usher obsessionally paints a picture objectifying an idea that translates into a fatal and fated action; a poem describes its author's mental condition, which, in turn, corresponds to the condition of the mansion; and even a fissure, which might be a sign of division, promotes the triumph of unity. When the narrator desperately chooses to divert Usher by reading from the “Mad Trist” of Sir Launcelot Canning, the action of the absurd romance coincides with Madeline's escape from her tomb. The casual is transformed into the causal, human sounds blend into natural ones, fungi suggest human hair, and trees, walls, and tarn combine to produce an atmosphere that is both natural and supernatural. Interrelation binds everything from clouds, books, and people into a vast living web of irresistible and undiscerned purpose.

Usher's theory of sentience—his belief that even inanimate things have life—informs every incident of Poe's story. Still, the theory must be interpreted in larger terms than the narrator and Usher interpret it. What Poe suggests, and what his characters do not grasp, is that all things contain life in the special sense that they play a vital part in an implacable cosmic pattern. As many critics, notably Maurice Beebe, have shown, the laws that hold sway in the domain of Usher are the same laws that, according to Poe's Eureka, control expansion and contraction in the actual universe. Usher, in short, inhabits a dying world whose “fall” will be effected by natural means directed by mysterious higher forces; not surprisingly, then, vacancy, decay, and disorder have spread through Usher's realm, annihilating difference, discreteness, and human separateness from the rest of nature. The very stones of the chateau, as Mabbot noted, preach that one soul is diffused throughout Usher's crumbling mansion, its sick occupants, and its blighted premises.6 Poe's microcosm is, paradoxically, alive with the power of death because the active energies that will encompass destruction obey fate or providential law.

A universal return of Oneness prescribed by an incomprehensible destiny and brought about by dissolution of heterogeneous life may be, for some philosophic spirits, a soothing abstraction. Indeed, in Eureka, Poe hopefully contemplates the re-organization of fragmentary and divided particles into homogeneity as their reunion with God. It must be acknowledged, however, that no divinity or beneficent authority seems to preside over the disintegration portrayed in “Usher,” where the action is unrelievedly tense or terrifying. Except for the “good angels” in the beginning of Roderick's poetic allegory of his mental breakdown, Poe does not allow his readers a glimpse of transcendent goodness at work in the universe. Destruction proceeds relentlessly and without promise of ultimate salvation; indeed, Poe presents it, from the point of view of his characters, as a derangement in nature and in man's vision of nature. If “Eiros” did not furnish evidence to the contrary, one might speculate that when Poe wrote “The Fall of the House of Usher” he had arrived at all the elements of the philosophy contained in Eureka except the comforting teleology. In “Eiros,” however, a more personal heaven than any posited in Eureka awaits doomed humanity, who will learn, at long last, the reason for their earthly suffering. In fact, if one were to ignore both Eureka and “Eiros,” one might pessimistically conclude with Leo Spitzer that “Usher” is a “poetic expression of sociological deterministic ideas which were in the air in 1839.”7

The reason for the absence of hope from Poe's narrative is, after all, aesthetic. He wishes to tell his truth “slant,” through the intuitions and enigmatic auguries misunderstood by the narrator and not through didactic philosophising. The seemingly conscious universe operates according to its own supreme and inexplicable laws, but its mystery takes on importance in the incomplete perceptions, the evasive rationalizations, and the dreads of man. The central irony of “Usher” is nothing less than the narrator's failure to understand that he is witnessing a revelation or preenactment of the end of the world and time. Unlike John in the biblical Revelation, however, Poe's confused and intimidated character has no access to celestial enlightment. He records what he sees with fear and trembling, but in lacking divine clues, the heavenly knowledge of Eiros and Charmion or the wisdom of Poe's Eureka, he has no key to the shocking dislocation in the earthly order. He therefore translates his vision into a mystery that eludes reason and into the psychological responses aroused by the wonders he beholds. Isolated in their personal compulsions and sensations, he and Usher register horrors rather than meanings.

An examination of the three main themes of “Usher” may appropriately begin with the narrator's version of Usher's psychic and physical deterioration. Although he does not meet Roderick until the story's eighth paragraph, the narrator has by this time documented his own amazement; he cannot get to the source of his “insufferable gloom” as he nears Usher's house; in seeking to dispel this gloom, he acts according to an “unsatisfactory conclusion” that produces a “shudder even more thrilling than [any he felt] before”; he confesses himself afflicted with mounting superstition and his mind is warped by a “ridiculous fancy”; he feels himself emerging from “what must have been a dream”; and he wonders why familiar objects stimulate “unfamiliar fancies” in his mind. Even before he encounters Usher, the narrator has already been deprived of the comfort of customary and routine associations and explanations. The sight of his old friend startles him, fills him with “awe,” and heightens his sense of lost connections with the known world; the cadaverous Roderick has almost changed his identity, and his “Arabesque expression” seems to dissociate him from “any idea of simple humanity.” Yet, ironically enough, although the narrator can explain nothing else in his new world, he immediately accepts the view that Usher suffers from a strange malady and from an “anomalous species of terror” that Usher himself tries to rationalize as a “deplorable folly.”

There is, of course, no doubt about Roderick's hysteria and the imminence of his death. The narrator goes wrong, however, in relying on explanations appropriate to the world he has left behind. That world, used to standards appropriate to it, may consider Roderick's beliefs as outrageous and hallucinatory, but events prove them to be valid; after all, the physical condition of the exterior of Usher's house does affect the “morale,” to use Poe's words, of its inmates' “existence.” The environment of the mansion does have a vitality and a will of its own that act in concert with occurrences within the house; and, as her brother exclaims before her appearance, the entombed Madeline does actually stand outside his door. Roderick's perpetual agonies, then, do not result from his superstitions, which turn out to be “realities,” but from his inability to assign a cause to what he knows will happen.

Usher represents Man in the last stage of his existence, in what “The Conqueror Worm” was to describe as “the lonesome latter years.” Hypersensitive and aware of his doom, he sees his own death foreshadowed in that of his only relative, a twin sister. He consciously or unconsciously acknowledges his intellectual collapse in “The Haunted Palace”; he paints a “phantasmagoric” picture of a burial vault, probably Madeline's; and he plays with “singular perversion and amplification” a waltz by Von Weber, which Mabbott takes to be Roderick's “dirge for himself.”8 Clearly, all signs point to Usher's consciousness of impending personal annihilation, but the source of his terror can be traced to his ignorance about the connection between his death and the imminent death of his sister, the disintegration of his house, and the sinister menace of nature. Roderick feels that his destiny is part of a larger, perhaps cosmic process; still, although the evidence to support his feeling is omnipresent, he cannot convert emotion into meaning. He may resemble those people in “Eiros,” who responded in strange ways to the approaching end of the world: “wonders and wild fancies had been, of late days, rife among mankind.” Roderick has the emotional sensitivity to register the shocks of the coming destruction, but he lacks the prophet's second sight. The excruciating refinement of his senses, which the narrator clinically notes, remains a “morbidity” because it compels him to “thrill” with horror and to seek relief in tears without enabling him to interpret the signs and wonders around him.

“Eiros” was published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in December 1839, only three months after “Usher” appeared there in September. If, as Mabbott surmises, “Eiros” could have been written as early as October 1839, Poe must have been preoccupied with the idea of universal catastrophe at the time he wrote “Usher.” Indeed, verbal similarities between the stories suggest more than a little resemblance in theme: in addition to the “wild fancies” in both tales, the narrator in “Usher” declares that there “sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm” and Eiros explains that the inhabitants of earth view the comet that threatens them as an “incubus upon our hearts”; the famous conclusion of “Usher” echoes Revelation in its reference to the “shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters,” and Eiros remembers one of the final terrors of earthly existence as the “horrible sound like the ‘voice of many waters’.” Moreover, “the gaseous exhalations which hung about and enshrouded” Roderick's mansion have an affinity to the “gaseous character” of the world-destroying comet feared by Eiros. Certainly, too, the “wild lurid light” that heralds the termination of all things in “Eiros and Charmion” recalls the “wild light” that “shot along the path” of the fleeing narrator in “Usher.” Another correspondence between the two stories can be found in Eiros's reminiscence about “the learned men” who consoled the populace that the comet, at worst, might produce “magnetic and electrical influences” and the narrator's assurance to Usher that the devastating storm is merely due to “electrical phenomena.” Finally, Eiros's admission that men could not account for the comet in accepted intellectual terms may explain the narrator's and Usher's almost complete mystification: “We could no longer apply to the strange orb any accustomed thought. Its historical attributes had disappeared. It oppressed us with a hideous novelty of emotion. We saw it not as an astronomical phenomenon in the heavens, but as an incubus upon our hearts, and a shadow upon our brain.” Only in the afterlife of an Edenic Aidenn will Eiros become acquainted with “the majesty of all things—of the unknown now known—of the speculative Future merged in the august and certain Present.”

“Usher” deals, then, with the bewildered narrator's prevision of the end of the world, but because he does not know what Eiros presumably learns in Aidenn, he must narrate what he sees and feels from an unenlightened, tremulous human perspective. His account necessarily strains to express “a hideous novelty of emotion” and to trespass beyond “accustomed thoughts.” His hysterical rhetoric effectively conveys his own fear that something significant lies outside his vision, that Roderick's malady cannot be wholly referred to physical and psychological causes. Surely, the narrator stops short of apocalyptic clairvoyance, but the story's narrative development shows him to be “progressing” to Usher's more heightened state of awareness and terror. As reason no longer sustains him, he admits that he felt “creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of Roderick's own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.” Worried about being infected by his friend's outlook, he begins to hear voices in the night and to suspect mysterious energies gathering in the weirdly inexplicable storm. Indeed, when his friend enters his room to prove, with “mad hilarity,” that his so-called superstitions are being verified, the narrator might well be appalled at the prospects of abandoning his own individuality and “becoming” Usher. In an effort to preserve his identity, he seeks refuge in the innocuous romance, the “Mad Trist,” only to find Roderick's insane prophecies symbolically anticipated in it. Within the mansion, he is subject to its influence. Even in flight from it, he discovers, from a backward glance, that the nightmarish fears he had unwillingly shared with Usher have been confirmed as actuality.

Poe reinforces the destruction-of-the-world theme in “The Fall of the House of Usher” by making one man's death represent the end of a long family history. Roderick's death coincides with Madeline's, and their extinction is inevitably linked to the collapse of their hereditary house. Moreover, the Usher dynasty not only dies out, but it sinks with all its human appurtenances—its books, its art, and its furniture—into a deep tarn that is disturbed by a “sound like the voice of a thousand waters.” “The Haunted Palace,” too, goes beyond its relevance to Roderick's mental condition; it deals with a beginning and an end, probably describing a long process starting from a paradise-like state presided over by “good angels.” Looking back to a radiant past (in an “olden / Time long ago”) that cannot survive in the feverish present, the poem seems, like its sister poem in “Ligeia,” to make a general statement about the human predicament rather than one specifically pertinent to Usher. Indeed, “The Haunted Palace” had appeared in print as a self-contained work a number of months before Poe included it as a suggestive detail in his short story. Finally, even the melodramatic “Mad Trist” juxtaposes an action from the past upon the present by contrasting the doughty, wine-drinking Ethelred to the impotent and reclusive Usher; the medieval hero harks back to an “olden time” of crude physical prowess when dragons could still be slain while Roderick is almost without physical existence and cowers before fearful intimations from a realm he cannot know. With his boldness and valor, Ethelred represents the founder and father of lines; with his superfine nerves, Roderick can only symbolize a distraught visionary foreseeing the end of his race.

The depleted energies of man in “Usher” contrast with the increasing vigor of nature. Quiescent at the outset of Poe's story, nature still has the power to provoke man's awareness of his incapacity to discover its subtle secrets: even while it prepares its overwhelming storm, it renders explanations of its “intentions” futile. In contemplating his natural surroundings upon entering Usher's world, the narrator seeks a way “to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impressions”; all he can conclude, however, is that the decayed trees, the fungi-covered walls of the house, and the lurid tarn create an atmosphere which has “no affinity with the air of heaven.” Of course, the narrator cannot explain nature because it has changed its laws of operation and because it is bringing about an end rather than promoting continuance; its new laws no longer permit man to live under the old dispensation of predictability and order. What Usher and the narrator cannot fathom is that the coming destruction must be preceded by unique conditions never before experienced by men at home in historic continuities. All unknowingly, they are present at the climactic unraveling of the “lonesome later years” or days; in short, they are witnessing vivid portents of the final hours.

Poe's narrator describes the disastrous storm as if it were seen in an apocalyptic vision. “Wildly singular in its terror and beauty,” it begins with a “furious whirlwind, with the life-like velocity” of dense clouds that move and yet hover over Usher's house, and with an “unnnatural light” that sets aglow the “under surface of the huge masses of agitated vapor” and all the surrounding “terrestrial objects.” Obviously not undirected or accidental in its fury, nature has a mission to perform; its elements act not only with “life-like” energy and volition but in grim concert. At last an illumination from “the full, setting and blood-red moon” invests the scene of the whirlwind's fatal work with a dying splendor, and man and his earthly mansion and possessions sink into nature's abyss in the oblitering term.

The nature of the “evil” presented in “Usher” remains to be considered. Certainly, the horrible plight of the narrator and Roderick turns them into pathetic figures: the former trembles, trusts and mistrusts an equivocating reason, and acts as if evil has undermined his sanity; the latter's agitating suspicions and final shriek show his life to be a tale of irrationality and terror. Viewed from a human perspective the universe of Roderick Usher reveals plenty of signs and portents, but it malignantly seems to produce them in order to baffle and terrify mankind. Yet, the narrator expresses his sense that the universal upheaval takes place during a “sternly beautiful night,” and he cannot help discovering “beauty” in the “terror” around him. Man's anguish does not detract from the majesty of the so-called “evil” forces that annihilate him, and his ignorance merely obscures the supernal order that manifests itself—however fearfully—in the doom of humanity. Even after entering into the bliss of Aidenn, Eiros remembers the days before the end of all life in terms of evil: freeing itself, for delusive moments, from the “apprehension of the great calamity foretold,” mankind debates what kind of “minor evils” it will have to endure; later, “the people now dismissing any lingering hope, experienced all the certanity of evil”, and immediately before destruction comes, everyone is briefly pleased that “the evil was not altogether upon us.” In short, nature or God seems committed to intensely violent means to effect transcendent ends, and man's self-directed vision and imperiled psyche conspire to see evil where only necessity or fatality reigns. The enigma, the horror, and the majesty last as long as life and misunderstanding do.

“The Fall of the House of Usher,” then, is Poe's ironic rendering of his narrator's apocalyptic vision. Not precisely the vision contained in “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion” or Eureka, it differs from these ultimately hopeful prophecies because man cannot see any infinite purpose beyond his misery and terror. Poe gives no hint of a future existence that may reduce the fatal storm to the proportions of a cosmic incident; instead, he dramatizes the full fury of the storm itself.


  1. George E. Woodberry, The Life of Edgar Allan Poe, 2 vols. (Boston and New York, 1909); AHQ [American Quarterly]: 284-285, 430, 466; Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, MA, 1957); Maurice Beebe, “The Universe of Roderick Usher,” Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Regan (Englewood Cliffs, 1967), pp. 121-133; Richard Wilbur, “The House of Poe,” Anniversary Lectures [The Library of Congress] (Washington, DC, 1959), pp. 24-31.

  2. Herbert F. Smith, “Usher's Madness and Poe's Organicism: A Source,” AL [American Literature], 39 (1967), 389.

  3. M, 2: fns. 29, 34 (pp. 421, 422).

  4. Darrel Abel, “A Key to ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” UTQ [University of Toronto Quarterly], 18 (1949), 177.

  5. I use Mabbott's authoritative text, cited above, for all quotations from “Usher” and “Eiros.”

  6. M, 2?394.

  7. Leo Spitzer, “A Reinterpretation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” CL [Comparative Literature], 4 (1952), 360.

  8. M, 2:418.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1691

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 to a copper-lined vault—formerly a dungeon in ancient times—where it was placed in a coffin and closed behind a large iron door. Almost immediately, Roderick's disposition changed; he became restless, even more pale, and was racked with terror. This senseless fear was contagious and the narrator was also overcome by a dreadful terror. About a week after Madeline's body was placed in its vault, on a particularly wild and stormy night, both the narrator and Roderick were overcome by their disquieted senses, and unable to sleep. The narrator read aloud from an old romance to ease their spirits. In several uncanny coincidences, just as a particular action was read, a similar noise was heard from the depths of the ancient house. At last, unsettled by the noises, Roderick, in a fit of agitation and distress, proclaims that for several days he'd heard his undead sister's struggle as she tried to free herself from her tomb. He feared that she would come after him to exact revenge for her premature burial. Just as he proclaims that she is at that moment standing outside their door, the storm blows the door open. There stands Madeline, covered in her own blood, and battered from her struggle out of the vault. She falls forward into her twin brother's arms. Roderick dies immediately from the horror and shock of the sight. The narrator flees from the horrific scene, and runs from the house. Behind him the crumbling house cracks down the center, collapses, and is swallowed up by the tarn that spread before it.

Major Themes

In “The Fall of the House of Usher” Poe explores such topics as incest, terminal illness, mental breakdown, and death. As is typical of the gothic genre, the story is set in a dark, medieval castle, and uses a first-person narrator to instill a sense of dread and terror in the reader. While many critics contend that Poe intended this story to demonstrate his idea that fiction should be devoid of social, political, or moral teaching, the heavy-handed use of symbolism throughout the tale has led others to suggest that “Usher” addresses the nature and causes of evil. The descriptions of the Usher family home and of Roderick and Madeline create an atmosphere of evil and dread that permeates the narrative from the very beginning. The house itself is referred to as a “mansion of gloom” that seems to cast its shadow over its occupants—both Roderick and Madeline have a ghostly pallor, arousing feelings of unease in the narrator. Many interpretations of the story have explained the evil behind the curse Roderick speaks of as the result of a long history of incest and inbreeding in the Usher family. According to this interpretation, the brother and sister are suffering the physical and emotional consequences of the guilt associated with such universally condemned behavior. Yet others see the evil and sense of foreboding in the story as something of a purely supernatural nature; this version characterizes Roderick's behavior as a natural response to the otherworldly forces that are haunting his home. Roderick speaks several times about the mysterious maladies from which he and his sister suffer. His increasingly unstable mental condition and eventual emotional breakdown at the end of the story have led many to view “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an exploration of the themes of madness and insanity. Madeline's illness—a condition that causes extreme muscle rigidity and periods of unconsciousness—is quite possibly misunderstood (or even purposely construed) as death by her mentally unstable brother, whose irrationality directs the story.

Critical Reception

“The Fall of the House of Usher” was first published in 1839 during a time when most popular literature was highly moralistic. In contrast, Poe's stated intent in writing this and several other tales was to create powerful emotional responses in his fiction through the use of language. Several of his stories depicted psychologically unstable characters and were very different from the typical writing of the time. Poe was often dismissed by contemporary literary critics both because of the unusual content of his stories, and because the short story genre he employed was not yet regarded as serious literature. Ironically, in later years, it was Poe's own writing that was regarded as an instrumental force in establishing the short story as a legitimate and powerful genre. Poe's reputation as a writer with contemporary critics had suffered greatly due to the mishandling and misrepresentation of his life and letters by his literary executor, R. W. Griswold. In a memoir published shortly after Poe's death, as well as a collection of letters that were later found to be forgeries, Griswold portrayed Poe as a bizarre and menacing character. This, coupled with Poe's own deliberately constructed mysterious and poetic persona led many critics to confuse his personal life with the morbid and unnatural characters he created in his writing. Eventually, however, through the scholarship of such critics as A. H. Quinn and others, his reputation has been slowly re-established based on his work rather than on the sketchy details of his personal life. “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been lauded by scholars as a prime example of the Gothic short story. Over the years, there have been many interpretations of the story, and much recent scholarship has viewed the tale as a fictional representation of many of Poe's own literary theories. For example, in an essay discussing the Burkean theory of the sublime, Jack G. Voller notes that Poe uses this story to reject the optimistic aesthetic offered by Burke and instead presents a powerful vision of the terrors and emotions that cannot be easily explained in the context of a sublimely unified existence. In contrast, Craig Howes has interpreted the tale as an original retelling of the elegiac romance. According to Howes, the narrator in “Usher” mirrors the role of protagonists in other romances, telling us a moving story following the death of a heroic figure. In general, “Usher” is acknowledged as one of Poe's most cerebral tales, with little or no action to carry the plot. Because of this, the story has lent itself to numerous interpretations, eliciting a large amount of scholarship that continues to explore the text in new and interesting ways.

Kent Ljungquist (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6082

SOURCE: “Poe and the Picturesque: Theory and Practice,” in University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. 3, 1982, pp. 25-39.

[In the following essay, Ljungquist discusses Poe's pictorial technique and the role of neoclassical and Romantic aesthetic theories in the context of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”]


Critical studies demonstrate the role neoclassical and Romantic aesthetic theories have played in enhancing Poe's pictorial techniques. The primacy of the concept of beauty receives detailed acknowledgement,1 and more recent analyses stress the importance of the aesthetic of the sublime for evoking terrifying but delightful effects.2 Another aesthetic category that deserves greater attention is the picturesque.3 The sublime, the picturesque, and the beautiful constituted for Poe an approved triad that allowed him to develop subtle effects from the accepted aesthetic theories of his time. Although Poe generally exploited the sublime to describe scenes of vastness and grandeur, the picturesque was suited to more circumscribed settings. J. Lasley Dameron documents Poe's interest in this subject by indexing fifty-five uses of the adjective “picturesque” and twelve uses of the noun “picturesqueness” in the criticism alone.4 This index represents only Poe's explicit terminology and does not include similar references in the tales and poems, nor does it embrace implicitly pictorial portions of his work. My purpose is twofold: (1) to survey Poe's use of the term in his criticism with special attention to passages in “Autography”; and (2) to apply his theoretical concern with picturesqueness to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” perhaps his most comprehensive exercise in this aesthetic mode.5 This two-part approach will constitute a translation of picturesque theory into fictional practice.


Although Poe often subsumed aesthetic appeals under the general rubric of Beauty, there is a discrete place for the picturesque in his criticism,6 Poe's categorization perhaps owing something to aestheticians such as Uvedale Price. Price and others set up picturesqueness as a kind of middle ground between sublimity and beauty. According to Price's general theory, picturesqueness avoids the horror and uniformity of the sublime while correcting the languor and insipidity that are the possible results of beauty. Such a mediating category is called “intricacy in landscape,” which might be defined as “that disposition of objects, which, by a particular and uncertain concealment, excites and nourishes curiosity.”7 Curiosity is maintained by allowing roughness, hardly a pejorative term for Price, which guards against either excessive deformity or propriety. Thus, in the fictional landscape of “Landor's Cottage,” “The greatest care had been taken to preserve a due medium between the neat and graceful on the one hand, and the pittoresque, in the true sense of the Italian term, on the other” (M, 3: 1330). The scene surrounding the cottage is not one of total propriety since “The stones that once obstructed the way the land had been carefully placed—not thrown—along the sides of the lane, so as to define its boundaries at bottom with a kind of half-precise, half-negligent and wholly picturesque definition” (M, 3: 1329). The prospect needs a degree of irregularity since, “if a defect could have been attributed … in point of picturesqueness, it was that of excessive neatness” (M, 3:1334). In general, picturesqueness in Poe's fictional “landscapes” as well as in his criticism may not be quite as rough and rugged as that espoused by Price, but it is still not so regular and flowing as to fall within the realm of pure beauty.8

Consequently in “Autography” Poe sharply distinguishes between picturesqueness and the grace or repose associated with beauty. Mr. McMichael's “MS., when not hurried, is graceful and flowing, without picturesqueness” (H, 15:221). In his analysis of Albert Pike, Poe seems to appropriate the aesthetic polarities of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that set up beauty and picturesqueness as separate categories: “Pike has a keen sense not only of the beautiful and graceful but of the picturesque” (H, 15:257).9

In addition to establishing picturesqueness at a midpoint between sublimity and beauty, Poe often uses a simple notion of picturesqueness, originally derived from William Gilpin, which involves framing an event or scene as in a painting or a picture. Poe states this painterly idea in the “Autography” section on John Pendleton Kennedy: “From this specimen of handwriting, we should suppose Mr. Kennedy to have the eye of a painter, more especially in regard to the picturesqueness—to have refined tastes generally” (H, 15:155).10 The preface to Poe's Poems of 1831 merits note in this regard because he therein defines poetry as “a beautiful painting whose tints, to minute inspection, are confusion worse confounded, but start boldly out to the cursory glance of the connoisseur.”11 Rather than attempting to reproduce every natural detail in a minute, representational way, Poe's pictorialism aims, in poetry as well as in prose, to produce the effect of a painting, a piquant combination of details that can be seen as within a frame. Although at least one critic has seen this development as a harbinger of impressionism,12 the notion falls clearly within the purview of picturesque theory current in America of the 1840's and 1850's. As Hans Huth notes, “The old idea of the picturesque was perhaps never more discussed than in this period.”13 In his pictorial definition of poetry, Poe implies that the reproduction of every inconsequential detail in a scene invites visual monotony for the sake of pedestrian accuracy. This idea also finds expression in an 1836 review of Slidell's The American in England (Southern Literary Messenger):

Commencing with his embarkation at New York, our author succeeds, at once, in rivetting the attention of his readers by a succession of minute details. But there is this vast difference between the details of Mr. Slidell, and the details of many of his contemporaries. They—the many—impressed, apparently, with the belief that mere minuteness is sufficient to constitute force, and that to be accurate is, of necessity, to be verisimilar—have not hesitated in putting upon their canvass all the actual lines which might be discovered in their subject. This Mr. Slidell has known better to do. He has felt the apparent, not the real, is the province of the painter—and that to give (speaking technically) the idea of any desired object, the toning down, or the utter neglect of certain portions of that object is absolutely necessary to the proper bringing out of other portions—portions by whose instrumentality the idea of the object is afforded. With a fine eye for the picturesque, and with that strong sense of propriety which is inseparable from true genius, our American has crossed the water, dallied a week in London, and given us, as the result of his observations, a few masterly sketches, with all the spirit, vigor, raciness and illusion of panorama.

(H, 8:216).

This passage constitutes a paradigm of Poe's concept of picturesqueness with all the key elements present: the acknowledgment of painter's eye in Slidell's description, the demanding of the reader's attention by the vigor of the treatment, a succession of visual details, the heightening of certain tonal attributes and the muting of others, and the mention of verisimilitude. All these qualities deserve further mention for their impact on Poe's pictorial techniques.

The first and simplest aspect is the striking nature of picturesque art. The picturesque was emphatically associated not only with external nature but also with a particular style. In 1805, Richard Payne Knight, in his Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste, provided this definition of “picturesqueness”: “Lately, too, the word has been extended to criticism, and employed to signify that clear and vivid style of narration and description, which paints to the imagination, and shows every event or object distinctly, as if presented in a picture.”14 On a rather superficial level, the picturesque thus became a synonym for “striking,” “vivid,” “graphic,” for anything that demands visual attention. Poe uses the term in this manner extensively, for example, describing in The Journal of Julius Rodman (Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, 1840) a group of Indian savages: “They were well provided with bows and arrows, and small round shields, presenting a very noble and picturesque appearance” (H, 4:61).

Poe applies this terminology most extensively in “Autography,” a document meriting attention as a serious attempt to define picturesque style rather than as a forum used merely to debunk his literary competitors. Believing that “the soul is a cipher, in the sense of a cryptograph” (H, 15:81), he attempts in “Autography” to connect human signatures and the personalities of the contemporary literati. Written characters literally become evidences of human character. As I shall discuss later, this analogical relationship, based upon correlations between physical shapes or outlines and human psychology, has significant implications for the picturesque style of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Poe's evaluative comments in “Autography” on the content, writing style, and chirography of contemporary authors, if minimal and hardly definitive, remain meaningful generalizations on the picturesque because of his tacit equation between the effect of an author's handwriting and his pictorial creativity. For example, the analysis of Nathaniel Parker Willis reads: “Mr. Willis writes a very good hand. What was said about the MS. of Mr. Halleck, in the February number, will apply very nearly to this. It has the same grace, with more of the picturesque, and consequently, more force” (H, 15:165). Willis, of course, numbered among the foremost figures in the picturesque movement—the author of American Scenery (1840), Canadian Scenery (1840), and Pencillings by the Way (1844), among others. Once again, analyzing J. P. Kennedy, Poe remarks: “The features are boldness and force of thought (disdaining ordinary embellishment, and depending for its effect upon masses rather than details), with a predominant sense of the picturesque pervading and giving color to the whole. His ‘Swallow Barn’ in especial … is but a rich succession of still-life pieces. … A painter called upon to designate the main peculiarity of this MS. would speak at once of the picturesque” (H, 15:185). Poe's review of Horse-Shoe Robinson praises Kennedy along similar lines: “The second of Mr. Kennedy's volumes is, from a naturally increasing interest in the fortune of the leading characters, by far the most exciting. But we can confidently recommend them both to the lovers of the forcible, the adventurous, the stirring, and the picturesque” (H, 8:11). Based on these passages and others throughout Poe's criticism, picturesque style develops associations with force, vigor, and bold impression. Mr. Gallagher's writing is “clear, bold, decided, and picturesque” (H, 15:223). Elizabeth Barrett's Drama of Exile (Broadway Journal, 1845) has a “Homeric force … a vivid picturesqueness which all men will appreciate and admire” (H, 12:10). Passages from R. H. Horne's Orion “gleam with the purest imagination. They abound in picturesqueness—force—happily chosen epithets, each in itself a picture. They are redolent of all for which a poet will value a poem” (H, 11:273). Poe cites the description of the character Orion “not only as an instance of refined and picturesque imagination, but as evincing the high artistical skill with which a scholar can paint an elaborate picture by a few brief touches” (H, 11:267).

These citations show not only Poe's appreciation for the painter's eye of several authors, but they further illustrate the sharp difference between the picturesque and the sublime. Rather than energy and dynamic movement associated with sublimity, picturesqueness results from a vigorous succession of details. In addition, the picturesque invites variation and contrast rather than the uniformity demanded by the sublime. For example, in the “Autography” section on H. W. Herbert, Poe remarks that the style “resembles that of Mr. Kennedy very nearly; but has more slope and uniformity, with, of course, less spirit, and less of the picturesque” (H, 15:206). Moreover, the chirography of both Joseph Y. Miller and Judge Hopkinson appears “too uniform to be picturesque” (H, 15:163, 203). Rather than the overstraining of the faculties under stress as in the sublime, the picturesque can proceed with less difficulty, in Poe's phrase, “by a few brief touches.”

It is worthwhile to place Poe's work more clearly in the context of the period because, in general, the kind of framed pictorialism that often interested him is just not amenable to the sublime. Although Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville had intermittently become disenchanted with the sublime, a view of considerable currency in the 1840's and 1850's held that the vastness and unlimited nature of American scenery precluded the attention to detail demanded by pictorial treatment. H. T. Tuckerman's essay “Over the Mountains, or the Western Pioneer’,” in The Home Book of the Picturesque, contained such sentiments:

Our scenery is on so large a scale as to yield sublime rather than distinct impressions; the artist feels that it is requisite to select and combine the materials afforded by nature, in order to produce an effective picture; and although our country is unsurpassed in bold and lovely scenes, no ordinary patience and skill are needed to choose adequate subjects for the pencil. … Indeed general effect is the characteristic of American scenery; the levels are diffused into apparently boundless prairies, and the elevation spread in grand but monotonous undulations; only here and there a rock or a ridge, a defile or a cliff, form the nucleus for an impressive sketch, or present a cluster of attractive features limited enough in extent to be aptly transferred to a canvass.15

Although the essay postdates “The Domain of Arnheim” and contains overtly nationalistic sentiments, the ideas expressed are close to the artist Ellison's statement that vast extent fatigues the eye. He notes: “Grandeur in any of its moods, but especially in that of extent, startles, excites—and then fatigues, depresses” (M, 3:1278). Implicit in the passages by Poe and Tuckerman is the notion that limitlessness remains somehow undefined by precluding the perception of distinct, discrete details. The title itself of Poe's “The Landscape Garden” follows an eighteenth-century tradition of formality, circumscription, and landscape improvement that precludes the wildness and abandon of sublimity.16

Picturesque contrast is also achieved through the interplay of light and shadow. This technique, very close to that of a painter's “chiaroscuro,” received Poe's attention as early as his review of Peter Snook (Southern Literary Messenger, 1836). Once again, commenting on the forcible conception of the author, he adds: “It is a Flemish home-piece of the highest order—its merits lying in its chiaro'scuro—in that blending of light and shade and shadow, where nothing is too distinct, yet where the idea is fully conveyed—in the absence of all rigid outlines and all miniature painting—in the not undue warmth of the coloring—and in a well subdued exaggeration at all points—an exaggeration never amounting to caricature” (H, 14:89). The transition from light to shadow stimulates the eye in painting as a tonal change excites the mind's eye in literature. Uncertain brightness and intricate rather than uniform outlines are a visual mirror of the complexity of psychic states so important to Poe's fictional “landscapes” and to “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The picturesque thus becomes a technique to allow the union of psychological and pictorial states. The picturesque profusion and intricacy of much of Poe's fiction come close to a visual ambiguity and confusion that are harbingers of psychic derangement.17 In contrast to the sublime, the more subdued tones of the picturesque keep overt terror, at least temporarily, at bay. Visual and mental excitation is achieved without sublime abandon.

Although the picturesque allows an ideal excitation of the mind, Poe also associates this aesthetic term with verisimilitude. For example, the review of Georgia Scenes (Southern Literary Messenger, 1836) sees Longstreet's “The Dance” as rendered with “inimitable force, fidelity, and picturesque effect.” Likewise, “The Horse Swap” has “joint humor and verisimilitude” (H, 8:260). Just a year later in the review of William Cullen Bryant's Poems, “The Prairie” receives approval in explicitly pictorial terms: “Its descriptive beauty is of a high order. The peculiar points of interest in the Prairie are vividly shown forth, and as a local painting, the work is, altogether, excellent” (H, 9:297). In “To a Waterfowl,” Poe finds “fidelity and force in the picture of the fowl as brought before the eye of the mind” (H, 9:297). As in the review of Slidell, faithfulness to the actual, vigor, and verisimilitude remain key criteria in judging poetry and prose about natural scenery. But Poe's concept of verisimilitude defies equation with a representational reproduction of the actual. By verisimilitude, he means an earnest willingness to visualize the scene or event, but not in a photographic attempt to mirror nature. Poe sees verisimilitude as a magical mixture of representation, involving fidelity to detail, and a residue of wonder that such fictional veracity can be achieved.18 Of the “infinity of arts which give verisimilitude to narration,”19 the picturesque is a primary technique.

At several points in his criticism, Poe seems fond of associating the picturesque with the term “character”: “Mr. Horne has a peculiar and very delightful faculty of enforcing, or giving vitality to a picture, by some vivid and intensely characteristic point or touch. He seizes the most salient feature of his theme, and makes this feature convey the whole. The combined naiveté and picturesqueness of some of the passages thus enforced, cannot be sufficiently admired” (H, 15:272). “Character,” a term popular with the picturesque aestheticians, received most active stress from Humphry Repton, author of Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1795). Repton and others often referred to the true character of a place and matched this quality with an appropriate style. In other words, a building or a prospect should proclaim, above all, its character. In a simple sense, a private residence, for example, should look like a home. But beyond the matching of effects with the so-called character of a scene, “characteristicness” came to have ideal and human associations. In this way, “character” became a significant aesthetic concern that could allow a union of place and personality, psychology and setting.


Such a correlation between fictional setting and human character is nowhere more evident in Poe's works than in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe's classic tale, in fact, fulfills most of the basic principles of the picturesque thus far outlined. Following the terminology of Repton and other aestheticians of landscape scenery, the narrator of “Usher” comments on “the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people” (M, 2:399). This terminology thus sets in motion the elaborate set of analogies between the house, the body of Roderick, and the Usher line—a series of pictorial similarities observed by many critics. Referring to the affinity between the architectural features and the Usher dynasty, the narrator cannot help “speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other” (M, 2:399). What has not been noticed previously is that Poe achieves this analogical relationship largely through repetition of the term “character,” mentioned no fewer than eleven times in the course of the tale. Its repetition not only develops the body-house relationship but also establishes a series of analogies among the landscape and the features of Roderick's face, his esoteric studies, his “fantastic” musical performances, Madeline's illness, her facial features, and the sound of the disintegrating house. Almost in duplication of his statement about the landscape features of the house, the narrator says that “the books which, for years, had formed no small portion of the mental existence of the invalid—were, as might be supposed, in strict keeping with this character of phantasm” (M, 2:408). Thus, a common affective language of the picturesque binds the description of the house, its inhabitants, and the features of the landscape.

In the evocation of an intricate landscape covered by fungi and web-like shrubbery, the appeal to principles of composition in landscape poetry, and the complicated tracing of the train of associations in architectural design,20 the opening paragraphs of “Usher” fall clearly within the vogue of picturesque art. The pictorial emphasis is evident as the narrator attempts to remodel “the details of the picture” in order “to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression” (M, 2:398). His action of looking into the tarn, moreover, is like putting an additional frame on the picture. Consonant with the striking or graphic nature of picturesque art, this act increases the vividness of impressions: “And it might have been for this reason only, that, I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me” (M, 2:399). As he surveys the mansion, he is not impressed by the warmth of cottage art but by the outlines of a darker, more ominous version of the picturesque. The house is marked by “excessive antiquity,” “desolation of age,” “extraordinary dilapidation” (M, 2:400).

From such a perspective, it is a logical step to a study of the physical features of Roderick's face. Just as the outline and shape of handwriting in “Autography” provides a means of reading human “character,” Poe interprets Usher's facial expression as the cryptograph of a tormented soul. As outer shape reflects inner meaning, Usher's physical and bodily features ultimately reveal deeper turmoil. The correspondence among countenance, character, and setting is common in picturesque art. As Martin Price comments: “The movement from texture—the shaggy coats of asses, the varied outlines of Gothic architecture, the mellow tints of time-worn stone—to the physiognomy is a clear one.”21 This phase follows logically and clearly because aestheticians of the picturesque placed so much emphasis on human expression and the study of physical features. Although Hawthorne also stresses human physiognomy in his pictorial writing, Poe, in “Usher,” does not attempt to elicit the feelings of compassion and pathos associated with Hawthorne's “moral picturesque.”22 Nor does he achieve the sense of stillness and repose found even in his own “Landor's Cottage.” The intricate style is even further removed from the gentle middle-class notion of the picturesque, associated with pleasant seaside scenes, quaint rowboats, and vacationing city dwellers. Rather, the mouldering ruins, the “minute fungi,” “tangled web-work,” and “leaden-hued vapour” act as a kind of enveloping veil on the entire scene. According to Angus Fletcher, “the whole art of the picturesque is so obviously to veil that it may not need remarking. It employs a range of devices by which the veiling becomes a stimulus to curiosity, though not to liveliness.”23 The curiosity of the narrator becomes an almost deranged fascination with whatever is hidden. And quite explicitly in “Usher,” Poe describes the narrator's incipient discovery as “the hideous dropping off of the veil” (M, 2:397).

Commentators have often noted that the central tension of “Usher” is between order and disorder,24 thought's dominion balanced against incipient madness. This opposition, however, receives pictorial rather than overtly dramatic treatment. The narrator pauses over the qualities of the Usher Landscape: the complexity of organization through architectural arrangement, the house's endurance or excessive antiquity, its cohesion despite dilapidation and decay. Visual details communicate the hint of disorder: the inconsistency in the outline of the house and the barely perceptible fissure or crack. The narrator sees a “wild inconsistency between the still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of individual stones” (M, 2:400). This state, of course, mirrors the “incoherence” and “inconsistency” (M, 2:402) of Usher himself. A stasis that has too long endured becomes threatened by encroaching challenges to its stability. Uniquely evident in “Usher” is the inevitable assault of change on man in the landscape, a feature of picturesque art that binds human character to setting:

The typical picturesque object or scene—the aged man, the old house, the road with cart-wheel tracks, the irregular village—carries with it the principle of change. All of them imply the passage of time and the slow working out of its change upon them. A face in which one reads the experience of suffering and endurance is seen in a moment that is earned in the long processes that have gone into its creation; it is a moment of resolution, in which we see some counterpoise of enduring substance and the accidents of time.25

The thematic thrust of the picturesque in “Usher” thus involves a precarious state of order achieved through time-worn endurance beset by the disorder of physical disintegration and incipient madness. “The picturesque in general recommends the rough or rugged, the crumbling form, the complex or difficult harmony. It seeks a tension between the disorderly or irrelevant and the perfected form. Its favorite scenes are those in which form emerges only with study or is at the point of dissolution.”26 Clearly, the Usher house, at the point of collapse, is a fit subject for picturesque treatment.

The madness of Roderick, his fantastic art, the relationship with his sister—all these legitimate critical concerns—can be subsumed under a larger pattern: the pictorialized drama of the dissolution of the House of Usher. As in The House of the Seven Gables, the house itself becomes the main protagonist in the tale. Poe insures its connection with other elements in the story by Roderick's esoteric theory on “the sentience of all vegetable things.” Set off against the order that the family wants to uphold, the all-encompassing “kingdom of inorganization” (M, 2:408) looms, acting as a force of destructive animation against the stagnancy of the Usher line. Once again, Poe presents this theory pictorially, and in architectural outline: “The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of the collocation of these stones—in the order of their arrangement, as well as in the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around—above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of the arrangement, and its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn” (M, 2:408). Usher projects to inanimate objects the qualities of life, energy, human expression. To paraphrase Leo Levy, such a projection of human feelings to external scenery constitutes the essence of picturesque art.

One can claim that Poe confines the picturesque to the opening pages of “Usher” A key element of the picturesque is the engagement of the narrator's mind, the ability to elicit energies expressed in visible objects. However, as the story progresses, Poe downplays pictorial composition per se and focuses on complexity for its own sake in particular objects. Coinciding with this transition, the narrator turns from the picturesque style of the house to witness the chilly Ideality of Roderick Usher's mind. Usher's paintings symbolize this movement from pictorial intricacy to total abstraction: “If ever a mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher” (M, 2:405). As picturesque disorder deteriorates into total disorder, mirroring the disintegration of Usher's psyche, Roderick is seen painting what can only be termed abstract, not picturesque, art.27 The transition or disintegration is not all that surprising. The sense of play, associated with the picturesque, invites a kind of disorder that will ultimately take the restless mind outside the volatile realm of the picturesque. “The sense of play finds exercise in fancifulness and in those acts of abstraction which call attention to the arbitrariness of all the mind's creation.”28 The transition from pictorialism to ideal abstraction in natural scenery and in stories like “Usher” leads to perhaps the ultimate endpoint of the picturesque since it allows, more than the other aesthetic modes, a free and flexible excitation.

Thus, in “Usher,” the narrator moves through three aesthetic stages. At the outset of the tale, the intricate “landscape features of the domain” evoke a curiosity that is intensified by the veil of vapor and shrubbery, which acts as a picturesque invitation to discover what lies beneath the surface. After this mask is removed, the narrator is no longer in the realm of the picturesque. Within the narrator's mind, the changes suffered by Roderick and those undergone by the house are not merely compared; they are identified. In this second stage, the narrator is ushered into a realm of Ideality represented by the abstractions of Roderick's paintings. The external scenery has, by this point, become almost secondary to the weird mental projections of Usher. Such a transition has been observed by students of the picturesque, notably by Christopher Hussey, who notes that picturesque prospects often become so intricate and complex that psychological projections become paramount. Idealization of scenery results so that, in the final analysis, ideal abstraction exists without knowing precisely what it represents. Just so the case with Usher's weird, abstract paintings. Unlike the landscape features of the house, which provoke curiosity under the assumption that some kind of truth about Usher can be revealed, Usher's realm of aesthetic abstraction remains utterly mysterious and all but incomprehensible to the narrator. The narrator enters the third phase of his psychological journey. Abstraction gives way to uncontrolled terror.

Nevertheless, in the opening portions of “Usher” Poe gives subtle expression to picturesque theory. The framing of the landscape features of Usher's domain, the attraction of the narrator's attention by a series of vigorous details, the gradual unfolding of the scene by a succession of visual effects, the intensification or moderation of light and a shadow—all these picturesque techniques provoke the reader's curiosity about Usher, a tortured psyche amidst a precariously balanced, if disintegrating setting.


  1. George Kelly, “Poe's Theory of Beauty,” AL [American Literature], 27 (1956), 521-536.

  2. I suggest that Poe's commitment to the sublime waned in the decade of the 1840's in “Poe and the Sublime: His Two Short Sea Tales in the Context of an Aesthetic Tradition,” Criticism, 17 (1975), 131-151. See also Ljungquist, “Descent of the Titans: The Sublime Riddle of Arthur Gordon Pym,SLJ, [Southern Literary Journal], 10 (1978), 75-92 and Alan C. Golding, “Reductive and Expansive Language: Semantic Strategies in Eureka,PoeS [Poe Studies], 11 (1978), 1-5.

  3. Although Robert Jacobs devotes significant attention to Poe's knowledge of the picturesque, other discussions of this aesthetic mode with refererence to Poe are scanty. See Jacobs, Poe: Journalist and Critic (Baton Rouge, 1969), pp. 184-5 and 203. A carefully argued study of Poe's sources is Joel R. Kehler, “New Light on the Genesis and Progress of Poe's Landscape Fiction,” AL [American Literature], 47 (1975), 173-183. See also Motley Deakin, ed., The Home Book of the Picturesque (Gainesville, 1967), p. v; Hans Huth, Nature and the American (Los Angeles, 1957), pp. 12, 52, 60, 122; and James Callow, Kindred Spirits: Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists (Chapel Hill, 1967), p. 217. In “Psyche and Setting: Poe's Picturesque Landscapes,” Criticism, 15 (1973), 16-27, Sharon Furrow is correct about Poe's use of the conventions of the sublime and the picturesque. She errs, I think, in calling “Al Aaraaf” and “The Coliseum” picturesque rather than sublime. Apparently ignoring “Landor's Cottage,” she says that Poe's later works free him from landscape conventions.

  4. J. Lasley Dameron and Louis Charles Stagg, An Index to Poe's Critical Vocabulary (Hartford, 1966), p. 38. The index is keyed to H, from which all passages in Poe's criticism are cited in the text by H, volume, and page number. Passages from the tales are taken from M.

  5. Despite hints by some critics at the picturesque quality of the opening paragraphs, there has been no comprehensive attempt to see the tale as an exercise in this aesthetic mode. Commenting on the setting, Darrel Abel says: “it operates descriptively, as suggesting appropriate and picturesque background for the unfolding of events” and adds that it consists of a “merely picturesque ensemble of background particulars”—“A Key to the House of Usher,” UTQ [University of Toronto Quarterly], 18 (1949), 176-185. More willing to acknowledge seriously the implications of the picturesque, Leo Levy posits a possible connection between Roderick's “kingdom of inorganization” and Hawthorne's picturesque style in “Picturesque Style in The House of the Seven Gables,NEQ [The New England Quarterly], 39 (1966), 147-160.

  6. The most extended treatment of the picturesque movement in England is by Christopher Hussey, The Picturesque: Studies in a Point of View (London, 1967). A valuable updating is by Martin Price, “The Picturesque Moment,” From Sensibility to Romanticism, ed. Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom (New York, 1965), pp. 259-292.

  7. Uvedale Price, Essays on the Picturesque (London, 1974), p. 18.

  8. Callow mentions that the vogue of Uvedale Price in America is worthy of further exploration, p. 124. While the correlation with Price is suggestive, it is tempting to agree with George Mize: “Poe's treatment of landscape gardening … and his whole theory of taste and design border on the Eclectic, a vogue which was beginning to blur all forms of architecture and landscaping in mid-nineteenth-century America, like the mist that blurred Poe's vision on his approach to ‘Landor's Cottage’”—“The Matter of Taste in Poe's ‘Domain of Arnheim’ and ‘Landor's Cottage’,” ConnR, 6 (1972), 93-99.

  9. There are other examples: Halleck has a “love for the graceful rather than the picturesque” (H, 15:150).

  10. This citation is similar to one on William Gilmore Simms in the 1836 Southern Literary Messenger. “The MS. of Mr. Simms resembles, very nearly, that of Mr. Kennedy. It has more slope, however, and less of the picturesque—although still much. We spoke of Mr. Kennedy's MS. (in our February number) as indicating ‘the eye of the painter.’ In our critique of The Partisan we spoke of Mr. Simms also as possessing the ‘eye of the painter’” (H, 15:168).

  11. Quoted in AHQ, 175.

  12. AHQ, 175.

  13. Huth, p. 84.

  14. Richard Payne Knight, An Analytical Inquiry into the Principles of Taste (London: G. Mercier and Company, 1805), p. 151. Lewis Lawson speculates that Poe may have known Knight's Inquiry in “Poe and the Grotesque: A Bibliography,” PoeN [Poe Notes] 1 (1968), 9. The correlation between visual pictorialism and picturesque prose style goes as far back as, at least, Uvedale Price. Witness the following passage from his Essays on the Picturesque: “Few persons have been so lucky as never to have seen or heard the true proser; smiling, and distinctly uttering commonplace nothings, with the same placid countenance, the same even-toned voice; he is the very emblem of serpentine walks, belts, and rivers, and all Mr. Brown's works; like him they are smooth, flowing, even, and distinct; and like him they wear one's soul out.

    “There is a very different being of a much rarer kind, who hardly appears to be of the same species; full of unexpected turns, of flashes of light; objects most familiar, are placed by him in such singular, yet natural points of view … This is the true picturesque, and the propriety of that term will be more felt, if we attend to what corresponds to the beautiful in conversation. How different is the effect of that soft insinuating style, of those gentle transitions, which, without dazzling or surprising, keep up an increasing interest, and insensible wind round the heart.” [Quoted in Martin Price, pp. 274-275.] John T. Irwin briefly notes connections between human signatures and human character amidst his brilliant discussion of Poe's hieroglyphic symbols in American Hieroglyphics: The Symbol of the Egyptian Hieroglyphic in the American Renaissance (New Haven, 1980), p. 52.

  15. Deakin, pp. 115-116.

  16. According to Uvedale Price, uniformity, the great enemy of the picturesque, is the cause of the sublime—Essays on the Picturesque (London, 1794), pp. 71-86. Samuel Monk comments in The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in Eighteenth Century England (New York, 1935): “The materials with which the gardener works preclude much that went to the making of the sublime” (p. 164). Cf. Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria: “Where the parts by their harmony produce an effect of a whole, but where there is no seen form of a whole producing or explaining the parts of it, where the parts only are seen and distinguished, but the whole is felt—the picturesque. Where neither whole nor parts, but unity as boundless or endless allness—the sublime” [Quoted by Martin Price, p. 280].

  17. Remarking the prevailing taste of the nineteenth century, Siegfried Giedion has commented: “Picturesque disorder fascinated people, for it was a reflection of a chaotic state of feeling.” See “The Nineteenth Century: Mechanization and the Ruling Taste,” Mechanization Takes Command (New York, 1948), p. 364.

  18. Speaking of Robinson Crusoe, Poe remarks: “We read, and become perfect abstractions in the intensity of our interest—we close the book, and are quite satisfied that we could have written as well likewise? All this is effected by the potent magic of verisimilitude” (H, 8:170).

  19. See review of Sheppard Lee for context of the quotation (H, 9:138-139).

  20. For a discussion of Archibald Alison's influence on “Usher,” see Barton Levi St. Armand, “Poe's Landscape of the Soul: Association Theory and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” MLS [Modern Language Studies], 7 (1977), 32-41.

  21. Martin Price, p. 281.

  22. The phrase is from Hawthorne's “An Old Apple Dealer.” A careful study of Hawthorne's aesthetics is Buford Jones, “‘The Man of Adamant’ and the Moral Picturesque,” ATQ [American Transcendental Quarterly], 15 (1972), 22-41.

  23. Fletcher, Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode (Ithaca, NY, 1970), p. 260.

  24. Notably E. Arthur Robinson, “Order and Sentience in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” PMLA, 76, (1961), 68-81.

  25. Martin Price, p. 285.

  26. Martin Price, p. 277

  27. See Paul Ramsey, Jr., “Poe and Modern Art: An Essay on Correspondence,” CAJ, 18, (1959), 210-215 and H. Wells Phillips, “Poe's Usher: Precursor of Abstract Art,” PoeS [Poe Studies], 5 (1972), 14-16.

  28. Martin Price, p. 272.

Principal Works

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Tamerlane and Other Poems. By a Bostonian (poetry) 1827

Poems. By Edgar Allan Poe. Second Edition (poetry) 1831

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, of Nantucket, North America: Comprising the Details of a Mutiny, Famine, and Shipwreck, During a Voyage to the South Seas; Resulting in Various Extraordinary Adventures and Discoveries in the Eighty-fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude [published anonymously] (novel) 1838

Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque 2 vols. (short stories) 1840

The Prose Romances of Edgar A. Poe (short stories) 1843

Tales (short stories) 1845

The Raven and Other Poems (poetry) 1846

Eureka: A Prose Poem (essay) 1848

Craig Howes (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Teaching ‘Usher’ and Genre: Poe and the Introductory Literature Class,” in Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring, 1986, pp. 29-42.

[In the following essay, Howes explores “The Fall of the House of Usher” as it relates to the concept of genre, focusing on the way the tale goes beyond the limitations imposed by stylistic conventions.]

Every work of art should contain within itself all that is required for its own comprehension.1

In any introductory literature class, the teacher has traditionally faced two challenges: engaging the students with the specific text, and also suggesting that the poem, story, or novel has qualities found in many other works. Meeting the first challenge will raise the students' interest in the text at hand. Meeting the second will make the students more sensitive to literature in general. Our textbooks show how encoded these two goals have become in our profession. Some loosely group stories around dominant characteristics—“Character,” “Setting,” and “Theme,” to cite a few of the most common. The anthologies by Brooks and Warren, Tate and Gordon, or their many offspring can stand as examples here. Some more ambitious—or less trusting—textbooks insert poems or stories into a series of lectures on literary universals. Perrine's Sound and Sense can be pointed to here.

By responding to these challenges, this paper attempts to make two points. First, “The Fall of the House of Usher” provides the teacher with an excellent model for introducing the idea of genre. Second, Poe's tale can also help teachers avoid those excesses of generalization that the “representative example” approach so frequently leads to. In fact, “The Fall of the House of Usher” can help us admit and explore genre's limitations at the same instant we show how the term and its implications enrich reading.

At first glance, few tasks would seem more difficult than presenting genre to an introductory literature class. Our traditional notions usually make us adopt one of two approaches. The teacher anxious about time can shoot genre on the fly with easy analogies, letting “The Love Boat” act as a paradigm for comedy, or “The Amityville Horror” stand as an analogue to “Usher.” In the other approach, the teacher can give a twenty-minute mini-lecture on the genre at issue, then read the text through the just-established definition. For “Usher,” this might involve “Romance,” “Gothic,” or even “Tale,” to use Poe's own term for his stories. As someone who has tried both approaches, I find the first unsatisfying because my examples tend to suggest that the text before us unnecessarily complicates something “Star Wars” says far better. The second approach has the weight of academic tradition on its side, but I find it reductive. It is not surprising that Oedipus Rex really is a tragedy after I've spent half a class telling the students exactly what to look for. With both approaches the problem is the same: a lack of “context,” of “literary tradition,” or to put it more baldly, the students haven't read six other elegies. Anyone teaching Poe realizes that few students will have a thorough grounding in pseudo-Medieval romances, Walpole, Radcliffe, or Gothic literature in general. And it's pointless to claim a work shares enough with other texts to merit grouping them under a single title if the students aren't familiar with any of the other texts.

Northrop Frye to the rescue—apparently. One reason his Anatomy of Criticism has been so profoundly influential is that by redefining genre so insistently and usefully, Frye reclaims it for the teacher. Drawing his foundations from myth and deep psychology, Frye grounds his genres in recurring narratives that are highly memorable, easily recognizable, and most important of all, universal. Thus, to take a recent example, Rider Haggard, Homer, Stanislaw Lem, and Sir Walter Scott can all appear when Frye discusses romance.2 Although this surely was not his intent, Frye has performed the great service of giving people access to genre without having to read as much as Northrop Frye.

But a number of problems have tempered the profession's initial enthusiasm for an archetypical approach to genre, at least in the classroom. The first drawback is more annoying than problematic. During the past twenty-five years, a school of small Fyre have amply demonstrated that his system can be turned into a sausage grinder. Put a text into the maw, and out comes the appropriate term: “Such and such is the first or most ironic phase of comedy, with an eiron hero.” The sins of the elders have been vested in the young; a professor at a major American university once commented, “In 1964, I swore that if I read one more undergraduate paper on a low-mimetic hero, I would personally launch a rocket toward Toronto.” Reading becomes a game of literary connect-the-dots. Frye cannot himself be accused of his followers' sins so easily, but his comprehensive, systematic “code” does at times get divorced from its rich tradition, and becomes vulgarly transformed into a computer-sorting function.3

A more serious problem with Frye in the classroom is that even if the archetypes and secular texts do relate intimately, the teacher must still tell the story or myth which provides the genre's ur-narrative.4 Traditional approaches to genre lack a frame of reference because the students haven't read enough to make meaningful identifications and comparisons. The Frye approach, as commonly practiced, lacks a frame of reference because even if the archetypes, the myths, are lying dormant and ichoate within the students, they must be drawn out, or more likely, declared present in the classroom before we can talk about the text. More time passes before we confront again “a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year.”5

At this point the inevitable question arises: “Why are you trying to introduce a concept that by your own demonstration is apparently hostile to the conditions of the introductory literature class?” Here we return to the text. Much of “Usher's” impact, its “single effect,” as Poe describes it elsewhere, results from the narrative's explicit but problematic relationship to traditional stories, traditional kinds of expression.6 Poe prevents the reader from sidestepping genre because our understanding of Roderick, the narrator, and the events of the last two pages depends strongly on their relationship to interpolated texts with recognizable generic qualities. Given this, ignoring genre undermines seriously the teaching of the story. Nor does my discomfort result from an attitude that because my scholarly interests are strongly generic, only what gratifies my critical obsession will be of interest. In fact, coming to terms with these inserted texts leads to a reading of “Usher” that not only carries discussion toward the major questions the text raises, but also helps reveal, without oversimplification, the ambivalent but crucial role genre can play in our readings of literary texts.


The two interpolated texts are Roderick's “The Haunted Palace,”7 and the “Mad Trist,” by the fictitious Sir Launcelot Canning. When teaching the story, I begin with poem: partly because it makes explicit the link between Roderick and his artistic productions, and partly because its positioning at the story's center fits my approach, a branching out from the facts of genre. The presentation here is at first very straightforward: through discussion I establish the obvious correspondence between the poem's narrative and Roderick's mental history. We quickly look over the description of Roderick a few pages before (pp. 278-279), noting that “Banners yellow, glorious, golden” “float and flow” like Roderick's “silken hair,” which “floated rather than fell about the face.” The “two luminous windows” match Roderick's eyes, “luminous beyond comparison”; finally, “the pearl and ruby” mouth/door lets out a “troop of Echoes.” What we have, then, is a very simple point-by-point correspondence between Roderick and the palace in days of yore.

The palace's transformation in stanza five carries us from extended conceit to narrative, and hence into allegory. The “evil things, in robes of sorrow” dim the palace's “glory”; the windows are now “red-litten”; and the “pale door” now lets out a madly laughing “hideous throng.” Here we have a poem that performs a recognizable, if heavy-handed function. An allegorical relationship emerges between the fall of a palace due to disruptive elements and the fall of thought from its rightful controlling position due to Roderick's sorrow. Poe clearly wants us to recognize the parallels, even though he once remarked “In defence of allegory, (however, or for whatever object, employed) there is scarcely one respectable word to be said.”8 Just in case any reader might miss it, the narrator prefaces the poem by confessing that “I fancied that I perceived, and for the first time, a full consciousness on the part of Usher, of the tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne” (p. 284). What we have then is a classic case of an interpolated text glossing the narrative events. The only striking quality is the bludgeoning force with which Poe presents the allegory.9

From here the move to genre is a quick one. Despite the correspondences, the poem does not literally or “realistically” present Roderick's actual situation. Rather, “The Haunted Palace” is a translation that elevates Roderick's mental state into a discourse that sets his sorrow within a world more grand, more idealized than his real environment. This becomes clear when the students start looking at the differences between poem and character. Roderick lives in a house, but the “monarch Thought” inhabits a palace. Roderick is a landholder with few attendants, but the monarch rules a kingdom with many subjects. Roderick's world consists of his sister, the doctor, a servant, and now the narrator, but the kingdom boasts “angels,” “spirits,” “A troop of Echoes,” and “evil things, in robes of sorrow.” The contrasts begin to define an elevated kind of literature that dignifies a character in more prosaic circumstances. The reasons why Poe inserts this text depend for their explanation on recognizing that “The Haunted Palace” is a product of Roderick's mind. Why does Roderick project his mental suffering into the realm of romance? The narrator makes very clear that Roderick habitually makes such projections. We hear about “improvised dirges,” about abstract paintings that seem to represent ideas. Most importantly, we hear about Roderick's metaphysical conviction that the stones of the house, the surrounding landscape, the reflections in the tarn, the Usher family history, and his own mental state are inexplicably but undeniably bound together in one unbearable gestalt (pp. 286-287). His obsessive need to see his despair mirrored in everything he experiences ties all expression, all substance together in a process of endless reflection; each image, created or perceived, collapses into all other objects of contemplation. Roderick's belief that his mental history belongs to the idealized, allegorical landscape of “The Haunted Palace” suggests, therefore, that the kind of story he identifies with acts as a genre, a particular mode of discourse that concerns itself with past magnificence, with characters of high status, and with settings of imposing grandeur and horror.

The students now have a genre, a recognizable kind of literary discourse, that we'd probably call an allegorical romance. This genre arises directly out of the text, and insists on its relevance to the main narrative. Two aspects of this genre appear clearly before the student. First, the similarity between the interpolated text and the main narrative reveals how recognizing a common situation's many possible modes of expression can help us understand the story. Juxtaposing the romance with the events in the house clarifies the narrative: we know more about Roderick's fall from genius and action into melancholy. This awareness also extends the students' appreciation of analogy's power. We now have two different accounts of this descent, which extend our own vocabulary for talking about the kind of sorrow Roderick and others can feel. The student can see how genre takes the specific and weds it to the universal, the recurrent, in human experience.

But at the same moment the student recognizes this, the second aspect of genre provokes skepticism, leading away from critical reductiveness, and toward a greater engagement with the text. After all, Roderick links his mental state to the romance narrative, and at this point, discussion can move toward evaluating his motives. What does Roderick's poem tell us, other than that he feels the analogy is apt? The romance's elevated grandeur might suggest delusions of greatness, and certainly charges of egotism, and even solipsism, don't stretch plausibility. Roderick seems to feel his sorrow can only be acted out fully within a literary universe, and a very expansive one at that. To add weight to these charges, the narrator explicitly states that “The Haunted Palace” indicates madness; in fact, right after the poem he tells us about Roderick's obsessive belief that all existence corresponds totally with his own feelings.

Our gains from starting with “The Haunted Palace” are therefore quite substantial. We can see how the poem sets up a genre, how it glosses the main narrative, and how it acts as a universalizing agent. But we can also see that recognizing these affinities does not end the reading process. The story forces us to interpret the presence of genre. What does it imply about Roderick's state of mind? How accurate is the narrator's reading of the situation? Finally, what effect do all these variables have on our reading of the entire story? Thus the operations of genre in this small section of “Usher” not only make introducing the idea much easier, but also lead the students to interpret these operations, setting up both curiosity and anticipation about how the genre will further influence our reading.


The second interpolated text, the “Mad Trist” of Sir Launcelot Canning, confirms the importance of our investigation to this point. Here, I start by reading aloud the “Trist,” leaving out the disturbing events and reflections that interrupt the narrator's reading. Constructing a brief summary with the students then highlights the salient features. Denied admission to the hermit's dwelling, the hero Ethelred smashes through the door, thus escaping the rising tempest outside. Within he finds a dragon guarding a golden palace. He kills the dragon, then moves forward to claim a shield hanging from the palace wall. The shield falls to the ground before him. Throughout, the language is archaic, with such words as “doughty,” “withal,” “in sooth,” and “asunder” peppering the narrative (pp. 292-293).

We then draw on our understanding of “The Haunted Palace” to evaluate the new narrative. The superficial similarities are striking enough: we have a second palace, and the same gold motif we find in the poem. This second building is every bit as “haunted” as the first one, since the hermit has apparently changed himself into a dragon. We have the same elevation of language and event as in the earlier narrative; in fact, the narrator refers to the “Trist” as one of Roderick's “favorite romances” (p. 292).10 Both pieces are romances, with elevated, almost mythic characters acting out within a chivalric landscape stories of miraculous and abrupt transformations, carried out through a violence from without that breaks down a stronghold. We are no longer simply comparing a single interpolated story to the main narrative. We have moved from analogy to a literary concept, because we now have a range of linked stories, however small, that establishes a genre of romance. Poe makes us think about “The Fall of the House of Usher” as part of this literary field. By considering this relationship, the whole question of genre becomes its most intriguing and essential to our reading of the text.

We now carry through the same analysis of differences as before, both between the two romances, and between the “Mad Trist” and the Usher narrative. To begin with, “The Haunted Palace” is a complete narrative. This wholeness is absent from the “Mad Trist.” This romance is presented as a fragment, an episode the narrator has happened to arrive at, and will break off abruptly. Furthermore, this fragment is itself shattered, since the narrator interrupts it three times to give us an increasingly disturbed account of what's happening in his bed-chamber. This fragmentary quality makes linking the Usher narrative to the romance a far more tenuous enterprise, simply because unlike “The Haunted Palace,” the “Mad Trist” is neither clear, continuous, nor whole.

But viewed now as part of the genre we established with “The Haunted Palace”—a kind of literature that elevates or translates psychological instability into dramatic narrative—an eerie similarity emerges. The title of the second romance connects it explicitly to this specific kind of allegory: the narrator is reading a “Mad Trist.” The narrator sees “The Haunted Palace” as a symptom of “the tottering of [Roderick's] lofty reason upon her throne” because as a product of Roderick's mind, the allegory becomes a projection of his personal fall into mental instability. But this poem not only elevates the psychological imbalance; it also stands as Roderick's rejection of personal responsibility for his decline: “evil things, in robes of sorrow, / Assailed the monarch's high estate.” Roderick therefore admits instability, but declares the outer world responsible for his fall from reason. This explains why the narrator presents Roderick's obsessive theory of external/internal correspondence immediately after recording the poem. The narrator sees both poem and theory as mad, the products of Roderick's “disordered fancy”: “Such opinions need no comment” (pp. 286-287). Viewed in this light, the “Mad Trist” becomes even more significant. Just as Ethelred breaks from the woods into the royal landscape of romance, so does Roderick break from his Usher environment into the world of palacial gold. Escaping the prosaic world and entering into the romance land of kingdoms is for Roderick flight through narrative, and this flight, grounded on a belief that one world is just as valid, “real,” and accessible as another, suggests that Roderick can no longer distinguish between the actual and the projected. This particular kind of romance allegory, carefully constructed by Poe within his story, is therefore a manifestation of madness.

Roderick's behavior during the fateful last night confirms to us and the narrator how extreme the madness has become. Roderick's “mad hilarity” and “hysteria” when he enters the room don't bode well for the evening, and his question “And have you not seen it?” also points to what we have already observed: Roderick believes the cause of his obvious imbalance is external, an “it,” rather than his own psychological weakness (p. 291). Throwing open the casement, he stands immobile, staring into the storm—a blatant emblem of outer turmoil battering a passive self. The narrator, committing one of the worst blunders on literary record, substitutes one battering for another, by reading aloud the kind of story Roderick links to his own mental state: the romance allegory.

Roderick's actions during the reading confirm the connection. The “strange alteration” the narrator notices moves Roderick into a position “with his face to the door of the chamber”—and doors, as we know from the poem and Ethelred's actions, tend to be broken through. Roderick's head droops on his breast, though his eye is rigidly open. His only movements are a trembling of his lips and a rocking “from side to side with a gentle yet constant and uniform sway” (pp. 294-295). Surely a more vulnerable figure cannot be pictured: a passivity moving toward the catatonic, broken only by an autistic rocking in sympathy with the romance.

Now comes the crucial break. Roderick has travelled so far in his insistence that forces from without determine his state, that he now denies any responsibility for the way he experiences the world. In “The Haunted Palace,” he seems to recognize that his mental state is still one term in the equation: he projects his instability into romance allegory to escape from actual circumstances—his sister, his family line, the house. Thus, although he denies responsibility for his madness, implicitly at least he must take credit for the allegory. But the “Mad Trist” is not Roderick's creation. He becomes a simple conduit, shrieking out the absolute identity between romance and the external world he has been trying to flee:

And now—to-night—Ethelred—ha!—the breaking of the hermit's door, and the death cry of the dragon, and the clangour of the shield!—say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault!

(p. 296)

The “real” and the “romance” have collapsed together, leaving no space for a mediating consciousness. Roderick's belief in the total reflexiveness of all aspects of experience now appears as a self-fulfilling prophesy, one that confounds allegory with reality, assertive narcissism with passive non-resistance, and action with suffering. Jumping to his feet, “as if in the effort he were giving up his soul,” Roderick screams “Madman! I Tell You that She Now Stands Without the Door!”


Pity the poor narrator. His experience to this point has been a series of failures or refusals to make connections between the characters, events, or scenes. The discrepancy between his own sense of disunity and Roderick's claims for endless correspondence has in fact convinced him that Roderick is mentally unbalanced. In the very first paragraph, we see the narrator feeling melancholy and gloomy before the house, but he cannot, for all his efforts, recognize or articulate the cause: “while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth” (p. 274). Throughout the narrative, we watch him pull back from any kind of fanciful linking of the two realms; for example, he seems to see an “atmosphere” engulfing the house, but flees the thought as an impossibility: “Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building” (p. 276). Whenever he reports the stray ideas or emotions a scene or object might suggest, he carefully hedges his statement—few works of literature make more use of “perhaps,” “I fancied,” “I thought,” and other verbal stutters to undercut observations at the moment they are made. This narrator sees Roderick as a figure fragmented by his delusions: the letter of summons “gave evidence of nervous agitation”; Roderick's behavior is “an incoherence—an inconsistency”; his speech reminds the narrator of “the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement” (pp. 274, 279). The narrator presents all his experiences with Roderick as evidence of the “futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe, in one unceasing radiation of gloom” (p. 282). Even on that final evening when Roderick stands before the storm, the narrator yet again denies the correspondence of inner and outer: “These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon—or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn. Let us close this casement” (p. 292). Almost to the very end, the narrator keeps his wits about him, and questions Roderick's.

None of this is to say that the narrator is an insensitive clown—far from it. He's been unsettled from the first page of the story, and continually disturbed by intimations, suspicions, uncomfortable uncertainties that threaten his own peace of mind. But heretofore, he has rejected Roderick's theory of correspondence out of hand. With Roderick in front of him, this theory only seems to promise misery and paranoia. Nor do we condemn the narrator for this. He has been the readers' guide, mouthing before we can our reservations and skepticism about the narrative he is telling us. Our narrator is Roderick's antithesis: unconnected by history or family, a stranger to the scene, he can hardly feel the same reduplicating of experience that has become Roderick's idée fixe. That is, until the final night.

The narrator's nightmarish experience in the last few pages brings together all the generic and psychological concerns that have been emerging through our class reading of the story. Maintaining his detachment has become increasingly more difficult, as he tells us just before Roderick's entrance: “I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions” (p. 290). He finds Roderick's sudden presence, however foreboding, a relief, for “anything was preferable to the solitude which I had so long endured” (p. 291). Reading the “Mad Trist” finally breaks down the narrator's separation, because for the first time he perceives unmistakable correspondences between the romance and the events around him. He typically dismisses the ripping sound he hears when reading about Ethelred's forced entry, but in one of his most convoluted rationalizations:

… it appeared to me (although I at once concluded that my excited fancy had deceived me)—it appeared to me that, from some very remote portion of the mansion, there came, indistinctly, to my ears, what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very cracking and ripping sound which Sir Launcelot had so particularly described. It was, beyond doubt, the coincidence alone which had arrested my attention; for, amid the rattling of the sashes of the casements, and the ordinary commingled noises of the still increasing storm, the sound, in itself, had nothing, surely, which should have interested or disturbed me.

(p. 293)

By this time, the reader should be getting annoyed, but the obfuscation ends here. The second eerie correspondence—the dragon's death cry and the screaming sound—is the crucial one, because for the first time, the narrator, usually so willing to speak of obscurity, unhesitatingly describes the sound as “the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up for the dragon's unnatural shriek as described by the romancer” (p. 294). The romance is now acting in the way the narrator has noted it does for Roderick: as an exact counterpart to his mental state. But this romance is not a personal projection; rather, it forces itself on the narrator's fancy, in spite of his defences. Not surprisingly, the third interruption—the clanging sound of the falling shield—totally disarms him. At this moment, the “Completely unnerved” narrator rushes for no logical reason to Roderick's side, and disciple-like, receives the prophetic interpretation already quoted. The narrator also earns the title he has graced Roderick with from the beginning: “Madman!” And by the terms of the narrator's own skepticism, his experiences at this moment leave him with no other name for his mental state.

Here the most controversial section of the story begins. The narrator faces two possibilities: either he is mad, or these weird events are actually happening, and the external world no longer conforms to the rational principles he has followed until now. To put it another way, either he is as mad as Roderick, or Roderick has been right all along. Most “Usher” criticism lines up on one side or the other,11 but the description of the following events leaves us in no doubt about the narrator's conscious choice. The door swings open, and the narrator tells us “It was the work of the rushing gust—but then without those doors there Did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher” (p. 296). This is a marvellous sentence. The dash separates our commonsensical narrator from his new incarnation, and the “Did” insists on the apparition's reality, therefore confirming Roderick's own capitalized gush: “She Now Stands Without the Door!” From this point, the story rushes forward with a speed and sureness we haven't encountered before. No qualifications, no reflections; bald assertion follows bald assertion as Roderick and Madeline fall together in their death throes, the narrator flees the house, the building splits in an explosion of matter and light, and the whole scene falls into itself before the narrator's horrified but certain eyes. Roderick is now unambiguously “a victim to the terrors he had anticipated,” and the narrator's wise decision to accept Roderick's interpretation saves him from sharing the Ushers' fate.

But surely this is cheap. A work so labored, so involuted seems to end with the old saw: “There's lots of people who deny it, but the bogey man really Does exist, and I guess the narrator has learned his lesson.” Furthermore, we must now see Roderick as a totally reliable character: he becomes a Cassandra who isn't believed until the last possible second. Must we then swallow the order of insentient beings, the absolute reduplication of all experience as a compound mirror of sorrow; in short, must we accept a world that owes all its meaning to Roderick Usher? The narrator of course has, and apparently on some pretty good evidence, but to answer these questions, we must return to the small matter of genre.

The fact is that in the last two paragraphs, we encounter yet another example of the romance allegory genre—and the most complicated one of all. We have the same supernatural, almost mythic events: intruders break through barricades with extreme results, dead people rise again, and massive structures are utterly transformed. Even the language rises to the occasion: the doors are “huge antique panels” which at Roderick's command “threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws,” almost “As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell.” The intruder is “the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher,” who “in her violent and now final death-agonies” bears her brother “to the floor a corpse.” In the last sentence, the narrator watches “the mighty walls rushing asunder” with “a long and tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters.” Shakespeare and the Bible thus join forces with the narrator's equally fervid language to map out a narrative every bit as schematic and elevated as “The Haunted Palace” or the “Mad Trist.”

In fact, these two paragraphs contain the most convoluted and self-reflexive romance of all. In “The Haunted Palace” bad forces assail and destroy a good place. In the “Mad Trist” we encounter some permutations: the good hero Ethelred breaks into a place of evil, only to find and conquer an evil dragon guarding a presumably positive golden palace. The last two paragraphs give this story of violation and transformation another turn of the screw. The bedchamber, a bad or good place, depending on your reading of Roderick, is violently entered by a good or evil figure, depending on your reading of the lady Madeline, who attacks the good or evil Roderick, and destroys him and herself, thus triumphing over evil, destroying good, or committing suicide. The results of these break-ins follow the same progression. Violation transforms, and therefore destroys the Haunted Palace. In the “Mad Trist,” breaking-in confronts the hero with another figure to destroy, as well as revealing another palace. When lady Madeline comes through the door, she confronts and destroys Roderick, and apparently through this action, destroys the house that contains the whole scene. Thus as the actors' moral identities become more vexed, the acts of destruction multiply. The romance narrative spins into its ultimate degree of complexity, then unravels, annihilating everything coming before, including the narrator's entire account: “the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the House of Usher” (p. 297). The narrator's leap into apparently unambiguous description is therefore misleading, since we find ourselves back in the violent, extreme world of romance allegory so carefully created in the previous pages. The ending is both the most straightforward, and the most convoluted and perplexing narrative in the tale.

The problem here lies in the choice confronting the narrator. A quick look at Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which chances are at least some of the students will have read, makes the nature of this choice more evident by contrast, Marlow describes himself as standing between two nightmares: the horror and blackness of Kurtz's vision, and the equally horrible imperialistic exploitation of Africa. His behavior leads the company manager to reject him as “unsound,” but Marlow consoles himself by realizing “it was something to have at least a choice of nightmares.” He claims he stays true to his choice by lying to Kurtz's Intended, even though he feels “that the house would collapse before I could escape, that the heavens would fall upon my head.”12 In “Usher,” the narrator's alternative nightmares fall into each other in the same way that the house falls into its reflection. The narrator chooses to believe that the world operates as Roderick says it does, but the house and the heavens fall down anyway. To accept Roderick's vision is to accept an apocalypse. But examining the interpolated romances has shown us that Roderick's vision, if true, is simply a claim that the entire world operates madly: irrationally, supernaturally, viciously, inexplicably. It is, therefore, no surprise that the narrator's final description participates strongly in that romance allegory tradition of the violent and the supernatural. From the narrator's new perspective, the romance is a realistic mode for articulating the insanity of all experience.

Here I think we come to the source of “Usher's” terror, that “single effect” Poe demands from the well-wrought tale. Rationality, as the narrator and by implication we ourselves practice it, handles with difficulty certain inexplicable but sensed aspects of our environment. The influence of dreams, intimations, suspicions, and even nature itself steadfastly resists our probing gaze: “the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.” When we add the pressures of personal attachment, sexuality, and history, the puzzle becomes even more perplexing. To live within this scene, we must fall back on “unsatisfactory” conclusions, but whether we hold tight to reason, or whether we project an ordering principle for the world that matches our preoccupations, the result, as “The Fall of the House of Usher” points out, leaves us in a position of horror, doubting both the world and the way we perceive it. The two nightmares—loss of reason or a horrific universe—are in fact the same nightmare. Regardless of which nightmare we start with, the one is only the consequence of the other. This sense of frustration, of entrapment within a game that refuses to resolve itself, that refuses to tell us whether our narrator is mad or sane, is the true horror of Poe's tale.

This reflexiveness is what makes genre so important to our reading of “Usher.” The interpolated stories not only help us interpret the events, but also actively engage us with the whole problem of relating different aspects of our experience through perception and contemplation. Roderick's mode of thought is reflection in its fullest sense, for his utterances, artistic expressions, and actions all mirror his preoccupations about the nightmare he finds himself living. And of course, we watch the narrator move toward the same kind of mental “integrity,” however unsettling this might be. For the characters, the romance at first serves a number of important and beneficial functions. “The Haunted Palace” allows Roderick to project his mental turmoil into another realm, and at the same moment escape personal responsibility for his anguish. The “Mad Trist” starts off as a therapeutic device, intended to divert Roderick's mind from his troubles. And the conclusion of the story is a romance that carries the narrator away from his own destruction.

But these texts also serve as a warning, for the incongruity between their narratives and the unfolding events shows us that however certain the individual may be of universal order, there remains a gap between one set of circumstances and another. Roderick is not a king, nor can his sorrow be easily passed off to the influence of “evil things.” Despite the eerie correspondence between the “Mad Trist” and the events of the final night, lady Madeline is not a male hero, nor is the bedchamber either a hovel or a palace. The last two paragraphs occupy the same realm as the first two romances, and share by implication their problematic status. We recognize the same symptoms of solipsism and mental disturbance so strongly present in the earlier narratives.

The point here is not that the narrator hallucinates the conclusion. Poe is too clever to leave us with this easy out. The ending, however, raises enough doubt to prevent us from making the apparently inevitable leap into the simpler world of nightmare. We remain finally in neither camp. Roderick's obsession remains suspicious, even if the world seems to confirm it. The narrator's horrid experience remains problematic, because the time we have spent thinking about the earlier examples of romance makes us keep our reservations about his account. Thus, genre has worked in two ways. As a concept that demands comparison, it has kept us active and critical in our engagement with a text so obviously related to its interpolations. Genre has taught us about reading. But as an apparent framework for organizing different narratives, it leads us to a highly critical estimate of Roderick's vision, simply because the fragments, the extra pieces, the glaring inconsistencies we recognize when dealing with these interpolated texts make us very leery of any neat, comprehensive vision.

Like our nightmares, then, genre and “The Fall of the House of Usher” collapse, but into a dynamic experience that teaches about genre as we read the story, and directs us toward sensitive reading by forcing us to wrestle with the romances Poe puts before us. And such wrestling, it seems to me, is at least one way of meeting the challenges with which teaching introductory literature confronts us: the challenge of the specific text, and the challenge of literature itself.13


  1. Edgar Allan Poe, rev. of The Poetical Writings of Elizabeth Oakes Smith, in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Crowell, 1902), XIII, 86. Hereafter cited as Works.

  2. Northrop Frye, The Secular Scripture: A Study of the Structure of Romance (Cambridge: Harvard, 1976). Of course, any quick look at a Frye index demonstrates the same point.

  3. Frye himself is not unaware of this possibility. In his work, he repeatedly warns against this kind of facile application. To quote from Anatomy of Criticism, “Such an approach need not be distorted into a poetic determinism, for, as has been said, it would be silly to use a reductive rhetoric to try to prove that theology, metaphysics, law, the social sciences, or whichever one or group of these we happen to dislike, are based on ‘nothing but’ metaphors or myths.” (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957), 353.

  4. In fact, when I was an undergraduate at Victoria College, Frye and Prof. Jay Macpherson taught an immensely popular year-long course on the Bible and Classical Mythology that filled precisely this need—and then some.

  5. Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Works, III, 273. All subsequent references to “Usher” appear in the text.

  6. Poe, rev. of Twice-Told Tales, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Works, XIII, 153.

  7. “The Haunted Palace” was actually published in the American Museum of Science, Literature and the Arts for April, 1839, some five months before “Usher” first appeared in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. Poe incorporated it into the story.

  8. Works, XIII, 148. The statement occurs in the same review of Hawthorne quoted above.

  9. For a bit of ad hominem support, see The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe: With New Forward and Supplementary Chapter, ed. John Ward Ostrom, (New York: Gordian Press, Inc., 1966), I, 160-61. Writing to Griswold in May of 1841, Poe complains that Longfellow is guilty of plagiarism in a poem called “The Beleaguered City.” Poe then discusses what he feels is Longfellow's source: “The Haunted Palace.” “… by the Haunted Palace I mean to imply a mind haunted by phantoms—a disordered brain—and by the Beleaguered City Prof. L. means just the same. But the whole tournure of the poem is based on mine, as you will see at once. Its allegorical conduct, the style of its versification and expression—all are mine.”

  10. Of course, even in the act of making this statement, the narrator retracts it: “there is little in its uncouth and unimaginative prolixity which could have had interest for the lofty and spiritual ideality of my friend. It was, however, the only book immediately at hand …” I discuss this tendency in the narrator in subsequent pages; the important thing here is that he explicitly labels the “Mad Trist” as a romance.

  11. The criticism on “Usher” is extensive and copious, and in shaping this teaching approach, I have drawn greatly from it. Some of the most helpful essays are Darrel Abel, “A Key to the House of Usher,” UTQ [University of Toronto Quarterly] 18 (1949), 176-85; Maurice Beebe, “The Universe of Roderick Usher,” Personalist 37 (Spring, 1956), 147-60; Richard Wilbur, “The House of Poe,” in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales, ed. William Howarth (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1971), 98-120; James Hafley, “A Tour of the House of Usher,” ESQ 31 (1963), 18-20; John S. Hill, “The Dual Hallucination in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” SWR [Southwest Review] 48 (1963), 396-402; I. M. Walker, “The ‘Legitimate’ Sources of Terror in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” MLR [Modern Language Review] 61 (1966), 585-92; James M. Cox, “Edgar Poe: Style as Pose,” VaQR [Virginia Quarterly Review] 44 (1968), 67-90; Thomas J. Rountree, “Poe's Universe: The House of Usher and the Narrator,” TSE [Tulane Studies in English] 20 (1972), 123-34; Peter Obuchowski, “Unity of Effect in Poe's ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” SSF [Studies in Short Fiction] 12 (1975), 407-12; Jacqueline Viswanathan, “The Innocent Bystander: The Narrator's Position in Poe's ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ James's ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ and Butor's ‘L'Emploi du Temps,’” HUSL [Hebrew University Studies in Literature and the Arts] 4 (1976), 27-47; E. Miller Budick, “The Fall of the House: A Reappraisal of Poe's Attitudes toward Life and Death,” SLJ [Southern Literary Journal] 9:2 (1977), 30-50; Barton Levi St. Armand, “Poe's Landscape of the Soul: Association Theory and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” MLS [Modern Language Studies] 7 (1977), 32-38; Frederick Frank, “Poe's House of the Seven Gothics: The Fall of the Narrator in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” OL [Orbis Litterarum] 34 (1979), 331-51; and Terence J. Matheson, “Fatalism in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” ESC [English Studies in Canada] 6 (1980), 421-29. For the longest sustained debate on the whole question of the narrator, see the essays by Patrick F. Quinn and G. R. Thompson in Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, Poe, Critical Essays in Honor of Darrel Abel (West Lafayette: Purdue UP, 1981), 303-53.

  12. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough, A Norton Critical Edition, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton, 1971), 63, 79.

  13. I would like to thank Profs. Richard Lessa and John Rieder for their help with this article.

Further Reading

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Bieganowski, Ronald. “The Self-Consuming Narrator in Poe's ‘Ligeia’ and ‘Usher.’” In American Literature 60, No. 2 (May 1988): 175-87.

Explores the self-focused nature of the narrators in “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” noting that both characters seem to pay more attention to their own reaction than they do to the action around them.

Clifton, Michael. “Down Hecate's Chain: Infernal Inspiration in Three of Poe's Tales.” In Nineteenth-Century Literature 41, No. 2 (September 1986): 217-27.

Analyzes three of Poe's short stories as revealing an intricate pattern of internal inspiration, that links together Poe's fears about the creative subconscious.

Fenlon, Katherine Feeney, “John Gardner's ‘The Ravages of Spring’ as Re-Creation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’” In Studies in Short Fiction 31, No. 3 (Summer 1994): 481-87.

Contends that John Gardner's “The Ravages of Spring” is an ingenious re-creation of Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Howes, Craig. “Burke, Poe, and ‘Usher’: The Sublime and Rising Woman.” In ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 31, No. 3 (1985): 173-89.

Argues that Poe draws on conventional notions of the sublime to present a devastating analysis of Edmund Burke's theory of sublimity in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Ljungquist, Kent P. “Howitt's ‘Byronian Rambles’ and the Picturesque Setting of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’” In ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 33, No. 4 (1987): 224-36.

Places Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher,” within the tradition of literary pictorialism, comparing it closely to William Howitt's works of the same nature.

Tombleson, Gary E. “Poe's ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ as Archetypal Gothic: Literary and Architectural Analogs of Cosmic Unity.” In Nineteenth Century Contexts 12, No. 2 (1988): 83–106.

Discusses ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ as classic Gothic fiction in which cosmic annihilation is a necessary prelude to regeneration.

Voloshin, Beverly R. “Poe's ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’” In Explicator 46, No. 3 (Spring 1988): 13-15.

Traces the pervasive dualism presented in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

———. “Transcendence Downward: An Essay on ‘Usher’ and ‘Ligeia.’” In Modern Language Studies 18, No. 3 (Summer 1988): 18-29.

Comparative analysis of “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” as transcendental projects that spiral downward rather than upward.

Additional coverage of Poe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors & Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 14; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 59, 73, and 74; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most Studied Authors and Poets; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 1; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 34 and 35; Something about the Author, 23; and World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present.

Craig Howes (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ and Elegiac Romance,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 19, No. 1, Fall, 1986, pp. 68-78.

[In the following essay, Howes presents an interpretation of “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an elegiac romance, a form of storytelling that blends romance and elegy to present the tale of a heroic figure through the eyes of a narrator embarked on a quest.]

One of the central concerns in “Usher” criticism has been the relationship between Roderick and the narrator. At the poles lie treatments that deal primarily with one character or the other. Thus we find essays on Roderick as vampire, practitioner of incest or necrophile, heroic artist moving into the intense inane, or object lesson in fatalism.1 Essays on the narrator present him as a successful or defeated representative of reason, a portrait of mental collapse, or even a heroic figure.2 “Usher” criticism's middle ground concerns itself with how the two characters interact: Roderick draws the narrator into madness; Roderick initiates him into “modern” metaphysics and aesthetics; Roderick is the narrator's double.3 This range of approaches has a kaleidoscopic effect: many bright fragments refract the light of Poe's story, forming an apparently arbitrary, expanding mass.

In 1971, Kenneth A. Bruffee published “Elegiac Romance,” an important, but apparently overlooked essay; more recently, his book Elegiac Romance: Cultural Change and the Loss of the Hero in Modern Fiction goes over this suggested genre in greater detail.4 I would like to draw on Bruffee's genre to point out first its usefulness when reading and teaching “Usher,” and second, its ability to draw the various critical approaches taken toward Poe's tale into a mosaic that integrates character, narrative, and a series of themes into a pattern governing some of American and European literature's most important and most taught works.

Bruffee doesn't mention Poe in his article, and “Usher” appears only for a moment in his book, but his account of elegiac romance could be a precis for the story. Bruffee observes that in certain 19th and 20th century stories and novels, the manner of telling welds romance and elegy together in an original, productive manner. This fusion results in part from the differences between two protagonists:

Works of Elegiac Romance are romances because a heroic figure in each is embarked on some kind of quest. They are elegiac because the narrator in each tells us the story after the heroic figure is dead.


Bruffee distinguishes elegiac romance from other literary kinds by referring to certain key characteristics of his new genre. Although there seem to be affinities with pastoral elegy, elegiac romance lacks the insistence on true friendship between hero and mourner. Puzzled and unsettled by the dead figure, the narrator tells a tale emphasizing the peculiar, unequal nature of their friendship. Nor does elegiac romance mirror fictional autobiography, because the centrality of the hero-narrator relationship prevents us from reading the text as exclusively about the teller. Even in those fictional autobiographies which emphasize the death of characters—Wuthering Heights, for example—the narrative does not owe its existence solely to the hero's death, and its effect on the narrator. Bruffee's list of elegiac romances is an impressive one. Moby Dick,The Great Gatsby,Lord Jim,Heart of Darkness,The Good Soldier, and All the King's Men are just a few of the titles he mentions. But no story or novel I've encountered fits his paradigm more exactly than “Usher.”

Bruffee's discussion begins with “the questing hero,” since the narrator's response to this figure produces the tale. This hero's character makes him seem at first the story's main figure. He is a product of the 19th century; Byronic in nature, a character “isolated from society by his obsessive quest” (466). This quest can be internal or external; thus a physically passive figure can be “questing” through the landscape of his own psyche. Active, and even hyperactive in pursuing his obsession, he is sometimes an artist, and often a victim of some degenerating and inexplicable disease. Alive he is both fascinating and mysterious, with more than a hint of occult knowledge, but for all his talents, his death seems fated.

This portrait bears a strong likeness to Roderick Usher. Driven by his sense of impending doom, Roderick sees clearly the course ahead: “I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, Fear.”5 His obsessive, futile quest after the mysterious cause of his destiny isolates him from society in an extreme fashion. Though subject at times to almost catatonic melancholy, Roderick is also prone to “excessive nervous agitation,” and “an excited and highly distempered ideality.” His aesthetic sensibility and artistic productions figure prominently. His knowledge of the occult manifests itself in his studies of musical theory, his reading material, and his metaphysics—the obsession with the doubling of history, landscape, and psychological states that the narrator describes. And although Madeline suffers the mysterious disease, Roderick certainly exhibits the symptoms as well.

Of course, this portrait is hardly distinctive; the Romantic and Victorian woods are thick with such figures. It is this character's relationship with the second protagonist that moves the tale from self-destructive quest to elegiac romance. This second figure's role is crucial, because we see the questing hero through his eyes. Even when the hero speaks, his utterance “is edited, selected, and arranged by the narrator” (466). Furthermore, the narrator's own uncertainty colors every sentence. His self-consciousness is so pervasive that many critics see the narrator as the true central character. We generally know little about this figure's life before he encounters the questing hero, largely because this event radically transforms the narrator's vision of the world. In elegiac romance, the narrator strongly identifies with his hero, but this intense feeling is not returned. The hero remains aloof: “However friendly the narrator and his hero may have been according to the narrator's account, it is clear that they never were on terms of real mutual intimacy.” The narrator identifies with his hero because of a lack of self-possession. The language betrays the narrator's “extraordinary propensity to turn himself inside out at a moment's notice, with a feeling such as Ishmael's ‘certain wild vagueness of painfulness concerning’ Ahab.” At story's end he is isolated from society, but not by committing himself to the hero's quest. Rather, “an odd state of mind which seems to be a result of the nature of his relationship with the hero” isolates the narrator (465). We thus confront a highly impressionable, insecure initiate, brooding on his situation after the hero's death.

Poe's narrator fits this description precisely. He is nothing if not an editor, for he brackets Roderick's ideas within a welter of references to “disordered fancy,” “phantasmagoric conceptions,” and “hypochondria.” He is so self-conscious that he qualifies even the barest passages of exposition. Few works make so much use of “perhaps,” “I fancied,” and “I thought” to undercut narrative in the act of its presentation. The narrator tells us nothing about himself, and we also find that unequal relationship between hero and narrator Bruffee notes. The narrator rushes to Roderick's side after receiving a “summons,” though many years have passed since their last meeting. Upon arriving, he finds Roderick's behavior hardly congenial, but his childhood experiences prepare him for this, since “Although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend. His reserve had always been excessive and habitual” (275). Throughout his account, the narrator suggests that only by an act of will can Roderick stir up any personal warmth. And yet this hero influences his friend profoundly, certainly leaving him in “an old state of mind.” The story itself seems half narrative and half self-analysis; few narrators in literature express more “wild vagueness of painfulness” about their hero. Even before the apocalyptic events of the last few pages, then, we see the narrator occupying a troubled, interior position, yet remaining true to his self-imposed responsibility as the questing hero's companion.

Given the natures of these two characters, the narrative of elegiac romance is fairly predictable. After bringing the protagonists together and establishing their unequal relationship, the story quickly moves to a crisis—the moment when the questing hero violates the narrator's confidence. But this moment is not the story's climax, since only the hero's death will shock the narrator into finally regaining his self-possession. The hero himself never takes advantage of the narrator's fidelity. The relationship is too one-sided, and the hero is too preoccupied to bother with manipulating or maiming his friend. As a result, the narrator must take full responsibility for the state of his own mind after the hero's death. This death seems to take with it the narrator's self-possession, “But since the narrator's hero never literally took anything from the narrator, the crucial event in the experience was entirely imaginary” (467). Telling the story is therefore the narrator's attempt to regain himself after his prop has fallen away:

What occurred within the narrator's mind was what we might call malfeasance of the imagination. Imagination took over as a governing faculty when it should not have, or in a way it should not have. One way to rectify this situation would seem to be to make the imagination act correctly, to cause it to govern when it should and as it should. The way the narrator must set things right, therefore, is to undergo another, similar imaginative experience. This is what he does in telling the story. He sets out consciously to lay a trap for himself like the one in which he had at one time unconsciously let himself be caught, and from which he does not yet, as he begins to tell his story, feel free. His freedom can come only with understanding. The narrator understands and thus recovers himself by imaginatively recovering his past—by “writing” his “autobiography”.


We are dealing with a narrator glancing back at an “often seemingly harmless but in truth fundamentally corrupt relationship” (468). At story's end, however, the relationship fractures, partially due to the hero's death, but also partially due to the narrator's personal reasons for telling the story: “He is interested only in saving himself” (468).

This explanation of the narrative's course forces us to look more closely at the mental journey the narrator of “Usher” takes us on. The “crisis” moment comes at the story's center, when the narrator, confronted with “The Haunted Palace,” places before us what he claims was an important insight: “I fancied that I perceived, and for the first time, a full consciousness on the part of Usher, of the tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne” (284). The narrator has seen signs of madness earlier, but this moment is the violating one, because here he realizes that Roderick is aware of his own mental instability. Identifying with Roderick now becomes truly problematic for the narrator, since the hero not only recognizes his obsession, but also refuses to consider the narrator's involvement with his fate. Roderick is supremely indifferent. And yet the narrator continues his fidelity, despite the fact that his belief in Roderick is severely undermind. Even though the narrator now realizes “the futility of all attempt” to save Roderick (282), he carries on in what is obviously “a fundamentally corrupt relationship.”

Roderick's death is the breaking point, creating the emotional mess we find the narrator in. For both elegiac romance and “Usher,” this is the moment the storytelling begins. “Usher” is a circle, returning at its end to that opening image of the narrator before the tarn: “the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the ‘House of Usher’” (297). The word “fragments” points to the reconstructing of event and house that the narrator's tale, composed after the experience, attempts. This is the “similar imaginative experience” Bruffee notes in elegiac romance. Few works call more attention to the fact that the narrator is not only reconstructing events, but also reshaping his personal responses, which constitute the trap “in which he had at one time unconsciously let himself be caught, and from which he does not yet, as he begins to tell his story, feel free” (467).

This reshaping explains the undercutting we find in the narrator's account. Since the crucial moment is “entirely imaginary,” we find the narrator editing his account to provide an after-the-fact justification. He emphasizes his awareness that Roderick has improperly engaged his imagination: “I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions” (290). Roderick did not deliberately attack the narrator's sanity, but the narrator insists that identifying with Roderick's pain led his imagination into a “malfeasance.” The retelling thus attempts to divorce the narrator from Roderick imaginatively, but in a retroactive manner, made necessary by the hero's death. In the telling, the narrator tries to prove his own intellectual participation in the events, and thus claims an active role for himself after the fact. At story's end, we find him again an outsider, standing before the tarn, but with one crucial difference: “The House of Usher” no longer stands before him. Through the telling he has psychologically saved himself, just as in the narrative he physically saves himself from that “fundamentally corrupt relationship” he now puts to rest.

The similarities between “Usher” and elegiac romance are not limited, however, to matters of character, plot, and narrative perspective. In fact, the thematic affinities are perhaps the most intriguing. Of these, the handling of time is one of the most interesting. In elegiac romance, “the past holds the present in a vice-like grip” (468). Difficulties do not disappear when the questing hero dies; in fact, the narrator's retelling becomes a form of therapy, a reshaping that allows him to exorcise a horrifying or traumatic experience. Bruffee claims the gap between past events and the present retelling allows for a sense of completion in the story that the bald narrative might not seem to bear out. Speaking of his own test case, a fragmentary horror story by Byron, Bruffee points out that despite the incompleteness of the plot, the narrator's emotional struggle is over: “only superficial gothic details are left to be worked out, whereas the youth's emotional state in response to his companion's death seems conclusive” (469).

This description certainly fits “Usher.” Although we don't have the “morning after” information that might nail down a theory about the narrator—say, another paragraph about his time in a mental institution—the story itself does seem to reach an emotional equilibrium in the last few sentences. This supports what many critics have pointed out: the actual fall of the house is secondary to the narrator's state of mind after his experience. We have already noted that in elegiac romance, the narrator loses confidence in his hero, but stays by his side up to the moment of actual physical separation. Why does the narrator do this? One possible explanation is his lack of self-possession: rather than assume a self-determining lifestyle, he chooses, out of fear and anxiety, to stay with what he formerly admired, even if what seemed certain and strong is at bottom obsessive. Roderick's death, however anticipated, thus results in a “metaphysical abandonment” and can account for the “despair or aimlessness in the character of the narrator as he begins telling us his story.” The retelling is crucial, since by speaking, the narrator “may break the grip of the past by defying it.” This defiance is both rebellious and therapeutic, since the narrator determines “to relieve the past imaginatively by telling the story—to employ the imagination freely and creatively, rather than be a slave to its improper governance” (475).6

This state of mind, present in both elegiac romance and “Usher,” helps us place them within literary history. Elegiac romance is neither elegy or romance in the conventional sense. The shift of focus away from the questing hero toward the more prosaic narrator is a move away from traditional romance toward the realistic, psychological narratives so much a part of modern tradition. “Usher” stands with other examples of elegiac romance Bruffee offers as a kind of text that mirrors in some way a modern predicament: a view of the past as a Romantic, yet strangling, deadening force we return to imaginatively in order to remake it or lift it off our shoulders entirely. Although this synopsis is one of the truisms of studies in 19th and 20th century literature, the genre of elegiac romance provides some interesting insights into how this movement can be embodied powerfully in a literary text.7

The advantages Bruffee's paradigm offers us for reading “The Fall of the House of Usher” are substantial. His emphasis on the importance of the two protagonists' relationship acts as a healthy check on seeing one figure as the true center, and thus relegating the other to a supporting role. The distinctive qualities of the hero and narrator also take on a new significance when we see that these traits lead not only to a particular kind of narrative, but also to a specific kind of psychological exploration. Furthermore, stressing the gap between narrative events and the retelling helps us understand the hesitant, heavily-edited text the narrator produces. And finally, the idea that the telling is a kind of therapy or rebellion gives the story an energy arising from more than narrative.

All these gains lead to a further benefit: the elegiac romance paradigm helps us set “Usher” within both literary tradition and the history of ideas. The narrator's painful break from the past's constricting force helps us place “Usher” within the history of Romanticism, and those visions of personal self-determination and psychological revolution we find so prominent in the literature of this time. The lesson is almost too clear: the terms dictated by the past finally kill Roderick, but the strategies of creative individualism save the narrator. Bruffee's paradigm also sets up a series of productive correspondences between “Usher” and other major works of the past two centuries. Traditional generic approaches tend to separate Poe's tales from many major works, or lead to comparisons based on superficial details—for example, the Gothic machinery. What Bruffee's elegiac romance suggests is that the “structural and thematic characteristics,” the most striking aspects of “Usher,” actually forge much stronger links to other works exploring the same artistic and psychological problems. Thus, elegiac romance not only helps us recognize the work's place within a continuing narrative so central to Romantic and post-Romantic literature: the struggle of the individual to remain self-determining in the face of the combined forces that make up society and history.

To return to my own beginning, elegiac romance is an excellent tool for organizing and understanding much of the important “Usher” criticism, and a strong stimulus for new work on Poe as well. The genre's cohesion of character, plot, narrative technique, and literary history draws the many fine studies of “Usher” together into a mosaic: each piece crafted and shaped, but still part of a larger whole. Studies of Roderick not only help us define more precisely the questing hero's role, but also add to our knowledge of this dying figure within literary tradition. Studies of the narrator give us greater insight into what precisely constitutes this anxious, uncertain, yet finally decisive figure so central to Romantic and post-Romantic poetry and fiction. The many studies of the narrative technique help us identify the idiosyncratic, baroque turns Poe makes in his exploration not only of psychological truth, but of the passage from one age, with all its preoccupations, to another. And those studies that work through the traditional notions of genre shed important light on the connections between these other literary kinds and the central psychological narrative of the alienated yet creative imagination. The list could go on, but the pattern is clear: each of the major studies helps us fill in with rich detail the central narrative and psychology of a story that participates strongly in central concerns of the past two hundred years.

The new directions for criticism are first those that Bruffee suggests: studies of the dynamic relationship between various works in the new genre. Poe and Conrad, Poe and Melville, even Poe and Fitzgerald could all be productive areas for exploration, and elegiac romance would guide us away from ephemeral similarities, and toward centers of correspondence. Another possible direction is in some ways a revolution against the Romantic Rebellion, one that would place us strongly within the range of contemporary theory. For example, elegiac romance suggests that one possible interpretation sees the narrator's tale as an imaginative act central to Romantic and post-Romantic literature. But does this creative act finally carry out all that is required of it? Even if “Usher” enacts the Romantic move toward imaginative freedom, the critic might still call into question this assurance, and suggest that this whole idea of imaginative rebellion has within itself major problems. This kind of study would lead us not only to probing further Poe's aesthetics and philosophy, but also to confronting one of the central characteristics of an important literary movement.

In short, Bruffee's elegiac romance can help us understand “Usher” itself, its critical reception, and the forces at work in many of our most important and frequently taught texts.


  1. For Roderick as a vampire or victim of vampirism, see J. O. Bailey, “What Happens in ‘The House of Usher’?” American Literature, 35 (1964), 445-466; Lyle H. Kendall, Jr., “The Vampire Motif in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” College English, 24 (1963), 450-453; and of course D. H. Lawrence, “Edgar Allan Poe,” Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Viking, 1964), 65-81. The incest and necrophilia motifs appear in John L. Marsh, “The Psycho-Sexual Reading of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” Poe Studies, 5 (1972), 23-24; and Renata R. Mautner Wasserman, “The Self, the Mirror, the Other: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” Poe Studies, 10 (1977), 33-35. Roderick-as-artist appears throughout Poe criticism; a representative sample would include Maurice Beebe, “The Universe of Roderick Usher,” The Personalist, 37 (1956), 147-160; Richard Wilbur, “The House of Poe,” Anniversary Lectures 1959 (Washington, D.C.: Reference Department of the Library of Congress, 1959), 21-38; Nathalia Wright, “Roderick Usher: Poe's Turn-of-the-Century Artist,” in Artful Thunder: Versions of the Romantic Tradition in American Literature, in Honor of Howard P. Vincent, ed. Robert J. DeMott and Sanford E. Marovitz (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1975), 55-67; and Frederick S. Frank, “Poe's House of the Seven Gothics: The Fall of the Narrator in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, Orbis Literarum: International Review of Literary Studies, 34 (1979), 331-351. Roderick appears as a fatalist in Terence J. Matheson, “Fatalism in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” English Studies in Canada, 6 (1980), 421-429.

  2. Many writers are interested in the narrator's relationship to reason. Some draw out the implications of the connection: see Matheson and Bailey above, or Barton Levi St. Armand, “Poe's Landscape of the Soul: Association Theory and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” Modern Language Studies, 7 (1977), 32-41. Others talk about the undermining of the narrator as a representative of reason: see Frank above, or Jacqueline Viswanathan, “The Innocent Bystander: The Narrator's Position in Poe's ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ James's ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and Butor's L'Emploi du temps.Hebrew University Studies in Literature, 4 (1976), 27-47; and Charles Feidelson, Symbolism and American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 37-43. The madness of the narrator is of course a recurring question in Poe criticism: see Wilbur above, or Peter Obuchowski, “Unity of Effect in Poe's ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” Studies in Short Fiction, 12 (1975), 407-412. The longest sustained debate over the narrator's sanity appears in the exchange of essays between Patrick F. Quinn and G. R. Thompson in Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe: Critical Essays in Horror of Darrel Abel, ed. G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1981). Quinn responds to Thompson's Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973) in the essay “A Misreading of Poe's ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” 303-312; Thompson responds in “Poe and the Paradox of Terror: Structures of Heightened Consciousness in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ 313-340; Quinn responds yet again in “‘Usher' Again’: Trust the Teller!” 341-353. Almost any essay on “Usher” deals with this question in some way. For the narrator as a hero, see Michael J. Hoffman, “The House of Usher and Negative Romanticism,” Studies in Romanticism, 4 (1965), 158-168.

  3. The seductive quality of Roderick's mental state appears in Thomas J. Rountree, “Poe's Universe: The House of Usher and the Narrator,” Tulane Studies in English, 20 (1972), 123-134. Wilbur also discusses this topic, as does Darrel Abel, “A Key to the House of Usher,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 18 (1949) 176-185. G. R. Thompson above strongly insists on the doubling effect, as do I. M. Walker, “The ‘Legitimate Sources’ of Terror in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” Modern Language Review 61 (1966), 585-592; and John S. Hill, “The Dual Hallucination in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” Southwest Review, 48 (1963), 396-402. An interesting variation of the relationship appears in David Halliburton's discussion of the “guardian sleeper” relationship in Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomenological View (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973), 43-49, 199-228, and 292. Many other studies could be listed; the above are meant to be loosely representative, since full documentation would result in an “Usher” bibliography.

  4. Kenneth A. Bruffee, “Elegiac Romance,” College English, 32 (1971), 465-476. All subsequent page references to this essay appear in the text. In the contributor's note, Bruffee calls this essay a “prospectus for a full, book-length treatment which is in the offing.” This book, Elegiac Romance: Cultural Change and the Loss of the Hero in Modern Fiction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), appeared in 1983. I have chosen to follow the “prospectus” because it states more generally the issues involved in elegiac romance. Other essays by Bruffee that discuss specific works as elegiac romances are “The Synthetic Hero and the Narrative Structure of Childe Harold III,” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 6 (1966), 669-678; and “Form and Meaning in Nabokov's Real Life of Sebastian Knight: An Example of Elegiac Romance,” Modern Language Quarterly, 34 (1973), 180-190.

  5. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Crowell, 1902), III, p. 280. All subsequent page references to “Usher” appear in the text.

  6. This particular characteristic of elegiac romance might also shed some light on “Usher's” problematic ending. Suppose for a moment that Roderick simply dies that final night—no Madeline arises, no house falls. I submit that the narrator's sense of confusion and terror would be no less intense. Although the narrative satisfies our desire for a sense of an ending, this is a formal requirement, and adheres to certain conventions about tying up loose ends—the reason for death, its effect on the scene, and so forth. But psychologically the death would still be apocalyptic for the narrator, since nothing in his preceding experience would explain this death. The narrator makes this clear to us in the retelling: at no point does he finally come to some kind of deeply-felt conclusion that might explain adequately Roderick's painful case. Could it be possible that the last two paragraphs are an “imaginative” conclusion, the shaping of the narrative by the teller, in an act of freedom that makes the story his own? As mentioned earlier, the act of retelling does offer a kind of psychic freedom: no house looms up before the narrator at the end. And the conclusion does have a sense of completion that only the narrator can appreciate or benefit from. This point is offered as speculation, but it does afford an alternative explanation for a passage generally read as either realistic exposition, or conclusive evidence that the narrator has slipped into madness.

  7. In his book, Bruffee undertakes a number of the studies mentioned here and below. He is particularly interested in setting his genre within a historical, literary, and cultural context.

Beverly R. Voloshin (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5011

SOURCE: “Explanation in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 23, No. 4, Fall, 1986, pp. 419-28.

[In the following essay, Voloshin examines “The Fall of the House of Usher” as a unique variation of the gothic genre of short fiction that blends natural, preternatural, and supernatural elements to create an unusually haunting effect.]

I shall argue here that in his masterwork, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe produces a unique turn to the possibilities the gothic genre had developed for explaining its mysteries. While mysterious and frightening appearances in gothic fiction exist partly and sometimes largely for their shock value, they are also expressive of the epistemological dilemmas of an enlightened age. Beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, gothic fiction opened out what was problematic in the epistemological component of the enlightened bourgeois order. This epistemology was given its fullest expression in John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (first edition, 1690), which constructed a model of mind suited to the new mechanical science of nature. Both the new science and the new psychology overturned older hierarchical models; the mind no longer had innate knowledge of or direct access to the highest principles of life or to the divine; knowledge was largely reduced to the collection and arrangement of “ideas” (Locke's term), representations in the chamber of the mind, coming in through the windows of the senses, of external things.1 One of the chief problems of such a representational theory of knowledge is to guarantee a correspondence between ideas and things, or between the order of the mind and the order of nature, yet Locke could only do so through rather weak arguments for the existence and benevolence of God. The linchpin was loose, and it is precisely this fit which gothic fiction questions.2

In the Lockean model and in gothic fiction as well, perception, the vehicle of appearances, is the only link between mind and the external world—that is, nature and, possibly, the supernatural.3 Like its gothic predecessors, Poe's fiction questions the nature of appearances, and in his tales of terror, he subtly combines the three explanations for unusual appearances offered in gothic fiction—the preternatural, the natural, and the psychological—to create unusually haunting effects. The finest example of this multivalence is “The Fall of the House of Usher.” While dual or multiple explanations for the strange and frightening in gothic fiction are almost always offered as alternative, mutually exclusive interpretations, in “Usher” Poe subtly shades the categories of the supernatural, the natural, and the psychological into each other. Finally Poe resolves the problem of appearances in this tale not with one of these explanations but in a unique and radical fashion.4

From the beginning in “Usher” the narrator is preoccupied with the problem of the connection between mind and the external world. How are sensations and appearances produced? “I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.”5 For the narrator, a picturesque traveller, here are sublime images, but no sublime experience. Thus the first mystery of the tale is the process of perception itself. The narrator clings to a physical explanation: “I was forced to fall back on the unsatisfactory conclusion, that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth” (274).6 Checking his hypothesis of physical cause, the narrator changes perspective, to be affected by a different arrangement of objects and hence to have a different sensation. But our picturesque traveller is not given the surprise he anticipates; instead he is surprised by no surprise. From his second vantage point, he sees the same images, inverted in the tarn. Of course, this does not disprove the physical hypothesis. The narrator may indeed be affected by a peculiar or singular arrangement of natural objects. Alternatively, he may be frightening himself, as he later suspects—a psychological explanation. Or this could be the eerie introduction to further preternatural experiences.

The tale offers all the gothic tradition's explanations for unusual appearances and impressions. The narrator himself introduces the possibility of supernatural cause. To bracket his terror, his intuition of the un-or supernatural at the House of Usher, the narrator uses the term “superstition.” Interestingly, the narrator's usage departs from the conventional, for with reference both to himself and to Roderick, the narrator does not refer to superstitious beliefs, but to superstitious impressions (276, 280, 290). A belief may be corroborated or falsified by some empirical evidence, but how can one disprove an impression or feeling? An impression must be produced by something—something in the subject or in the object or in the natural process of sensation and perception connecting subject and object—and so the narrator's language, even as it dismisses supernatural cause as fictitious, leaves open the possibility of such cause and contributes to rendering cause problematic.

The unusual and unnatural in the story—an utterly strange atmosphere; a mysterious, decaying castle; an undead corpse; the blasting of the Usher line—strongly suggest the supernatural. For the reader, Poe opens up the possibility of a particular supernatural explanation. Roderick and Madeline seem doomed, for Poe hints that their House has been placed under the curse of vampirism, as J. O. Bailey has persuasively argued. The figures of Roderick and Madeline, thin and pale, resemble the victims of vampires.7 Their sickness, like vampirism, is incurable. Roderick's malady is, he explains, “a constitutional and a family evil”; as for the lady Madeline, her disease “had long baffled the skill of her physicians” (280, 281-82). Roderick has summoned the narrator, his boyhood friend, to solace him because of the “approaching dissolution” of his “tenderly beloved sister” (281)—or, perhaps, to see her well buried. Roderick tries to inter his still-living sister in a vault where, it seems, no light will reach her; thus the sister will be killed and not return to suck out her brother's life. For moonlight, and especially the light of the full moon, will revive a vampire. But the trick doesn't work, and Roderick is overcome with terror as he anticipates Madeline's re-emergence. In vampire lore, the curse of vampirism on a line entails its destruction, for vampires attack their next of kin, and certainly the Ushers have been dying out, and there is some sort of struggle between Roderick and Madeline. As Bailey argues, Poe conceals the story's basis of terror by hinting at vampirism rather than being explicit and by using a narrator who is a skeptic regarding the supernatural; Poe subtilizes the vampire theme, refining away gross details: there is no blood sucking, no stake through the heart, no priestly exorcism, for example. The most obvious candidate for vampire is Madeline, but Bailey's more striking thesis is that the House itself is a vampire; it is haunted or possessed and feeds on the vitality of the psychically sensitive Roderick.8 Roderick tries to resist or counter the combined forces of Madeline and the House (by bringing in the narrator to interrupt his connection to the House, by burying Madeline, by blocking sensory stimulation, for example). Poe thus makes of the House (in its double sense) a sort of psychic energy system. The vampire motif, then, suggests a supernatural explanation for what happens at the House of Usher; but in transforming vampire lore into a representation of the House as a system of force, Poe also obscures the classic gothic distinctions between the supernatural, the natural, and the psychological.

But then both the narrator and Roderick explain how their fear feeds on itself, and thus we can see the terrors of the story as imaginary or subjectively produced rather than actual—the psychological explanation for gothic mystery and terror. Roderick is convinced of the identity, or interdependence, of Madeline and himself and therefore believes that she cannot die while he is still alive. His neurotically acute senses seem to register Madeline's struggles in the tomb. Predisposed to apprehension by his first impressions of the Usher domain, the narrator gradually becomes infected with Roderick's fears. He notes that after Madeline's burial, Roderick becomes more distracted and more vacant, forms of behavior (perhaps opposite forms) for which the narrator can account with opposite hypotheses, that Roderick is laboring with an oppressive secret or is caught in the vagaries of madness. Yet whatever the cause, and no matter how much the narrator tries to deny that there is an objective cause, he concludes, “It was no wonder that his condition terrified—that it infected me” (289-90). Roderick and the terrified narrator take the noises of the storm, given pointed allegorical meaning by the story of the “Mad Trist,” to be the sounds of Madeline's emerging from the tomb. Roderick seems to be falling into a self-enclosed dream state, which could be taken as the catatonic's blocking of external reality or as the dreamer's production of his own nightmare: “he rocked from side to side with a gentle yet constant and uniform sway” (295). Perhaps Usher is overcome not by Madeline but by his imaginings, as prophesied in his earlier statement, “I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, Fear” (280). Or, as the narrator analyzes the effect of being unnerved at the sight of the House of Usher, acceleration “is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis” (276). The narrator comments that Usher died “a victim to the terrors he had anticipated” (296). Objective or subjective terrors—who can say if the narrator is also terrified?

Underscoring the psychological explanation for strange impressions and appearances is the fact that the House of Usher is an image of Roderick's mind, as indicated by the narrator's similar descriptions of the House and of Roderick's head and by Roderick's allegorical and self-referential lyric, “The Haunted Palace”; the tale is, therefore, on one level, an allegory of mental struggle and collapse. The narrator's many references to dreams and his difficulties in distinguishing waking from dreaming while at the House of Usher also suggest that the events of the tale represent a phantasm or inner drama. This inner drama is one of desire for and dread of Madeline (or what she represents) and is so intense that Roderick cannot name it. We see it in its consequences: Roderick's attachment to Madeline—he insists that there had always existed between them “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature” (289); his extraordinary nervousness; his attempt to be rid of Madeline; and his perishing in her embrace. Thus the strange and unnatural in the story is a projection of Roderick's psychic life, or a projection of this as intuited by the narrator.

If we focus on the narrator's role as observer of the drama of Madeline and Roderick and hence as the consciousness which contains the phantasm, then the tale as psychological allegory shows the workings of the artistic imagination. Usher the artist seems to represent Poe or part of Poe, seething down his soul to create art works from his terrible dreams. Though Usher is destroyed by his creations, the narrator escapes, representing that part of the Romantic artist which can survive and re-create the imagined world.9

But further, both the narrator and Roderick attempt to account for frightening and unusual appearances with natural explanations, however unusual. The narrator once offers Roderick natural explanations (not unlike those which really explain phenomena in Radcliffe's gothic novels), for the intensifying of the domain's strange atmosphere, the “luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation” which precedes the storm (291). “‘These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon—or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn’” (292). The narrator offers these explanations in an attempt to calm Roderick; it is doubtful that this man of common sense believes his account himself. The fact that the narrator offers two explanations, electricity and swamp gas, suggests that no convincing explanation is available.

Roderick's proffered explanation is more esoteric, is indeed to the narrator heretical. Roderick believes that the House, in condensing an atmosphere of its own, has infected the family and himself; he believes in “an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion, had, by dint of long sufferance … obtained over his spirit—an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence” (281). He believes in the sentience of his estate, originating in the particular and undisturbed “collocation” or “arrangement” of its parts (286). For Roderick there are no differences between people, plants, stones—everything is matter becoming mind, or at least, everything at the House of Usher is approaching the same state. Roderick is being weighed down by his environment, indeed, is being transformed into its image. Roderick's environmental determinism is a unique version of a natural explanation.10 But again the proffered explanation is not conclusive, as Roderick finds evidence of the cause chiefly in its effects. Further, though Roderick feels that he is being molded by his environment, that environment is not precisely natural, for the domain itself—the castle and its landscaping—is (or was) a cultural product, the product of human activity upon nature.

Even the narrator, before he meets Roderick, senses or—he hopes—merely imagines that the House and domain have their own peculiar and affecting atmosphere. His recourse to a sort of corpuscular theory from the physical sciences—that there must be “combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us” (274)—resembles Roderick's discussion of “peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion.” The frequent uses of “simple” and “mere” in the narrator's opening descriptions and echoed in Roderick's “mere form and substance” point to the physical, empirical realm without transcendence, aligning the narrator's descriptions with natural and not supernatural explanation. The narrator, for example, refers to the basic physical or natural components of the scene in his opening description: “the mere house, and the simple landscape features” (273). Nothing transcendent is figured forth by the “natural images,” indeed, they yield in the observer “an unredeemed dreariness of thought,” and the experience is like nothing so much as the end of visionary experience, “the bitter lapse into every-day life” (273). The narrator, who feels at the opening of the tale that he is trapped in a strange yet nontranscendental realm, is well matched by Roderick, the man of “distempered ideality,” one for whom, it seems, the realm of truth beyond sensible phenomena can be reached only through the heightening of sensation (282). However deformed, the natural persists for both the narrator and Roderick as a ground of experience and explanation.

As Poe's use of the vampire motif suggests without insisting on a supernatural cause for the terrors of the House of Usher, so his drawing on contemporary science suggests to the reader a natural cause, one related both to the narrator's impressions of the House and to Roderick's. At the beginning of the tale, the narrator describes his impression of “an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leadenhued” (276); during the storm he emphasizes the gaseous exhalation of the domain and the rank miasma of the tarn. Usher too believes in the “certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls” (286), one related to the moribund state of the waters and the decay about the House. As I. M. Walker has documented, Poe draws on the technical meaning of atmosphere in this period, an envelope of minute corpuscles emitted from or surrounding a body; prominent doctors and psychologists held that miasma, or the atmosphere of decaying matter, caused physical and mental illness, and Roderick's “acute bodily illness” and oppressive “mental disorder” (274) very closely parallel those which some of the leading writers reported as stemming from a rank, noxious atmosphere.11 The narrator's nervousness and terror may also result, at least in part, from this palpable atmosphere, as from its less physical duplication in Roderick. For Usher radiates gloom on “all objects of the moral and physical universe,” his distempered ideality throwing “a sulphureous lustre over all” (282). While Walker sees a noxious atmosphere as the natural or legitimate cause of Roderick's bodily illness and his terror, I do not think the tale closes on this as the sufficient cause of all that happens, for in the narrator's descriptions of Roderick's aura and in the narrator's sense of an atmosphere of gloom and sorrow at the House of Usher, Poe shifts subtly from the corporeal to the figurative sense of atmosphere. The narrator is impressed by the force of character and the spirit of place as well as by palpable decay, thus eliding a natural or legitimate source of terror with spiritual and psychological forces.

The multiple interpretations suggested in the tale for unusual impressions and appearances work together to make the Usher world resist ordinary interpretation. In affective terms, the tale, like the narrator's experience, “deepen[s] the first singular impression” for which the narrator can find no satisfactory explanation (276). The narrator reiterates his inability to account for such feelings, sensations, and impressions as he has at Usher. His references to superstition signify his doubts about the supernatural but also simply mark the difference of his current experience from his previous experience, which could be accounted for empirically, or which did not seem to require an explanation. Indeed, the action of the tale can be regarded as “ushering” the narrator into a new realm.

The House of Usher does have its own atmosphere; it is a closed-off space, a world unto itself. A world like our own but drained of the life principle, the green and gold of the happy valley in Roderick's poem. It is dominated by abstract patterns of black, white, and gray; and it is tending toward death, the ultimate abstraction, just as Roderick's art works express the abstract and ideal, having little or nothing of the real in them. It is a realm in which things appear doubled and therefore, in a sense, the same, resisting the multiplicity of the ordinary world.

Everything at the House of Usher expresses or reflects everything else, from the narrator's first impression of the scene, when his mental reflection anticipates physical reflection. He “reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene” would produce a different sensation, but sees a “remodelled and inverted” reflection in the tarn (274). Critics of “Usher” have catalogued many sets of doubles; what is especially significant about them, as in the opening parallel of mental and physical reflection, is the way they conjoin the classic opposites of western thought—such as spirit and matter, inner and outer, self and other, male and female, subject and object—and blur the distinction between them. Thus, for example, the “quaint and equivocal appellation of the ‘House of Usher,’” the narrator tells us, refers to both the family and the family mansion (275). Family and mansion (or spirit and matter, human and nonhuman) have over the course of centuries exercised a profound influence on each other. The narrator remarks on the “perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people” (275); in “character” we have both the sense of inner form and outward representation, and it is difficult to see which forms the other, as with so many cases of doubling in the tale.

As the House of Usher reflects the family of Usher, that other House of Usher, so it is mirrored in and mirrors Roderick's head or consciousness, that is, the human and spiritual remainder of the Usher family. In the many parallel descriptions of the House and Roderick's head or consciousness, classical opposites image and manifest each other. Thus Roderick's lyric, “The Haunted Palace,” impresses the narrator as the allegorical representation of Usher's madness (285). And since Roderick is affected by place (even the spirit of place), we can say that Roderick Usher's madness is the psychological representation of the decay of his world. The narrator's impression of the state of the House—the “wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones”—replicates itself in what he perceives as the “inconsistency” of his friend Roderick's manner (276, 279). As the House, Roderick believes, has departed from the ordinary state of matter, so Roderick's expression, to the narrator, has departed from the ordinary aspect of humanity. Roderick becomes that instrument which vibrates to each metaphorical touch and is scarcely distinguishable from the system of motion itself. Roderick's strange sensations gain expression in his music, poetry, and painting, which, in turn, re-present himself and his House, in a dizzying crossing of inner and outer, self and other, spirit and matter. Roderick's sensitivity is matched by what he believes to be the sentience of his estate, and thus the motions of matter and those of thought are virtually identified.

In the doubling of Madeline and Roderick—pale, thin, ill, with similar family features—there is also a confounding of oppositions. Roderick appears at first as the actor, in control of the paternal household, and Madeline as the sufferer, but when Madeline re-emerges from the tomb, she is the embodiment of will, while Roderick becomes pure sentience. And the roles of male and female reverse, Madeline taking the part of the willful, conquering male hero of the “Mad Trist,” while Roderick enacts the traditional role of ravished maiden. Madeline comes to represent life-in-death; Roderick, death-in-life. The oppositions of self and other, male and female, life and death are in a sense cancelled through this inversion of oppositions, prefiguring the erasure of the line between Roderick and Madeline in their final union.

Further, the pervasive language of effect, affect, infection, and influence in the tale conjoins ordinarily distinct entities and makes them similar. This language and the many sets of doubles—one thing forming or conforming to another—convert the empirical notion of discrete cause and effect, virtually making the Usher world into that perfect plot of the monistic universe of Poe's Eureka, a plot in which everything is simultaneously cause and effect of everything else.

This perfect adaptation of the parts of the Usher world is made absolute in the ending of the tale, in which Poe presses towards a final solution to the gothic puzzle of appearances. As all things at Usher form and conform to all other things, the cause of unusual impressions and appearances cannot be definitively located in consciousness, nature, or the supernatural. Just as all the parts of the Usher world mirror each other, so all the explanations—psychological, natural, supernatural—which Poe subtly intimates for the puzzle of what happens at the House of Usher merge into a radical resolution to the puzzle of appearances. In the Lockean schema, appearances are meant to be the connection between subject and object, and sensation is the vehicle of appearances, but since appearances are only representations (which do not necessarily correspond to objects), they can also be seen as the boundary or wall between subject and object. Poe sees the possibility of contact between mind and whatever is external to it in the unstringing of Roderick's sensations and in the dissolution of the boundary of appearance. Hence Roderick and Madeline perish together in an embrace, and the split line of Usher falls with the fractured House into the abyss, the whole described in terms of apocalypse; the dissolving consciousness of Roderick and the decaying world of Usher are brought into complete union. Thus the final solution to the puzzle of appearances is to destroy the appearances, if only temporarily, for like the periodic universe of Eureka, the House of Usher springs back into life—in the consciousness of the narrator, and through him, in the consciousness of the reader.


  1. The metaphysical assumptions underlying the Essay, which Locke did not very clearly recognize as assumptions, were the basic principles of the new quantitative science, roughly the antithesis of the qualitative principles of medieval natural philosophy. Locke accepted the premise of the new science that nature is regular and that its laws can be discovered through experiment and measuring. He adopted the contemporary corpuscular theory of matter and explained perception as a mechanical process (though too fine to measure), a chain of reactions caused by small bits of matter coming in contact with sensible organs of the human body, the impulse being transmitted by the nerves to the brain. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Alexander Campbell Fraser (rpt. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1959); see especially II, i-vii. According to the corpuscular theory, objects and the sensations they cause are not the same, “it being one thing to perceive and know the idea of white or black, and quite another to examine what kind of particles they must be, and how ranged in the superficies, to make any object appear white or black” (II, iv, 2). Or, as Locke also remarks, “to speak truly, yellowness is not actually in gold, but is a power in gold to produce that idea in us by our eyes, when placed in a due light”; “minute particles,” which we cannot perceive, produce in us the sensation of yellow (II, xxiii, 10-11). While Locke drew a distinction between primary and secondary qualities, the first supposedly like the constitution of objects and the second, of which color is a type, existing only in the mind of the perceiver, both Berkeley and Hume collapsed Locke's distinction, reducing all qualities to the status of Locke's secondary ones.

    The skeptical implications of Locke's Essay, worked out clearly in Hume's Treatise of Human Nature (1739), were countered in Anglo-American academic philosophy of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by the Scottish philosophy of common sense. It seems to me that Poe (who was never assimilated into academic respectability) was little influenced by the main claims of the philosophy of common sense. Alasdair MacIntyre argues in “The Invention of Common Sense” (unpublished paper) that this philosophy was a powerful ideological tool in Scotland and in its imported version in the United States; perhaps one reason for its relative unimportance to Poe was that he was not of the class whose social view the philosophy of common sense promoted.

  2. Though in the past several decades much important criticism of Romantic poetry has analyzed it as a response to the crisis in epistemology, gothic fiction is less often seen as having a similar philosophical substratum.

  3. Typically in gothic fiction both the natural and the supernatural are construed as parts of the external world. While Locke in the Essay did not argue for sensation as the vehicle of knowledge of the divine, this was one of the implications of his epistemology, as shown most clearly in Burke's influential Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1754); see especially the section entitled “Power.”

  4. In Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973), G. R. Thompson assesses the irony created in Poe's gothic tales by multiple frames of reference. While I agree with Thompson's general claim about “Usher,” that it suggests multiple interpretations for its events, my premise about gothic fiction, my account of multiple interpretations in “Usher,” and my conclusion about the conclusion of “Usher” differ in almost all points from Thompson's analysis. For Patrick F. Quinn and Thompson's debate over Thompson's reading of “Usher,” see Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe: Critical Essays in Honor of Darrel Abel, ed. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1981), pp. 303-354.

  5. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison, 17 vols. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Company, 1902), III, 273. Subsequent references are to this volume.

  6. It is worth noting the similarity between the narrator's conclusion about cause and Locke's assumptions about cause: see n. 1. A prime question of the new science, from the late seventeenth century on, was what could be known concerning the mechanism of corpuscular or sub-microscopic events; for Locke's position in the debates of the late seventeenth century, see R. M. Yost, Jr., “Locke's Rejection of Hypotheses about Sub-microscopic Events,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 12 (1951), 111-130. Locke's position, as Yost analyzes it, corresponds roughly to that of the narrator here, that we are not capable of knowing “the specific submicroscopic mechanisms that correspond to observable species” (123).

  7. In Poe's early tale “Berenice,” the male narrator and his female cousin are similarly wasting away, but in this tale the vampire motif is more obvious, since the protagonist's obsessive fear is of his cousin's teeth.

  8. J. O. Bailey, “What Happens in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’?” American Literature, 35 (1964), 445-466.

  9. Maurice Beebe, “The Universe of Roderick Usher,” in Ivory Towers and Sacred Founts: The Artist as Hero in Fiction from Goethe to Joyce (New York: New York University Press, 1964) is a comprehensive reading of the art theme of “Usher” in its relation to Poe's cosmology.

  10. As Leo Spitzer reminds us in “A Reinterpretation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” Comparative Literature, 4 (1952), 351-363, environmental determinism was the important idea in social theory in the late 1830's. Contrasting Poe with Balzac, Spitzer writes, “It is a remarkable feature of his romantic realism that Poe can accept environmentalism [only] when it borders on irreality”—that is, abstraction (362).

  11. I. M. Walker, “The ‘Legitimate’ Sources of Terror in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” Modern Language Review, 61 (1966), 585-592.

Cynthia S. Jordan (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7439

SOURCE: “Poe's Re-Vision: The Recovery of the Second Story,” in American Literature, Vol. 59, No. 1, March, 1987, pp. 1-19.

[In the following essay, Jordan focuses on Poe's treatment of crimes against women, comparing his writing to that of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jordan proposes that Poe's women-centered tales allow him to explore issues that go beyond the imaginative limits of male-authored fiction, and that “The Fall of the House of Usher” marks the beginning of this style of storytelling for Poe.]


While the longstanding debates over Hawthorne's treatment of women characters have been reinvigorated and refined by feminist critics in the last fifteen years or so, feminist criticism has as yet had little to say about Poe's women-centered fictions.1 This lack of attention might have surprised—or more probably, annoyed—the egotistical Poe, since he himself suggested the terms by which his treatment of women characters might be compared with Hawthorne's. In an 1842 review of Twice-Told Tales, Poe praised “The Minister's Black Veil” as “a masterly composition” whose underlying meaning would probably be lost on most readers, for the “moral put into the mouth of the dying minister will be supposed to convey the true import of the narrative; and that a crime of dark dye, (having reference to the ‘young lady’) has been committed, is a point which only minds congenial with that of the author will perceive.”2

Poe's use of the term “crime” was perceptive in this instance and virtually prophetic of the direction Hawthorne's tales would take in the next few years. Nina Baym has observed, for example, that in “most of the stories written before … 1842, the destruction or damaging of the woman seems to result accidentally as a by-product.” The question of the male character's having a “covert intention” to cause such harm, however, “cannot be entirely absent,” especially since in the years which followed, Hawthorne's stories “escalate” the male character's ambiguous intentions to “an attitude more clearly hostile.”3 In stories such as “The Birthmark” (1843), “Rappaccini's Daughter” (1844), “Drowne's Wooden Image” (1844), “The Artist of the Beautiful” (1844), and “Ethan Brand” (1849), “crimes” against women are indeed laid bare.

A chronology of Poe's women-centered tales written during these same years suggests a reason for his apparently inside knowledge of Hawthorne's “true import” in 1842. Having already published “Berenice” (1835), “Morella” (1835), “Ligeia” (1838) and “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), Poe had clearly established his own “congenial” interest in the fictional possibilities to be found in covert crimes against ladies. With the publication of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” in 1841, he had begun to highlight such crimes and would continue to do so in the two subsequent detective stories in the Dupin series, “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” (1842) and “The Purloined Letter” (1845). Thus the evolution of Hawthorne's women-centered tales followed the same pattern as Poe's: both authors gradually changed their fictional focus from covert to overt victimizations of women.

A brief look at individual works reveals more similarity between the authors, because the recurring crime in all of the above-mentioned tales is that one or more women have been criminally silenced; the speech that would allow them self-expression has been denied or usurped by male agents. Poe was especially prolific in creating images of violently silenced women, their vocal apparatus the apparent target of their attackers, who, in the earlier stories, are the storytellers themselves. One remembers the forcible removal of Berenice's teeth by her professed “lover”; the premature shroud that “lay heavily about the mouth” of Ligeia4—and of Madeline Usher, no doubt; and later, the throat-cutting and strangulations in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” The psychological violence in such tales is no less pre-emptive. Morella's narrator-husband comes to a point where he can “no longer bear … the low tone of her musical language,” and after she dies she is denied a place in his own speech: “Morella's name died with her at her death. Of the mother I had never spoken to the daughter …” (II, 231, 235). Even in “The Purloined Letter,” the least violent of Poe's tales about women, the Queen who sees her “letter” stolen before her very eyes cannot speak to save herself for fear of jeopardizing her position with the King, who fails to understand the crime taking place.

In Hawthorne's tales about victimized women, silencing is most often effected by the artifices of male characters who are ostensibly obsessed with “perfecting” women according to their own ideas of what women should be. Georgiana in “The Birthmark” and Beatrice Rappaccini are imprisoned, both literally and figuratively in male fantasies, their self-expression limited and finally extinguished altogether. In “Drowne's Wooden Image,” in which the process appears to be reversed and the image of a woman comes to life, the woman is still not allowed to speak for herself. This man-made creature is led silently away by another male character, which surely accounts for the broad gold chain around her neck: she is marked from first to last as a slave to male image-making. Hawthorne continued to explore the idea of the male artist's thinly veiled misogyny in “The Artist of the Beautiful.” There, Owen Warland originally fantasizes Annie Hovenden as a fitting “interpreter” of his works to those of lesser sensibilities, but he eventually forecloses his own fantasy and any pronouncement she might have made by convincing himself that Annie “could never say the fitting word … which should be the perfect recompense of an artist.”5 Finally, in “Ethan Brand,” the recurring crime against women is labeled as such—“the only crime for which Heaven could afford no mercy,” and the prototypical victim of the Unpardonable Sin is Esther, the girl whom, “with such cold and remorseless purpose, Ethan Brand had made the subject of psychological experiment, and wasted, absorbed, and perhaps annihilated her soul, in the process.”6

It is crimes of silencing such as these which have understandably fueled the feminist critical debate over Hawthorne's responsibilities as an artist. Judith Fetterley has argued of “The Birthmark” in particular that Hawthorne “is unwilling to do more with the sickness [of the male victimizer] than call it sick,” and of such stories in general that they expose “the imaginative limits of our literature.” This type of “storytelling and art,” she claims, “can do no more than lament the inevitable”—the criminal nature of our culture's sexism—and the “lament is self-indulgent; it offers the luxury of feeling bad without the responsibility of change.”7 Baym has taken a more approving view of Hawthorne, basing her argument on the gradual evolution of his art which culminates, she maintains, in “the triumph of The Scarlet Letter.” Like Fetterley, she acknowledges “the responsibility of change”: while condemning his male characters' crimes against women, he must nevertheless “represent them, and thus the question of his own motivation as an artist enters his discourse. He must hold himself responsible along with other men for injuries done to women; he inflicts imaginary injuries on imaginary women through the stories he creates, in which women are injured. To some degree, he has a higher degree of responsibility than other men, because he has an awareness that others lack. …” Baym argues, however, that Hawthorne's art accedes to that responsibility. His progression from the delineation of ambiguous or covert criminality to blatantly condemnatory portrayals of the injuries done to women by “warped” male mentality brings him at last to that ground-breaking moment in “The Custom House” when “the Hawthorne narrator accepts the woman's story as his subject and, putting her scarlet letter on his own breast, loses his identity in hers.”8 In The Scarlet Letter “the woman's story” is finally told, and in crossing gender boundaries Hawthorne thus goes beyond “the imaginative limits” of male-authored fictions.

What I propose to do in this essay is to bring Poe into the critical arena on Hawthorne's coat-tails, as it were. Given the similar progression of his fictional focus from covert to overt crimes against women, and given his similar understanding of what in fact constitutes such “crimes,” Poe's women-centered tales raise the same issues as Hawthorne's: “the imaginative limits” of male-authored fictions and “the responsibility of change.” What makes Poe an equally apt candidate for a feminist inquiry is that, like Hawthorne, he incorporates those issues into his own discourse, and his fictional response to both problems is also to cross gender boundaries in order to tell “the woman's story.”

Poe's villainous narrators in tales like “Berenice,” “Morella,” and “Ligeia” do indeed tell one-sided stories, and the warped nature of their sexual crimes has been well documented.9 Poe's search for a solution to such crimes is my main subject here, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” marks the beginning of that search. Starting with Roderick Usher, Poe began his experiments with the androgynous male character whose developing empathy with a woman enables him to reject one-sided male-authored fictions and finally to engender a new fictional form—a second story that provides a text for female experience. In the Dupin tales that follow, in which the task of solving crimes against women calls for a detective with an awareness that other men lack, the androgynous Dupin becomes virtually a feminist critic. In Dupin, Poe created a new caretaker of social and political order, and Dupin fulfills these responsibilities by going beyond the imaginative limits of the male storytellers around him and recovering the second story—“the woman's story”—which has previously gone untold. Whether that act of recovery establishes Poe as a writer of feminist sensibility is an issue I will take up in my conclusion.


The crime against the Lady Madeline Usher is that she is prematurely entombed, and while Roderick has traditionally been considered solely responsible, he is but a character in the story himself, and his actions are at least in part the product of his narrator's construction. That is, while critics have credited him with a variety of personal motives for trying to kill his “tenderly beloved sister” (II, 404), including self-defense, euthanasia, and a vampiristic “creative impulse,”10 the fact remains that he could not have incarcerated Madeline without the narrator's help, as Roderick himself comes to realize: “We have put her living in the tomb!” (II, 416). Thus it is the male narrator's actions in this story, his influence over Roderick and his misogynist strategies of textual control, that first warrant a reader's attention—and suspicion.

A boyhood friend of Roderick, the narrator arrives on the scene at the outset to bolster his friend's waning manhood, and from hints variously placed in his narration, it soon becomes clear that he views Roderick's acute nervous condition as arising from his sister's presence, perhaps from her overcloseness or her unmanly influence. The longstanding critical consensus regarding the narrator is that he is a well-intentioned man of reason, valiantly, albeit naively, trying to make sense of a world skewed by irrational forces.11 His animosity towards Madeline, however, which is foreshadowed in his first description of the mansion upon his arrival, seems if anything unreasonable, irrational. The “vacant and eye-like windows” (II, 398), the “fine tangled web-work” of fungi “hanging … from the eaves” (II, 400), and the crack which runs from roof to foundation prefigure Roderick's “luminous” eyes, his “hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity” (II, 401-02), and his oddly split personality, all of which seem ominous enough to the narrator. But he experiences “a shudder even more thrilling than before” when he looks at the reflection of the House in the tarn, the “remodelled and inverted images” (II, 398) which represent Madeline, Roderick's physical and psychological counterpart. In particular, the “silent tarn” (II, 400) foreshadows Madeline's ill-fated exclusion from the narrator's story, for she will be buried at a “great depth” (II, 410) in the House, in a chamber that lies beneath the surface of the tarn and of the narrative.

The narrator's first encounter with Madeline confirms the conflict between the male storyteller and the lady of the House, for he frames the encounter as one between mutually exclusive presences. “I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread. … A sensation of stupor oppressed me,” he tells us, and the effect of his presence on her is equally oppressive: “on the closing in of the evening of my arrival at the house, she succumbed … to the prostrating power of the destroyer.” What is of interest here is the periphrastic description of her lapse into a cataleptic-speechless-stupor and the narrator's passive construction in the phrasing that follows: “the lady, at least while living, would be seen by me no more.” Without implicating himself as an agent in her immediate demise, the narrator uses language covertly to relegate Madeline to a passive position in relation to himself, and in the next sentence he tries to exclude her from the text altogether: “For several days ensuing, her name was unmentioned by either Usher or myself” (II, 404). Although he ostensibly remarks on this to demonstrate his concern and sensitivity for his friend's grief over his sister's deteriorating condition, the effect is to show the narrator making sure that Madeline has no place in their masculine language or in this male-authored fiction.

Similarly, on the verge of her return from the tomb, the narrator will try not to hear what he dismisses as her “indefinite sounds” (II, 411) as she breaks through steel and a copper-lined vault, sounds which emanate from the tomb “beneath … [his] own sleeping apartment” (II, 410) on a night when he tries unsuccessfully to sleep. The suggestion here of a guilty conscience, or more specifically, of a consciousness plagued by its repressed underpinnings, is heightened by the fact that the narrator is awakened to such ominous sounds by the nightmare vision of “an incubus,” which he wants to believe is “of utterly causeless alarm” (II, 411). His word is ill-chosen, however, or at least revealing of the psychological processes he has previously tried to conceal, for “incubus” is the archaic name for a male spirit that visited women in their sleep and aroused female sexuality. If his word choice is a conscious misnomer, that is, if he has substituted “incubus” for “succubus,” the female counterpart supposed to visit sleeping men, then the choice is but another narrative strategy intended to exclude any female agency from his text. If, as seems more likely, we are to take “incubus” as an authentic report of a mind that is losing conscious control (for on this night of nights the return of the repressed is imminent), then Poe would seem to be suggesting that the narrator's homoerotic attraction to Roderick has caused him to see himself in some way feminized. If this is the case, then the nightmare status of this identification with female sexuality is no less proof of the narrator's misogyny—of his fear and hatred of the female sexuality incarnate in Madeline Usher.

It is Roderick who finally admits to hearing Madeline, and it is Roderick's growing consciousness of the crime perpetrated against his sister that finally allows her back into the text. Before he can make such an admission, however, he has first to undergo a mighty transformation for a fictional character and free himself of his narrator's control. Essentially, the conflict between the male storyteller and the female character is internalized in the androgynous Roderick, whose dual gender is depicted in behavior that is “alternately vivacious and sullen” and in a voice that varies “rapidly from a tremulous indecision” to a “species of energetic concision” also described as a “guttural utterance” (II, 402). That he is Madeline's twin more obviously implies a merging of gender identities in this story, and there are other suggestions of his partly feminine nature. Given the year of publication for “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for example, when the “feminization of American culture” was well under way, the fact that Roderick is an artist is itself enough to insure his effeminate status.12 In addition, his composition of a musical ballad is reminiscent of Morella and Ligeia, who had been characterized by their musical language (II, 227, 311), which their male narrators had also found unsettling. Poe's physical description of Roderick is in fact, as D. H. Lawrence recognized, very similar to that of the beautiful Ligeia.13 He has the same large, pale brow; eyes “large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison”; lips of “a surpassingly beautiful curve”; and “a nose of delicate Hebrew model” (II, 401). Thus it is not surprising that the narrator speaks distastefully of his friend's “peculiar physical conformation and temperament” (II, 402) or that he will try to cure him of the effeminacy he denigrates as a “mental disorder” (II, 410).

We may speculate that it was the masculine side of Roderick's character, or rather, his desire for an exclusively masculine identity, that originally motivated him to summon the narrator to him, “with a view of attempting … some alleviation of his malady” (II, 398). Once the narrator is in authorial possession of the House, however, and Madeline's effeminizing influence has been dispatched, Roderick begins to have second thoughts about what he will finally come to see as the crime of masculine exclusivity, and his change of mind is imaged in his search for a narrative form that will allow him to express what the narrator has so artfully excluded.

Roderick's first attempt to communicate his inner turmoil after Madeline has been confined to her sick chamber, for example, is through a “perversion and amplification” of a waltz by Von Weber. That Roderick gives an unusual interpretation of this musical score suggests his desire to deviate from male-authored compositions. But the single-minded narrator characteristically refuses to confer such meaning on his friend's deviation from a masculine script and thus labels it merely a “perversion” (II, 405). The next of Roderick's creations we see, a small painting of an interior vault that suggests both Madeline's femaleness and her fate, is illuminated, the misogynous narrator would have us believe, with “inappropriate splendor,” and again he resists assigning meaning to his friend's subversive attempt to communicate otherness, claiming that Roderick's subject may be “shadowed forth, [only] feebly, in words” (II, 405-06). Roderick's third formal experiment, the musical ballad of “The Haunted Palace,” has its own verbal component, which implies Roderick's growing abilities as a storyteller in his own right. But here, perhaps sensing a rival narrative voice for the first time, our narrator escalates his textual control. Acknowledging that there is an “under or mystic current of … meaning,” he nevertheless exerts editorial authority over Roderick's text in phrasing that hints at partial censorship: “The verses … ran very nearly, if not accurately, thus:” (II, 406).

“The Haunted Palace,” like “The Fall of the House of Usher,” tells the story of a mind (“Thought's dominion”) assailed and enervated by nameless “evil things,” and as in the prose narrative, where Madeline's enshrouded body is graced by “the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face” (II, 410), “the glory / That blushed and bloomed / Is but a dim-remembered story / Of the old time entombed” (II, 406-07). The narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher” has used his narrative strategies to suppress the “story” of Madeline's victimization, and Roderick's ballad, while it is an improvement over the nonverbal suggestiveness of his music and his painting, is no more explicit about the crime perpetrated against his sister: it tells its tale in symbolism, metonymy, allegory—all misnomers sanctioned historically by a male-dominant literary tradition. It is Roderick's task finally to retrieve that “dim-remembered story” from the obfuscating language of male-authored fictions, and to do so he must become fully conscious of his own complicity in the crime of excluding-by-misnaming. It was Roderick after all who had first invited the narrator's misogynistic intrusion into the House of Usher by labelling his “sympathies” with his lady sister a “malady” (II, 410).

Roderick's reviving sympathies with and for his sister precipitate her return from the tomb to the text, and in the climactic closing scenes of this tale, where Roderick at last acknowledges and renounces his crime, the narrator struggles to maintain his textual control. As Madeline makes headway up from the lower regions of the House, the narrator, finally showing his true colors, tries desperately to shut out her noisy return with the language of another male-authored fiction, “the only book immediately at hand.” Trying to hold Roderick's divided attention with “a gentle violence” (II, 413), he reads him the story of Ethelred, a manly hero and “conqueror,” who is challenged by a dragon with “a shriek so horrid and harsh, and withal so piercing, that Ethelred had fain to close his ears with his hands against the dreadful noise of it” (II, 414). But Roderick here becomes virtually “a resisting reader.” He rejects both the model of manliness the narrator has tried to impose upon him and the misnaming of the sound he hears, and he replaces the narrator's death-dealing text with a new, second story in a dramatic act of “re-vision”14:

Not hear it?—yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it—yet I dared not—oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am! I dared not—I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! … And now—tonight—Ethelred—ha! ha! the breaking of the hermit's door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangor of the shield!—say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault! … Madman! I Tell You that She Now Stands Without the Door!

(II, 416)

By momentarily freeing himself of the narrator's control and authoring a second story that explicitly reveals the crime perpetrated against femaleness, Roderick has succeeded in bringing Madeline to the threshold of the narrator's tale. And indeed, the unmasked “Madman” in Poe's story is here forced to acknowledge in unambiguous words the irrefutable truth of Roderick's narrative: “without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame” (II, 416; Poe's emphasis). The narrator is still not willing to admit his role in her long “struggle” for acknowledgment, however, any more than he is willing to wait around for her to speak her own mind. Claiming that Madeline and Roderick reunite only to die in each other's arms, this eminently unreliable narrator flees the chamber, the House, and his own misogynistic narrative endeavor.15 “The Fall of the House of Usher” ends with the narrator's fragmented sentences, the last fragments of his control. But control, nevertheless, for his final act of “sentencing” is to dispatch Madeline and her too-familiar twin into the “silent tarn,” out of mind and out of language one last time: “the deep and dark tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the ‘House of Usher’” (II, 417).

In this tale, Roderick's growing abilities as a storyteller are parallelled by his growing terror at the implications of what he must finally do: act as a free agent and virtually rupture the narrative proper with a second story that lays bare the crime of male-authored fictions. The rupture is momentary, lasting just long enough to allow the woman character to get a foot in the door, but it is a significant moment in the evolution of Poe's artistry. Roderick Usher was a new character in Poe's repertoire, an androgynous spokesperson capable of giving voice to female experience and critiquing male-authored fictions which mute that experience, and despite what his madman-narrator must have hoped, his unusual talents were not so easily laid to rest. They would surface again two years later in the service of C. Auguste Dupin, Poe's great detective. The new genre that serves as a vehicle for this androgynous mastermind may be said to be Poe's own “second story,” for it too is a new narrative form that critiques male-authored interpretive paradigms which fail to do justice to women. In the three detective stories published between 1841 and 1845, Poe moved from the timeless, dreamlike worlds of remote gothic mansions, turrets, and dungeons to the social realm of neighborhoods, shops, newspapers, and political intrigue, where the investigation of seemingly isolated crimes against women uncovers a network of covert gender-related “crimes” that pervades the entire social order. And Dupin, like Roderick Usher before him, is the detective-critic who brings such “crimes” to light.16

The epigraph to the first tale, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” introduces the idea of crossing gender boundaries to recover the now “dim-remembered story” of female experience: “What song the Syrens sang, or what name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among women, although puzzling questions, are not beyond all conjecture” (II, 527). Like Roderick, Dupin exhibits a “Bi-Part Soul,” which leads his narrator to imagine “a double Dupin,” and he speaks in dual modes, his normal speaking voice “a rich tenor” which rises “into a treble” when he delivers his analysis of a crime, i.e., when he recounts the experience of a female victim (II, 533). That he represents a second draft of Roderick's character, however, is evident in his greater ability to speak, literally, for the silenced woman, to imagine her story in her own words. In “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” for example, Dupin goes so far as to recreate the thought-pattern of the murdered Marie in the first-person: “We may imagine her thinking thus—‘I am to meet a certain person …’” (III, 756).

The most significant difference between Dupin's ability to recover the story untold by male-authored fictions and Roderick's, however, is that the detective's skill is presented as the desired model. Unlike Roderick's closed-minded narrator, for example, Dupin's narrator greatly admires his friend's mental powers (as do the police), and Dupin in fact tries to teach his lesser-skilled narrator how to read in a new way. In this, the evolution of his character may be traced back to Ligeia, whose deeper knowledge of texts had threatened her narrator-husband by revealing his lesser abilities. In “Ligeia,” the narrator had described his attempt to attain to Ligeia's knowledge as being like “our endeavors to recall to memory something long forgotten”: “we often find ourselves upon the very verge of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember” (II, 313-14). In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Dupin tells his narrator his own partial interpretation of a newspaper text reporting the grisly murders of two women and asks for the man's conclusion: “At these words a vague and half-formed conception of the meaning of Dupin flitted over my mind. I seemed to be upon the verge of comprehension, without power to comprehend—as men, at times, find themselves upon the brink of remembrance, without being able, in the end, to remember” (II, 555). One critic has claimed that readers rightly identify with this “ostensible dummy,” rather than with the detective, whom he sees as “grotesquely naive” in this story. He argues in particular that the story is a lesson in the dangers inherent in sexual repression: while the overly intellectual Dupin fails to see the obvious sexual nature of the crime and thus tries to rationalize the evidence in a way that the narrator finds incomprehensible, the narrator, who represents “every reader,” more naturally sees evidence of rape. “Every reader,” this critic explains, knows that “he” is potentially “capable of such actions” and all-too-humanly “finds himself excited by—and identifying with—” the putative rapist-murderer.17 The similar phrasings above, however, suggest that Poe conceived of Dupin as being like Ligeia, or at least as thinking like her, and it seems unrealistic to fault a character who apparently thinks like a woman for failing to identify with or be excited by the idea of a rapist. Indeed, this seems to be the point of the similar phrasings, that men and women think and see things differently; specifically, that Dupin, like Ligeia, has mental abilities of which most “men” are unconscious, their conceptions merely “half-formed.” He is thus able to read beyond the surface narrative of male-authored texts, to perceive the gap between text and reality, as we are shown in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” where he criticizes virtually point by point a newspaper journalist's attempted reconstruction of the crime. “The sentence in question has but one meaning, as it stands,” Dupin instructs his narrator, “but it is material that we go behind the mere words, for an idea which these words have … failed to convey” (III, 739).

What I have called the gap between text and reality is, of course, a gender gap. In the Dupin tales, male-authored texts exclude femaleness because their authors are incapable of imagining women's experience; which is to say, they fail to recognize the various ways in which women are victimized. Such failures of imagination, recognition, and empathy are thus “crimes” in their own right, for although these male authors are less obviously misogynistic than Poe's earlier narrators, the texts they create continue to leave the woman's story untold, the overt crime unsolved. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” for example, Dupin is able to track down the murderer of the old woman and her daughter because he can recognize what has gone unnamed by the newspaper account of the crime: the strange “voice” of the attacker, which none of the “witnesses” could identify, is that of an orangutan. Once this fact is established, the detective is then able to recover the entire scenario—the second story, which reveals at last what the women actually suffered. Not surprisingly, that story presents a grim parody of what in Poe's tales constitutes normative masculine behavior. The trained animal had been acting out a masculine script, first flourishing a razor around the face of one of his victims, “in imitation of the motions of a barber”; then silencing both women when they put up a struggle; and finally trying to conceal all evidence of the crime (II, 566-67).

The issue of masculine norms, or rather, masculine conceptions of normative behavior, is continued in “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt.” In this tale Dupin criticizes several conflicting newspaper articles on the grounds that they are indeed male-authored “fictions”: “[I]t is the object of our newspapers rather to create a sensation—to make a point—than to further the cause of truth” (III, 738). Specifically, the “truth” of a woman's experience gets lost sight of because the language of each text is informed by a rigidly masculine perspective. In discussing attempts to identify Marie's body, for instance, one journalist had argued that the fact that garter clasps had been set back to accommodate smaller legs, as Marie was said to have done, was not admissible evidence that the corpse was the petite Marie, because after buying them, “most women find it proper to take a pair of garters home and fit them to the size of the limbs” (III, 745). “Here it is difficult to suppose the reasoner in earnest,” Dupin comments, revealing the flaw in the male author's generalization: the “elastic nature of the clasp-garter is self-demonstration of the unusualness of the abbreviation” which Marie undertook (III, 746). That men cannot imagine what the life of a woman is like and that they thus define all experience in masculine terms is more explicitly demonstrated in Dupin's criticism of another newspaper's argument. “It is impossible,” this text urges, “that a person so well known to thousands as this young woman was, should have passed three blocks without some one having seen her.” But, Dupin explains, this

is the idea of a man long resident in Paris—a public man—and one whose walks to and fro in the city, have been mostly limited to the vicinity of the public offices. He is aware that he seldom passes so far as a dozen blocks from his own bureau, without being recognized and accosted. And, knowing the extent of his personal acquaintance with others, and of others with him, he compares his notoriety with that of the perfumery-girl, finds no great difference between them, and reaches at once the conclusion that she, in her walks, would be equally liable to recognition with himself in his. This could only be the case were her walks of the same unvarying, methodical character, and within the same species of limited region as are his own.

(III, 749)

In the third and final tale in which Dupin appears, the “limited region” whose boundaries are set by masculine minds is shown to be the province of the Parisian police. Their failure to recover “the purloined letter” results, as Dupin explains, from the narrow “limits of the Prefect's examination—in other words, had the principle of [the letter's] concealment been comprehended within the principles of the Prefect … its discovery would have been a matter altogether beyond question” (III, 986). In this tale the plot-lines we have seen previously are reduced to their essence and the issue of gender conflict is in fact given a political dimension, for the crime is the theft of a text that rightfully belongs to the Queen; the thief is the Minister D———, “who dares all things, those unbecoming as well as those becoming a man” (III, 976); and “the power thus attained,” as even the Prefect of police recognizes, “has … been wielded, for political purposes, to a very dangerous extent” (III, 977). Once again Dupin, acting according to his “political prepossessions” as “partisan of the lady” (III, 993), is able to recover the lost text (and replace it with a clever substitute) because he alone can decode the artifice by which the woman has been disempowered: the male criminal had merely disguised her “letter” to look as if it was his own. And once again this second story acts as a gloss upon the first. The Minister's conscious concealment of the Queen's letter is but the external manifestation of the police's interpretive paradigm, by which they unconsciously define all human action only according to “their own”—masculine—“ideas” of it. In Dupin's words, “They have no variation of principle in their investigations.” Their unchanging principle is “based upon … one set of notions regarding human ingenuity” (III, 985), and one set of notions, as the “double Dupin” demonstrates, is not enough to accommodate both halves of humanity.

This tale has a new ending, suggesting perhaps that Poe felt he had taken his critique of male-authored fictions to its logical conclusion: the victimized woman lives to benefit from Dupin's recovery of the second story, and the male criminal faces imminent retribution. As Dupin reveals at the end, for “eighteen months the Minister has had her in his power. She has now him in hers; since, being unaware that the letter is not in his possession, he will proceed with his exactions as if it was. Thus will he inevitably commit himself, at once, to his political destruction” (III, 993). Dupin's criticism of the police's interpretive paradigm, however, is obviously not new; it merely rounds out the metaphorical arguments begun in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The police's “one set of notions,” like the earlier depictions of “half-formed conception” and male-authored texts which failed to convey “but one meaning,” represents a blind spot in masculine interpretations of reality that keeps men from seeing how women are victimized. What the men in these tales cannot see, they cannot include in their own “story” of events, but the crime metaphor that provides the basis for Poe's detective tales insists on the criminal nature of such oversights. The death-dealing misogyny of Roderick Usher's narrator differs from the half-formed conceptions of Dupin's newspaper writers and police only in degree, not in effect. The second story, or perhaps finally, the second half of the human story, must be recovered by a mind capable of “looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction,”18 and Poe's solution to the problem of such much-needed “re-vision” is the androgynous mind that had first so terrified Roderick Usher and had finally so distinguished C. Auguste Dupin.


I have twice referred to Adrienne Rich's definition of “re-vision” to help explain Roderick's and Dupin's recovery of the second story, so it seems only proper to repeat it here as she originally articulated it: “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. … We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.” Read in sequence, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and the three Dupin tales suggest that Poe was considering what Fetterley has called “the responsibility of change” and experimenting with the idea of the androgynous mind which would be capable of imaginative re-vision. The androgynous Dupin accomplishes what Roderick Usher so tentatively began, a fully-specified critique of “the imaginative limits” of one-sided male-authored fictions. The end-product of such a critique is the recovery of “the woman's story,” which, in the last tale in the sequence, breaks the hold of male domination and finally insures the woman's survival by restoring her honor and her socio-political power.

There is no question that Poe's depictions of acts of physical violence committed against women are particularly gruesome, and some feminist readers might feel that having to encounter such grisly surface details is too big a price to pay to get to the final acts of recovery and restoration Poe seems to have had in mind. A greater stumbling block to any acceptance of Poe as an author capable of feminist sensibility must surely be his now infamous statement that “the death … of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” Certainly at first glance it would seem to contradict any argument that his tales show an evolving feminist ethos, a growing awareness and renunciation of death-dealing male-authored fictions, and indeed, it appeared a year after “The Purloined Letter,” in “The Philosophy of Composition,” published in 1846.

When feminist critics cite the statement, however, they tend to leave off the second half of the sentence: “—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”19 While I do not intend to justify the images of death which Poe habitually chose as a vehicle for his vision, I do believe that the halves of this statement constitute a conceptual whole which is not inconsistent with his use of the androgyny metaphor, and to argue this final point, I will extrapolate from Baym's reading of Hawthorne one last time: “The domain of his work is the male psyche, and throughout his writings ‘woman’ stands for a set of qualities which the male denies within himself and rejects in others. … The ability to accept woman—either as the ‘other’ or as part of the self—becomes in his writing a test of man's wholeness.”20

The domain of Poe's work is also the male psyche, and the loss of “woman” throughout his writings represents a halving of “man's” soul, his human potential, and—for the male artist—his imagination. Telling the story of that loss seems to have been for Poe a compelling need, for he told it obsessively again and again and clearly derived a kind of perverse pleasure from doing so. Nevertheless, that such works are cautionary tales is confirmed by the heroic stature of his androgynous heroes. Roderick Usher does come to accept woman both as the “other” and as part of the self, but it is Dupin who stands finally as Poe's greatest achievement. “The double Dupin” represents his creator's fullest expression of the need for wholeness and the need to tell not only the story of loss, but the second story as well: the story of recovery and restoration, “the woman's story.” I have to conclude that Poe's ability to tell both stories, or both halves of the human story, is—like Hawthorne's—the sign of what we would today call feminist re-vision.


  1. Nina Baym has made the strongest and most persuasive case for regarding Hawthorne's treatment of women characters as feminist, in a series of articles, two of which will be cited below, and a full-length critical biography, The Shape of Hawthorne's Career (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1976). For opposing views, see Wendy Martin, “Seduced and Abandoned in the New World,” in Woman in Sexist Society, ed. Vivian Gornick and Barbara K. Moran (New York: Basic Books, 1971), pp. 329-46; and Judith Fryer, The Faces of Eve: Women in the Nineteenth-Century American Novel (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976).

  2. Graham's Magazine, May 1842; rpt. in Hawthorne: The Critical Heritage, ed. J. Donald Crowley (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 92.

  3. “Thwarted Nature: Nathaniel Hawthorne as Feminist,” in American Novelists Revisited: Essays in Feminist Criticism, ed. Fritz Fleischmann (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982), pp. 64-65.

  4. “Ligeia,” in Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1978), II, 330. Subsequent references to this edition will appear parenthetically in the text.

  5. In Mosses from an Old Manse, Volume X of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. William Charvat et al. (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 468, 472.

  6. In The Snow-Image and Uncollected Tales, Volume XI of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, ed. William Charvat et al. (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 88, 94.

  7. The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1978), pp. xiv-xv.

  8. “Thwarted Nature,” pp. 63, 62, 61, 73.

  9. Michael Davitt Bell has shown the narrators of “Berenice,” “Morella,” and “Ligeia” to be “lover-murderers,” repulsed by sexuality, in The Development of American Romance: The Sacrifice of Relation (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 101, 112-17. See also Terence J. Matheson, “The Multiple Murder in ‘Ligeia’: A New Look at Poe's Narrator,” Canadian Review of American Studies, 13 (1982), 279-89.

  10. J. O. Bailey, “What Happens in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’?” American Literature, 35 (1964), 445-66; Maurice Beebe, “The Universe of Roderick Usher,” in Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Regan (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967), pp. 129-30; and Daniel Hoffman, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (New York: Doubleday, 1972), pp. 310-11.

  11. See, for example, Charles Feidelson, Jr., Symbolism and American Literature (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1953), p. 35; Joel Porte, The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1969), p. 62; and Stefano Tani, The Doomed Detective: The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1984), p. 12.

  12. I have borrowed the phrase from Ann Douglas' The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977), in which she discusses the feminized status of nineteenth-century American artists at length.

  13. Studies in Classic American Literature (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1923); rpt. in The Shock of Recognition, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: Random House, 1955), p. 979.

  14. Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (New York: Norton, 1979), p. 35. I will give Rich's full definition of “re-vision” later in the text.

  15. G. R. Thompson has also argued the unreliability of the narrator, but for different reasons. He claims that the narrator gradually comes to accept Roderick's mad interpretations and that the scene of Madeline's return is thus a dual hallucination. See Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), pp. 68-104, and “Poe and the Paradox of Terror: Structures of Heightened Consciousness in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, ed. G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 313-40.

  16. Tani, p. 4, likens Dupin to Roderick Usher on the grounds that each is a poet-figure suffering from a “diseased” imagination. For other readings of Dupin as a poet-figure, see Leslie A. Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel, 2nd ed. (New York: Stein and Day, 1966), p. 497; and Hoffman, pp. 114-22.

  17. J. A. Leo Lemay, “The Psychology of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue,’” American Literature, 54 (1982), 177, 178, 187.

  18. Rich, p. 35.

  19. See, for example, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p. 25. Also, The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, with Selections from his Critical Writings, ed. A. H. Quinn (New York: Knopf, 1951), II, 982.

  20. “Hawthorne's Women: The Tyranny of Social Myths,” Centennial Review, 15 (1971), 250-51.

Jack G. Voller (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6896

SOURCE: “The Power of Terror: Burke and Kant in the House of Usher,” in Poe Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3, December, 1988, pp. 27-35.

[In the following essay, Voller contends that “The Fall of the House of Usher” represents a rejection of the theories of sublimity offered by Burke and Kant, and instead focuses on terrors and emotions that could not be easily explained in the context of the optimistic aesthetic proffered by Burke and Kant.]

It has been established that Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) is in part a commentary upon the Burkean sublime,1 but the full extent of Poe's critique of sublimity remains to be determined. The tale certainly articulates, as Craig Howes has shown, Poe's dissatisfaction with Burke's silence on certain abstract sources of terror,2 but “Usher” does not rest here in its unsympathetic examination of the sublime. Writing a tale directed against established theories of sublimity, Poe is not likely to have overlooked Kant's “Analytic of the Sublime,” and indeed “Usher” is, I would like to suggest, as much concerned with Kant's aesthetic as with that offered by Burke and his inheritors.3

We may go further: “Usher” finally records not merely Poe's rejection of two particular theories of sublimity, but of the possibility that the sublime can provide a meaningful or even competent accounting of terror. Poe's hostile interrogation of sublimity has as its motive impulse not merely the shortcomings of Burkean and Kantian theory, but Poe's recognition of the fundamental inability of the sublime to address what critics now identify as a Dark Romantic understanding of the human condition.

Since its reintroduction by Boileau into Western cultural debate, and particularly since the publication of John Dennis' The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (1704), the sublime had been an aesthetic which transmuted overwhelming sensory or intellectual experiences into positive, often transcendent, emotional or cognitive espisodes.4 For Poe, this apparently ineluctable character of the sublime—a character which had, by Poe's time, marked the value of sublimity for generations of critics—was its essential flaw, for such an optimistic aesthetic could not meaningfully account for the terrors that deeply fascinated Poe: those terrors that know no redemption.

“Usher” confronts the theories of both Burke and Kant with just such a terror, and it is emotion, not theory, that triumphs. When we understand this aspect of the tale, we not only recognize another dimension of Poe's Dark Romanticism, but may reevaluate Howes' finding that “Usher” is flawed, its conclusion an example of failed artistic and theoretical nerve on Poe's part, because of the tale's “unsettling” return to the sublimity that most of the tale has questioned.5 Seen as a refutation not only of Kantian and Burkean theory but of sublimity's affirmational character, the tale's conclusion becomes an emphatic recognition not only of the power of terror and of its ability to evade even the most rigorous intellectual attempts at containment, amelioration, or understanding, but also of the insufficiency and limitations of the sublime.


The very structure of sublime experience (as it was conventionally understood) articulates an aesthetics of optimism. In virtually every formulation it received, sublimity was understood as a linear, four-part experience that terminates benignly if not affirmatively. The normal or resting state of “the soul,” the mental faculties, is disrupted by a moment of trauma which, in the words of Alexander Gerard (himself echoing Burke), “occupies the whole soul, and suspends all its motions.”6 This moment of encounter is succeeded by a third state, that of elevation, in which the mind's prostration before the natural object is transformed into what Thomas Weiskel identified as “a symbol of the mind's relation to a transcendent order.”7 The final stage is that of recovery, of return to normal modes of cognition and feeling. Regardless of the significance of the experience—whether it is understood by aesthetic theorists as validating religious rapture or the triumph of reason or simply as a physiological experience—the sublime is a movement through disquiet to tranquility.

This underlying structure of sublimity is inscribed into the very plot of “Usher”: the narrator comes from the outside world (the pre-sublime, the normal); he encounters the house, its inhabitants, and its environs (the moment of trauma); he dwells briefly in the house (which, as an objectification of Roderick's disordered mind, embodies the sublime moment itself); then returns to the outside world (the recovery). What Poe has altered in his rendition of the experience is not the form or structure of sublime experience but its character, reversing anticipated movements and frustrating our expectations. The narrator encounters an external object that, as Howes notes, he expects will excite his faculties; instead, he experiences precisely the opposite:

I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable, for the feeling was unrelieved by any of the half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. 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 after-dream of the reveller upon opium—the bitter lapse into everday life—the hideous dropping of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.8

The significance of this passage and the failure it documents becomes fully apparent when we understand that the sublime is, in essence, an ironic trope, converting impressions of vacuity and insignificance into suggestions of plenitude and potency.9 Denying this irony, Poe orchestrates an aesthetic experience that, by leading his narrator to interiorize directly the chaos and gloomy presence of the object—here, the house and its environs—amounts to an anti-sublime. The soul is not expanded into a sense of its own greatness, but is oppressed by forebodings of loss, decay, and ineffable unease. The narrator experiences “motions of the soul,” to use Burke's language, but the movement is downward and in, not upward and out: the narrator speaks of lapse, dropping, sinking. What should have been an experience of liberation and exaltation proves instead a denial of transcendence, a “bitter” and “hideous” repudiation of sublimity's power of apotheosis.

Poe repeatedly foreshadows the impending failure of the Burkean sublime, suggesting its inadequacy not only in the miscarriage of the narrator's “childish” and ill-fated attempt to dispel his sense of oppression by peering into the tarn (II, 399), but more importantly in Roderick's own understanding of the consequences of that “anomalous species of terror” of which he is victim:

I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect—in terror. In this unnerved—in this pitiable condition—I feel that the period will soon arrive when I must abandon life, and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, Fear.

(II, 403)

Far from being an agent for the liberation or expansion of the soul, terror in “Usher” is itself crippling and life-denying, the greatest and gravest threat to Roderick's very being, leading not to affirmation or sensationist pleasure but to death and destruction of the house/mind.

For Poe, sublimity's very dependence upon terror proves its undoing, its deconstructive key. Burke, as Howes points out, traces the roots of sublime experience to a human desire for self-preservation, but Roderick's case is one for which Burkean theory cannot account. Insisting that terror is necessary for the sublime, Burke also insists (as will Kant) that the sublime cannot exist when the agent of terror threatens the life of the observer. Howes has shown that the source of Roderick's terror lies in the historical and socio-sexual background of Roderick and his “house,” yet these are not among the sources of terror which, both Kant and Burke agree, threaten us so directly as to obviate the sublime.10 Clearly, there is a dimension of terror beyond the pale of both Burkean and Kantian theory, and it this dimension with which Poe is most concerned.11 “Usher” sets forth an experience of terror which is neither excluded by extant theories of the sublime nor accounted for by them, and in so doing, the story challenges the utility of these theories. When an aesthetics cannot cope with the experience of terror which has such consequences for Usher, what is its value?


Poe's rejection of the Kantian sublime goes beyond the fact that this aesthetic is, like Burke's, undermined by its own emotional foundation. The Kantian sublime, we recall, has two components: the mathematical sublime, associated with conceptual magnitude, and the dynamical, concerned with the processes and forces of nature. In the former, the imaginative or intuitive faculties fail in their attempts to apprehend the totality of objects or ideas connoting great extent or power, in which case reason must intervene to rescue the experience from lack of closure, from continued intellectual suspension and trauma. In the dynamical sublime, objects conveying a sense of nature's power “raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height and discover in us a faculty of resistance … which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.”12

In “Usher,” both modes of the Kantian sublime fail. Rationality is betrayed by the unsuspected power and tenacity of the imaginative: G. R. Thompson has pointed out how in the tale “every rational effort … serves merely to heighten superstitious fancies—both of Usher and the narrator.”13 When the exercise of reason subverts reason, no evasion of the consuming power of terror is possible. The mind's ability to resist the power of sublime objects, to regard them as “without any dominion over us and our personality” (Kant, p. 110) is shown by Poe to be an illusion: Roderick's dread of falling victim to fear is horribly realized. “Usher” flatly rejects Kant's easy confidence in the mind's superiority over nature, for “Usher” is the heavily symbolic account of the conflict between the rational and the imaginative in the ‘sublimed mind’14—a conflict in which the rational fails and the inscrutable dynamic powers of nature, represented by the chaotic yet localized storm, overwhelm and vanquish.

The lines of battle in “Usher” are clearly drawn. The narrator is associated with the rescuing force of reason; he is, David Ketterer has written, “a projection of the force that Usher half hopes will keep him in the everyday world.”15 Roderick has called upon him, the narrator explains, “with a view of attempting, by the cheerfulness of my society, some alleviation of his malady” (II, 398). Although he strikes few readers as particularly cheerful, the narrator is suited to his task: upon his arrival he shakes off the disturbing effect of the house's dreamlike “atmosphere” by turning to examine “the real aspect of the building” (II, 400; emphasis added); he will later attempt “to reason off the nervousness which had dominion over him” during the storm (II, 411; emphasis added). When Roderick advances his theory of “the sentience of all vegetable things” (II, 408) and claims that the house and grounds have their own atmosphere that has contributed to his present state, the narrator, who has sensed this atmosphere earlier, tersely dismisses these beliefs: “Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none” (II, 408). Such facile dismissal is invoked again later in the story when, at the height of the climactic storm, the narrator explains the unearthly glow surrounding the house as “merely electrical phenomena not uncommon” (II, 413; emphasis added). At such moments the narrator is behaving precisely as Roderick had hoped he would, but having himself been beset by the terrors of the house of Usher, the narrator can offer only a superficial rationality that cannot dissipate the literal clouds of gloom gathering about his friend.

The allure of the imaginative, the nonrational, is embodied (not surprisingly for Poe) in the story's only female character.16 It is no accident that Madeline should prove to be, to the narrator, an unknown quantity, a shadowy and mysterious figure whom he cannot know. Poe has taken evident pains to delineate the antithesis between the narrator and Madeline. On the day he arrives, the narrator has his only sight of Madeline before her entombment; instructively, this brief glimpse is provided not by direct meeting (Roderick never introduces his sister to his friend), but by the narrator's almost accidental notice of her passing through a “remote portion” of the chamber where he sits with Roderick.

The narrator's reaction merits scrutiny. “I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread—and yet I found it impossible to account for such feelings. A sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps” (II, 404). There is no explanation for this response—none, that is, unless we recall the words with which Burke begins Part Two of his Enquiry: “The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, or by consequence reason on that object which employs it.”17 The association of Madeline with the nonrational dimension of the sublime could be no clearer.

Nor could the affinity between Roderick and Madeline. It is implicit in Roderick's attribution of his melancholy to his concern for Madeline's health that his well-being is in some way linked with that of his sister, and the internment scene affirms this. Noticing the “striking similitude” between the Ushers, the narrator learns from Roderick that the two are twins “and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them” (II, 410). The mistaken entombment of Madeline only intensifies these sympathies, drawing Roderick so strongly toward the nonrational or “arabesque” that even the direct intervention of the rationalist narrator is unable to prevent Roderick from becoming, in accord with his fears, the victim of terror.

It is a critical commonplace that the house of Usher is an objectification of Roderick's mind; this mind becomes, in the tale, the disputed territory in the conflict between reason and imagination, intellection and intuition.18 Poe is careful to present a house/mind vacillating between these faculties, uncertain in its allegiance. The sublimed mind is generally understood to be traumatized or suspended, and this is emphatically true for Roderick Usher. Alone in the remote countryside, the house of Usher itself is in a sense suspended, surrounded as it is by “an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven” (II, 399). Even the fissure in the front wall is emblematic of the divided mind, poised in the sublime moment between the rational and the imaginative.

The narrator's journey through the house, from the causeway at the level of the tarn up multiple staircases to Roderick's chamber, is a journey into this suspect mind, a progress “through many dark and intricate passages” (II, 400) which takes the narrator past “phantasmagoric” decorations and chambers that are both known and alien, accustomed sights somehow defamiliarized: “While the objects around me … were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy—while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this—I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up” (II, 400-401). Even the family physician wears “a mingled expression of low cunning and perlexity.” Associated with Madeline, the tale's avatar of the nonrational, the physician has every reason to confront the rationalist narrator “with trepidation,” for the narrator is, in a very important sense, his antagonist.

Roderick's chamber, like the rest of the house, is oppressively dark, the light of rationality excluded in the sublime moment. What is for Kant the necessary antithesis between reason and imagination is expressed by Poe in the narrator's troubled reaction to the sight of Roderick. Even before meeting his old friend, the narrator has found Roderick's behavior inscrutable: “Although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend. His reserve had always been excessive and habitual” (II, 398). Significantly, this reserve is attributed to “a peculiar sensibility of temperament”—further indication of the sway held over Roderick's mind by the nonrational.

The narrator's entrance into his host's chambers confirms their estrangement. Studying the dark dwelling-chamber, the narrator records his impression that “An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all” (II, 401). As a token of the sublimed mind, the chambers indicate not only the opacity of imaginative experience to rational inquiry, but also the negative tenor of Poe's anti-sublimity. The literal darkness which obscures the interior of the house of Usher is the objective correlative of that lack of redemptive possibility in an aesthetic and philosophic situation so imbued with an abstract yet threatening terror that both Burkean and Kantian sublimity fail as aesthetic, emotive, and cognitive guides.

Confronting Roderick, the narrator confronts a virtual stranger, “an incoherence—an inconsistency” (II, 402). This lack of recognition should be expected, however, and not only because of years of separation. Roderick's peculiar sensibility of temperament has been aggravated by the imminent loss of Madeline, his psychic twin and intuitive kindred-spirit. Threatened by abstract terrors and a sense of impending tragedy, Roderick would indeed be on the verge of losing himself, both literally, in the withering of the family tree, and figuratively, in the growing and ineluctable fear that seems to him a part of the very “physique” of the familial estate. Constitutionally disposed to a great, even profound, intuitive and imaginative sensibility, Roderick can only be further estranged from the rationally-apprehended world of empirical reality by the terrors that beset him. No wonder, then, that he summons to rescue him a rational friend from happier years—a friend who barely recognizes him; no wonder the narrator, driven to metaphor to describe Roderick's condition, invokes images of drunkenness and opium reverie. At the moment of the narrator's arrival, Roderick is perhaps already beyond the possibility of rationalist redemption.

The narrator's earliest reports confirm his inability to effect any change in Roderick's condition. “I should fail,” he says, “in any attempt to convey an idea of the exact character of the studies, or of the occupations, in which he involved me, or led me the way” (II, 403). For a rescuer, the narrator is remarkably passive, and the activities that the two men pursue—painting, literature, music—affirm that Roderick is very much the dominant aesthetic force in the house of Usher. The best the narrator can do, apparently, is endeavor to distract his friend, but the chosen distractions (if indeed they are not chosen by Roderick, as seems to be the case,) serve only to reinforce those aspects of Roderick's character which dispose him to be a victim of terror. Far from rescuing his friend, the narrator is abetting his eventual destruction, as though the narrator himself has been subsumed by the house and its atmosphere of terror.

The narrator's lack of vigilance against the effects of terror is evident in his responses to the activities in which Roderick engages. The sublime was regarded by most eighteenth- and nineteenth-century aestheticians as ineffable, and frequently was associated with pain, vagueness, and awe; all of these characteristics are present in the narrator's experience and impressions of his time in the house/mind of Usher:

… I hold painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. From the paintings over which [Roderick's] elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew … into vagueness at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why;—from these paintings … I would endeavor to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words. … For me at least—in the circumstances surrounding me—there arose out of the pure abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvass, an intensity of intolerable awe. …

(II, 405)

Such obscure and emotionally-freighted responses to Usher's art prepare us for the eventual capitulation of reason during the terrors of the storm; for the moment, Poe has made the point that the artistic, the imaginative, is, if not superior to the rational, at least its equal, capable of summoning powers that challenge the control and understanding of that narrow rationality embodied in the narrator.

Given these circumstances and discoveries, the failure of the narrator's attempts “to alleviate the melancholy of [his] friend” is inevitable:

as a closer and still closer intimacy admitted me more unreservedly into the recesses of his spirit, the more bitterly did I perceive the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe in one unceasing radiation of gloom.

(II, 404-405)

Rather than asserting control and bringing his friend within the compass of reason, the rationalist narrator is able to register only an increasing helplessness and frustration.


Reason may totter on its lofty throne in “Usher,” but there is at least one moment in which its triumph over terror and the imagination seems secure. We have seen how in Poe's symbolist staging of the drama of the sublime, Roderick's mysterious kindred spirit and psychic correspondent is placed in stark antithesis to the rationalist narrator, vanquished by him after a brief and wordless encounter. The narrator's mere presence, Poe implies, is sufficient to drive Madeline from the stage of the mind, to exclude her from Roderick's life and render her ineffective until she dies.

There is some suggestion that Roderick believes the death of his sister might resolve the reason/imagination conflict, for the narrator reports that Roderick has chosen a vault (“entirely without means of admission for light”) which, tellingly, lies “at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment” (II, 410). Yet while Roderick's desire to “bury” Madeline beneath the chamber of his rationalist friend might betoken a desire to terminate the sublime, to subordinate the imaginative to the rational, it simultaneously testifies, in his unwillingness to remove his sister from the house, to the inescapable influence of the imagination.

Madeline's exclusion is illusory, of course, and resolves nothing. Roderick's distressed condition is only exacerbated by the death of his sister:

His ordinary manner had vanished. His ordinary occupations were neglected or forgotton. … The once occasional huskiness of his tone was heard no more; and a tremulous quaver, as if of extreme terror, habitually characterized his utterance. There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret. … At times, again, I was obliged to resolve all into the mere inexplicable vagaries of madness.

(II, 410-411)

The narrator's recourse to madness as an explanation for Roderick's behavior indicates, as do the earlier references to drug use, how far beyond reason's purview are the dynamics of terror. Insensitive to the “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature” which existed—and exist—between Roderick and his sister, the narrator also fails to appreciate the extremity of Roderick's terror-anxiety. This proves especially ironic, or perhaps especially appropriate, for now that Madeline has to all appearances been suppressed, the narrator falls more completely under the spell of terror: “It was no wonder,” he says of Roderick's increasingly bizarre behavior, “that his condition terrified—that it infected me. I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions” (II, 411).

It is evident by the time of the storm's outset that the narrator has no power to rescue his friend from the terrors that are fast closing upon him. So thoroughly, in fact, has the narrator succumbed to the house's ambience of vague terror that he will be hard put to save himself. During the “rising tempest,” the narrator finds he has been driven sleepless from his bed by “the full power of such feelings” as possess his host:

I struggled to reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me. I endeavored to believe that much, if not all of what I felt, was due to the bewildering [“phantasmagoric” in early texts] influence of the gloomy furniture of the room. … But my efforts were fruitless. An irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame, and, at length, there sat upon my heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm.

(II, 411)

This is a passage crucial for its presentation of a dual failure. The narrator has sought vainly to alleviate his terror by a stratagem identical to that employed during his initial scrutiny of the house: just as he attempted to dispel his gloom by peering into a tarn that, in its inverted reflection of the house, only intensified his depression, the narrator here tries to dismiss his “alarm” by analyzing it as a mere effect of the “gloomy” decor, although in a limited sense the furniture, as part of the house, might also be considered a partial source of his terror. Roderick has explained the near-sentience of the house and its environs; given Madeline's horrific struggle in the vault below, and the general morale of the house, the narrator's terror cannot be explained away as a mere Halloween illusion caused by tapestries and shadows. By acknowledging that “[his] efforts were fruitless,” the narrator grants not only the reality of his terror, but also its power over and resistance to his reason. He has invoked the rational in his attempt to suppress the “nervousness” that has infected him; when the effort fails, the narrator appears momentarily to abandon the sanctuary of self-deception, to acknowledge the reality of an “alarm” that rationality finds “utterly causeless,” and to turn his attention more generally to the house and storm, there to find himself “Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror …” (II, 411).

Reason's helplessness in the face of the engulfing and chaotic forces of terror is evident in the narrator's reading of “The Mad Trist,” a story whose elements of magic and chivalry are markedly inimical to rational authority. The fact such a text is the only one at hand, when neither Roderick nor the narrator care for maudlin romance, is strong evidence of the decay of reason's assuredness and of the ascendancy of the imaginative and nonrational.19 This “ascendance” proves quite literal, for by his reading the narrator liberates Madeline even as he seeks, with his reading, to deny her, to repudiate her vitality and influence. He cannot; she ascends to the upper level of the house, and there, surrounded by an atmosphere in disorder and in the presence of the powerless narrator, she helps Roderick consummate his fear. In terms of the story's symbolist drama, Madeline returns only to legitimate her brother's profound dread and then “bear him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated” (II, 417). In the very face of rationality, terror has leagued with the intuitive/imaginative to exercise a power beyond reason's purview.


Concentrating on its most evident features, Howes finds the conclusion of “Usher” merely a “pyrotechnic display of sublime effects” that, in its implicit endorsement of conventional sublimity, “undercuts any tidy allegorical reading” of the tale.20 But Poe's concern, we must recall, is not exclusively or even primarily with the sources of terror. He is, rather, concerned with its consequences, with what we might call terror's final metaphysical import, for Poe is seeking to test, through his fiction, the received claims that through the aesthetics of sublimity terror leads either to a sense of human grandeur and elevation or to a recognition of reason as the only human faculty capable of rescuing meaning from otherwise-overwhelming cognitive experience. There are indeed present at the tale's conclusion many of the conventional markers of sublimity—they may be found throughout “Usher,” and throughout much of Poe's serious fiction—but they are not the point. Poe has kept these components because it is the sublime with which he is concerned, albeit not with its form but with its character. Poe seeks not to deny the emotional power of darkness, obscurity, noise, or immensity; if anything, he claims in “Usher” that these sources of the sublime have unrecognized power. Terror, from these and from abstract sources, may plunge the human “soul” into an abyss from which reason cannot extricate it, an abyss much deeper and darker than ever Burke or his followers suspected.

For generations of writers and thinkers in Europe and America, Burke's Inquiry and Kant's “Analytic” articulated the transcendental and rationalist promise of terror. For Poe, this canonical optimism was a profoundly inadequate response to the implications of terror. “Usher” is Poe's revision of this dominant aesthetics of terror, a revision that demonstrates the inability of theories of the sublime to account for those vague and abstract terrors that come unmingled with delight—those terrors central to the Dark Romantic vision given voice in so much of Poe's fiction.


  1. Craig Howes, “Burke, Poe, and ‘Usher’: The Sublime and Rising Woman,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 31 (1985), 173-189.

  2. Howes' basic claim, with which I concur, is that “Usher” uncovers “historically and sexually determined sources of terror” (p. 173) which escape the notice of Burkean inquiry and thereby compromise the value of Burke's terror-based aesthetic.

  3. Poe's familiarity with the Burkean sublime is well-established; it is unlikely that most investigators would need to look further than Howes' essay (both notes and text) and Kent Ljungquist's The Grand and the Fair: Poe's Landscape Aesthetics and Pictorial Techniques (Potomac, Maryland: Scripta Humanistica, 1984). The first chapter of Ljungquist's study is a useful introduction to the sublime and its reception by American writers. In an article that takes issue with Howes by arguing for the primary importance of theories of the picturesque in “Usher,” Ljungquist further documents the degree to which “Usher” depends upon aesthetic theory in “Howitt's ‘Byronic Rambles’ and the Picturesque Setting of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 33 (1987), 224-236.

    The precise extent of Poe's knowledge of Kant may perhaps never be known, but a convincing case that Poe had direct acquaintance with some of Kant's work is made by Glen A. Omans, “‘Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense’: Poe's Debt to Immanuel Kant,” Studies in the American Renaissance 1980, ed. Joel Myerson (Boston: Twayne, 1980), pp. 123-168. Ljungquist also discusses this question on pp. 22-23 of The Grand and the Fair.

    We cannot discount the likelihood of Poe's indirect knowledge of Kant. Poe had some acquaintance with the writings of Fichte and Schelling (Works, II, 237, fn. 4), and would there have encountered some of Kant's ideas. Perhaps most likely as an indirect source is Coleridge, who knew Kant's “Analytic of the Sublime” well enough to consider translating it, and who much preferred the German idealist's formulation of sublimity, with its subjectivism and implicit moral dimension, to Burke's sensationist theory. For Coleridge's familiarity with Kant, see Clarence DeWitt Thorpe, “Coleridge on the Sublime,” Wordsworth and Coleridge: Studies in Honor of George MacLean Harper, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs (1939; New York: Russell & Russell, 1962), pp. 192-219. For the general influence of German thought on Poe, see G. R. Thompson, Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1973), pp. 24-38, 210, and Henry A. Pochmann, German Culture in America: Philosophical and Literary Influences 1600-1900 (1957; Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978), pp. 388-408.

    Indirect knowledge of Kant's theory of sublimity is, of course, all that Poe would have required; “Usher” is not a detailed assault upon the particulars or mechanisms of Kantian (or Burkean) sublimity but upon the general means by which such theories function as aesthetics of a facile optimism.

  4. Space does not permit a detailed consideration of the sublime or its history. For the theories of sublimity examined in “Usher,” see Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. J. T. Boulton (2nd ed., 1759; New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1958); and Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J. H. Bernard (1790; New York: Hafner, 1951). Howes' essay provides a useful brief introduction to the sublime; a longer introduction is to be found in J. T. Boulton's introduction to Burke's Enquiry, pp. xv-cxxvii. Among the full-length studies, the best general introduction is still Samuel Holt Monk's The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England (New York: MLA, 1935). Also useful are Walter J. Hipple's The Beautiful, The Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetic Theory (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1957); and Marjorie Hope Nicholson's Mountain Gloom and Morning Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (Ithaca, New York: Cornell Univ. Press, 1959). The most impressive recent study of the sublime is Thomas Weiskel's The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976).

  5. Howes, p. 184. Howes finds that “when ending ‘Usher,’ Poe tries to evoke terror in his narrator through a rather hackneyed return to physical causes, thus dropping back into an understanding of sublimity he has shown to be inadequate. The last few pages slavishly and predictably turn upon the outer trappings of terror” (p. 183).

  6. Alexander Gerard, An Essay on Taste, ed. Walter J. Hipple, Jr. (3rd ed., 1790; Gainesville, Fla.: Scholar's Facsimiles and Reprints, 1963), p. 16.

  7. Weiskel, p. 23.

  8. Works, II, 399; subsequent references to this edition are supplied in parentheses in my text.

  9. Since the late seventeenth century, the sublime has depended upon an inverse signifier/signified relationship, exploiting symbols of absence (infinity, silence, emptiness) as indications of divine presence and human possibility. This is, as David Laurence has remarked, an “ironic gesture … [,] philosophically dubious if poetically interesting,” in which “failure, defeat, and inadequacy in the world of experience indirectly and ironically vouch for the reality of a realm of supersensible ideas” (“William Bradford's American Sublime,” PMLA, 102 [1987], 55-65; 58). Weiskel makes much the same point (p. 23). The Dark Romantic tradition, from Gothic fiction to Poe and beyond, subverts this irony. Infinity, chaos, and silence become not emblems of a power beyond human understanding but direct indicators of void, disorder, and absence. The opening scene of “Usher” asserts just such an equivalence.

  10. Burke writes, in passing, that “When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible” (p. 40), and therefore such cases do not proceed to sublimity. Kant explains that the natural object of power “is more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we are in security” (p. 100). Finding that “it is impossible to find satisfaction in a terror that is seriously felt,” Kant, like Burke, strictly circumscribes the utility of his aesthetics. The tenor of discussion in both works makes it clear that what Howes identifies as “internal and personal” sources of terror (p. 178) are not among those considered life-threatening by either theorist. Roderick's mortal fear of “Fear” constitutes Poe's throwing the gauntlet of Dark Romantic despair in the face of these theories of metaphysical optimism.

  11. Poe's interest in the extremes of terror is not confined to “Usher.” Other tales, such as “Descent into the Maelström,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and even, in his satiric vein, “The Premature Burial” and “The Scythe of Time,” are concerned with emotions in extremis. Although offered in “How to Write a Blackwood Article,” the admonition “Should you ever be drowned or hung, be sure and make a note of your sensations” (II, 340) points to a serious concern repeatedly addressed in Poe's fiction.

  12. Kant, pp. 100-101.

  13. G. R. Thompson, “Poe and the Paradox of Terror: Structures of Heightened Consciousness in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe: Critical Essays in Honor of Darrel Abel, ed. G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Locke (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 313-340, 333.

    None of this is to suggest that Poe was an enemy of the rational. David Ketterer points out that although early theoretical writings by Poe—his example is the “Letter to B—” (1831)—posit “an opposition between the imaginative and reasoning faculties,” by 1835 Poe had effected a truce between the reason and the imagination, recognizing the necessity of each in the artistic process (The Rationale of Deception in Poe [Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1979], p. 238). In the critique of the Kantian sublime in “Usher,” Poe reasserts this balance by refuting Kant's valorization of the rational at the expense of the imaginative and intuitive. G. R. Thompson notes that Jean Paul Friedrich Richter's theories of Romantic irony and comedy, influential for Poe, would have led the latter to find suspect the veneration of reason at the expense of the nonrational (Poe's Fiction, p. 162). If indeed, as Thompson claims, “comedy enters into Poe's ‘Gothic’ writings not so much by way of hysteria as by way of a controlled, and therefore skeptical, philosophical despair” (p. 164), Richter's understanding of comedy—a “sublime in reverse”—contributes markedly to our understanding of “Usher” as a critique and refutation of the Kantian sublime. Thompson points to “Usher” as one of the tales in which Poe most closely follows Richter—a tale at the center of which is the “confrontation of the mind with itself” (p. 163).

  14. Poe's critique of the sublime is so heavily symbolist as to approach the allegorical, a type of writing which, it is widely believed, Poe rejected utterly. The basis of Poe's opposition to allegory is his famous dictum that “Under the best circumstances, [allegory] must always interfere with that unity of effect which, to the artist, is worth all the allegory in the world” (Complete Works, XII, 148). Yet we cannot dismiss the possibilities of extended symbolism in “Usher.” Even in his most well-known anti-allegorical statement—his full review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse in November 1847—Poe could write, “Where the suggested meaning runs through the obvious one in a very profound under-current, so as never to interfere with the upper one without our own volition, so as never to show itself unless called to the surface, there only, for the proper uses of fictitious narrative, is [allegory] available at all” (Complete Works, XIII, 148).

    That such balanced artistic achievement was possible Poe affirmed by praising (for the second time) De La Motte Fouqué's Undine for its ability to maintain unity of effect while still invoking the near-allegorical: “Of allegory properly handled, judiciously subdued, seen only as a shadow or by suggestive glimpses, and making its nearest approach to truth in a not obtrusive and therefore not unpleasant appositeness, the ‘Undine’ of De La Motte Fouqué is the best, and undoubtedly a very remarkable specimen” (Complete Works, XIII, 149). In his September 1839 review of Undine, which appeared in the same number of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine that carried “Usher,” Poe praised the work precisely on account of its unity as “a model of models, in regard to the high artistic talent which it evinces. … Its unity is absolute—its keeping unbroken” (X, 37). That Poe was thinking of Undine and allegory at the same moment he was working on “Usher” clearly suggests that we might profitably search for a “mystic or under-current of meaning, of the simplest and most easily intelligible, yet of the most richly philosophical character” (X, 35) in “Usher.” One submerged level of meaning becomes readily apparent when we follow Poe's own clues, provided in the opening paragraph of the tale, that aesthetics of terror are at the intellectual center of Roderick's story.

    Other critics have detected this kind of near-allegorical symbolism in “Usher” and other Poe works. See, for example, Benjamin F. Fisher IV, “Playful ‘Germanism’ in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: The Storyteller's Art,” in Ruined Eden of the Present, pp. 355-374. Daniel Hoffman also argues for the presence of a “subliminal allegory” in this tale in which Roderick represents the narrator's unconscious; see Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 306. Donald Ringe, in American Gothic: Imagination and Reason in Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1982), pp. 139-141, finds that “William Wilson” operates on one level as an allegory. Richard Wilbur's “The House of Poe” argues that “we can make no sense about [Poe] until we consider his work—and in particular his prose fiction—as deliberate and often brilliant allegory; see The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Criticism since 1829 (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1966), pp. 255-277. The list of critics detecting near-allegorical intensities of symbolism in Poe could no doubt be extended.

  15. Ketterer, p. 195.

  16. Ketterer, p. 195; invoking one of Poe's favorite terms, Ketterer here also identifies Madeline as “that side of Usher which is pulling him toward arabesque reality.”

  17. Burke, p. 57.

  18. Speaking of the mathematical sublime, Kant describes the experience in terms of the antithesis between reason and the imagination: “The feeling of the sublime is therefore a feeling of pain arising from the want of accordance between the aesthetical estimation of magnitude formed by the imagination and the estimation of the same formed by reason” (p. 96).

  19. In Ketterer's understatement, “The mere fact that the rationalist narrator is reading such an unrealistic story is an indication of Madeline's dominance at this point” (pp. 196-197).

  20. Howes, p. 183.

G. R. Thompson (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: “Locke, Kant, and Gothic Fiction: A Further Word on the Indeterminism of Poe's ‘Usher,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 547-60.

[In the following essay, Thompson analyses “The Fall of the House of Usher” as a tale of Gothic fiction.]

In her article “Explanation in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’”1 Beverly R. Voloshin offers a “Lockean” perspective on the idea of “merging” objective and subjective in “gothic fiction” and in Poe's story in particular. Her observations about the multiplicity of merged interpretations of gothic events parallel my own in several studies she does not cite,2 and in two studies she does cite.3 Therefore I was a little surprised to read that “though in the past several decades much important criticism of Romantic poetry has analyzed it as a response to the crisis in epistemology, gothic fiction is less often seen as having a similar philosophical substratum” (420, n. 2). I was even more surprised to read that while she agrees with my general claim for multiple interpretation of events in “Usher,” her “premise about gothic fiction,” her “account of multiple interpretations in ‘Usher,’” and her “conclusion about the conclusion of ‘Usher’” differ “in almost all points” from my own analysis (420, n. 4). I should have thought her claims for a gothic transmutation of what she calls the Lockean idea of “appearances” in relation to “objects” quite compatible with my own observations on the gothic and “Usher” from a more Kantian perspective. In fact, the major “difference” may be a matter of degree and the philosophical point of entry—Locke vs. Kant.

Insofar as I can determine it from her article, her premise about gothic fiction is that much of the best of it is epistemologically indeterminate. Her multiple interpretations of “Usher” depend, like mine, on an interpenetrating structure of “natural,” “psychological,” and “supernatural” (or preternatural) “explanations” of the events of “Usher.” My analysis privileges the psychological somewhat but denies that any one explanation can be adopted exclusively. Her analysis “depends” on the pattern of competing explanations because she seeks to deny the three conventional choices, suggesting that there is a category of perception (the ontological status of “appearances” according to Locke and modified by Poe) that precludes, substitutes for, or transcends the natural-psychological-supernatural structure. This “other” effect blurs ordinary discriminations. Her conclusion about the conclusion is that the tale conjoins or merges “ordinarily distinct entities” (427) in an elaborate pattern of “doubling.” None of this is incompatible with what I have written. What is different is her claim for a gothic conversion of the “empirical notion of discrete cause and effect” into the “monistic” universe of Eureka (the logic of which is a little hard to follow). Of Poe's “Usher,” she says that all of the “explanations” (psychological, natural, supernatural) “merge into a radical resolution to the [gothic] puzzle of appearances …” (428).

I naturally do not wish to argue with her notion that “the cause of unusual impressions and appearances cannot be definitively located in consciousness, nature, or the supernatural” (428); nor with the idea that the gothic transforms the Lockean idea of “appearances” as the connecting link between subject and object into “representations” that “do not necessarily correspond to objects” so that in Poe they may be “seen as the boundary or wall between subject and object” (428). These points are quite pertinent to philosophical gothic in general, though, as mentioned, I propose instead a Kantian context and influence. Nor do I wish here to debate the influence of Scottish Common Sense philosophy in America—though I would suggest in passing that Robert C. McLean's study of Poe's teacher at the University of Virginia, George Tucker: Moral Philosopher and Man of Letters (1961), Terence Martin's The Instructed Vision: Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and the Origins of American Fiction (1961), and the sections on Poe, Locke, and Thomas Upham in Allan Gardiner Smith's The Analysis of Motives: Early American Psychology and Fiction (1980) make a better basis for judgment than the unpublished essay she cites. But I would like to clarify my premises about gothic fiction and my reading of Poe's story—premises which Voloshin seems to have radically misconstrued.

First, regarding the conclusion of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” I have several times observed that the tale is epistemologically and ontologically indeterminate, deliberately so, and that the insistent pattern of doubling that merges toward unity is a structural and imagistic reinforcement of the theme of indeterminism. Voloshin's point seems to be that there is an epistemological puzzle not merely in the human mind but also in the very structure of things. My analysis of the tale emphasizes the psychological while maintaining that the possibilities of illusoriness—or hallucination—are paralleled in the universe Poe's characters inhabit. I emphasize the importance of the narrator's conscious and unconscious responses to events, the realistic and psychological aspects of the apparent supernaturalism of the tale, and the requisite of simultaneous multiple explanations. For the full weight of Voloshin's paradigm of “appearances” to be felt, one must be sensitive to the contrastive pull of the natural-psychological-supernatural tension.

Although in the indeterminate gothic tale (as distinguished from “supernatural” or “explained”), the occult element is undercut by insinuated natural and psychological explanations, the dramatic events often cannot be taken as either actual or mental but suggest instead some ambiguous (or ambivalent) combination of both. In “Usher,” the sinking of the house into its own image in the pool symbolizes the final collapse into that void which is the self and the universe simultaneously. This point in the story—where ambiguous mystery engulfs the reader's response in perception of epistemological uncertainty dramatically embedded in the fictive world of the work—parallels Tzvetan Todorov's formulation of the “fantastic” as the moment of reader hesitation between the “marvellous” and the “uncanny” that precipitates the reader into a terrible limbo. The gradually intensified hysteria of the narrator, by means of which he merges with Usher, parallels the subjective phase of the experience of the reader, who sees through the eyes of the narrator, who sees through the eyes of Usher. When Voloshin writes that “the dissolving consciousness of Roderick and the decaying world of Usher are brought into complete union … [so that] the final solution to the puzzle of appearances is to destroy appearances, if only temporarily … in the consciousness of the narrator, and through him, in the consciousness of the reader” (428), there is hardly any difference at all between her reading and mine.

Secondly, regarding gothic fiction in general, I have argued that the genre reflects the epistemological and ontological uncertainties of the romantic age to the extent that it may be called a philosophical literature. In part, gothic themes represent a quest for a theory adequate to world perceived as mind. But once epistemological doubt is established in the “dark romantic” mind, it does not matter whether one assumes the world to be objective or subjective. If romanticism is largely a philosophy of consciousness, dark romanticism is the drama of the mind engaged in the quest for metaphysical and moral absolutes in a world that offers semblances of an occult order but withholds final revelation. In romantic gothic, man is confronted with an ambiguous world structure, and his instruments for perceiving this structure are limited and flawed. The tendency of the indeterminate mode is toward obsessive epistemological doubt in which not only the ontology of beings and events but also the very medium of the narrative is called into question, especially by unreliable narrators or interpreters. Central to the indeterminate mode is heightened psychological and philosophical perplexity—so much so that such works may be considered not only as uncertain metaphysical texts, but fundamentally as epistemological texts.

And finally, it was Immanuel Kant's three “Critiques” of Pure Reason (1781), Practical Reason (1788), and Judgment (1790) that most profoundly influenced early nineteenth-century popular and literary conceptions of human perception. According to Kant, all human knowledge is subjective, and objects are known only by qualities not inherent in the things themselves but given us by our sensory “intuition.” This approximates Voloshin's formulation of the gothic transformation of Lockean concepts of “appearances.” Gothic fiction takes the Kantian proposition one step farther—and in the opposite direction. For Kant, the function of the human mind is to organize sense impressions into meaningful patterns; thus, to an extent, man's mind imposes order on the universe. But Kant postulated another human faculty, the will, which perceives spiritual and moral truths, unrelated to sense experience and unknowable by the intellect. The will, reaching out toward an external reality of universal moral law, operates within an individual as the categorical imperative in a realm of free moral choice. This realm of choice determines rightness and directs action without reference to mere reason and understanding. Gothic fiction undercuts reason, understanding, and the will and repeatedly enmires itself in the epistemological swamp of “appearances,” which are not necessarily connected to things, and which may simply be subjective impositions.

The curiously tangled metaphysical-epistemological issue is especially evident in the American ghost story, a subgenre of the gothic focused on the illusion of ghostly experience as an icon for the apparitional nature of all existence. The American ghost story embodies ontological, epistemological, and axiological concerns central to the romantic dilemma of subject and object. The relative lack of unambiguous ghosts and other supernatural phenomena in American romantic fiction reflects the philosophical uncertainties of the dominant intellectual movement of transcendentalism. The transcendentalist paradox is the necessity of valuing and believing in the external material world while seeing it simultaneously as the apparitional symbol of a higher (and “better”) world. The world view of American romantic writers—both the gothicists and the transcendentalists—is marked by a recurrent apprehension that all matter may be a mental construct, just as all dreams of the spiritual world may be a delusion. The greatest paradox of the American romantic movement is that the emphasis in the Emerson-Whitman world on a benign cosmos, in which all distinctions between material and spiritual are ultimately dissolved, proceeds not by denial of the material world, but by a reinterpretation of the spiritual that suggests that a supernatural realm of the wholly “other” does not finally exist but is a fiction in a world that is ultimately monist. If the only ontologic reality is a mysterious dynamic interaction between two fictional constructs—the physical phenomenal world of sensations and the spiritual noumenal world of ideas—what then is the ontological status of the indeterminate monism? What happens to the duality of the real and the apparitional, and which is the apparition? In such a dialogic, the natural and the supernatural fuse or “merge” one into the other; the uncertain result is a world of appearances, which are representational of the essential apparitional nature of nature. It is this gothic transformation of the world of Kantian “appearances” that Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” encodes. Far from being at odds on “all points” on Poe's story, Voloshin's observations are rather close to mine. Despite her observation that Berkeley and Hume collapsed Locke's distinction between primary and secondary qualities and that Hume's Treatise of Human Nature clearly worked out the skeptical implications of Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Voloshin's “Lockean” approach is too narrow; and any claim for its exclusivity or priority of “explanation” just grazes the tip of the philosophical iceberg.


  1. Studies in Short Fiction, 23 (Fall 1986), 419-28; further references are in the text.

  2. “Romanticism and the Gothic Tradition,” Introduction to The Gothic Imagination: Essays in Dark Romanticism (1974); “Gothic Fiction of the Romantic Age: Context and Mode,” Introduction to Romantic Gothic Tales 1790-1840 (1979); “The Apparition of This World: Transcendentalism and the American ‘Ghost’ Story,” in Bridges to Fantasy (1982).

  3. “Explained Gothic,” in Poe's Fiction (1973), and “Poe and the Paradox of Terror,” in Ruined Eden of the Present (1981).

Matthew C. Brennan (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Poe's Gothic Sublimity: Prose Style, Painting, and Mental Boundaries in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, Vol. 11, No. 3-4, August, 1990, pp. 353-59.

[In the following essay, Brennan proposes that Poe used an ambiguous prose style in “The Fall of the House of Usher” to convey the psychotic condition of Roderick Usher's mind. Brennan also draws a parallel between the abstract-expressionism of Roderick's painting and actual nineteenth century art.]

Several recent critics of Gothic fiction—notably David Morris and David Saliba—have connected this genre to such features of the sublime as obscurity and terror. For example, Morris has written that “in its excessive violations of excess sense, Gothic sublimity demonstrates the possibilities of terror in opening the mind to its hidden and irrational powers” (306). In the case of Poe's gothic short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the sublime's obscurity and terror not only account for Poe's choice of an ambiguous prose style; these features also help express the disintegration of Roderick Usher's mind—his psychotic condition and weakening grasp of the boundaries of reality, both internal and external. Furthermore—what has been noted with less frequency and emphasis—Roderick's painting both corresponds visually to Poe's obscure, sublime prose and embodies through its abstract-expressionism Usher's own inner, irrational world of nightmarish experience.

By drawing on both the Romantic tradition of the sublime, in particular its links to Edmund Burke's The Sublime and the Beautiful, and Ernest Hartmann's recent psychological theory about nightmare sufferers, I want to argue two points concerning the relations of Usher's painting to actual pictures executed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First, Usher's painting parallels the abstract-expressionist work of Mark Rothko—not the geometrical abstractions of Mondrian and Picasso, as H. Wells Phillips and Paul Ramsey have suggested; and second, Usher's painting most closely parallels the expressionistic sublime paintings of the English Romantic painter J. M. W. Turner. Whether Poe knew Turner's work is unimportant; what matters is that in exploring the aesthetic problem of how best to express the mental experience of the Gothic sublime, Poe and Turner contemporaneously create similar stylistic effects, though in differing media.


Unlike the prose of such realist writers as Twain, Dickens, and George Eliot who aim to represent human experience through clarity and precision of detail, Poe's prose fits the style of romances—it is vague, obscure, mysterious, and redundant. These qualities, along with other ideas and images that Burke listed such as darkness, blinding light, and uncertainty (58-80), were all well known by Poe's time to be sublime; and, as Morris (300-01) and Saliba (31) explain, they form links between the Gothic and the sublime, whose “ruling principle,” according to Burke, is “terror” (58). So, to create a sublime mood conducive to terror, Poe skilfully uses an obscure, pictorially vague style.

Repeatedly, Poe describes the environment and interior of the House of Usher ambiguously. For example, after arriving on a dark, cloudy day, and getting his first glimpse of the place, Poe's narrator depicts its indeterminate atmosphere:

… about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity—an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall and the silent tarn—a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.


Though the narrator says that this exterior “dreariness” precludes his experiencing it as “sublime” (397), the reason is not, as Saliba suggests, that the exterior “setting is the interior of a mind” (163); rather, what actually stands for the interior of his mind are the interior of the house and the views from inside it, So, the narrator fails to experience the exterior atmosphere as sublime because his ego—while on the outside—remains reasonable, not yet influenced by the unconscious, which will threaten to swallow and destroy his ego, as it does Roderick's, once he enters the interior of the house.

Appropriately, then, on the night of Madeline's resurrection Poe uses sublime images of obscurity and formlessness to describe the view through the window inside the narrator's room. The narrator notes that he and Roderick

had no glimpse of the moon or stars—nor was there any flashing forth of the lightning. But the under surfaces of the blue masses of agitated vapor, as well as all terrestrial objects immediately around us, were glowing in an unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion.


Both these views of the exterior atmosphere stress sublime obscurity and formlessness through images of faintly seen gases or vapors.

Moreover, the narrator's descriptions of the castle's interior are ambiguous, similarly lacking clear vivid details that distinguish between formal boundaries of external objects. Nothing is clearly defined: the hallways and draperies are dark, the floors black, the tapestries solemn, the trophies phantasmagoric. Likewise, in Roderick's studio the narrator's “eye … struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber,” because the long, pointed windows let in only feeble, crimson light that illumined just the “more prominent objects.” Finally, the narrator sums up the room's effect by saying, “I felt I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all” (400-01). Stylistically, this passage like the other two illustrates how Poe's gothic fiction differs from realism. On one hand, realism strives to depict external reality as objectively as possible, and thus often seeks imagery and language as literal, logical, and precise as possible. On the other hand, as Patrick Brantlinger observes, the Gothic or romance from—through a sublime style—often approximates dreams of inner reality, and so needs vagueness and obscurity (31).

Ultimately, then, Poe uses an obscure, vague style to express Roderick's psychotic, nightmarish condition and its gradual terrifying effect on the narrator. Like the typical nightmare sufferer described by Ernest Hartmann in The Nightmare: The Psychology and Biology of Terrifying Dreams. Roderick exhibits thought disorders related to schizophrenia (130). Anticipating Hartmann, David Saliba defines the operation of fear and nightmares in terms of the ego's fear of disintegration, which subsumes the inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy (41); however, Saliba does not discuss the concept of mental boundaries and its relations to sublime style. Hartmann's more recent work on nightmares, though, helps identify Roderick as schizophrenic, for he lacks well-developed mental boundaries and shows extreme openness or defenselessness—that is, he has failed to develop the normal defenses and protections—the boundaries—that form part of the child's development of mental structures, beginning with distinctions between the self and others, and fantasy and reality (Hartmann 139). For instance, the letter Roderick sends to the narrator inviting him to visit evokes, we are told, “nervous agitation,” and in it Roderick writes about “a mental disorder which oppressed him” (398). Indeed, the narrator finds Usher incoherent, unable to overcome “an excessive nervous agitation,” and he concludes that Usher is “a slave to terror” (402). Roderick himself admits, “in this pitiable condition—I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason altogether” (403). In fact, we realize, that period has come.

Poe represents Roderick's loss of rational mental boundaries by making the sublime atmosphere of the house an expression of Roderick's spirit and morale. As the narrator tries vainly to cheer his friend, he discovers that Usher possesses “a mind from which darkness … poured forth upon all objects … in one unceasing radiation of gloom.” Furthermore, his highly distempered ideality,” we are told, “threw a sulphureous lustre over all” (405). Roderick's lack of same boundaries is yet further evoked by his belief that all vegetable things—including the fungus that encases the House of Usher—are conscious of perception and feeling (408). And just as the castle itself violates the boundaries of the organic and inorganic, so too the other House of Usher, the family, violates a significant social boundary: the sexual one between its individual members. In fact, the family is so inbred it has bred itself out of existence. And of course Roderick and Madeline are twins further stressing the lack of boundaries and distinctions between Roderick and other living beings.


Consequently, to manifest Roderick's lack of contact with reality and his disintegrating psyche, Poe describes one of Roderick's paintings; not surprisingly, the prose style Poe uses to describe the murky atmosphere of the house—an atmosphere that on one level represents Usher's mind—also parallels the style of Roderick's picture: like Poe's sublime prose, Usher's painting is ambiguous, and it lacks linear boundaries. In general, Poe characterizes his paintings like this:

From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vaguenesses at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why;—from these paintings … I would in vain endeavor to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words.


Therefore, after stating that Roderick's paintings defy logical expression of discursive language—one touchstone of the sublime—Poe's narrator then elaborates on one painting “not so rigidly” executed in “the spirit of abstraction”:

A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device. Certain accessory points of design served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendor.


Indeed, to a psychologist this painting could serve as Roderick's interpretation of a Rorschach ink blot, revealing his especially thin or open sense of boundaries—boundaries of the ego, of fantasy and reality, of sleeping and waking, and of overly close, merging relationships. Like a nightmare sufferer who fails to keep a sense of annihilation and disintegration out of his painting.

In the amorphous sense of form—in his emphasis of color and light rather than line and form—Roderick's art suggests modern abstract painting. In the passage describing Usher's pictures, Poe mentions the early Romantic painter Henry Fuseli, but says even Fuseli's “reveries” were “too concrete” (405). This is true. Fuseli introduces nonrational non-neo-classical subject matter into art, as his painting The Nightmare (1782) shows, but he still followed Sir Joshua Reynolds' rule that in painting “everything shall be carefully and distinctly expressed” (138). Fuseli's painting is too linear; his forms have boundaries too distinct and clear and realistic to suggest Roderick's chaotic, obscure creations.

Two critics, Paul Ramsey and H. Wells Phillips, discuss Usher's painting in relation to modern abstract art. Neither, however, mentions the two painters who I think make the best analogues—Mark Rothko (d. 1970) and J. M. W. Turner (d. 1851). Without ever specifying particular works, both critics mention Mondrian (Phillips 15; Ramsey 211)—ostensibly because Poe says Roderick's paintings are “pure abstractions” that have an “utter simplicity” and “nakedness of design” (405). It is true that the early Mondrian painted Gothic churches and boundless vistas of oceans and dunes; but Modrian's later paintings like Composition with Red, Yellow, Blue, and Black are too linear, too geometrical, to parallel Roderick's art, even though they are abstract. In fact, to quote Robert Rosenblum, Rothko's close friend Barnett Newman—who published an essay on the sublime in 1948—felt that Mondrian's “tidy pictorial structures of rectangles” constituted “a pretty abstract art that stood in opposition to … sublimity” (210).

Therefore, I think the best parallel for Usher among modern artists is Rothko, a painter neither critic refers to. Stylistically, several of Rothko's paintings closely parallel Roderick's expressionistic painting and seem to mirror the mental state of Rothko himself, a painter who increasingly suffered from depression, heavy drinking, and family problems, and who eventually committed suicide in 1970. In Rothko's paintings of the fifties and sixties, he strived to use color not to stress the physical abstraction of paint, but rather to convey both emotion and mood, the sensuous and the spiritual. By organizing his colors in asymmetrical bands, he stripped his paintings of unessential details and, unlike Mondrian, avoided enclosing them with firm linear boundaries. As Diane Waldman says, he made “the concrete sublime” (59). Clearly, Rothko was right to insist that he is “not an abstractionist” (quoted in Waldman 58); like the painting by Roderick Usher, Rothko's works depict a real subject, the contents of the psyche, or in his words, “basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom …” (quoted in Waldman 58).

Three of Rothko's paintings that especially suggest Usher's work present “a flood of intense rays” that bathes “the whole [of Roderick's painting] in a ghastly splendor.” Untitled (1955), for example, consists of three luminous rectangles—red, orange, and white—that shimmers like flooding light. In particular, the square of white that fills the bottom half of the canvas seems to evoke Usher's rectangular tunnel with “smooth, white” walls. Similarly, another painting called Untitled (1957) contains three bands—yellowish-orange on top, reddish-orange on bottom, and white in the middle—and the frayed borders of these forms help privilege their luminous color and diminish their geometrical shape. And while the bands of color do not extend to the edge of the surface, Rothko escapes bounding his pictures by surrounding the bands with red, which does appear to extend indefinitely in every direction and in which the forms seem to float. Finally, Red, Orange, Orange on Red (1962) exemplifies why Waldman says that red “fascinates Rothko above all colors as a carrier of emotion” (58). The intense colors of these indeterminate rectangles suggest the blood-red radiance that shines, at the end of Poe's story, through the simultaneously disintegrating boundaries of both Usher's house and his mind.

An uncanny resemblance, then, exists between Poe's verbal representation of Usher's painting in 1839 and Rothko's modern abstract-expressionism. However, Rothko's stated kinship with Turner (Waldman 52) implies that Poe's own historical period—the Romantic age—produced visual analogues to Roderick's painting. And in fact Turner, through a masterfully indistinct sublime style, does with paint what Poe—in depicting Usher's painting—does with words. Typically, to represent sublime consciousness Turner dissolves external subject matter through light and color. For instance, like the interior light-flooded rectangle of Usher's picture, Turner's Interior at Petworth (1835-40) is not “rigidly” executed in “the spirit of abstraction,” for the traces of a real interior space, named by the title, remain. However, as in Poe's description, “a flood of intense rays” from an unseen source rolls “throughout” the space and bathes the picture in a “splendor” that blurs the traces of line and form. Significantly, just as both Usher's and Rothko's vague rectangles contain white, so too at the focal point of Turner's interior “flood” is white, a color he called “the substitute of light” (quoted in Gage 207) and often used in landscapes to create a sublime intractability to perspective. Furthermore, because Turner's luminous interior space completely lacks linear boundaries, like Usher's painting it figures “the depth below the surface”: that is, it represents the formlessness of the unconscious, a mind exhibiting Hartmann's notion of thin boundaries.

Because the light of the setting sun dissolves the literal, physical boundary between earth and sky, Turner painted sunsets again and again for fifty years. His works illustrate the belief of Dugold Stewart, a contemporary philosopher, that the literal image of sunset evokes the mind's experience of the sublime. One of Turner's most sublime sunsets appears in Sun Setting over a Lake (1840-45). This time even the title is generalized, as if blurring the distinction between the external prospect and the prospect of the mind. In fact, without the title the subject of this abstract oil would seem to be nothing more than the lurid pigments themselves. In effect, Turner conveys the dissolving of the external image of the sun into a luminous emanation by representing it as merely an ambiguous yellow smudge, off-center and surrounded by the orange and brown that suggest the awesome radiance. Consequently, in Sun Setting there seems to be no perspective at all, which is, of course, the perspective of sublime infinity.

Ultimately, in Turner's great seascapes it is lack of perspective, lack of boundaries, that evokes their terrifying, powerful sublimity. Like Mark Rothko after him, Turner recreates, for his viewers, through formless color and light, the mind's experience of obliterated perspective, of completely open boundaries. Similarly, in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe uses an ambiguous prose style, loaded with atmospheric imagery, to express the interpenetrating disintegrations of Roderick's painting, his house, and his psyche. Not surprisingly, as Clark Griffith reminds us in “Poe and the Gothic,” Poe maintained “that the terror of which he wrote came not from Germany but from the soul” (127).

Works Cited

Brantlinger, Patrick: “Romances, Novels, and Psychoanalysis.” The Practice of Psychoanalytic Criticism. Ed. Leonard Tennenhouse, Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1976. 18-45.

Burke, Edmund: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful. Ed. J. T. Boulton. 1958. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P, 1968.

Gage, John: Colour in Turner: Poetry and Truth. New York: Praeger, 1969.

Griffith, Clark: “Poe and the Gothic.” Critical Essays on Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Eric W. Carlson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987. 127-32.

Hartmann, Ernest: The Nightmare: The Psychology and Biology of Terrifying Dreams. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Morris, David B.: “Gothic Sublimity.” New Literary History 16.2 (1985): 299-319.

Newman, Barnett: “The Sublime is Now.” The Tiger's Eye 1.6 (1948): 51-53.

Phillips, H. Wells: “Poe's Usher: Precursor of Abstract Art.” Poe Studies 5.1 (1972): 14-16.

Poe, Edgar Allan: Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbott. 3 vols. Cambridge and London: Belknap, 1978. Vol. 2.

Ramsey, Paul: “Poe and Modern Art.” College Art Journal 18 (1959): 210-15.

Reynolds, Joshua: Discourses on Art. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1965.

Rosenblum, Robert: Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition: Friedrich to Rothko. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Saliba, David: A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe. Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America, 1980.

Stewart, Dugold: “On the Sublime.” Philosophical Essays. Edinburgh, 1819.

Waldman, Diane: Mark Rothko, 1903-1970: A Retrospective. New York: Abrams, 1978.

Diane Long Hoeveler (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4547

SOURCE: “The Hidden God and the Abjected Woman in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 29, No. 3, Summer, 1992, pp. 385-95.

[In the following essay, Hoeveler examines the figure of Madeline Usher, whose tomb seems to offer the reader some ultimate truth; however, it is, according to the critic, a truth that does not actually exist.]

D. H. Lawrence once observed, “Poe is rather a scientist than an artist” (Lawrence 65). According to Lawrence, Poe believed there was a substratum that existed beneath all the ornamentation, the distractions that Culture has conspired to erect to conceal the “truth.” Getting at this buried body of knowledge constitutes the excavation work that we as readers undertake when we begin to delve beneath the artifice that Poe has spun so deceptively for our amusement. But at the core of Poe's deep truth, according to Lawrence, is Madeline, “the mystery of the recognition of otherness” (76), as well as its concomitant destructive compulsion: “To try to know any living being is to try to suck the life out of that being” (70). But if Lawrence would have the reader getting at some ultimate truth, it is perhaps more accurate to claim that Poe's text explores what Derrida has called the “trace.” In this more radically discontinuous model, Derrida posits the trace as the basis of a “chain” of history, a history whose only logic is repetition and change, iteration and alteration working together to produce a “monumental, stratified, contradictory” history (Derrida 57). And such a notion of history corresponds to the textuality that emerges from Poe's tale.

For Derrida, there is no ultimate truth, no teleology to be discovered, only equally meaningful or meaningless layers, constructions around a vacuous core. But discovering “cores” constitutes the great seductive lure of reading Poe. We are offered, or so we think, a number of clues that will take us down into the secret chamber, the tomb of Madeline, the heart of meaning that must exist somewhere within the confines of the text. And so we follow any lead Poe drops in front of us, follow it to blind passages and discover, alas, only our own mirror image staring back at us in mockery.


Let's begin with the bait. When Roderick Usher becomes a reader of texts, he, in a gesture that symbolically unites him with Poe's (post)modern critics, takes up a particularly intriguing volume: “An exceedingly rare and curious book in quarto Gothic—the manual of a forgotten church—the Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum Chorus Ecclesiae Maguntinae” (409). This volume, Roderick's “chiefest delight,” consists of the orthodox prayer service for the burial of the dead from the cathedral in Mainz, Germany. Surely Poe intends his reader to ask, why is such a volume Roderick's favorite book? Why does he find pleasure, “delight,” in reading such a book? This strange detail surely must provide some clue, some significant fact about not simply Roderick Usher's reading tastes, but about the text's deep structure and meaning. And surely such a crucial clue has been either ignored, taken at face value, or truly misread by the critics who have gone before one. Consider, for instance, Clive Bloom, who has recently claimed that the book does not exist at all, and that Poe's purpose in listing the volume, along with the others specifically named in the text, is to create “the mirror image of a real library with books that do not permit themselves to be read simply because they do not exist” (Bloom 113). What is ignored in his comments is not simply the fact that the book indeed does exist and that Poe knew it existed.1 The more important factor has to be the book's extreme specificity. With a little research the reader discovers that the Vigiliae Mortuorum is probably one of the rarest books in existence; in fact, as Thomas Mabbott states, there are probably only two or three copies of the book in the world and they have been seen by only a select handful of bibliophiles (see Poe, CW 421).

Why did Poe select this particular volume, then, as Roderick's favorite book? Surely this question must be posed and answered satisfactorily. Mabbott claimed (rather lamely) that its rarity would have been sufficient to intrigue Poe, and cause him to use the book to encode Usher's eccentric and rarefied tastes (7). But why did Poe have the narrator claim that the Vigil described a “wild ritual”? Did Poe want his readers to think that Roderick was spending his time reading up on the “Black Mass” (Kendall 452) in order to “exorcise a vampire from Madeline's body” (Bailey 458)? These interpretations have been proffered by critics as reasonable explanations. But all of them are either too prosaic or too bizarre for this critic's taste. There must be a hidden meaning implicit in the use of the book. Read on, if you too are prone to such obsessions.

With a good deal of fairly arcane research, one can construct an interpretation, speculative to be sure, that accounts for the text's presence within the larger text. This interpretation begins by claiming that the Vigiliae Mortuorum tropes a religious history and ideology that have long been buried beneath the more extravagant gothic surface of both its own text and the text of “The Fall,” both of which seem to be written in “Gothic.” Surely the reference to the book conveys the specifically discursive nature of history in the text. As Derrida or Foucault among others have taught us, history is not teleological in nature, but simply a series of random, disconnected discursive acts (see Foucault 12-14). We are, then, as readers of Poe's tale in the same position of Roderick reading the Vigil. We also never experience the present in any simple sense, but are continuously in a process of reinscribing the traces of past discourses on our present reading. That is, the Mainz volume exists as a verbal artifact of the Catholic cathedral of Mainz, which in its turn stands as an architectural artifact, troping the triumph of Christianity. But the cathedral is, in fact, built on the archeological ruins of an earlier shrine to the Celtic god Mogon, a pagan god who gave his name not only to the city of Mainz but, ironically, to the major site of Christian worship in the heart of Germany (see Salisbury, Dumezil, Wald). What is truly buried in Poe's text, says this reader, is the discursive meaning of this bit of bricolage, this forgotten Celtic god who was first replaced by Apollo, a Roman god, and finally by Christ, the Christian manifestation of a religious ideology that Poe critiques throughout his tale.2

Mogon and his consort/sister Mogontia stand as the bricolage, the cultural residue that Roderick meditates on as one means of understanding, making real his relation to his own sister. In reading an ostensibly Christian text built on the edifice of Celtic and Roman myth, Roderick meditates on Mogon as a manifestation of what Lévi-Strauss labeled “untamed thought,” as an expression of the male's confrontation with the female as Cultural Other (16-36). In the relation of Roderick and his twin sister, Madeline, Poe meant to critique not only the notion of some ultimate “truth” beneath the layers of historical constructs, but also the persistent religious impulse that had created Mogon and his consort/sister, Mogontia, as well as the later Apollo Grannus and his partner Sirona, and, finally, Christ and his mother Mary. By depicting history and the religious impulse as a continuously shifting need to invent fantastic beings, projections of our own grandiose egos, Poe suggests that both history and religion can only be understood primarily as discourse systems, dialogical constructs that sacrifice male strength and creativity to the female-embodied powers of life and death, in other words, the cyclical nature of generation. In his fictional creation of Roderick and Madeline, Poe enacts the role of bricoleur, spinning out of his head a male/female couple who tenuously exist at the end of a cultural cycle, “gods” who can no longer believe in themselves because they understand the fictional nature of both history and religion. Consequently, like their creator, they no longer have the will or desire to sustain themselves. They have the energy only to self-destruct.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” can be said to express in extremely cryptic and encoded fashion Poe's sense of frustration and anger toward the female, toward the triumph of the body, the victory of the biological over the intellectual. But another crucial component in Roderick's (and Poe's?) fantasy is the dream of a purely masculine universe, a fortress where males engage in discourse without the intrusion of the female in any form—living or dead: “Us” versus “her”: “Us/her.” Roderick's fantasy of the purely masculine mind is subverted, however, by his compulsion to create a self-projected fantasy of a female double. And such a compulsion, Poe implies, informs all institutionalized religions as we have known them.

To prove that Poe purposely chose a text that would reverberate throughout his own text, we must begin by asserting that Poe actually knew the meaning(s) of the word “Maguntinae.” Such a claim is not as frivolous as one might suppose. One possible source of information, suggested by Mabbott, was through Poe's friend William Gowans, who was a sort of connoisseur of incunabula (see Poe, CW 421). Another possibility is that Poe stumbled on the information in the course of his own reading in the British popular press, which was particularly rife with articles on Celtomania (Allen 209). A third (although admittedly remote) possibility is that Poe might have considered the existence of the Vigil as connected in some way with the world-view he had encountered in his readings in Hermetic and Kabbalistic works (see Levi St. Armand 4). Whatever the route, it seems statistically unlikely that Poe would have randomly selected for his use a text that had at its core a reference to a buried pagan god and his twin sister/consort. By sketching the meaning and history of the names “Maguntinae” or “Mogontium,” we can suggest that Poe knew and chose the volume specifically for its convoluted historical, sexual, and religious connotations.3

John Rhys has pointed out that the words “Mogounus” and “Monuntiacum,” well-known place-names, and their shorter forms, “Moguntia” or “Mogontia,” are all sources for the modern place-names of the French Mayence and the German Mainz. All of these words mean “to increase,” “to make great” (22-23). The Celtic god who bore this name, then, was, along with his consort Mogontia, an ancient fertility god/goddess, a masculine/feminine source of life, a manifestation of a religious ideology that posited the male as the source of wealth and power, “might and main,” and the female as the embodiment of fertility, healing, and the forces of life and death (see De Vries 73, Le Roux 2-3, Paulys 2419-22). We can briefly recall here that Roderick is specifically described as the last “of the ancient race of the Ushers,” a family that never put forth collateral branches due to its incestuous inbreeding. Such an image suggests sterility, a man who has cut himself off not only from generation, but from the feminine sources of life that are embodied in his distanced/“dead” sister.

Statues of and inscriptions to Mogon and Mogontia were later effortlessly appropriated by the adherents of the Roman god Apollo Grannus and his consort Sirona, confirming the power of the basic religious ideology (see Dillon and Chadwick 14, 153). In both instances the combination of god/goddess tropes the object of worship as a fantasized combination of male strength with female fertility. Apollo Grannus took over numerous worship sites throughout the Celtic realm, but this should not obscure the fact that he and Sirona were, like Mogon and Mogontia, typically associated with fertility and healing (see Green 37, Davidson 121). In contrast to these female fertility goddesses, however, Madeline is a particularly sterile, empty woman. She never speaks in the text, and through her silence she quite literally tropes the woman as textual absence, a sort of non-signifying black-hole of anti-meaning. No longer an object of worship, she is simply an object, a commodity to be consumed by her creator, the masculine psyche.

The original shrines to Mogon and Mogontia, first traced out of existence by Apollo and Sirona, the objects of worship for the next wave of invaders, were next traced over as sites of worship for Christ and Mary, the fertility god/goddess of the next influx. Poe's cynicism about such “worship” can be discerned through his invocation of the Mainz prayer service, a “book for the dead.” Religion, smiles Poe, is a panacea for those afraid of life and its challenges—people, that is, like Roderick Usher. Or, perhaps we can say, with considerably more paranoia, that Poe implies something even more sinister—that religions function to institutionalize female power and status. According to this fantasy, women, as Blake made clear throughout his poetry, use religion in their arsenal to subject and sexually oppress men, their innocent victims. Such a male-created ideology stands, of course, as a complete reversal of the realities for women living under the constraints of patriarchal religions. If men can convince themselves that religion actually elevates the power of women, rather than the reverse, they can attack religion while absolving themselves of its hegemony over women.

Poe's use of the buried image of Mogon is a manifestation of “intertextuality” in Kristeva's sense, or polyphony/heteroglossia/the “dialogical” in Bakhtin's use of those terms. Both stylistic devices, using as they do the multiple voices of other texts, other historical fantasy figures, function to introduce Roderick as a species of the Abject Hero. The tale he enacts reads as an agon. As Michael Bernstein has noted, the dialogic quality of the Abject Hero's speech and thought is intensified by the presence of a multitude of other characters, including the reader, as counterpoints to the self-justifying hero. Bernstein observes about the Abject Hero: “what leads to the increasing shrillness of the character … is that the possibility for an explicitly thematized dialogical relationship with earlier texts in the same tradition increases in exact proportion to the historical development of the topos” (Bernstein 300). In other words, Roderick's textual hysteria increases in direct proportion to his self-induced participation in reading the “book of the dead.” The options we have as readers include either becoming as hysterical as Roderick, Poe's text, and the Vigil, or refusing to participate in the reading game. The act of reading spirals its participants into a sort of gyre from which there is no escape, except into other fictions, other voices, endlessly repeating the same stories in one's head. These fictions all concern the same master narrative: the struggle of the Culture Hero to shape reality into the best imaginings of his desire. We recognize such a struggle as the basis of all religious and artistic ideologies, and we recognize, alas, that Roderick Usher—despite his pretensions—is no Culture Hero, no artist.


I believe we can shed further light on both Poe's purpose and Roderick's peculiar identity as an Abject Hero and frustrated artist by considering Julia Kristeva's description of abjection as a religious/literary/psychic phenomenon. “Abject” means “to cast out,” while “abjection” can refer to either the waste products of such casting or to the act of rejection itself. Kristeva defines the abject as that which “disturbs identity, system, order” (Kristeva 4); her description of the process of abjection reads like a description of Roderick's relation with Madeline: “‘subject’ and ‘object’ push each other away, confront each other, collapse, and start again—inseparable, contaminated, condemned, at the boundary of what is assimilable, thinkable: abject” (18). Roderick as hero abjects out of himself his loathing of his own body, his distrust of his emotions, his “femininity” and thereby creates Madeline, his “twin sister.” Madeline functions throughout the text as the abjected woman, the waste product of Roderick's diseased mind, as well as the embodiment of the act of rejection itself. Both her nebulousness and her return—like the repressed—from the dead can be associated with what Kristeva has labeled the peripheral and ambivalent position of woman in the male psyche. And why does woman hold such a position; why is she abjected with such ferocity? Kristeva would claim that it is because of her reproductive capacity. Her body can only remind man of his own mortality, his own origins in the womb as unclean: “Fear of the uncontrollable generative mother repels me from the body” (Kristeva 78-79).

But let's also examine Roderick's mind by considering Kristeva's description of the threatened psyche as “A Fortified Castle.” For Kristeva, the psychotic individual in the grip of a phobic hallucination is compelled to construct barriers between subject and object so that where others are concerned

he delegates phantoms, ghosts, ‘false cards’: a stream of spurious egos that confront undesirable objects. Separation exists, and so does language, even brilliantly at times, with apparently remarkable intellectual realizations. But no current flows—it is a pure and simple splitting, an abyss without any possible means of conveyance between its two edges. No subject, no object: petrification on one side, falsehood on the other.


If this description uncannily resembles Roderick's predicament, so does Kristeva's observation that such persons always experience desire as “desire for an idealized norm, the norm of the Other.” But in the course of moving toward such desire, the individual encounters abjection:

Abjection of self: the first approach to a self that would otherwise be walled in. Abjection of others, of the other (‘I feel like vomiting the mother’) … A rape of anality, a stifled aspiration towards an other as prohibited as it is desired—abject.


Roderick's sister Madeline, in other words, functions as that abjected aspect of Roderick's self-loathing ego. He projects out of himself his feminine element as a “twin sister,” what in religious ideology is known as the consort, and in traditional psychoanalysis as the fragmented self, the idealized double or alter-ego.

Another intrinsic component of the compulsion that leads to abjection is what Kristeva calls “the religious answer to abjection: defilement, taboo, or sin” (48). It is no coincidence that Madeline is Roderick's sister and thus under the incest taboo. It is also no coincidence that he experiences himself as walled in by a rotting house/body, or that he literally walls his abjected self/his “sister” into a tomb. Madeline is experienced by Roderick as unclean, a perception that she herself accepts and transforms as the vague physical illness that eventually “kills” her. But Madeline functions throughout the fiction as the complete psychic projection of Roderick, the body/feminine he projects, ab-jects, out of himself in disgust. The religious (and psychoanalytic) fantasy of an idyllic dual relationship of male and female—mother-son, father-daughter, brother-sister—is assaulted by Poe's tale, which makes such an ideology out to be a pernicious historical lie, a distortion of the necessary repudiation of the female in the history of both individuals and the larger culture.

Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Roderick is the archetypal dispossessed male, the victim of his own narcissistic fantasies of the perfect feminine complement, the twin/idealized sister as religious consort. Narcissism exists when there is an ego but no real, ontological object in external relation to it. In his creation of his sister as a projection of himself (his fantasized feminine self), Roderick reveals that he is permanently fixated in the psychic dynamics of the mother-child dyad. Poe resorts to the textualized, buried image of Mogon and all of his later religious manifestations in order to suggest that the sacrificial, compulsive, and paranoid aspects of patriarchal religions are simply attempts to ward off the danger and fear of incest, as well as to shore up the defenses of the narcissistic ego under siege. Retreating to his library with his treasured and rare books becmes for Roderick a compulsive act that inscribes his abjection, his complete divorce from the (female) body. His reading functions not simply as a display of his immersion in the world of language, the Symbolic, the Lacanian Name-of-the-Father, but more importantly it tropes a purification rite. As we know from anthropologists, purification rites exist in “primitive” societies to separate groups from one another by prohibiting a filthy, defiling element (Kristeva 65). The Christian Church makes much of baptism as a purification rite, with its symbolic rinsing away of original sin, that is, the mother's blood. It would appear that the Usher mansion, inhabiting as it does the fringes of civilization (not to mention sanity) embodies a similar stance toward the female body.

Reading as a particularly male purification rite functions in Poe's fiction, finally, as a nostalgic gesture, a coded reference to those times before women read, before they wrote and actually became competitors within the literary marketplace. Although this essay focuses closely only on the permutations of meaning and significance in the Vigil, it is appropriate to point out that the other volumes specifically mentioned in Roderick's library are all radically masculine documents, not simply in their authorship, but in their attitudes and visions. The fear that is being subverted by his allegiance to a line of male precursors is for Roderick (and Poe?) the fear of the mother's body, and, as Kristeva notes, “Fear of the archaic mother turns out to be essentially fear of her generative power. It is this power, a dreaded one, that patrilineal filiation has the burden of subduing” (Kristeva 77). That is, one must do everything possible to separate oneself from the fertile and fertilizable feminine body, with its unpleasant and unsettling association with menstrual blood, a particularly unclean object worthy of abjection. The phantasmatic mother of the unconscious, the psychic abyss that the male struggles valiantly to escape, stands, then, as a residual reminder of the Mother Goddess who was only partially displaced by those patriarchal religions that posited instead as objects of worship (read cleanliness) an absent father and a son-figure in the grip of, what else, the mother.


All of this returns us to the hook, the Vigil, the book of the dead that Roderick muses over in such ecstasy toward the conclusion of “The Fall.” His plan has proceeded smoothly; he has a witness (the naive narrator) to verify his sister's “death.” He has a “doctor” (a convenient authority figure) on the scene to certify the seriousness of her “illness.” The fantasy of woman has been constructed; she can now be buried. But the return of Madeline from the “dead,” her strange immersion into and emergence from the depths of the tomb, complete with blood, represents that moment in the text when the signifier goes out of control. Would it be too extravagant to claim that the “haunting” of the text by Madeline is analogous to the haunting of the buried god Mogon on Apollo and of Apollo on Christ and of Christ on Roderick? That is, those we have buried and displaced emerge from out of the text we call history to claim their rightful status. But such a discursive “haunting” is also finally analogous to the act of reading, the cannibalization that we are compelled to commit as we consume the ideas, the ideologies of the others who have gone before us in our own constructions of meaning.

Roderick is the author of his own madness, just as Poe is the author of Roderick's vision of cultural decay and historical meaninglessness, and just as we are the authors of our own readings. Poe as bricoleur can be seen to be conducting a continual metatextual dialogue with Mogon, Apollo, Christ, Roderick—and their female doubles—just as these characters conduct fictitious dialogues with each other and their readers. And these dialogues constitute what we call literature, what we call “Culture,” but what Poe knew was the excavation of overdetermined enigmatic codes. As readers we participate in the fantasy that we are excavating the hidden god Mogon, and in doing so we give him meaning, a reified ideological construction that suits our purposes as postmodern critics. But make no mistake: we cannot pretend that such an act has a significance beyond the one that we ascribe to it. Like Poe, like Roderick, we ultimately inhabit the landscape of our own imaginings.


  1. Bloom more helpfully suggests that the “‘thing’ which invades Usher's psyche is his relationship to the femininity of his sister. Usher's library is Usher's psyche is Usher's sister is Usher himself” (113).

  2. A helpful discussion of the Visigothic Church and its assimilation of both the earlier Celtic and Roman religions can be found in Salisbury's Iberian Popular Religion. My rather sweeping historical statements must be set within the larger question of comparative mythological and religious history, largely charted by the work of Georges Dumezil. For a valuable and fairly technical survey of the theoretical issues involved in Celtic and Indo-European religions, see the Introductions of C. Scott Littleton and Udo Strutynski to Dumezil's Gods of the Ancient Northmen, ix-xlvi; and Wald.

  3. For a discussion of all variations on the original name “Maguntina” and its basis for the founding of Mainz and its cathedral, see Paulys Real-Encyclopadie der Classicher Altertums-Wissenshaft.

Works Cited

Allen, Michael. Poe and the British Magazine Tradition. New York: Oxford UP, 1969.

Bailey, J. O. “What Happens in The Fall of the House of Usher?American Literature 35 (1964): 445-66.

Bernstein, Michael André. “When the Carnival Turns Bitter: Preliminary Reflections Upon the Abject Hero.” Critical Inquiry 10 (1983): 283-305.

Bloom, Clive. Reading Poe Reading Freud: The Romantic Imagination in Crisis. London: Macmillan, 1988.

Davidson, H. R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1988.

Derrida, Jacques. Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.

Dillon, Myles and Nora Chadwick. The Celtic Realms. New York: New American Library, 1967.

Dumezil, Georges. Gods of the Ancient Northmen. Ed. Einar Haugen. Berkeley: U of California P, 1973.

Foucault, Michel. Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Green, Miranda. The Gods of the Celts. Totowa: Barnes and Noble, 1986.

Kendall, Lyle H., Jr. “The Vampire Motif in The Fall of the House of Usher.College English 24 (1963): 450-53.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Léon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982.

Lawrence, David Herbert. Studies in Classic American Literature. 1923; rpt. New York: Viking, 1964.

Le Roux, Pierre. “Les Arbres Combattants et la Forêt Guerrière: Le Mythe et l'histoire.” Ogam 11 (1959): 1-10.

Levi St. Armand, Barton. “Usher Unveiled: Poe and the Metaphysic of Gnosticism,” Poe Studies 5 (1972): 1-8.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Savage Mind. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966.

Mabbott, Thomas O. “The Books in the House of Usher.” Books at Iowa 19 (1973): 3-7.

Paulys Real-Encyclopadie der Classicher Altertums-Wissenshaft. Ed. Georg Wissowa. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 1932. Vol. 15, pt. 2.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Thomas O. Mabbott. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978. 3 vols.

———. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Collected Works 2: 392-422.

Rhys, John. Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by Celtic Heathendom. 3rd ed. Oxford: Williams and Norgate, 1898.

Salisbury, Joyce E. Iberian Popular Religion, 600 B.C. to 700 A. D.: Celts, Romans, and Visigoths. New York: Mellen, 1985.

Vries, Jan De. Keltische Religion. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1961.

Wald, Donald. The Divine Twins: An Indo-European Myth in Germanic Tradition. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.

Leila S. May (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4483

SOURCE: “‘Sympathies of a Scarcely Intelligible Nature,’: The Brother-Sister Bond in Poe's ‘Fall of the House of Usher,’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30. No. 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 387-96.

[In the following essay, May discusses sibling relationships in the context of nineteenth-century literature, citing “The Fall of the House of Usher” as a prophetic tale anticipating the collapse of a society that assumed the security of the family bond.]

Matthew Arnold was in a distinct minority when, in 1853, he criticized the action of Sophocles's Antigone, saying that it “is no longer one in which it is possible that we should feel a deep interest.” Arnold finds that we moderns cannot use as a model “that which is narrow in the ancients, nor that with which we can no longer sympathize” (Arnold 12). Unfortunately, he thinks, such is the case with Antigone, “which turns on the conflict between a heroine's duty to her brother's corpse and that to the laws of her country.” Arnold's condemnation is uncharacteristic—both of Arnold himself, who revered everything classical, and of his age.1 For, as George Steiner, in his work Antigones, says:

Between c. 1790 and c. 1905, it was widely held by European poets, philosophers, scholars, that Sophocles' Antigone was not only that finest of Greek tragedies, but a work of art nearer to perfection than any other produced by the human spirit.


Steiner goes on to point out that, after 1789,2 the Antigone legend became “talismanic to the European spirit,” even if the fascination for it seemed to erupt ex nihilo (In the 35 years prior to that date no painting exhibited in the salons of Paris had that motif; Steiner 61). Why did this theme so suddenly transfix the gaze of nineteenth-century artists and critics? What was it about this “‘most sisterly of souls’ (Goethe's invocation of her in his ‘Europhrosyne Hymn’ of 1799)” (Steiner 1) that held such an allure?

This generation of readers found in Antigone an idea that thrilled them because they desired its truth and yet, at the same time, they knew it could not be true. It is the “truth” that Hegel had unveiled—that the sister in her virginal, untainted purity can, through self-sacrifice for her brother,3 sustain that most “natural” of all structures, the family, even against the legitimate demands of structures of authority that surround and threaten to engulf it.4 In their exaltation of this text there also might well have been a guilty acknowledgment of its falsehood, and at some level a recognition that the lie pointed to an indictment of the very centerpiece of their culture—an indictment, in other words, of the family, and particularly of its synchronic cross-section, sibling relationships as they had been structured in that culture and called “natural.”

A study of sibling relationships in nineteenth-century literature, particularly those in which a sister is the primary pole of the relationship, can provide a key to understanding much about that period's complicated and contradictory conception of the family. As a response to the social upheaval created by the industrial revolution, the nuclear family was restructured as a hyperreal and hypersensitive organization that could serve both as a unit for energizing the activities required on the new economic battlefield and, paradoxically, as a moral refuge from the public sphere.5 As such, it was imperative that the roles within the family be clearly demarcated and strictly disciplined—that the family be organized in such a way as to convince itself and its sub-units, the individual members of the family, both of the legitimacy of the familial organization of authority and of their duty to fortify and perpetuate it.6 That authority was, of course, patriarchal, as were the social structures to which the family responded and corresponded; yet the energy to maintain the unit was matriarchal. Feminine desire—the desire of the mother—had to be contained and channeled in such a way as to create the home as a sphere of moral perfection so elevated above the predatory struggle of the new economic strife as to seem to justify that very struggle (whose main goal was conceived as the protection of the family and its purity), while offering respite, relaxation, love and servitude to at least one of the bloodied warriors, and offering a training-ground to new warriors for the coming battles. That is to say, feminine desire had to will its own constraint and negation, had to will itself as a kind of impossible purity and virtuousness. Such purity and virtuousness were unattainable for the mother, who had already been “sullied,” contaminated by the unwholesome desire of another who had himself been contaminated by his contact with the ferociousness of the world beyond the walls of the home. Only in heaven could there exist a truly Virgin Mother; but such a vestal vessel was nevertheless required to be elevated, touted, and sacrificed, and could exist on earth only in the being of the sister, a sanctum sanctorum of moral virtue, whose desire would be molded to fit the necessary ends.7 This disciplining (and often self-disciplining) of sororal desire was relatively successful in the nineteenth century, but the tremendous pressures brought to bear on the family unit, and particularly on its female members, created deep anxieties and fears—anxieties from without concerning the true nature of the feminine desire that was being purified and distilled, anxieties from within based on the dread of the yet unimagined potential of that same desire—the unimagined potential of the liberation of female selfhood and sexuality.

In nineteenth-century literature, sisterhood itself is conceived in the same contradictory fashion as is the family—viz., as both an ideological justification of the patriarchal system and a potential subversion of those same structures; and, in its most hysterical lauding of the sister's virtue, nineteenth-century patriarchy registers its deepest fears and allows in them to be painted a very different portrait of sisterhood and of feminine desire from the one it means to depict. These fears and anxieties take the form of a dread—that is, of a horrible attraction to the thing feared8—and this dread is revealed in the fiction of the period. The failure of disciplined feminine desire results in the instability, slippage, uncertainty and unreliability of desire within the family, as assigned roles lose their boundaries, overlap, and confound themselves. In the literature of the fantastic, this phenomenon is raised to a feverish pitch as the principle of individuation itself collapses, taking along with it the very possibility of the family and the social system that it sustains, and prefiguring a release and discharge of feminine desire in new and revolutionary forms—hinting at the subversive forms of sisterhood that may have been precisely the ones that lay hidden and smoldering in the deepest fears of Victorian patriarchy itself.


“The Fall of the House of Usher,” written mid-century, is prophetic in its anticipation of a vision of the collapse of a society built on the seemingly secure foundations of the family. One might say, in a certain sense, that Poe heralds—or, if you will, “ushers” in—a new era. Although innumerable studies have analyzed the symbolism of Poe's “House of Usher,” and particularly that of the Usher twins,9 no one has yet discussed the twins as “simply” representing themselves: the apogee of the nineteenth century's figuration of the brother-sister dyad. Poe, unlike many of his contemporaries, makes not even a nominal attempt to include a parental presence; we have entered a world in which the nineteenth-century family has been reduced to its most basic unit: the sibling dyad.10 In this work we witness, with Poe's narrator, “the hideous dropping off of the veil,” wherein the fundamental building block of the Victorian family—the “ideal” brother-sister relation—once revealed for what it is and taken to its logical extreme, must necessarily (and horribly) self-destruct. As in texts as diverse as Antigone, Frankenstein, and Wuthering Heights, it is significantly the sister who must be sacrificed—here literally entombed, buried alive deep within the foundations of the familial edifice—and it is her breaking free from that entombment that provokes the collapse of the entire structure.

Poe's tale begins in twilight, “in the autumn of the year”—at a moment, in other words, of twofold transition. When Poe's narrator first comes upon the house, he gazes at the “vacant eye-like windows” and wonders, “what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?” (Poe 397). The narrator muses over his friend's “very ancient family” (398) which,

all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, … the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain. … [I]t was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the “House of Usher”—an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.


The “House of Usher,” then, is explicitly meant to “stand for” family as well as estate,11 and both of these entities are equally deathly, equally verging on collapse. G. R. Thompson points out that the house is described as a “death's-head looming out of a dead landscape,” and asserts that Poe “obviously intended the image of the skull-face of the house to dominate as the central image of the tale, for he returns to it again and again, placing the most extended descriptions of it at symmetrically located places in the narrative” (89-90).12 The narrator takes note of the “pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued,” which hangs about the manor house. He then goes on to describe the mansion itself:

Its principle feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. … Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. … Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely discernible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.

(400; emphases added)

One can scarcely imagine a more apt description of the nineteenth-century familial institution—a reeking, crumbling, and decaying structure that nevertheless remains seemingly intact on the surface. As Marilyn Chandler observes, “[c]omparing the house to woodwork in a neglected vault that no ‘breath of external air’ can reach suggests by association that this environment, too, is somehow mysteriously hermetically sealed” (53). This, I would add, further enhances the image of the “hermetically sealed” familial enclosure.

The interior of the house is equally airless, dismal, and repellent. Its entire contents are in a state of deterioration, the furniture “profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered.” Even the “[m]any books and musical instruments … failed to give any vitality” to the place wherein an “air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all” (401). The house's proprietor, Roderick Usher, is himself rendered in precisely the same terms of de-generation. His beautifully delicate, refined features are marred by a “cadaverousness of complexion,” “lips somewhat thin and very pallid,” and “a want of moral energy” (401-02).13 Roderick ambiguously describes to his friend “the nature of his malady” as “a constitutional and a family evil” (402; my emphasis)—an “evil” that “enchain[s]” him to his house, from which he has not ventured for many years. He then admits, “although with hesitation” (why?), that his “family” ailment can be “traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin”—namely, to his “tenderly beloved sister—his sole companion for long years—his last relative on earth” (403-04). Although at this very juncture the object of discussion slowly drifts past, we are not privy to any physical description of her—a striking contrast to the earlier detailing of her brother's appearance. Yet we know already what Madeleine looks like, for we sense that her portrait is contained within the one we have been given of Roderick. The narrator has described Roderick as possessing lips of a “surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model … ; a finely moulded chin … ; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; … [a] ghastly pallor of the skin … silken hair … [which] in its wild gossamer texture … floated rather than fell about the face.” There is at least as much to suggest a woman's appearance in this depiction as there is a man's; indeed, one might construe that the narrator is himself hinting at precisely this when he remarks upon Roderick's “peculiar physical conformation” (401-02). Of course, Madeleine and Roderick are twins, and hence there is bound to be a close physical similarity. Yet it is telling that it is the sister's appearance that defines the brother's—much as Catherine Earnshaw's “look” is etched onto other characters in Brontë's text.

As in other nineteenth-century texts about sibling bonds, like Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights, “The Fall of the House of Usher” presents us with a persistent doubling, thematically and structurally, as characters, events, and the narrative structure itself, repeat one another.14 Poe's story, like Shelley's and Brontë's, is inundated with the blurring—indeed, complete breakdown—of boundaries between identities. And, once again, it is the sibling axis across which this collapse of distinctions so critical to the bourgeois ideology of the period takes place. As Marilyn Chandler notes in a different context,

The house mirrors its inhabitant, Roderick Usher, who is doubled also in his twin sister and again in the narrator, who describes himself as in certain respects a twin Roderick. Doubling effects multiply throughout the story until everything becomes an analog or image of everything else—boundaries of identity break down not only among characters, but among the house, the body, nature, and the text, all of which manifest similarities of structure and behavior that bind them into claustrophobically close metaphorical relationship.


With this unraveling of (hierarchical) distinctions between male/female, culture/nature, inside/outside, sameness/difference, we are presented with a simultaneously terrifying and potentially liberating vision. Yet because it is Poe and not Brontë who is writing, the emphasis is certainly placed much more firmly on the terrifying. The question as to whether Poe himself was aware of the radical implications of his tale is beyond the bounds of the discussion at hand. Nevertheless, his portrayal of this brother and sister with their “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature” (410) is so central to the issues and debates of his day that it might appear as though he were directly engaging them.

Such a distillation of the family into its most concentrated and undiluted element would indeed be, Poe seems to be telling us, more than sufficient cause for the “horror” and “dread” so repeatedly evoked in his narrative. When the narrator lays eyes on Madeleine, he inexplicably regards her “with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread—and yet [he] found it impossible to account for such feelings” (404). In a peculiar sense, it is as though in this text the sister is simultaneously all-pervasive and hollowed out—already a ghost. Her desire is never expressed, yet is everywhere felt. The pressure put on the sister in the nineteenth-century is brought to its logical conclusion in Poe's dreadful tale, in which “the disease of the lady Madeleine had long baffled the skill of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character” are the symptoms of this sister's malady. Although we are told that “[h]itherto she had steadily borne up against” it, Madeleine does at last succumb “to the prostrating power of the destroyer” (404). The precise nature of this “destroyer,” I want to argue, is none other than that “family evil”—nineteenth-century bourgeois domestic ideology itself—“that silent, yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of [Usher's] family, and which made him … what he was” (408).15

The sister's body is the very site upon which this ideology so crucial to the perpetuation of patriarchy is enacted, and its effects are expressed nowhere more clearly than in the “apathy” and “gradual wasting away” of the ghostly, ghastly Madeleine. The bedrock of the nineteenth-century middle-class family is the sister, and her desire must be buried deep within the very foundation of the familial edifice itself. When Roderick informs the narrator “abruptly that the lady Madeleine was no more” the latter aids the bereaved brother in entombing his sister's body within a vault “half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere” (409)—an uncannily fitting description of the metaphorical entombment of the sister in Victorian society. This sister, too, like many of her fictional and nonfictional contemporaries, is buried alive, but, unlike Antigone, she breaks free, and, when she does, brings the entire structure down with her. The “once barely-discernible fissure” is rent asunder, and there is “a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters” (417)—a voice representing perhaps a thousand sisters emerging from their airless vaults.


  1. In an article on the nineteenth-century reception of Antigone, Gerhard Joseph draws attention to this anomaly.

  2. This timing clearly had to have some connection to the momentous events of that year. One wonders why all of the icons of the revolution were women—including the figure representing fraternité itself.

  3. Stephen Mintz describes this idealized bond and its literary representations:

    The significance attached to the sibling bond in [nineteenth-century] novels can be properly understood only when it is seen in relation to larger social changes that raised profound questions of duty, personal identity, and continuity. In an increasingly individualistic society, in which the individual household was more and more cut off from broader structures of kinship and work, familial relationships acquired significance above all other social obligations. … [T]he sibling bond is specifically upheld as the epitome of loyalty and selflessness, continuity and cohesion.


  4. Hegel regards Antigone's act as a perfect manifestation of the ethical. The relation between brother and sister is not one of responsibility or dependence, as in the parent-child relation, nor is it one of sexual desire, as in the relation between husband and wife. In The Phenomenology of Mind Hegel writes,

    They are the same blood, which, however, in them has entered into a condition of stable equilibrium. They therefore stand in no such relation as husband and wife, they do not desire one another; nor have they given to one another, nor received from one another, this independence of individual being; they are free individualities with respect to each other. The feminine element, therefore, in the form of the sister, premonizes and foreshadows most completely the nature of the ethical life.


    For Hegel, then, there is a higher ethical level at which a pure relation between male and female as equals can exist: an egalitarian relationship unsullied by desire or power, or the contingencies of history; a bond of difference and sameness—difference in sex and sameness in blood, but blood neither turbulent nor compromised. Only the relation between a brother and a sister satisfies these ethical prerequisites; only they are united in a kind of naturalness that triumphs over nature. Theirs is the bond that forges true love, obligation and ethical duty, and all other lines thereof must radiate out from this center, even those that inevitably must return to collide with it in the name of a more universal love, obligation and duty—to the community, to the nation. For Hegel, Antigone's death is the martyrdom to that deepest and perhaps purest of all human ties.

  5. Although this has been the more generally-accepted direction of the cause-and effect-relation between the family and industrialized society, as Johanna Smith points out, historians now suggest that some features of the modern family antedate the industrial revolution and may indeed have helped to produce it (49). She cites E. A. Wrigley (77) and Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. (326-27). Smith also notes the contradictions inherent in the nineteenth-century domestic ideology, which simultaneously “shores up the capitalist sphere even while critiquing it” (49).

  6. Deborah Gorham comments upon the period's need to create a sharp division between the public (male) and private (female) sphere, and its consequences for the construction of “femininity”: “[S]ince the end of the eighteenth century, the concept of femininity, which is based on a conception of human psychology that assumes feminine qualities are ‘natural,’ has been the major ideological agent in enforcing the subordination of women.” “Victorian children's literature emphasized sex differences, and should be seen as one of the period's main agencies for inculcating sex role differentiation” (6-7; 18). Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall also comment that “much childhood propaganda went into creating these putative natural characteristics which were the hidden texts of stories, poems and tracts for early nineteenth-century children” (98-99).

  7. Gorham notes that the

    ideal of feminine purity is implicitly asexual; how, then, could it be reconciled with the active sexuality that would inevitably be included in the duties of wife and mother? These contradictions could be resolved by focusing on the femininity of the daughter rather than on the adult woman. Much more successfully than her mother, a young girl could represent the quintessential angel in the house. Unlike an adult woman, a girl could be perceived as a wholly unambiguous model of feminine dependence, childlike simplicity.


  8. Kierkegaard's notion of dread is that of a “sympathetic antipathy” and “antipathetic sympathy.”

  9. These analyses have ranged, for example, from seeing the two as representative of the duality between nature and culture, feminine and masculine, real and ideal, sensuous and intellectual, the nonrational and rational, the unconscious and consciousness.

  10. Poe's mother died before his third birthday. A number of years later, after Poe had become estranged from his stepfather and guardian, he was taken in and treated as a son by his father's sister, Maria Clemm. In 1836, when his cousin Virginia Clemm was 13 years old, Poe and she were married. There is still much debate as to whether Poe regarded Virginia as more of a sister than a wife. The former view seems the more compelling one, not only for the purposes at hand, but in light of records revealing that he persisted even after their altered status in referring to Virginia as “Sis” (Peithman ix-x).

  11. It “stands” perhaps for a physical state as well. As David Clayton ingeniously puts forth, “‘edifice’ and ‘race’” are both synonyms for “house,” and we need not search far to discover a third, less common if not irrelevant, synonym: “erection” (73).

  12. Thompson claims to be the first critic to remark upon this similarity.

  13. Hammond maintains that Usher is in fact “a mirror image of Poe or at least a projection, a doppelgänger, of himself as he imagined himself to be” (73), and Thompson notes that Usher's “famous face [is] supposedly a pen portrait of Poe's own according to biographically oriented critics” (95). Yet another doubled image is pointed out by Stephen Peithman, who notes the physical resemblance between Roderick and the earlier description of the house (65n26). Moreover, “The Haunted House”—the poem that Usher reads to his friend—depicts a palace that Poe himself claims represents an allegory of the human mind (cf. Ostrom 160).

  14. “Symmetrically, the psychological themes of the first part of the tale are exactly repeated in the second, but with the fears of both Usher and the narrator at a higher pitch” (Thompson 93).

  15. In a brilliant discussion of Melville's Pierre, a text published 13 years after Poe's, Michael Rogin brings to bear some historical material that might readily be applied to “The Fall of the House of Usher.” One of the most striking parallels between the two texts is that the pivotal, most intense relationship in each is that between brother and sister. Melville's twins, like Poe's, are rendered in clearly incestuous—and ultimately fatal—terms. Moreover, in each case, it is the sister who quite literally “falls upon” her brother and kills him. The domestic ideology of mid-century America was much like that of England in its insistence on the sanctity of the brother-sister dyad. As in England, there existed a dual—and conflicting—demand that siblings were expected to have as intense a bond as any husband and wife (indeed, the sibling bond was explicitly designed to rehearse that between husband and wife). Rogin describes Pierre as “a declaration of war against domesticity” (160), and he paraphrases William Alcott's injunction that young men look upon young women as sister figures. “To obey that injunction,” Rogin observes, “would be to spread the incest taboo throughout society and, turning exogamy into endogamy, to paralyze all libidinal ties” (182). The connections to Poe's endogamously doomed siblings are, I think, obvious.

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. Preface, Poems (1853). On the Classical Tradition. Ed. R. H. Super. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1960. 1-15. Vol. 1 of The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold. 11 vols. 1960-77.

Chandler, Marilyn. Dwelling in the Text. Berkeley, Los Angeles: U of California P, 1991.

Clayton, David. “On Realistic and Fantastic Discourse.” Bridges to Fantasy. Ed. George Edgar Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert E. Scholes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982. 59-77.

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. London: Hutchinson, 1987.

Furstenberg, Frank F., Jr. “Industrialization and the American Family: A Look Backward.” American Sociological Review 31 (1966): 326-37.

Gorham, Deborah. The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982.

Hammond, J. R. An Edgar Allan Poe Companion. London: Macmillan, 1981.

Hegel, George W. F. The Phenomenology of Mind. Trans. and intro. J. B. Baillie. New York: Harper, 1967.

Joseph, Gerhard. “The Antigone as Cultural Touchstone: Matthew Arnold, Hegel, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Margaret Drabble.” PMLA 96 (1981): 22-35.

Kierkegaard, Soren. The Concept of Anxiety. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Mintz, Stephen. A Prison of Expectations: The Family in Victorian Culture. New York: New York UP, 1985.

Ostrom, John W. The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1948.

Peithman, Stephen, ed. The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Avenel, 1986.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Tales and Sketches 1831-1842. Ed. Thomas O. Mabbott et al. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978. 397-417. Vol. 2 of Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe. 3 vols. 1969-78.

Rogin, Michael. Subversive Genealogy. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Smith, Johanna. Incest, Ideology and Narrative: Siblings in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Unpublished manuscript.

Steiner, George. Antigones. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Thompson, G. R. Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1973.

Wrigley, E. A. “Reflections on the History of the Family.” Daedalus 106 (1977): 71-85.

Harriet Hustis (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7201

SOURCE: “‘Reading Encrypted but Persistent': The Gothic of Reading and Poe's ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, Spring, 1999, pp. 3-20.

[In the following essay, Hustis provides a brief history of Poe's reception as a writer within American critical circles, noting that the ambiguity of Poe's texts, among them “The Fall of the House of Usher,” has led to debate on whether his writings belong within the American literary canon.]

Trickery, hoaxes, hieroglyphs, and ciphers: few writers have foregrounded such mechanisms of duplicity in their fiction as did Edgar Allan Poe. This is perhaps why the status of Poe's texts within the American literary canon has been so fiercely contested and debated. As many critics have noted, it is precisely the prevalence of such motifs of ambiguity and linguistic, hermeneutic, and ontological uncertainty that have led to the resurrection and revaluation of texts such as “The Purloined Letter” and “The Raven.” And yet Poe's status was never in question within the framework of the French tradition, for example; Poe was always more famous and his works better appreciated in Europe than in the United States. Debates about the place of Poe's texts within the canon are always “American” debates, since elsewhere the point is strangely moot.

Interestingly, whereas French theorists such as Lacan and Derrida readily take to Poe's texts, American critics often assume a more cautionary stance and warily reflect on the fact that Poe's writings have a tendency to take their readers in. Shoshana Felman highlights this “insidious” influence with respect to Poe's poetry:

The case of Poe in literary history could in fact be accounted for as one of the most extreme and complex cases of “the anxiety of influence,” of the anxiety unwittingly provoked by the “influence” irresistibly emanating from this poetry. What is unique, however, about Poe's influence, as about the “magic” of his verse, is the extent to which its action is unaccountably insidious, exceeding the control, the will, and the awareness of those who are subjected to it.1

Felman's statement echoes early criticism of Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which often focuses on the reliability of the narrator—in particular, whether he contracts Roderick Usher's hysterical phobophobia and whether he, like the critic, perceives Usher's submerged incestuous desire for Madeline. Felman's description of the “action” of Poe's text is curiously similar to the “action” that occurs within Poe's text: the influence to which the narrator and Roderick Usher are subjected is also “unaccountably insidious, exceeding [their] control, [their] will, and [their] influence.”

More recent criticism has moved away from an exclusive focus on close readings of Poe's life and work in order to explore Poe's discursive position within American culture of his time. Nevertheless, analyses that explore Poe's situation with respect to emerging “lowbrow” culture (such as Jonathan Elmer's Reading at the Social Limit) and/or the “seriousness” of his literary endeavors (i.e., his desire to earn a place as a creator of “highbrow” literature despite his use of “lowbrow” literary strategies and motifs) demonstrate a similar preoccupation with whether or not the reader should be taken in by Poe's stories—the shift has merely been to questions of how, exactly. In the introduction to their collection The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman thus identify a need “to recognize that Poe's most extravagant literary maneuvers were usually based in the specific cultural and political climate of antebellum America.”2 This desire to reconnect Poe with the American literary tradition (or simply to reassert the existence of that connection, since according to Rosenheim and Rachman, it was always there but disavowed by both parties3) exists alongside recognition that for so long Poe's texts were read as highlighting the insufficiencies of any attempt to fix a subject's location in time or space.4 Previously, Poe was seen as decidedly “un-American” because his stories did not seem to reflect “Americanness” à la Hawthorne or Melville; now he is regarded as decidedly American precisely because he presumably chose not to reflect the “American” literary flavor of a Melville or a Hawthorne. The very qualities that previously disqualified Poe from a place within the American literary canon now assure him of that place, and previously anxious detraction has become determined reclamation.

And yet the parameters of this new trend toward (albeit lukewarm) critical acceptance of Poe, as Joseph Kronick recognizes, are by no means necessarily motivated by an innocent desire to do justice to an oft-castigated “genius.” In the wake of literary scholarship's move away from the textually-oriented practices of New Criticism and formalism toward the critic- or interpretation-oriented practices of deconstruction and poststructuralism, Poe's texts “naturally” begin to seem more palatable to the critic predisposed to regard him/herself as a clever interpreter of literature:

Poe's love of cryptography, literary hoaxes, and puzzles opens his texts to pyrotechnical displays of interpretive skills, for Poe remains a writer who draws many of his readers not because they like or admire him but because his texts are so malleable for the close interpreter … This transformation of Poe's works into texts, to borrow Roland Barthes's distinction, has produced readings striking not only for their theoretical insights but also for their avoidance of those issues that have plagued Poe criticism: the uncertainty of his intentions and his so-called execrable style.5

Kronick recalls an earlier warning issued by Allen Tate: “All readers of Poe, of the work or of the life, and the rare reader of both, are peculiarly liable to the vanity of discovery” (qtd. on 217). Such qualifications are designed to remind the critic of Poe's shortcomings—as if there can be, or, more insidiously, should be no “pure” pleasure derived from reading Poe; no Poe scholarship that is without its misgivings about his true literary worth. In “On Reading Poetry: Reflections on the Limits and Possibilities of Psychoanalytical Approaches,” Shoshana Felman highlights one of the most interesting paradoxes of Poe scholarship, the fact of its sheer bulk coupled with its overwhelmingly negative value-judgments:

Curiously enough, while Poe's worldwide importance and effective influence is beyond question, critics nonetheless continue to protest and to proclaim, as loudly as they can, that Poe is unimportant, that Poe is not a major poet …

Poe's detractors seem to be unaware, however, of the paradox that underlies their enterprise: it is by no means clear why anyone should take the trouble to write—at length—about a writer of no importance.


Felman summarizes and deflects the paradox of Poe scholarship succinctly: “The fact that it so much matters to proclaim that Poe does not matter is but evidence of the extent to which Poe's poetry is, in effect, a poetry that matters” (122).

Nevertheless, this tendency in much of Poe scholarship to qualify (at best) and condemn (at worst) has had a crippling effect on interpretations of Poe's texts, as in essays like Kronick's “Edgar Allan Poe: The Error of Reading and the Reading of Error.” Kronick relies on a contrast between surface/superficiality and depth/significance but simultaneously suggests that critics who focus on either are engaged in a misreading of Poe's texts, that the “depth” or interpretive significance with which Poe's texts are endowed by critics is as misapplied as those critiques which focus on the mere surface superficialities of Poe's works.

Kronick's apparent conclusion, however, that interpretation of Poe's texts highlights the function of interpretation as erroneous illusion6 is not all that different from the critical assessments of Poe's work that have appeared all along. Thus earlier debates about the reliability of the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for example, began by assuming that we (as readers and as critics) don't want, or, more importantly, don't like to be deceived, and that if the narrator is tricked by Usher into believing what Usher believes, then he might well trick us. In claiming that “error opens up the identity of language and thought to the radical difference between signifier and signified” (223), Kronick is only calling attention to the “space” of trickery, if you will, the “gap” of error opened by reading. The more complex question, however, raised by “The Fall of the House of Usher” is what happens to reading once this gap (or, in its earliest manifestation, this “fissure”) becomes apparent and begins to widen. Furthermore, critics of Poe need to consider the possibility that it is precisely the presence of this space of trickery embedded within Poe's texts that has led to such debate over the status of Poe's work within the canon; the gap of error opened by reading has consistently served to destabilize Poe's position within the “house” of American literature.

But if, as Jonathan Elmer suggests, Poe's texts represent a kind of literary embodiment of the Barnumesque object and “what Barnum sells, by means of his objects, is interpretation and the satisfactions to be had from such interpretation,”7 then there is no way to enjoy Poe's texts, as a critic, without putting oneself on the slippery slope, without entering the very space of trickery. As Charles May suggests, “Poe believes that if we do not allow ourselves to be tricked, we will not learn.”8 As Elmer emphasizes,

Barnum's successes—Poe's as well, in his fictional hoaxes—depend less on a massive duping of his public than on the mobilization of a dynamic in which deception and enlightenment operate together as inextricable complements.


This mobilized “dynamic” is precisely the activity of reading and, in particular, characterizes the way in which the reader is “activated” by Poe's text.9 This essay will explore this dynamic of readerly activation in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” While “Usher” is one of Poe's most often interpreted works, it has traditionally been subject to predominantly conventional, thematic readings (discussions of the reliability of the narrator, the role of doubling, and/or the motif of incest). Alongside “The Raven,”10 “Usher” represents one of the most prominent (and least explored) foregroundings of the very space of trickery, the gap of error that constitutes reading and that is illusively filled by interpretation, in all of Poe's work.

In general, the function of the reader in “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been subsumed under discussions of the role of the writer or of writing in both this particular tale and in Poe's work in general. Analyses that highlight Poe's “writerly” motivations in “Usher” consistently remove the reader to a safe distance from which the reader is presumably able to look with condescension upon Poe's text. For example, in “Playful ‘Germanism’ in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: The Storyteller's Art,” Benjamin Franklin Fisher argues that Poe's text embodies the influence of gothicism and Germanism on the literature of the day by incorporating numerous standard gothic motifs which it then parodies.11 Because Poe's purpose is parodic, Fisher believes that an interpretive distance is maintained between the gullible narrator and the more sensible reader; while the narrator and Roderick Usher are depicted as readers of gothic run amuck, the reader of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is presumed safe from such confusion. According to Fisher, the reader's awareness of the gothic, “Germanic” folly of Roderick and the narrator measures the hermeneutic, aesthetic, and psychic distance between these fictional figures and the reader:

… the teller of the tale could not be more appropriate. By means of this figure, Poe burlesques the quenchless sensibility of those virtuous, high-minded, sexless arty types in Gothicism, whose curiosity always outruns their rationality in prompting them to actions and emotions altogether rash, daring, or ridiculous in the face of what readers readily size up as horrors.


Poe's “burlesque” of the figure of the narrator would thus seem to serve a purpose like that of the epigraph to “The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar,” as described by Jonathan Elmer: “An entire world is pointed to in this opening, a world of garbled accounts, confused and disbelieving people, which readers are silently invited to imagine as separate from themselves” (181). But is the silent invitation sincere? And similarly, if we are asked to laugh at the “burlesque” that is the narrator's and Roderick Usher's gothicism, to “readily size up as horrors” the text that is “The Fall of the House of Usher,” whom, ultimately, are we laughing at and what exactly are we “sizing up”? If Poe is indeed highlighting, via parody, the conventions of the gothic text (and Fisher's evidence on this score is quite convincing), what is the significance of such an undertaking? It would seem that Poe is interested in creating more than just a bizarre story or incisive parody—his dual critique and enactment of the gothic in “The Fall of the House of Usher” represent an exploration of the very nature of gothic textuality itself and its effects (both aesthetic and psychic) on the reader.

As Garrett Stewart observes in his work on the role of the conscripted reader in nineteenth-century British fiction,12 the foregrounding of the writer's function and of the text-as-written is necessarily accompanied by a foregrounding of the reader and of the text-as-read:

When classic novels own to their very execution as writing, they also foreground their prosecution as read. Novels about the production of textuality tend to entail a metanarrative of reading concerned with reading's own nervous perversity, its surrogate pleasure and pain, its psychosomatic risks rather than institutional stability, less its humanist reach or stretch than its parasitic grasp.


Analysis of Poe's writing, his “production of textuality,” needs to be accompanied by analysis of this “metanarrative of reading”—particularly since Stewart's characterization of the qualities of reading explored by such a metanarrative incorporates so many terms applicable to Roderick Usher's own personality (“nervous perversity,” “surrogate pleasure and pain,” “psychosomatic risks,” “parasitic grasp”). Is it possible to read Roderick Usher as a kind of figurative embodiment of what Stewart labels a “gothic of reading”? If so, what are we to make of the fact that Poe inserts such a metanarrative of reading in a tale not about textual production, but rather (textual) collapse?

Briefly, Stewart argues that gothic texts (like those of Wilde, du Maurier, Stevenson and Stoker)

generate, not a terror of the text, but a carefully controlled gothic of reading, a reflexive disturbance in the circuit of reception which bothers without quite spoiling narrative pleasure, exposing it as participatory, collusive, and two-faced, enticing because in part predatory, feeding off the psychic shock—the depicted horror of characters inside the plot—with which it rushes to identify.


In effect the gothic text mirrors the reader. Furthermore, it is precisely this mirroring that creates the effect of, the reader's response to, the gothic text. The reader is thus both implicated in and co-conspirator with the gothic plot: “Hystericized like the narrative agents by plot's whiplash surprises and escalating suspense, the unnerved reader fulfills in his own person the narrative aesthetic” (Stewart, 344).

Poe embodies this co-conspiracy between reader and text in the opening pages of “Usher” by notifying the reader of how the narrator came to be on the scene in the first place, namely, through an implicit summons conveyed by letter:

A letter, however, had lately reached me … —a letter from him—which, in its wildly importunate nature, had admitted of no other than a personal reply. The MS. gave evidence of nervous agitation. … It was the manner in which all this, and much more, was said—it was the apparent heart that went with his request—which allowed me no room for hesitation; and I accordingly obeyed forthwith what I still considered a very singular summons.13

The narrator admits himself to be “hystericized” and “unnerved” by Roderick's letter and yet he appears equally powerless to resist, not its contents, but its “manner.” The gothic of reading generated by the “manner” of a gothic text is never traceable to a particular source. Instead, its “participatory,” “collusive” and “predatory” force “feeds off” a “psychic shock” that, like Roderick and Madeline Usher's twin illnesses, has no discernible origin. Like Roderick Usher's fear of fear, the gothic of reading poses no danger “except in its absolute effect—in terror” (222).

The accumulated effects of a gothic of reading nevertheless enable a text like Poe's “Usher” to become “activated,” to take on a life of its own. This activation is not unlike the narrator's admission that “the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition … served mainly to accelerate the increase itself” (218). Even more appropriately, this activation of a gothic of reading is analogous to Roderick's idée fixe: the “sentience of all vegetable things” (228). The narrator nervously dismisses Usher's belief that “the conditions of the sentience had been here … fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones” (228), but Poe's text suggests that the “conditions of the sentience” of a gothic text are activated by no less lifeless entities: not stones, but words and letters. And just as for Roderick “the evidence of the sentience—was to be seen, he said … in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls” (228), the “evidence of the existence” of a gothic of reading can be seen in the “atmosphere” inanimate words and letters create when “the reflexive disturbance in the circuit of reception” is made manifest.

It is ultimately the collusion between text and reader that creates the gothic; the reading of the gothic text effectively activates the text as gothic. In Stewart's words, “it gradually dawns on you that all this is your doing as well as the author's—and not only your doing, but a figurative rendition of it: of an immanent and activating interest heated, derivative, vicarious, now schizoid, now parasitic, even a little vampiric” (343-44). In the figure of Roderick Usher, Poe not only embodies but duplicates and then re-duplicates this kind of gothic activation. Thus it is when Roderick is listening to the narrator's reading of “The Mad Trist of Sir Launcelot Canning” that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is activated as a gothic text; the representation of the effects of a gothic reading on Roderick Usher as a reader activates the gothic of reading within the reader of Roderick Usher. Poe's representation of gothic activation relies on duality and mirroring—with a difference.

According to Stewart, gothic texts differ radically from works such as Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and Persuasion that valorize the act of reading and “heroize” the reader:

What Austen's novels bring out is an ingrained generic reciprocation of consciousness and conscience, or in a word, the coming to know better … The reader is thereby tacitly heroized through the demonstration of energies cognate with those harder won by the characters, the ability to stay with it, attend closely, adjust judgements, see them through—in short, to persevere without illusion, curious but not credulous, everywhere on alert.


In Stewart's characterization of the implied reader in Austen's novels we can see the mold into which critics have tried to fit the narrator of Poe's “Usher.” When critics look at “Usher” what they want to see reflected is this “heroic” reader, preferably embodied in the figure of the narrator, providing a neat (and implicitly instructive) contrast with Roderick Usher's “wrong” reading, his hysterical, gothic sensibilities. Thus discussions of the narrator's reliability center, whether implicitly or explicitly, on the status of the narrator's consciousness and conscience; the question is precisely whether the narrator “comes to know better” than Roderick Usher. As Stewart recognizes, however, such progress is premised upon a certain degree of moral, cognitive, hermeneutic, and psychic staying power. That the narrator is a figure for the reader is apparent in the opening sentence: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year … I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country.” Several points highlight this passage as a scene of reading, and the narrator as more than a simple storyteller relating a finished sequence of events. The first word emphasizes the notion of duration and process, key elements of reading. Likewise, the narrator envisions himself as “passing alone … through a dreary tract”—an image which can easily connote travel or reading (or both). Particularly striking is the word “soundless”: a “dull” and “dark” day can easily be imagined, but a “soundless” one? After all, when is an entire day without sound? Only when it is textual; that is, when it is read.

Unlike the “heroic” reader, however, instead of “persevering without illusion, curious but not credulous, everywhere on alert,” the narrator immediately exposes his propensity for affective impression:

I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.


While it may initially appear that the narrator is simply “attending closely,” it quickly becomes apparent that the effect of the house is all the narrator's doing: he activates its gothicism in and of himself by reading into it “an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime” (216, emphasis added). Further evidence of the narrator's participatory reading of the scene posed by Usher (both the house and the man) appears throughout the text: thus he “collapses” the character of the house into the character of the man through his consideration of “the very remarkable fact” that “the entire family lay in the direct line of descent”:

It was this deficiency, I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised on the other—it was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue … which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the “House of Usher”—an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.

(218, emphasis added)

The narrator's repetition of the statement “it was this deficiency” and its repeated qualification with “I considered,” “might have exercised,” “seemed,” and “perhaps” suggest that this conflation of house and family is primarily his interpretation, possibly superimposed on the always unrepresented “minds of the peasantry” and strangely reflected in Roderick Usher's belief in “the sentience of all vegetable things.” Similarly, the narrator later admits “I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity” (219, emphasis added). This “working upon,” “goading,” and “torturing” of his own sensibilities marks the narrator as quite different from the alert, persevering, “heroic” narrator implied in Austen's novels.

Although critics have often debated whether, in the course of “Usher,” the narrator contracts Roderick Usher's brand of paranoid susceptibility, the opening pages suggest that the narrator already has it; his immediate reaction to the house indicates the presence of “an immanent and activating interest heated, derivative, vicarious, now schizoid, now parasitic, even a little vampiric”—he overtly seeks to “goad” his imagination and to “torture” his image of the house of Usher, if possible, into something “sublime.” While critics have wanted the narrator, the figure who opens “Usher,” to possess the qualities attributed by Stewart to the “heroic” reader, Poe's text seems to suggest that an inclination toward a “gothic of reading” is a preexisting condition of his narrator. And yet, if the narrator embodies a reader already predisposed toward the gothic, how can we evaluate his reliability as the narrator of a tale designed for readers predisposed toward the gothic?

This duplication is rendered increasingly complex by the fact that the narrator is not only “figuring” the reader, he is also (and simultaneously) “ushering” in “Usher.” The narrator is “usher” for the text of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and a reflection (in his status as reader activated by the gothic) of both Roderick Usher and the reader of “Usher.” Although he does not reflect the “heroic” reader so desired by critics, the narrator's gesture of looking into the tarn is, ironically, a mirror image of the critical desire to “rearrange” a text to suit an interpretive predisposition:

I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled lustre by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodeled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.


The narrator's “shudder even more thrilling than before” is explicitly provoked by his attempt to “read” the house differently—it is as if he attempts to hold his interpretation up to a mirror:

It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression.

(217, emphasis added)

The ironic phrase “I reflected” is both subtle and revealing: the narrator holds his interpretive response up to a mirror, only to see his response (his “I”)14 reflected. It is as if a reader (or critic) began reading a text only to be presented with the image of a reader (or critic) reading that very text.15

Garrett Stewart describes the impact of such an inscripted scene of reading on the reader:

The text has become a phenomenal world. Suddenly one of the subjects that people this world is described poised over a book. You thus see in your mind's eye a character engaged upon an act of obliviousness and withdrawal which is effected through means other than an immediate engagement with the space and time to which you have been introduced.


Such another space and time frames the narrator's attempt to read the house of Usher, which creates “The [Fall of the] House of Usher” that is to be read.

An interesting example of this kind of sudden exposure of fictionality occurs in “Usher” when the narrator tries to “shake off” the effects of the “atmosphere” of Usher. This moment occurs immediately after the narrator has admitted to the increase of his superstition through his awareness that his superstitions have increased and that he has “so worked upon [his] imagination as really to believe” in this “atmosphere”: “Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building” (219). By indicating that he will “now” (when?) “scan more narrowly the real aspect of the building,” the narrator effectively calls our attention to the existence of an alternative space constructed by his own reading of Usher. We have been reading “The Fall of the House of Usher” only to here be confronted with the fact that the narrator has not been narrating “the house of Usher” so much as reading it himself.

Significantly, it is in the conclusion of the paragraph that begins this report on “the real aspect of the building” that the narrator vaguely mentions the infamous “barely perceptible fissure”:

… the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.


The narrator's presentation of this all-important fissure is striking: why does he claim that it is a mark which “perhaps” “might have [been] discovered” by “the eye of a scrutinizing observer”? More importantly, why does he do so at precisely that point when he claims to be “narrowly detailing” for the reader “the real aspect of the building”?

Ultimately, Poe's fissure marks a textual space which, as Stewart argues, represents more than mise en abyme. A space he characterizes as the “transcated gap between reader and read” has been exposed, and a “regression with a difference” created. This “regression” can become like a hall of mirrors in which characters are infinitely “dropped away” from their readers in order to exist otherwise and to inhabit a psychic space located elsewhere:

When the realist scene of reading brings before you characters lost to the world of the narrative, they are dropped away into another mise en scène than the one to which you have been granted mental access. Your sense of visualizing such characters in their milieu is thus at odds with their being elsewhere caught up, their now reinhabited psychic space having nothing to do with the immediately narrated work it has previously served to confirm and interiorize.


Poe's representation of the fissure—as “perhaps” part of the text of the house of Usher, or “perhaps” a figment of the narrator's (retrospective) interpretation, or “perhaps” a mark only discernible to “the eye of a scrutinizing observer”—creates such an “other” space, a gap which the text does not allow the reader “to confirm and interiorize.”

Furthermore, Stewart argues that once this “transacted gap between reader and read” has been exposed or, in the case of Poe's text, glimpsed (possibly), no amount of reading can smooth over the rupture:

Your denied access to the precise contour or texture of that intermission—even if the inlaid text is “read into evidence,” quoted whole or in part, within the enclosing narrative in order to engage your own subjective response—has to do with the nature of reading as an invisible activity within a visible (or in fiction, visualized) posture of attention. … At the level of textual processing, then, the narrated activity of reading provides not a strict mise en abyme of reception but a regression with a difference.


Poe dramatizes two crucial scenes of this “regression with a difference” in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The first occurs when Roderick Usher tells the narrator the story of his condition and of his sister's imminent death, a narrative that clearly forms an “inlaid text” within the overall structure of Poe's tale. At the conclusion of Roderick's summarized narrative, Madeline Usher emerges as if invoked by the story itself:

While he spoke, the lady Madeline … passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared. I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread—and yet I found it impossible to account for such feelings. A sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eye followed her retreating steps.


Like the fissure, Madeline Usher's fleeting presence at this textual moment marks the “gap between reader and read.” She exists in a textual space invoked by “The Fall of the House of Usher” only to be revealed as existing elsewhere. The collusion between reader and text (whether represented by the narrator and Roderick Usher's narrative or the reader and “The Fall of the House of Usher”) that creates the gothic of reading is thus overtly dramatized here.

Roderick Usher's premature burial of his sister thus becomes a clever narrative representation of the way in which she (like the “barely perceptible fissure” that also marked the space opened by a gothic of reading) is “encrypted” throughout the text. Garrett Stewart remarks upon a trend in nineteenth-century British novels toward

all manner of vicarious, voyeuristic, mesmeric, and vampiric phenomena in which psychic usurpation, somatic doubling, or perversely gendered otherness doubles for the aesthetic distance—and transacted gap—between reader and read. And so it goes—unsaid: reading encrypted but persistent, made immanent in its own pantomimes of itself.


The degree of “persistence” that characterizes gothic reading in “The Fall of the House of Usher” becomes apparent in one of the most famous and striking scenes of “psychic usurpation, somatic doubling, and perversely gendered otherness” in all of Poe (or, for that matter, in all of American literature): the scene in which the narrator and Roderick Usher read “The Mad Trist of Sir Launcelot Canning.” Significantly, the narrator's description of his own state of mind on the evening of the reading marks one of the most striking “regressions with a difference” in the entire story: mentally, psychically, and emotionally, he is a reflection of Roderick Usher:

I struggled to reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me. I endeavored to believe that much, if not all of what I felt, was due to the bewildering influence of the gloomy furniture of the room … But my efforts were fruitless. An irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm … Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror, unaccountable yet unendurable, I threw on my clothes with haste … and endeavored to arouse myself from the pitiable condition into which I had fallen.

(232, emphasis added)

The narrator thus shares all of Roderick Usher's physical and psychological symptoms; he is a mirror image of Usher and yet he is not Roderick Usher. This motif of reflected difference is emphasized by “their” reading. While the narrator sees their activities as unifying and essentially similar, “I will read, and you shall listen;—and so we will pass away this terrible night together” (233), the two characters embody different kinds of readers by evincing different reading “activities”: one reads aloud, one “listens.” Thus, the gothic text of “The Mad Trist” undergoes a dual reception (one active and “immediate,” the other passive and “deferred”)—not including, of course, its third reading, as a Poe text, by the reader of Poe's text.

Ultimately, the two characters “activate” a gothic of reading (both within and outside of the text—with the help of the reader of “The Fall of the House of Usher” of course) by reading a gothic text together. Unlike the “inlaid text” of Madeline Usher's illness and impending death, however, “The Mad Trist of Sir Launcelot Canning” is “read into evidence” in the text. Such a strategy would seem designed to ensure that the reader's response to this scene of gothic reading (his/her gothic of reading) in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is synonymous with the narrator and Roderick Usher's gothic reading (and the representation of their gothic of reading). Once again, the mirror is help up to the reader: the activity of reading has been made visible. Nevertheless, as Stewart suggests, the result is not “a strict mise en abyme of reception,” although the synchronicity of read text (“The Mad Trist”) with read text (“Usher”) might seem to suggest such a possibility. Despite the fact that the narrator first hears “the very cracking and ripping sound which Sir Launcelot had so particularly described” (234), then “a low and apparently distant, but harsh, protracted, and most unusual screaming or grating sound—the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up” (235), and finally “a distinct, hollow, metallic and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation” that sounds exactly “as if a shield of brass had indeed, at the moment, fallen heavily upon a floor of silver” (236), Poe's text once again testifies to the resurgence of that “aesthetic distance—and transacted gap—between reader and read.” Even when the text read and the effect created are presumably synchronized, the fissure appears and immediately begins to widen. First, the reading is interrupted by the insertion of Roderick Usher back into the text: the reader, much as in the scene in which the narrator abruptly shifted to a description of the “real aspect” of the house of Usher, is reminded that s/he has been watching characters who have been “caught up” “elsewhere,” “their now reinhabited psychic space having nothing to do with the immediately narrated work it has previously served to confirm and interiorize.”

Secondly, this awareness of an/other “psychic space” is again marked by the entrance of Madeline Usher. Roderick's sister is the quintessential embodiment of the notion of “reading encrypted but persistent”; she literally brings down the house:

As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell—the huge antique panels to which the speaker had pointed, threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust—but then without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher.


As in her previous appearance, Madeline appears on cue, as if textually invoked; indeed, as a figure for the gothic of reading, the “reflexive disturbance in the circuit of reception,” she is textually invoked. The “energy” of Roderick's “utterance” seems to open doors and call her forth with “the potency of a spell”—much as his previous description of her illness and impending death seemed to do. In a gesture similar to his earlier turn to a description of “the real aspect of the building,” the narrator offers an explanation for the opened doors (“It was the work of the rushing gust”), but just as he could not previously erase the elusive (and potentially illusive) presence of the fissure, so too he must admit “without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher.” Gothic textuality and the dynamic it generates between reader and text cannot be explained away or situated firmly within the realm of the fictive “real,” that is, the space of narrative interiorized and assimilated by the reader. A gothic of reading, as “The Fall of the House of Usher” demonstrates, opens a textual space elsewhere by calling attention to precisely that gap between reader and text which cannot be read away. Like Madeline Usher, the gothic of reading may be encrypted but it will persist, revealing itself at the moment when the gothic text becomes most gothic, precisely because it is this gap, doubly figured in “Usher” as a “barely perceptible” fissure and an encrypted revenant, that makes the text gothic.

It is possible to see the gothic of reading as a text's revenge upon its critics—such a perspective may offer one way of explaining the anxious and contradictory relationship between Poe's texts, their critics, and the American literary tradition. Poe's works haunt literary critics because they remain, in large part, unassimilable and inexplicable as “literature,” and particularly as “American” literature. And yet, as many critics have acknowledged, their effects cannot be denied (even if they are often dismissed as inappropriate). Poe's “The Fall of the House of Usher” calls attention to the narrative space it occupies as gothic text in order to question those parameters and the means by which critics arrive at such dimensions. Instead of safe havens and reliable narrators, Poe gives his readers and critics a house of mirrors; the resulting dynamic of interpretive uncertainty makes up his texts.


  1. Shoshana Felman, “On Reading Poetry: Reflections on the Limits and Possibilities of Psychoanalytical Approaches,” in Joseph H. Smith, ed., Psychiatry and the Humanities, Vol. 4: The Literary Freud: Mechanisms of Defense and the Poetic Will (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1980), 122.

  2. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman, eds., The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995), x-xi.

  3. Thus Rosenheim and Rachman suggest that Poe and American cultural criticism were always well aware of one another: “critical dismissal of Poe has followed from Poe's own seeming disengagement with American culture, as if Poe and his critics had silently agreed to turn their backs on one another. … That Poe could appear at once ‘out of step’ with his own day and culture and yet intimately bound to it is evident even from writings of his own period” (x).

  4. As Rosenheim and Rachman acknowledge, “Anyone who would locate Poe's writing within a cultural context must confront the way his work tends to advertise itself as ethereal and otherworldly, or avowedly timeless, or preoccupied with aesthetic, cognitive, and linguistic categories of psychopathological conditions” (xi).

  5. Joseph G. Kronick, “Edgar Allan Poe: The Error of Reading and the Reading of Error,” in Jefferson Humphries, ed., Southern Literature and Literary Theory (Athens: The Univ. of Georgia Press, 1990), 208.

  6. Thus Kronick argues, “We discover in Poe's texts and their scenes of misreading that error makes interpretation possible” (209).

  7. Jonathan Elmer, Reading at the Social Limit: Affect, Mass Culture, and Edgar Allan Poe (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1995), 184.

  8. Charles E. May, Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991), 28.

  9. Again, Felman notices this “Poe-etic” drive with respect to the influence of Poe's poetry on the production of literary scholarship: “regardless of the value-judgment it may pass on Poe, this impressive bulk of Poe scholarship, the very quantity of the critical literature to which Poe's poetry has given rise, is itself an indication of its effective poetic power, of the strength with which it drives the reader to an action, compels him to a reading act” (124). She argues, “The question of what makes poetry lies, indeed, not so much in what it was that made Poe write, but in what it is that makes us read him and that ceaselessly drives so many people to write about him” (129).

  10. Elmer's discussion of “The Raven” in Chapter Four of Reading at the Social Limit offers an interesting counterpoint and dynamic with my own reading of “Usher” and has, quite obviously, influenced my own interpretation.

  11. Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV, “Playful ‘Germanism’ in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke, eds., Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, Critical Essays in Honor of Darrel Abel (West Lafayette: Purdue Univ. Press, 1981), 359-60.

  12. Garrett Stewart, Dear Reader: The Conscripted Audience in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1996). Stewart argues that nineteenth-century British novels “conscript” the “reponses” of their readership by writing their readings into and along with their texts: “As members of an audience, your private reading—along with that of every other reader—is actually convoked and restaged, put in service to the text. Either as an identifying notation or as a narrative event, this reading in of your reading—or of you reading—is what I mean by the notion of a conscripted response. Implicated by apostrophe or by proxy, by address or by dramatized scenes of reading, you are deliberately drafted by the texts, written with. In the closed circuit of conscripted response, your input is a predigested function of the text's output—digested in advance by rhetorical mention or by narrative episode” (8).

  13. Edgar Allan Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1970), 216-38. Hereafter cited parenthetically.

  14. Significantly, we learn little about the narrator in the course of the story; his characterization is primarily limited to his aesthetic and hermeneutic responses or interpretations of other characters, their behavior, and their environment.

  15. The “shudder” produced is precisely that of Freud's concept of “unheimlich” or “the uncanny”; the familiar has been radically defamiliarized.


The Fall of the House of Usher Poe, Edgar Allan