"The Fall of the House of Usher" Poe, Edgar Allan
American short story writer, novelist, poet, critic, and essayist.
The following entry presents criticism of Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher," first published in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, September, 1839. See also, "The Cask of Amontillado" Criticism and "The Tell-Tale Heart" Criticism.
Poe's stature as a major figure in world literature is based in large part on his ingenious short stories and critical theories, which established highly influential models for the short form in both fiction and poetry. Regarded by literary historians as the architect of the modern short story, Poe is credited with the invention of several popular genres: the modern horror tale, the science fiction tale, and the detective story. Twentieth-century scholars have discerned in such well-known short stories as "The Fall of the House of Usher" a seminal contribution to the development of various modern literary themes, including the alienation of the self and the nature of the subconscious. The critic Allen Tate has even identified the tormented Roderick Usher as a prototype for the self-conscious hero in modern fiction. Although nineteenth-century critics generally failed to recognize the full extent of Poe's contribution to the form, he is now acclaimed as one of literature's most original and influential practitioners of the short story.
Plot and Major CharactersSummoned by a mysterious note, the unnamed narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" arrives to find his childhood friend Roderick Usher fearful and depressed in his decaying family mansion. Roderick attributes his morbid condition to the influence of the gloomy house and the imminent death of his beloved twin sister Madeline, his only surviving relative. The narrator's futile attempts to distract his host with art, literature, and music are interrupted when Roderick abruptly announces that Madeline has died. Anxious to preserve her corpse before burial, Roderick persuades the narrator to help him convey the coffin to a former dungeon beneath the house. In the next few days, Roderick's state declines into madness. Increasingly unnerved himself, the narrator is woken one night by certain curious noises. He finds Usher in a state of escalating hysteria and attempts to calm him by reading "Mad Trist," the story of a dragon-slaying knight. At the climax of the story, both hear an ominous clanging sound within the house. The door opens to reveal the emaciated, bloodspattered figure of Madeline, who had been buried alive. Tottering on the threshold, she falls forward heavily, killing her brother in her violent death agony. As the narrator escapes from the house, a zigzag fissure opens in the structure and the house of Usher collapses in on itself.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" is known for its remarkable structure, in which major themes emerge through an elaborate network of repeated images. The prominent theme of duality is expressed primarily in several parallel structures, including the symbiotic bond between Roderick and his sister Madeline. The theme also appears in the opening image of the mansion reflected in a dark tarn, as well as in the metaphor of a mind infected with madness, suggested by Roderick's poem "The Haunted Palace." Also, while Roderick's declining mental condition is echoed in the crumbling house, overgrown with parasitic plants and wrapped in a sort of unpleasant swamp gas, the fissure which finally destroys the Usher mansion literally brings the theme of dualism to a crashing climax. Roderick's extreme sensitivity to Romantic literature and his inordinate desire to preserve Madeline's corpse hint at other important themes, those of decadence and decay. Thus, Poe presents Roderick as a tragic aesthete, who, though completely alienated from mundane reality, succeeds in arousing pathos in the reader. As more than one critic has observed, the fall of the house of Usher describes the decline of an incestuous, decaying family, with all of its psychological implications, as well as an actual, if improbable, physical event.
Readers of "The Fall of the House of Usher" have long associated the melancholy Roderick Usher with Poe himself. Indeed, the story's themes of destructive division, family decline and morbid imagination offer intriguing parallels to the author's fragmented life. However, Poe's own book reviews from this period indicate his preference for suggestive, "mystic" literature over didactic allegory—an attitude that explains the multiple interpretations which "The Fall of the House of Usher" continues to elicit. While critics such as Richard Wilbur and Louise Kaplan have seen the story as an exploration of the frightening depths of the human psyche, other scholars have detected a more parodic note. Much of the controversy over the meaning of "Usher" has centered on the reliability of the story's anonymous narrator. Where Patrick F. Quinn sees the narrator as a model of common sense, G. R. Thompson and Frederick S. Frank propose a naive—even malign—aspect to this character. Recent criticism has focused on the sadistic, possibly perverse, overtones of Usher's relationship with his sister and some feminist critics have interpreted the story as a parable of patriarchal destructiveness.