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.
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.
“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.