The Fall of the House of Usher Poe, Edgar Allan - Essay

Edgar Allan Poe


(Short Story Criticism)

"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 Characters

Summoned 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.

Major Themes

"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.

Critical Reception

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.

D. H. Lawrence (essay date 1919)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Edgar Allan Poe," in The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Versions of 'Studies in Classic American Literature/ Centaur Press Limited, 1962, pp. 115-30.

[Lawrence was a modern English novelist, poet, and essayist noted for his introduction of the themes of modern psychology to English fiction. In his lifetime, he was a controversial figure, both for the explicit sexuality he portrayed in his works and for his unconventional personal life. Much of the criticism of Lawrence's works concerns his highly individualistic moral system, which was based on absolute freedom of expression, particularly sexual expression. Human sexuality was for Lawrence a symbol of the Life Force, and is frequently pitted against modern industrial society, which he believed was dehumanizing. In the following excerpt, originally published in 1919, Lawrence describes Poe's portrayal of love as a "destructive force" in his short stories.]

It seems a long way from Fenimore Cooper to Poe. But in fact it is only a step. Leatherstocking is the last instance of the integral, progressive, soul of the white man in America. In the last conjunction between Leatherstocking and Chingachgook we see the passing out into the darkness of the interim, as a seed falls into the dark interval of winter. What remains is the old tree withering and seething down to the crisis of winter-death, the great white race in America keenly disintegrating, seething back in electric decomposition, back to that crisis where the old soul, the old era, perishes in the denuded frame of man, and the first throb of a new year sets in.

The process of the decomposition of the body after death is slow and mysterious, a life process of post-mortem activity. In the same way, the great psyche, which we have evolved through two thousand years of effort, must die, and not only die, must be reduced back to its elements by a long, slow process of disintegration, living disintegration.

This is the clue to Edgar Allan Poe, and to the art that succeeds him, in America. When a tree withers, at the end of a year, then the whole life of the year is gradually driven out until the tissue remains elemental and almost null. Yet it is only reduced to that crisis of perfect quiescence which must intervene between life-cycle and lifecycle. Poe shows us the first vivid, seething reduction of the psyche, the first convulsive spasm that sets-in in the human soul, when the last impulse of creative love, creative conjunction, is finished. It is like a tree whose fruits are perfected, writhing now in the grip of the first frost.

For men who are born at the end of a great era or epoch nothing remains but the seething reduction back to the elements; just as for a tree in autumn nothing remains but the strangling-off of the leaves and the strange decomposition and arrest of the sap. It is useless to ask for perpetual spring and summer. Poe had to lead on to that wintercrisis when the soul is, as it were, denuded of itself, reduced back to the elemental state of a naked, arrested tree in midwinter. Man must be stripped of himself. And the process is slow and bitter and beautiful, too. But the beauty has its spark in anguish; it is the strange, expiring cry, the phosphorescence of decay.

Poe is a man writhing in the mystery of his own undoing. He is a great dead soul, progressing terribly down the long process of post-mortem activity in disintegration. This is how the dead bury their dead. This is how man must bury his own dead self: in pang after pang of vital, explosive self-reduction, back to the elements. This is how the seed must fall into the ground and perish before it can bring forth new life. For Poe the process was one of perishing in the old body, the old psyche, the old self. He leads us back, through pang after pang of disintegrative sensation, back towards the end of all things, where the beginning is: just as the year begins where the year is utterly dead. It is only perfect courage which can carry us through the extremity of death, through the crisis of our own nullification, the midwinter which is the end of the end and the beginning of the beginning.

Yet Poe is hardly an artist. He is rather a supreme scientist. Art displays the movements of the pristine self, the living conjunction or communion between the self and its context. Even in tragedy self meets self in supreme conjunction, a communion of passionate or creative death. But in Poe the self is finished, already stark. It would be true to say that Poe had no soul. He lives in the postmortem reality, a living dead. He reveals the after-effects of life, the processes of organic disintegration. Arrested in himself, he cannot realise self or soul in any other human being. For him, the vital world is the sensational world. He is not sensual, he is sensational. The difference between these two is a difference between growth and decay. In Poe, sensationalism is a process of explosive disintegration, phosphorescent, electric, refracted. In him, sensation is that momentaneous state of consciousness which concurs with the sudden combustion and reduction of vital tissue. The combustion of his own most vital plasm liberates the white gleam of his sensational consciousness. Hence his addiction to alcohol and drugs, which are the common agents of reductive combustion.

It is for this reason that we would class the "tales" as science rather than art: because they reveal the workings of the great inorganic forces, disruptive within the organic psyche. The central soul or self is in arrest. And for this reason we cannot speak of the tales as stories or novels. A tale is a concatenation of scientific cause and effect. But in a story the movement depends on the sudden appearance of spontaneous emotion or gesture, causeless, arising out of the living self.

—Yet the chief of Poe's tales depend upon the passion of love. The central stories, "Ligeia" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" are almost stories; there is in these almost a relation of soul to soul. These are the two stories where love is still recognisable as the driving force.

Love is the mysterious force which brings beings together in creative conjunction or communion. But it is also the force which brings them together in frictional disruption. Love is the great force which causes disintegration as well as new life, and corruption as well as procreation. It brings life together with life, either for production or for destruction, down to the last extremes of existence.

And in Poe, love is purely a frictional, destructive force. In him, the mystic, spontaneous self is replaced by the self-determined ego. He is a unit of will rather than a unit of being. And the force of love acts in him almost as an electric attraction rather than as a communion between self and self. He is a lodestone, the woman is the soft metal. Each draws the other mechanically. Such attraction, increasing and intensifying in conjunction, does not set up a cycle of rest and creation. The one life draws the other life with a terrible pressure. Each presses on the other intolerably till one is bound to disappear: one or both.

The story of this process of magnetic, self-less pressure of love is told in the story of "Ligeia", and this story we may take to be the clue to Poe's own love-tragedy. The motto to the tale is a quotation from Joseph Glanville: "And the will therein lieth which dieth not. Who knoweth the mysteries of the will, with its vigour? For God is but a great will pervading all things by nature of its intentness. Man doth not yield himself to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will."

If God is a great will, then the universe is a great machine, for the will is a fixed principle. But God is not a will. God is a mystery, from which creation mysteriously proceeds. So is the self a unit of creative mystery. But the will is the greatest of all control-principles, the greatest machine-principle.

So Poe establishes himself in the will, self-less and determined. Then he enters the great process of destructive love, which in the end works out to be a battle of wills as to which can hold out longest.

The story is told in a slow method of musing abstraction, most subtle yet most accurate. Ligeia is never a free person. She is just a phenomenon with which Poe strives in ill-omened love. She is not a woman. She is just a reagent, a re-acting force, chimerical almost. "In stature she was tall, somewhat slender, and, in her later days, even emaciated. I would in vain attempt to portray the majesty, the quiet ease, of her demeanour, or the incomprehensible lightness and elasticity of her footfall. I was never made aware of her entrance into my closed study save by the dear music of her low, sweet voice as she placed her marble hand upon my shoulder.". . .

Having recognised the clue to Ligeia in her gigantic volition, there must inevitably ensue the struggle of wills. But Ligeia, true to the great traditions, remains passive or submissive, womanly, to the man; he is the active agent, she the recipient. To this her gigantic volition fixes her also. Hence, moreover, her conquest of the stern vultures of passion.

The stress of inordinate love goes on, the consuming into a oneness. And it is Ligeia who is consumed. The process of such love is inevitable consumption. In creative love there is a recognition of each soul by the other, a mutual kiss, and then the balance in equilibrium which is the peace and beauty of love. But in Poe and Ligeia such balance is impossible. Each is possessed with the craving to search out and know the other, entirely; to know, to have, to possess, to be identified with the other. They are two units madly urging together towards a fusion which must break down the very being of one or both of them. Ligeia craves to be identified with her husband, he with her. And not until too late does she realise that such identification is death.

"That she loved me I should not have doubted; and I might have been easily aware that, in a bosom such as hers, love would have reigned no ordinary passion. But in death only was I fully impressed with the strength of her affection. For long hours, detaining my hand, would she pour out before me the overflowing of a heart whose more than passionate devotion amounted to idolatry. How had I deserved to be blessed by such confessions? How had I deserved to be cursed with the removal of my beloved in the hour of her making them? But upon this subject I cannot bear to dilate. Let me say only that in Ligeia's more than womanly abandonment to a love, alas! all unmerited, all unworthily bestowed, I at length recognised the principle of her longing with so wildly earnest a desire for the life which was now fleeing so rapidly away. It is this wild longing—it is this vehement desire for life—but for life—that I have no power to portray—no utterance capable of expressing."

Thus Ligeia is defeated in her terrible desire to be identified with her husband, and live, just as he is defeated in his desire, living, to grasp the clue of her in his own hand.

On the last day of her existence Ligeia dictates to her husband the memorable poem, which concludes:—

"Out—out are all the lights—out all!
And over each quivering form
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
And the angels, all...

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Darrel Abel (essay date 1949)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Key to The House of Usher," in Interpretations of American Literature, edited by Charles Feidelson, Jr., and Paul Brodtkorb, Jr., Oxford University Press, 1959, pp. 51-62.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1949, Abel offers a symbolic interpretation of "The Fall of the House of Usher. "]

By common consent, the most characteristic of Poe's "arabesque" tales is "The Fall of the House of Usher." It is usually admired for its "atmosphere" and for its exquisitely artificial manipulation of Gothic claptrap and décor, but careful reading reveals admirable method in the author's use of things generally regarded by his readers as mere decorative...

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Allen Tate (essay date 1950)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Three Commentaries: Poe, James, and Joyce," in Memoirs and Opinions, 1926-74, The Swallow Press, 1975, pp. 155-69.

[Tate's criticism is closely associated with two critical movements, the Agrarians and the New Critics. The Agrarians were concerned with political and social issues as well as literature, and were dedicated to preserving the Southern way of life and traditional Southern values. The New Critics, a group which included Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, among others, comprised one of the most influential critical movements of the mid-twentieth century. A conservative thinker and convert to Catholicism, Tate attacked the tradition of Western philosophy, which he felt...

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Richard Wilbur (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The House of Poe," in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Criticism Since 1829, edited by Eric W. Carlson, University of Michigan Press, 1966, pp. 255-77.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture to the Library of Congress in 1959, Wilbur discusses Poe's allegorical representation of the poetic soul in conflict with the external world, especially as it is demonstrated in "The Fall of the House of Usher. "]

A few weeks ago, in the New York Times Book Review, Mr. Saul Bellow expressed impatience with the current critical habit of finding symbols in everything. No selfrespecting modern professor, Mr. Bellow observed, would dare...

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Lyle H. Kendall, Jr. (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Vampire Motif in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'," in College English, Vol. 24, No. 4, March, 1963, pp. 450-53.

[Kendall is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he views Madeline Usher as a vampire.]

The often expressed conventional interpretation of ["The Fall of the House of Usher"] is summarized and expatiated upon in Arthur Robinson's "Order and Sentience in The Fall of the House of Usher.'" My own view of the story, although admittedly whimsical, is that in concentrating upon symbolism, upon psychological aberration, upon its connection with Eureka (first published some years after the story) and with certain aspects of...

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Joel Porte (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Haunted Palace of Art," in The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James, Wesleyan University Press, 1969, pp. 60-9.

[Porte is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he observes a conflict between Romantic and Realist attitudes in "The Fall of the House of Usher. "]

Beginning with Poe and continuing as a strong current in the works of Hawthorne, Melville, and James, the desire to test and evaluate the opposing claims of novelistic "good sense" and romance "wildness" finds expression in the very fabric of American fiction. "Art" as an implied or explicit theme and the frequent use of "artist" figures become...

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G. R. Thompson (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Face in the Pool: Reflections on the Doppelgänger Motif in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'," in Poe Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, June, 1972, pp. 16-21

[In the following essay, Thompson offers a reading of

uThe Fall of the House of Usher" that highlights its parallel structures and ironic tone. ]

In Heart of Darkness (1898-99), Joseph Conrad's first narrator comments on the conception of the meaning of a narrative held by Marlow, who is himself the narrator of the basic tale of his pursuit of his psychological double, Kurtz, and to whom Conrad's first narrator listens as one sitting in darkness waiting for light. The...

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Frederick S. Frank (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poe's House of the Seven Gothics: The Fall of the Narrator in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'," in Orbis Litterarum, Vol. 34, No. 4, 1979, pp. 331-51.

[Frank is an American educator and critic with a special interest in Gothic literature. In the following essay, he argues that the true villain of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is the narrator himself who has failed to recognize the limitations of his narrowly rationalistic mind.]

Between the meditative arrival of the friend of Roderick Usher and his panic-stricken exodus from the vanishing mansion there lies the story of the humiliation of reason within the palace of art. Like his counterpart, the...

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Patrick F. Quinn (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Misreading of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher'," in Ruined Eden of the Present, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe: Critical Essays in Honor of Barrel Abel, edited by G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke, Purdue University Press, 1981, pp. 303-12.

[In the following essay, Quinn opposes G. R. Thompson's contention that the narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is unreliable.]

D. H. Lawrence advised trust the book and not the author, but he neglected to say what or who should be trusted when the book consists of a story told by a narrator who is unreliable. Presumably one then looks for guidance from that convenient abstraction, the critic, who, along with...

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Benjamin Franklin Fisher IV (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Playful 'Germanism' in The Fall of the House of Usher': The Storyteller's Art" in Ruined Eden of the Present, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe: Critical Essays in Honor of Darrel Abel, edited by G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke, Purdue University Press, 1981, pp. 355-74.

[Fisher is an American educator and critic with a special interest in the work of Edgar Allan Poe. In the following essay, he analyzes "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a parody of Gothic literature.

During the past thirty years, few approaches to Poe's great tale have failed to pay respects to Darrel Abel's "A Key to the House of Usher," first published in 1949 and several times...

(The entire section is 5590 words.)

George R. Uba (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Malady and Motive: Medical History and The Fall of the House of Usher'," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 85, No. 1, Winter, 1986, pp. 10-22.

[In the following essay, Uba diagnoses the cause of the Ushers ' strange maladies by relating them to medical and psychological knowledge current at the time Poe wrote "The Fall of the House of Usher. "]

When the narrator of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" first glimpses the Ushers' manor and demesne, he suffers a marked depression, which he likens to a "bitter lapse into everyday life—the hideous dropping off of the veil" of the opium eater. This description is surprising in light of the tale's subsequent...

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Mark Kinkead-Weekes (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reflections On, and In, The Fall of the House of Usher'," in Edgar Allan Poe: The Design of Order, edited by A. Robert Lee, Vision Press Ltd., 1987, pp. 17-34.

[Kinkead-Weekes is a South-African born English educator and critic. In the following essay, he focuses on the reliability of the narrator in "The Fall of the House of Usher. "]

What is immediately impressive about 'The Fall of the House of Usher' is the care with which it sets out to establish the kind of reader it requires. As opposed, it turns out, to Coleridge's notion of an aeolian lute, which resounds to every capricious gust of feeling or idea, there is to be scruple and discrimination, a...

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Leila S. May (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

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 undertakes a feminist analysis of the relationship between Madeline and Roderick Usher, and its implications in Victorian society.]

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...

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Louise J. Kaplan (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Perverse Strategy in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'," in New Essays on Poe's Major Tales, edited by Kenneth Silverman, Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 45-64.

[Kaplan is an American psychoanalyst. In the following essay, she presents a psychoanalytic interpretation of "The Fall of the House of Usher."]

Edgar Allan Poe was a dissembler, a hoaxter, a liar, an impostor, and plagiarizer. He was secretive about his true identity and frequently masqueraded under one of several aliases. Deception and mystification were Poe's stock-intrade. Nevertheless, about some things we take him at his word. He truly was, as he boasted, a master of perversion, that...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Blackmur, R. P. "Afterword to 'The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Tales.'" In Outsider at the Heart of Things: Essays by R. P. Blackmur, edited by James T. Jones, pp. 223-30. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press,1989.

Comments on the extraordinary appeal of Poe's stories, with reference to "The Fall of the House of Usher."

Booth, Wayne C. "Manipulating Mood." In The Rhetoric of Fiction, pp. 200-05. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Analyzes the rhetorical development of mood using "The Fall of the House of Usher" as an example.

Caws, Mary Ann. "Tarn and Tunnel:...

(The entire section is 671 words.)