Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841
"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 ...
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"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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4762
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 pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy 'Man,'
And its hero the Conqueror Worm."
"'O God!' half shrieked Ligeia, leaping to her feet and extending her arms aloft with a spasmodic movement, as I made an end of these lines, 'O God! O Divine Father!—shall these things be undeviatingly so? Shall this conqueror be not once conquered? Are we not part and parcel in Thee? Who—who knoweth the mysteries of the will with its vigour? Man doth not yield him to the angels, nor unto death utterly, save only through the weakness of his feeble will.'"
So Ligeia dies. Herself a creature of will and finished consciousness, she sees everything collapse before the devouring worm. But shall her will collapse?
The husband comes to ancient England, takes a gloomy, grand old abbey, puts it into some sort of repair, and, converting it into a dwelling, furnishes it with exotic, mysterious splendour. As an artist Poe is unfailingly in bad taste—always in bad taste. He seeks a sensation from every phrase or object, and the effect is vulgar.
In the story the man marries the fair-haired, blue-eyed Lady Rowena Trevanion, of Tremaine.
"In halls such as these—in a bridal chamber such as this—I passed, with the Lady of Tremaine, the unhallowed hours of the first month of our marriage—passed them with but little disquietude. That my wife dreaded the fierce moodiness of my temper—that she shunned me and loved me but little—I could not help perceiving; but it gave me rather pleasure than otherwise. I loathed her with a hatred belonging rather to a demon than to a man. My memory flew back (Oh, with what intensity of regret!) to Ligeia, the beloved, the august, the entombed. I revelled in recollections of her purity," etc.
The love which had been a wild craving for identification with Ligeia, a love inevitably deadly and consuming, now in the man has become definitely destructive, devouring, subtly murderous. He will slowly and subtly consume the life of the fated Rowena. It is his vampire lust.
In the second month of the marriage the Lady Rowena fellill. It is Ligeia whose presence hangs destructive over her; it is the ghostly Ligeia who pours poison into Rowena's cup. It is Ligeia, active and unsatisfied within the soul of her husband, who destroys the other woman. The will of Ligeia is not yet broken. She wants to live. And she wants to live to finish her process, to satisfy her unbearable craving to be identified with the man. All the time, in his marriage with Rowena, the husband is only using the new bride as a substitute for Ligeia. As a substitute for Ligeia he possesses her. And at last from the corpse of Rowena Ligeia rises fulfilled. When the corpse opens its eyes, at last the two are identified, Ligeia with the man she so loved. Henceforth the two are one, and neither exists. They are consumed into an inscrutable oneness.
"Eleanora", the next story, is a fantasy revealing the sensational delights of the man in his early marriage with the young and tender bride. They dwelt, he, his cousin and her mother, in the sequestered Valley of Many-coloured Grass, the valley of prismatic sensation, where everything seems spectrum-coloured. They looked down at their own images in the River of Silence, and drew the God Eros from that wave. This is a description of the life of introspection and of the love which is begotten by the self in the self, the selfmade love. The trees are like serpents worshipping the sun. That is, they represent the phallic passion in its poisonous or destructive activity. The symbolism of Poe's parables is easy, too easy, almost mechanical.
In "Berenice" the man must go down to the sepulchre of his beloved and take her thirty-two small white teeth, which he carries in a box with him. It is repulsive and gloating. The teeth are the instruments of biting, of resistance, of antagonism. They often become symbols of opposition, little instruments or entities of crushing and destroying. Hence the dragon's teeth in the myth. Hence the man in "Berenice" must take possession of the irreducible part of his mistress. "Toutes ses dents étaient des idées," he says. Then they are little fixed ideas of mordant hate, of which he possesses himself.
The other great story somewhat connected with this group is "The Fall of the House of Usher". Here the love is between brother and sister. When the self is broken, and the mystery of the recognition of otherness fails, then the longing for identification with the beloved becomes a lust. And it is this longing for identification, utter merging, which is at the base of the incest problem. In psychoanalysis almost every trouble in the psyche is traced to an incest-desire. But this will not do. The incest-desire is only one of the manifestations of the self-less desire for merging. It is obvious that this desire for merging, or unification, or identification of the man with the woman, or the woman with the man, finds its gratification most readily in the merging of those things which are already near—mother with son, brother with sister, father with daughter. But it is not enough to say, as Jung does, that all life is a matter of lapsing towards, or struggling away from, mother-incest. It is necessary to see what lies at the back of this helpless craving for utter merging or identification with a beloved.
The motto to "The Fall of the House of Usher" is a couple of lines from De Béranger.
"Son coeur est un luth suspendu; Sitôt qu'on le touche il résonne."
We have all the trappings of Poe's rather overdone vulgar fantasy. "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 remodelled and inverted images of the grey sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows." The House of Usher, both dwelling and family, was very old. Minute fungi overspread the exterior of the house, hanging in festoons from the eaves. Gothic archways, a valet of stealthy step, sombre tapestries, ebon black floors, a profusion of tattered and antique furniture, feeble gleams of encrimsoned light through latticed panes, and over all "an air of stern, deep, irredeemable gloom"—this makes up the interior.
The inmates of the house, Roderick and Madeline Usher, are the last remnants of their incomparably ancient and decayed race. Roderick has the same large, luminous eye, the same slightly arched nose of delicate Hebrew model, as characterised Ligeia. He is ill with the nervous malady of his family. It is he whose nerves are so strung that they vibrate to the unknown quiverings of the ether. He, too, has lost his self, his living soul, and become a sensitised instrument of the external influences; his nerves are verily like an aeolian harp which must vibrate. He lives in "some struggle with the grim phantasm, Fear," for he is only the physical, post-mortem reality of a living being.
It is a question how much, once the rich centrality of the self is broken, the instrumental consciousness of man can register. When man becomes self-less, wafting instrumental like a harp in an open window, how much can his elemental consciousness express? It is probable that even the blood as it runs has its own sympathies and responses to the material world, quite apart from seeing. And the nerves we know vibrate all the while to unseen presences, unseen forces. So Roderick Usher quivers on the edge of dissolution.
It is this mechanical consciousness which gives "the fervid facility of his impromptus." It is the same thing that gives Poe his extraordinary facility in versification. The absence of real central or impulsive being in himself leaves him inordinately mechanically sensitive to sounds and effects, associations of sounds, association of rhyme, for example—mechanical, facile, having no root in any passion. It is all a secondary, meretricious process. So we get Roderick Usher's poem, "The Haunted Palace," with its swift yet mechanical subtleties of rhyme and rhythm, its vulgarity of epithet. It is all a sort of dream-process, where the association between parts is mechanical, accidental as far as passional meaning goes.
Usher thought that all vegetable things had sentience. Surely all material things have a form of sentience, even the inorganic: surely they all exist in some subtle and complicated tension of vibration which makes them sensitive to external influence and causes them to have an influence on other external objects, irrespective of contact. It is of this vibrational or inorganic consciousness that Poe is master: the sleep-consciousness. Thus Roderick Usher was convinced that his whole surroundings, the stones of the house, the fungi, the water in the tarn, the very reflected image of the whole, was woven into a physical oneness with the family, condensed, as it were, into one atmosphere—the special atmosphere in which alone the Ushers could live. And it was this atmosphere which had moulded the destinies of his family.
In the human realm, Roderick had one connection: his sister Madeline. She, too, was dying of a mysterious disorder, nervous, cataleptic. The brother and sister loved each other passionately and exclusively. They were twins, almost identical in looks. It was the same absorbing love between them, where human creatures are absorbed away from themselves, into a unification in death. So Madeline was gradually absorbed into her brother; the one life absorbed the other in a long anguish of love.
Madeline died and was carried down by her brother into the deep vaults of the house. But she was not dead. Her brother roamed about in incipient madness—a madness of unspeakable terror and guilt. After eight days they were suddenly startled by a clash of metal, then a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled, reverberation. Then Roderick Usher, gibbering, began to express himself: "We have put her living into the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them—many, many days ago—yet I dared not—I dared not speak."
It is again the old theme of "each man kills the thing he loves." He knew his love had killed her. He knew she died at last, like Ligeia, unwilling and unappeased. So, she rose again upon him. "But then 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. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold, then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final deathagonies bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated."
It is lurid and melodramatic, but it really is a symbolic truth of what happens in the last stages of this inordinate love, which can recognise none of the sacred mystery of otherness, but must unite into unspeakable identification, oneness in death. Brother and sister go down together, made one in the unspeakable mystery of death. It is the world-long incest problem, arising inevitably when man, through insistence of his will in one passion or aspiration, breaks the polarity of himself.
The best tales all have the same burden. Hate is as inordinate as love, and as slowly consuming, as secret, as underground, as subtle. All this underground vault business in Poe only symbolises that which takes place beneath the consciousness. On top, all is fair-spoken. Beneath, there is the awful murderous extremity of burying alive. Fortunato, in "The Cask of Amontillado," is buried alive out of perfect hatred, as the Lady Madeline of Usher is buried alive out of love. The lust of hate is the inordinate desire to consume and unspeakably possess the soul of the hated one, just as the lust of love is the desire to possess, or to be possessed by, the beloved, utterly. But in either case the result is the dissolution of both souls, each losing itself in transgressing its own bounds.
The lust of Montresor is to devour utterly the soul of Fortunato. It would be no use killing him outright. If a man is killed outright his soul remains integral, free to return into the bosom of some beloved, where it can enact itself. In walling-up his enemy in the vault, Montresor seeks to bring about the indescribable capitulation of the man's soul, so that he, the victor, can possess himself of the very being of the vanquished. Perhaps this can actually be done. Perhaps, in the attempt, the victor breaks the bounds of his own identity, and collapses into nothingness, or into the infinite.
What holds good for inordinate hate holds good for inordinate love. The motto, Nemo me impune lacessit, might just as well be Nemo me impune amat.
In "William Wilson" we are given a rather unsubtle account of the attempt of a man to kill his own soul. William Wilson, the mechanical, lustful ego succeeds in killing William Wilson, the living self. The lustful ego lives on, gradually reducing itself towards the dust of the infinite.
In the "Murders in the Rue Morgue" and "The Gold Bug" we have those mechanical tales where the interest lies in following out a subtle chain of cause and effect. The interest is scientific rather than artistic, a study in psychologic reactions.
The fascination of murder itself is curious. Murder is not just killing. Murder is a lust utterly to possess the soul of the murdered—hence the stealth and the frequent morbid dismemberment of the corpse, the attempt to get at the very quick of the murdered being, to find the quick and to possess it. It is curious that the two men fascinated by the art of murder, though in different ways, should have been De Quincey and Poe, men so different in ways of life, yet perhaps not so widely different in nature. In each of them is traceable that strange lust for extreme love and extreme hate, possession by mystic violence of the other soul, or violent deathly surrender of the soul in the self.
Inquisition and torture are akin to murder: the same lust. It is a combat between conqueror and victim for the possession of the soul after death. A soul can be conquered only when it is forced to abdicate from its own being. A heretic may be burned at the stake, his ashes scattered on the winds as a symbol that his soul is now broken by torture and dissolved. And yet, as often as not, the brave heretic dies integral in being; his soul re-enters into the bosom of the living, indestructible.
So the mystery goes on. La Bruyère says that all our human unhappiness vient de ne pouvoir être seuls. As long as man lives he will be subject to the incalculable influence of love or of hate, which is only inverted love. The necessity to love is probably the source of all our unhappiness; but since it is the source of everything it is foolish to particularise. Probably even gravitation is only one of the lowest manifestations of the mystic force of love. But the triumph of love, which is the triumph of life and creation, does not lie in merging, mingling, in absolute identification of the lover with the beloved. It lies in the communion of beings, who, in the very perfection of communion, recognise and allow the mutual otherness. There is no desire to transgress the bounds of being. Each self remains utterly itself—becomes, indeed, most burningly and transcendently itself in the uttermost embrace or communion with the other. One self may yield honourable precedence to the other, may pledge itself to undying service, and in so doing become fulfilled in its own nature. For the highest achievement of some souls lies in perfect service. But the giving and the taking of service does not obliterate the mystery of otherness, the being-in-singleness, either in master or servant. On the other hand, slavery is an avowed obliteration of the singleness of being.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4350
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 properties. . . .
Too much of the horror of the tale has usually been attributed to its setting superficially considered. But the setting does have a double importance, descriptive and symbolic. It first operates descriptively, as suggestively appropriate and picturesque background for the unfolding of events. It later operates symbolically: certain features of the setting assume an ominous animism and function; they become important active elements instead of mere static backdrop.
Descriptively the setting has two uses: to suggest a mood to the observer which makes him properly receptive to the horrible ideas which grow in his mind during the action; and to supply details which reinforce, but do not produce, those ideas.
The qualities of the setting are remoteness, decadence, horrible gloom. Remoteness (and loss of feature) is suggested by details of outline, dimension, and vista. Decadence is suggested by details of the death or decrepitude of normal human and vegetable existences and constructions, and by the growth of morbid and parasitic human and vegetable existences, as well as by the surging sentience of inorganism. Gloom and despair are suggested by sombre and listless details of colour and motion (at climactic points, lurid colour and violent action erupt with startling effect from this sombre listlessness). The narrator points out in the opening passage of the tale that the gloom which invested the domain of Usher was not sublime and pleasurable (which would have made it an expression of "supernal beauty" in Poe's opinion), but was sinister and vaguely terrible.
Five persons figure in the tale, but the interest centres exclusively in one—Roderick Usher. The narrator is uncharacterized, undescribed, even unnamed. (I shall call him Anthropos, for convenient reference.) In fact, he is a mere point of view for the reader to occupy, but he does lend the reader some acute, though not individualizing, faculties: five keen senses which shrewdly perceive actual physical circumstances; a sixth sense of vague and indescribable realities behind the physical and apparent; a clever faculty of rational interpretation of sensible phenomena; and finally, a sceptical and matter-of-fact propensity to mistrust intuitional apprehensions and to seek natural and rational explanations. In short, he is an habitual naturalist resisting urgent convictions of the preternatural.
The doctor and valet are not realized as characters; they are less impressive than the furniture; and Anthropos sees each only once and briefly. No duties requiring the attendance of other persons are mentioned, so our attention is never for a moment diverted from Roderick Usher. His sister Madeline's place in the story can best be explained in connection with comment on Usher himself.
The action of the story is comparatively slight; the energetic symbolism, to be discussed later, accomplishes more. Anthropos arrives at the House of Usher, and is conducted into the presence of his host. Usher has invited Anthropos, a friend of his schooldays, in the hope that a renewal of their association will assist him to throw off a morbid depression of spirits which has affected his health. Anthropos is shocked at the ghastly infirmity of his friend. He learns that Madeline, Roderick's twin and the only other living Usher, is near death from a mysterious malady which baffles her physicians. Presently she dies and Roderick Usher, fearing that the doctors who had been so fascinated by the pathology of the case might steal her body from the grave, places it in a sealed coffin in a subterranean vault under the House of Usher. Anthropos assists in this labour.
Immediately there is an observable increase in the nervous apprehensiveness of Roderick Usher. He finds partial relief from his agitation in the painting of horribly vague abstract pictures and in the improvisation of wild tunes to the accompaniment of his "speaking guitar." For seven or eight days his apprehensiveness increases and steadily communicates itself to Anthropos as well, so that, at the end of that time, a night arrives when Anthropos' state of vague alarm prevents his going to sleep. Usher enters and shows him through the window that, although the night is heavily clouded, the House of Usher's environs are strangely illuminated. Anthropos endeavours, not very judiciously, to calm him by reading aloud from a romance that might have come from the library of Don Quixote. At points of suspense in this romance, marked by description of loud noises, Anthropos fancies that he hears similar sounds below him in the House of Usher. Roderick Usher's manner, during this reading, is inattentive and wildly preoccupied; at the noisy climax of the romance Usher melodramatically shrieks that the noises outside had actually been those of his sister breaking out of the coffin in which she had been sealed alive. The door bursts open; Madeline appears and, falling forward dead in her gory shroud, carries Roderick Usher likewise dead to the floor beneath her. Anthropos rushes from the House of Usher, turning in his flight to view its shattering collapse into the gloomy tarn beneath it. How these events become invested with horror can only be understood by discerning the meanings which the symbolism of the tale conveys into them.
Roderick Usher is himself a symbol—of isolation, and of a concentration of vitality so introverted that it utterly destroys itself. He is physically isolated. Anthropos reaches the House of Usher after a whole's day's journey "through a singularly dreary tract of country" that is recognizably the same sort of domain-beyond-reality as that traversed by Childe Roland and his medieval prototypes. Arrived at the mansion, he is conducted to Usher's "studio" "through many dark and intricate passages." And there "the eye struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber" in which his host received him.
Usher is psychologically isolated. Although he has invited his former "boon companion" to visit and support him in this moral crisis, clearly there has never been any conviviality in his nature. "His reserve had always been habitual and excessive," and he has now evidently become more singular, preoccupied, and aloof than before. "For many years, he had never ventured forth" from the gloomy House of Usher, wherein "he was enchained by certain superstitious impressions." ("Superstitious" is the sceptical judgment of Anthropos.) Thus, although his seclusion had probably once been voluntary, it is now inescapable. His sister Madeline does not relieve his isolation; paradoxically, she intensifies it, for they are twins whose "striking similitude" and "sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature" eliminate that margin of difference which is necessary to social relationship between persons. They are not two persons, but one consciousness in two bodies, each mirroring the other, intensifying the introversion of the family character. Further, no collateral branches of the family survive; all the life of the Ushers is flickering to extinction in these feeble representatives. Therefore no wonder that Anthropos cannot connect his host's appearance "with any idea of a simple humanity."
The isolation and concentration of the vitalities of the Ushers had brought about the decay of the line. Formerly the family energies had found magnificently varied expression: "His very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament; displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested, of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity, as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognizable beauties, of musical science." For all the splendid flowering of this "peculiar sensibility," its devotion to intricacies was a fatal weakness; in tending inward to more hidden channels of expression, the family sensibility had become in its current representative morbidity introverted from lack of proper object and exercise, and its only flowers were flowers of evil. It was fretting Roderick Usher to death: "He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of a certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror." These specifications detail the hyper-acuity but progressive desuetude of his five senses. The sum of things which these five senses convey to a man is the sum of physical life; the relinquishment of their use is the relinquishment of life itself. The hyper-acuity of Roderick Usher's senses was caused by the introverted concentration of the family energies; the inhibition of his senses was caused by the physical and psychological isolation of Usher. It is noteworthy that the only willing use he makes of his senses is a morbid one—not to sustain and positively experience life, but to project his "distempered ideality" on canvas and in music. This morbid use of faculties which ought to sustain and express life shows that, as Life progressively loses its hold on Roderick Usher, Death as steadily asserts its empery over him. The central action and symbolism of the tale dramatize this contest between Life and Death for the possession of Roderick Usher.
Some of the non-human symbols of the tale are, as has been mentioned, features of the physical setting which detach themselves from the merely picturesque ensemble of background particulars and assume symbolical meaning as the tale unfolds. They have what might be called an historical function; they symbolize what has been and is. The remaining symbols are created by the "distempered ideality" of Roderick Usher as the narrative progresses. These have prophetic significance; they symbolize what is becoming and what will be. The symbols which Usher creates, however, flow from the same dark source as the evil in symbols which exist independently of Usher: that evil is merely channelled through his artistic sensibility to find bold new expression.
All the symbols express the opposition of Life-Reason to Death—Madness. Most of them are mixed manifestations of those two existences; more precisely, they show ascendant evil encroaching upon decadent good. On the Life-Reason side are ranged the heavenly, natural, organic, harmonious, featured, active qualities of things. Against them are ranged the subterranean, subnatural, inorganic, inharmonious, vague or featureless, passive qualities of things. Although most of the symbols show the encroachment of Death-Madness on Life-Reason, two symbols show absolute evil triumphant, with no commixture of good even in decay. One of these is the tarn, a physically permanent feature of the setting; the other is Roderick Usher's ghastly abstract painting, an impromptu expression of the evil which has mastered his sensibility. There are no symbols of absolute good.
The House of Usher is the most conspicuous symbol in the tale. It displays all the qualities (listed above) of Life-Reason, corrupted and threatened by Death-Madness. It stands under the clouded heavens, but it is significantly related to the subterranean by the zigzag crack which extends from its roof (the most heaven ward part of the house) to the tarn. The trees about it connect it with nature, but they are all dead, blasted by the preternatural evil of the place; the only living vegetation consists of "rank sedges" (no doubt nourished by the tarn), and fungi growing from the roof, the most heavenward part. The house is also a symbol of the organic and harmonious because it expresses human thought and design, but the structure is crazy, threatened not only by the ominous, zigzag, scarcely discernible fissure, but also by the perilous decrepitude of its constituent materials, which maintained their coherency in a way that looked almost miraculous to Anthropos: "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." In the interior of the house, the furnishings seemed no longer to express the ordered living of human creatures: "The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene." That is, the human life it expressed was not ordered and full, but scattered and tattered. The "eyelike windows," the most conspicuous feature of the house, looked vacant from without, and from within were seen to be "altogether inaccessible"; they admitted only "feeble gleams of encrimsoned light." Life and motion within the house were nearly extinct. "An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all."
Roderick Usher resembles his house. It is unnecessary to point out the ways in which a human being is normally an expression of Life-Reason—of heavenly, natural, organic, harmonious, featured, and active qualities. The Death-Madness opposites to these qualities are manifested in interesting correspondences between the physical appearance of Usher and that of his house. The zigzag crack in the house, and the "inconsistency" between its decayed materials and intact structure, are like the difficultly maintained composure of Usher. Anthropos declares: "In the manner of my friend I was at once struck with an incoherence—an inconsistency [my italics]; and I soon found this to arise from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy—an excessive nervous agitation." The "minute fungi . . . hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves" of the house have their curious counterpart, as a symbol of morbid vitality, in the hair of Usher, "of a more than web-like softness and tenuity . . . [which, as it] had been suffered to grow all unheeded, . . . floated rather than fell about the face, [so that] I could not, even with an effort, connect its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity." (We are reminded of the hair reputed to grow so luxuriantly out of the heads of inhumed corpses.) Usher's organic existence and sanity seem threatened: his "cadaverousness of complexion" is conspicuous; and he not only attributes sentience to vegetable things, but also to "the kingdom of inorganization" which he evidently feels to be assuming domination over him. His most conspicuous feature was "an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison"; after Madeline Usher's death, Anthropos observes that "the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out." It was thus assimilated to the "vacant eyelike windows" of his house. And the active qualities of Usher were also fading. We have noticed that his malady was a combined hyper-acuity and inhibition of function of the five senses which maintain life and mind. Altogether, the fabric of Usher, like that of his house, exhibited a "specious totality."
The only other important mixed symbol is Usher's song of the "Haunted Palace." It is largely a contrast of before and after. Before the palace was assailed by "evil things, in robes of sorrow," it had "reared its head" grandly under the heavens:
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!
It displayed several of the characteristics of Life-Reason. But after the assault of "evil things," the Death-Madness qualities are triumphant. Order is destroyed; instead of
Spirits moving musically
To a lute's well-tuned law,
within the palace are to be seen
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody.
Instead of a "troop of Echoes" flowing and sparkling through the "fair palace door," "a hideous throng rush out for ever" through the "pale door" "like a rapid ghastly river." Reason has toppled from its throne, and this song intimated to Anthropos "a full consciousness on the part of Usher of the tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne." The perceptible fading of bright features in the palace is like the fading of the features and vitality of both Usher and his house.
The principal symbols of decrepit Life-Reason having been explicated, it remains to comment on the two symbols of ascendant Death-Madness—the tarn, and Roderick Usher's madly abstract painting. These show the same qualities that we have seen evilly encroaching upon the Life-Reason symbols, but these qualities are here unmitigated by any hint or reminiscence of Life-Reason. The juxtaposition of the tarn-house symbols is crucial; the zig-zag fissure in the house is an index to the source of the evil which eventually overwhelms the Ushers. The tarn is an outlet of a subterranean realm; on the surface of the earth this realm disputes dominion with the powers of heaven and wins. This subnatural realm manifests itself in the miasma that rises from the tarn. "About the mansion and the whole 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." This upward-reeking effluvium has its counterpart in the "distempered ideality" of Usher while he is producing his mad compositions after the death of Madeline: they are products of "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."
"Radiation of gloom" is as interesting an idea as "darkness visible." It reminds us that another mark of this emanation of evil was lurid illumination. The feeble gleams of light that entered Usher's studio were encrimsoned. The "luminous windows" of the "radiant palace" became the "red-litten windows" of the "haunted palace." Oddly, even Usher's mad music is described in a visual figure as having a "sulphureous lustre." On the catastrophic last night of the House of Usher, the environs are at first illuminated, not by any celestial luminaries, but by the "unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous [so our matter-of-fact Anthropos] exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion." And finally, the collapse of the house is melodramatically spot-lighted by "the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely perceptible fissure."
Roderick Usher's dread of the "kingdom of inorganization" as a really sentient order of existence reminds us of the animate inanimation of the tarn. Activity and harmony are really related qualities; harmony is an agreeable coincidence of motions. The tarn's absolute stillness is the negation of these qualities. Water is a universal and immemorial symbol of life; this dead water is thus a symbol of Death-in-Life. It lies "unruffled" from the first, and when at last the House of Usher topples thunderously into it, to the noisy accompaniment of Nature in tumult, its waters close "sullenly and silently over the fragments." This horrid inactivity is the condition toward which Usher is tending when he finds the exercise of his senses intolerable.
The tarn is as featureless as any visible thing can be; its blackness, "unruffled lustre," and silence are like the painted "vaguenesses" at which Anthropos shuddered "the more thrillingly" because he shuddered "not knowing why." Here are blank horrors, with only enough suggestion of feature to set the imagination fearfully to work.
This leads us to the only remaining symbol of importance, Usher's terrible painting. It is more horrible than the "Haunted Palace" because, whereas the song described the lost but regretted state of lovely Life and Reason, the painting depicts Death-Madness horribly regnant, with no reminiscence of Life and Reason. The scene pictured is subterranean (Madeline's coffin was deposited in a suggestively similar vault): "Certain accessory points of the design served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth." It is preternaturally lurid: "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." The picture shows a lifeless scene without features—"smooth, white, and without interruption or device."
Before these remarks on the symbolism of the tale are concluded, some notice should be taken of the part which musical symbols play in it. Poe uses his favorite heart-lute image, from Béranger, as a motto:
Son coeur est un luth suspendu; Sîtot qu'on le touche il résonne.
The "lute's well-tuned law" symbolizes ideal order in the "radiant palace," and the whole of that song is an explicit musical metaphor for derangement of intellect. For Poe, music was the highest as well as the most rational expression of the intelligence, and string music was quintessential music (wherefore Usher's jangled intellect can endure only string music). Time out of mind, music has symbolized celestial order. His conception was not far from that expressed in Dryden's "Song for St. Cecilia's Day," with "The diapason closing full in Man." The derangement of human reason, then, "sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh," cannot be better expressed than in a musical figure.
I have thus tediously but by no means exhaustively exposed the filaments of symbol in "The Fall of the House of Usher" to show how much of its effect depends on the artfully inconspicuous iteration and reiteration of identical suggestions which could not operate so unobtrusively in any other way. Human actions in the story are of much less importance, but one or two events deserve notice. The depositing of Madeline's coffin in the underground vault provides Anthropos with an opportunity to compare the appearance of Roderick and Madeline Usher. She had on her face and bosom "the mockery of a faint blush" and on her lips "that suspiciously lingering smile . . . which is so terrible in death." In contrast, the "cadaverousness of complexion" of Roderick Usher had been repeatedly remarked. Thus is indicated how nearly triumphant Death is in the Ushers from the moment when Anthropos first enters the house, how scarcely perceptible is the difference between a live Usher and a dead one. Consequently, Madeline's rising up from her coffin to claim her brother for death really suggests that he had mistakenly and perversely lingered among the living, that the similitude of life in an Usher was merely morbid animation. He needed only to cross a shadowy line to yield himself up to Madness and Death.
The night of catastrophe, then, witnessed this transition. The reading of "The Mad Trist" shows a mechanical, not a symbolical, correspondence between Usher's ruin and external things; it is the only piece of superimposed and unfunctional trumpery in the tale, though it does serve, perhaps, to explain and justify the suspenseful doubt and surprise of Anthropos when he hears the weird sounds of Madeline's ghastly up-rising. The storm which rages outside is not a supernatural storm, but a tumult of natural elements impotently opposing the silent and sullen powers which in that hour assert dominion over the House of Usher and draw it into their Plutonian depths.
The tragedy of Roderick Usher was not merely his fatal introversion, but his too-late realization of his own doom, the ineffectuality of his effort to re-establish connection with life by summoning to him the person most his friend. When at last he shrieks "Madman!" at this presumably sane friend, he crosses the borderline between sanity and madness. In a moment he dies in melodramatic circumstances, and immediately thereafter is carried into the tarn by the culminatingly symbolical collapse of his house.
It is expedient to review the impressions of Anthropos the determined doubter, who leaves the domain of Usher with a sense of supernatural fatality accomplished. Throughout the tale he scrupulously tries to find rational explanations for the horron which agitate him. He explains his depression of spirits when he first views the House of Usher by reference to the gloomy combination of "very simple natural objects." That the tarn deepened this depression he accounted for psychologically: "The consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition—for why should I not so term it?—served mainly to accelerate the increase itself." In the house he is puzzled to account for the fact that, although the furniture is all of a sort to which he has been accustomed throughout his life, it has an "unfamiliar" effect of gloom; and it is difficult for him to connect any "idea of simple humanity" with Usher's ghastly appearance, although he dutifully tries. He tells us that Usher "admitted" that his "superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted" might be traced to "a more natural and far more palpable origin" than the malign sentience which he attributed to the place, that is to his grief at his sister's hopeless illness. The music which Usher composes during his bereavement is characterized by his common-sensible friend as distempered and perverted, and Usher himself is called a hypochondriac. The limited tolerance of Usher for sound is described in Anthropos' medical jargon as "a morbid condition of the auditory nerve." Usher's conviction of the sentience of the "kingdom of inorganization" is regarded by his friend as a pertinacious but not altogether novel delusion. Usher's agitation is partly ascribed to the influence of the fantastic literature which he reads. The sounds which interrupt the reading of "The Mad Trist" are, Anthropos thinks (before the apparition of Madeline changes his opinion), hallucinations prompted by the wild story and his own state of excited suggestibility. The lurid, upward-streaming illumination of the environs of the House of Usher on the night of catastrophe is explained as a natural phenomenon—a "gaseous exhalation." And, if we wish, we can attribute the stupendously shattering collapse of the ancient House of Usher itself to merely physical and natural causes—the violent thrust of the storm against its frail fabric and almost dilapidated structure. But, significantly, our matterof-fact Anthropos does not suggest any natural explanation; he merely flees "aghast.". . .
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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 has alienated persons from themselves, one another, and from nature by divorcing intellectual from natural functions in human life. For Tate, literature is the principal form of knowledge and revelation that restores human beings to a proper relationship with nature and the spiritual realm. In the following excerpt, originally published in 1950, he identifies Roderick Usher as a prototype of the modern fictional hero.]
["The Fall of the House of Usher"] is perhaps not Poe's best [story], but it has significant features which ought to illuminate some of the later, more mature work in the naturalistic-symbolic technique of Flaubert, Joyce, and James. Poe's insistence upon unity of effect, from first word to last, in the famous review of Hawthrone's Twice-Told Tales, anticipates from one point of view the high claims of James in his essay "The Art of Fiction." James asserts that the imaginative writer must take his art at least as seriously as the historian takes his; that is to say, he must no longer apologize, he must not say "it may have happened this way"; he must, since he cannot rely upon the reader's acceptance of known historical incident, create the illusion of reality, so that the reader may have a "direct impression" of it. It was toward this complete achievement of "direct impression" that Poe was moving, in his tales and in his criticism; he, like Hawthrone, was a great forerunner. The reasons why he did not himself fully achieve it (perhaps less even than Hawthorne) are perceptible in "The Fall of the House of Usher."
Like Hawthorne again, Poe seems to have been very little influenced by the common-sense realism of the eighteenth-century English novel. What has been known in our time as the romantic sensibility reached him from two directions: the Gothic tale of Walpole and Monk Lewis, and the poetry of Coleridge. Roderick Usher is a "Gothic" character taken seriously; that is to say, Poe takes the Gothic setting, with all its machinery and décor, and the preposterous Gothic hero, and transforms them into the material of serious literary art. Usher becomes the prototype of the Joycean and Jamesian hero who cannot function in the ordinary world. He has two characteristic traits of this later fictional hero of our own time. First, he is afflicted with the split personality of the manic depressive:
His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic concision . . . and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement.
Secondly, certain musical sounds (for some unmusical reason Poe selects the notes of the guitar) are alone tolerable to him: "He suffered from a morbid acuteness of the sense." He cannot live in the real world; he is constantly exacerbated. At the same time he "has a passionate devotion to the intricacies . . . of musical science"; and his paintings are "pure abstractions" which have "an intensity of intolerable awe."
Usher is, of course, both our old and our new friend; his new name is Monsieur Teste, and much of the history of modern French literature is in that name. Usher's "want of moral energy," along with a hypertrophy of sensibility and intellect in a split personality, places him in the ancestry of Gabriel Conroy, Stephen Daedalus, John Marcher, J. Alfred Prufrock, Mrs. Dalloway—a forbear of whose somewhat showy accessories they might well be a little ashamed; or they might enjoy a degree of moral complacency in contemplating their own luck in having had greater literary artists than Poe present them to us in a more credible imaginative reality.
I have referred to the Gothic trappings and the poetry of Coleridge as the sources of Poe's romanticism. In trying to understand the kind of unity of effect that Poe demanded of the writer of fiction we must bear in mind two things. First, unity of plot, the emphasis upon which led him to the invention of the "tale of ratiocination." But plot is not so necessary to the serious story of moral perversion of which "The Fall of the House of Usher," "Ligeia," and "Morella" are Poe's supreme examples. Secondly, the unity of tone, a quality that had not been consciously aimed at in fiction before Poe. It is this particular kind of unity, a poetical rather than a fictional characteristic, which Poe must have got from the Romantic poets, Coleridge especially, and from Coleridge's criticism as well as "Kubla Khan" and "Christabel." Unity of plot and tone can exist without the created, active detail which came into this tradition of fiction with Flaubert, to be perfected later by James, Chekhov, and Joyce.
In "The Fall of the House of Usher," there is not one instance of dramatized detail. Although Poe's first-person narrator is in direct contact with the scene, he merely reports it; he does not show us scene and character in action; it is all description. The closet approach in the entire story to active detail is the glimpse, at the beginning, that the narrator gives us of the furtive doctor as he passes him on "one of the staircases." If we contrast the remoteness of Poe's reporting in the entire range of this story with the brilliant re-creation of the character of Michael Furey by Gretta Conroy in "The Dead," we shall be able to form some conception of the advance in the techniques of reality that was achieved in the sixty-odd years between Poe and Joyce. The powerful description of the facade of the House of Usher, as the narrator approaches it, sets up unity of tone, but the description is never woven into the action of the story: the "metaphysical" identity of scene and character reaches our consciousness through lyrical assertion. The fissure in the wall of the house remains an inert symbol of Usher's split personality. At the climax of the story Poe uses an incredibly clumsy device in the effort to make the collapse of Usher active dramatically; that is, he employs the mechanical device of coincidence. The narrator is reading to Usher the absurd tale of the "Mad Trist" of Sir Lancelot Canning. The knight has slain the dragon and now approaches the "brazen shield," which falls with tremendous clatter. Usher has been "hearing" it, but what he has been actually hearing is the rending of the lid of his sister Madeline's coffin and the grating of the iron door of the tomb; until at the end the sister (who has been in a cataleptic trance) stands outside Usher's door. The door opens; she stands before them. The narrator flees and the House of Usher, collapsing, sinks forever with its master into the waters of the "tarn."
We could dwell upon the symbolism of the identity of house and master, of the burial alive of Madeline, of the fissure in the wall of the house and the fissure in the psyche of Usher. What we should emphasize here is the dominance of symbolism over its visible base: symbolism external and "lyrical," not intrinsic and dramatic. The active structure of the story is mechanical and thus negligible; but its lyrical structure is impressive. Poe's plots seem most successful when the reality of scene and character is of secondary importance in the total effect; that is, in the tale of "ratiocination." He seemed unable to combine incident with his gift for "insight symbolism"; as a result his symbolic tales are insecurely based upon scenic reality. But the insight was great. In Roderick Usher, as we have said, we get for the first time the hero of modern fiction. In the history of literature the discoverer of the subject is almost never the perfector of the techniques for making the subject real.
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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 to explain Achilles' dragging of Hector around the walls of Troy by the mere assertion that Achilles was in a bad temper. That would be too drearily obvious. No, the professor must say that the circular path of Achilles and Hector relates to the theme of circularity which pervades The Iliad.
In the following week's Book Review, a pedantic correspondent corrected Mr. Bellow, pointing out that Achilles did not, in Homer's Iliad, drag Hector's body around the walls of Troy; this perhaps invalidates the Homeric example, but Mr. Bellow's complaint remains, nevertheless, a very sensible one. We are all getting a bit tired, I think, of that laboriously clever criticism which discovers mandalas in Mark Twain, rebirth archetypes in Edwin Arlington Robinson, and fertility myths in everybody.
Still, we must not be carried away by our impatience, to the point of demanding that no more symbols be reported. The business of the critic, after all, is to divine the intention of the work, and to interpret the work in the light of that intention; and since some writers are intentionally symbolic, there is nothing for it but to talk about their symbols. If we speak of Melville, we must speak of symbols. If we speak of Hawthorne, we must speak of symbols. And as for Edgar Allan Poe, whose sesquicentennial year we are met to observe, I think we can make no sense about him until we consider his work—and in particular his prose fiction—as deliberate and often brillilant allegory.
Not everyone will agree with me that Poe's work has an accessible allegorical meaning. Some critics, in fact, have refused to see any substance, allegorical or otherwise, in Poe's fiction, and have regarded his tales as nothing more than complicated machines for saying "boo." Others have intuited undiscoverable meanings in Poe, generally of an unpleasant kind: I recall one Freudian critic declaring that if we find Poe unintelligible we should congratulate ourselves, since if we could understand him it would be proof of our abnormality.
It is not really surprising that some critics should think Poe meaningless, or that others should suppose his meaning intelligible only to monsters. Poe was not a wide-open and perspicuous writer; indeed, he was a secretive writer both by temperament and by conviction. He sprinkled his stories with sly references to himself and to his personal history. He gave his own birthday of January 19 to his character William Wilson; he bestowed his own height and color of eye on the captain of the phantom ship in "Ms. Found in a Bottle"; and the name of one of his heroes, Arthur Gordon Pym, is patently a version of his own. He was a maker and solver of puzzles, fascinated by codes, ciphers, anagrams, acrostics, hieroglyphics, and the Kabbala. He invented the detective story. He was fond of aliases; he delighted in accounts of swindles; he perpetrated the famous Balloon Hoax of 1844; and one of his most characteristic stories is entitled "Mystification". A man so devoted to concealment and deception and unraveling and detection might be expected to have in his work what Poe himself called "undercurrents of meaning."
And that is where Poe, as a critic, said that meaning belongs: not on the surface of the poem or tale, but below the surface as a dark undercurrent. If the meaning of a work is made overly clear—as Poe said in his "Philosophy of Composition"—if the meaning is brought to the surface and made the upper current of the poem or tale, then the work becomes bald and prosaic and ceases to be art. Poe conceived of art, you see, not as a means of giving imaginative order to earthly experience, but as a stimulus to unearthly visions. The work of literary art does not, in Poe's view, present the reader with a provisional arrangement of reality; instead, it seeks to disengage the reader's mind from reality and propel it toward the ideal. Now, since Poe thought the function of art was to set the mind soaring upward in what he called "a wild effort to reach the Beauty above," it was important to him that the poem or tale should not have such definiteness and completeness of meaning as might contain the reader's mind within the work. Therefore Poe's criticism places a positive value on the obscuration of meaning, on a dark suggestiveness, on a deliberate vagueness by means of which the reader's mind may be set adrift toward the beyond.
Poe's criticism, then, assures us that his work does have meaning. And Poe also assures us that this meaning is not on the surface but in the depths. If we accept Poe's invitation to play detective, and commence to read him with an eye for submerged meaning, it is not long before we sense that there are meanings to be found, and that in fact many of Poe's stories, though superficially dissimilar, tell the same tale. We begin to have this sense as we notice Poe's repeated use of certain narrative patterns; his repetition of certain words and phrases; his use, in story after story, of certain scenes and properties. We notice, for instance, the recurrence of the spiral or vortex. In "Ms. Found in a Bottle", the story ends with a plunge into a whirlpool; the "Descent into the Maelström" also concludes in a watery vortex; the house of Usher, just before it plunges into the tarn, is swaddled in a whirlwind; the hero of "Metzengerstein," Poe's first published story, perishes in "a whirlwind of chaotic fire"; and at the close of "King Pest," Hugh Tarpaulin is cast into a puncheon of ale and disappears "amid a whirlpool of foam." That Poe offers us so many spirals or vortices in his fiction, and that they should always appear at the same terminal point in their respective narratives, is a strong indication that the spiral had some symbolic value for Poe. And it did: What the spiral invariably represents in any tale of Poe's is the loss of consciousness, and the descent of the mind into sleep.
I hope you will grant, before I am through, that to find spirals in Poe is not so silly as finding circles in Homer. The professor who finds circles in Homer does so to the neglect of more important and more provable meanings. But the spiral or vortex is a part of that symbolic language in which Poe said his say, and unless we understand it we cannot understand Poe.
But now I have gotten ahead of myself, and before I proceed with my project of exploring one area of Poe's symbolism, I think I had better say something about Poe's conception of poetry and the poet.
Poe conceived of God as a poet. The universe, therefore, was an artistic creation, a poem composed by God. Now, if the universe is a poem, it follows that the one proper response to it is aesthetic, and that God's creatures are attuned to Him in proportion as their imaginations are ravished by the beauty and harmony of his creation. Not to worship beauty, not to regard poetic knowledge as divine, would be to turn one's back on God and fall from grace.
The planet Earth, according to Poe's myth of the cosmos, has done just this. It has fallen away from God by exalting the scientific reason above poetic intuition, and by putting its trust in material fact rather than in visionary knowledge. The Earth's inhabitants are thus corrupted by rationalism and materialism; their souls are diseased; and Poe sees this disease of the human spirit as having contaminated physical nature. The woods and fields and waters of Earth have thereby lost their first beauty, and no longer clearly express God's imagination; the landscape has lost its original perfection of composition, in proportion as men have lost their power to perceive the beautiful.
Since Earth is a fallen planet, life upon Earth is necessarily a torment for the poet: neither in the human sphere nor in the realm of nature can he find fit objects for contemplation, and indeed his soul is oppressed by everything around him. The rationalist mocks at him; the dull, prosaic spirit of the age damps his imaginative spark; the gross materiality of the world crowds in upon him. His only recourse is to abandon all concern for Earthly things, and to devote himself as purely as possible to unearthly visions, in hopes of glimpsing that heavenly beauty which is the thought of God.
Poe, then, sees the poetic soul as at war with the mundane physical world; and that warfare is Poe's fundamental subject. But the war between soul and world is not the only war. There is also warfare within the poet's very nature. To be sure, the poet's nature was not always in conflict with itself. Prior to his earthly incarnation, and during his dreamy childhood, Poe's poet enjoyed a serene unity of being; his consciousness was purely imaginative, and he knew the universe for the divine poem that it is. But with his entrance into adult life, the poet became involved with a fallen world in which the physical, the factual, the rational, the prosaic are not escapable. Thus, compromised, he lost his perfect spirituality, and is now cursed with a divided nature. Though his imagination still yearns toward ideal beauty, his mortal body chains him to the physical and temporal and local; the hungers and passions of his body draw him toward external objects, and the conflict of conscience and desire degrades and distracts his soul; his mortal senses try to convince him of the reality of a material world which his soul struggles to escape; his reason urges him to acknowledge everyday fact, and to confine his thought within the prison of logic. For all these reasons it is not easy for the poet to detach his soul from earthly things, and regain his lost imaginative power—his power to commune with that supernal beauty which is symbolized, in Poe, by the shadowy and angelic figures of Ligeia, and Helen, and Lenore.
These, then, are Poe's great subjects: first, the war between the poetic soul and the external world; second, the war between the poetic soul and the earthly self to which it is bound. All of Poe's major stories are allegorical presentations of these conflicts, and everything he wrote bore somehow upon them.
How does one wage war against the external world? And how does one release one's visionary soul from the body, and from the constraint of the reason? These may sound like difficult tasks; and yet we all accomplish them every night. In a subjective sense—and Poe's thought is wholly subjective—we destroy the world every time we close our eyes. If esse est percipi, as Bishop Berkeley said—if to be is to be perceived—then when we withdraw our attention from the world in somnolence or sleep, the world ceases to be. As our minds move toward sleep, by way of drowsiness and reverie and the hypnagogic state, we escape from consciousness of the world, we escape from awareness of our bodies, and we enter a realm in which reason no longer hampers the play of the imagination: we enter the realm of dream.
Like many romantic poets, Poe identified imagination with dream. Where Poe differed from other romantic poets was in the literalness and absoluteness of the identification, and in the clinical precision with which he observed the phenomena of dream, carefully distinguishing the various states through which the mind passes on its way to sleep. A large number of Poe's stories derive their very structure from this sequence of mental states: "Ms. Found in a Bottle," to give but one example, is an allegory of the mind's voyage from the waking world into the world of dreams, with each main step of the narrative symbolizing the passage of the mind from one state to another—from wakefulness to reverie, from reverie to the hypnagogic state, from the hypnagogic state to the deep dream. The departure of the narrator's ship from Batavia represents the mind's withdrawal from the waking world; the drowning of the captain and all but one of the crew represents the growing solitude of reverie; when the narrator is transferred by collision from a real ship to a phantom ship, we are to understand that he has passed from reverie, a state in which reality and dream exist in a kind of equilibrium, into the free fantasy of the hypnagogic state. And when the phantom ship makes its final plunge into the whirlpool, we are to understand that the narrator's mind has gone over the brink of sleep and descended into dreams.
What I am saying by means of this example is that the scenes and situations of Poe's tales are always concrete representations of states of mind. If we bear in mind Poe's fundamental plot—the effort of the poetic soul to escape all consciousness of the world in dream—we soon recognize the significance of certain scenic or situational motifs which turn up in story after story. The most important of these recurrent motifs is that of enclosure or circumscription; perhaps the latter term is preferable, because it is Poe's own word, and because Poe's enclosures are so often more or less circular in form. The heroes of Poe's tales and poems are violently circumscribed by whirlpools, or peacefully circumscribed by cloud-capped Paradisal valleys; they float upon circular pools ringed in by steep flowering hillsides; they dwell on islands, or voyage to them; we find Poe heroes also in coffins, in the cabs of balloons, or hidden away in the holds of ships; and above all we find them sitting alone in the claustral and richlyfurnished rooms of remote and mouldering mansions.
Almost never, if you think about it, is one of Poe's heroes to be seen standing in the light of common day; almost never does the Poe hero breathe the air that others breathe; he requires some kind of envelope in order to be what he is; he is always either enclosed or on his way to an enclosure. The narrative of William Wilson conducts the hero from Stoke Newington to Eton, from Eton to Oxford, and then to Rome by way of Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, Naples, and Egypt: and yet, for all his travels, Wilson seems never to set foot out-ofdoors. The story takes place in a series of rooms, the last one locked from the inside.
Sometimes Poe emphasizes the circumscription of his heroes by multiple enclosures. Roderick Usher dwells in a great and crumbling mansion from which, as Poe tells us, he has not ventured forth in many years. This mansion stands islanded in a stagnant lake, which serves it as a defensive moat. And beyond the moat lies the Usher estate, a vast barren tract having its own peculiar and forbidding weather and atmosphere. You might say that Roderick Usher is defended in depth; and yet at the close of the story Poe compounds Roderick's inaccessibility by having the mansion and its occupant swallowed up by the waters of the tarn.
What does it mean that Poe's heroes are invariably enclosed or circumscribed? The answer is simple: circumscription, in Poe's tales, means the exclusion from consciousness of the so-called real world, the world of time and reason and physical fact; it means the isolation of the poetic soul in visionary reverie or trance. When we find one of Poe's characters in a remote valley, or a claustral room, we know that he is in the process of dreaming his way out of the world.
Now, I want to devote the time remaining to the consideration of one kind of enclosure in Poe's tales: the mouldering mansion and its richly-furnished rooms. I want to concentrate on Poe's architecture and decor for two reasons: first, because Poe's use of architecture is so frankly and provably allegorical that I should be able to be convincing about it; second, because by concentrating on one area of Poe's symbolism we shall be able to see that his stories are allegorical not only in their broad patterns, but also in their smallest details.
Let us begin with a familiar poem, "The Haunted Palace." The opening stanzas of this poem, as a number of critics have noted, make a point-by-point comparison between a building and the head of a man. The exterior of the palace represents the man's physical features; the interior represents the man's mind engaged in harmonious imaginative thought.
In the greenest of our valleys,
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought's dominion,
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow
(This—all this—was in the olden
Time long ago),
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A wingéd odor went away.
Wanderers in that happy valley,
Through two luminous windows, saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute's well-tunéd law,
Round about a throne where, sitting,
In state his glory well befitting,
The ruler of the realm was seen.
And all in pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes, whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
I expect you observed that the two luminous windows of the palace are the eyes of a man, and that the yellow banners on the roof are his luxuriant blond hair. The "pearl and ruby" door is the man's mouth—ruby representing red lips, and pearl representing pearl white teeth. The beautiful Echoes which issue from the pearl and ruby door are the poetic utterances of the man's harmonious imagination, here symbolized as an orderly dance. The angel-guarded valley in which the palace stands, and which Poe describes as "the monarch Thought's dominion," is a symbol of the man's exclusive awareness of exalted and spiritual things. The valley is what Poe elsewhere called "that evergreen and radiant paradise which the true poet knows .. . as the limited realm of his authority, as the circumscribed Eden of his dreams."
As you all remember, the last two stanzas of the poem describe the physical and spiritual corruption of the palace and its domain, and it was to this part of the poem that Poe was referring when he told a correspondent, "By the 'Haunted Palace' I mean to imply a mind haunted by phantoms—a disordered brain." Let me read you the closing lines:
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch's high estate.
(Ah, let us mourn!—for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And round about his home the glory
That blushed and bloomed,
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh—but smile no more.
The domain of the monarch Thought, in these final stanzas, is disrupted by civil war, and in consequence everything alters for the worse. The valley becomes barren, like the domain of Roderick Usher; the eye-like windows of the palace are no longer "luminous," but have become "red-litten"—they are like the bloodshot eyes of a madman or a drunkard. As for the mouth of our allegorized man, it is now "pale" rather than "pearl and ruby," and through it come no sweet Echoes, as before, but the wild laughter of a jangling and discordant mind.
The two states of the palace—before and after—are, as we can see, two states of mind. Poe does not make it altogether clear why one state of mind has given way to the other, but by recourse to similar tales and poems we can readily find the answer. The palace in its original condition expresses the imaginative harmony which the poet's soul enjoys in early childhood, when all things are viewed with a tyrannical and unchallenged subjectivity. But as the soul passes from childhood into adult life, its consciousness is more and more invaded by the corrupt and corrupting external world: it succumbs to passion, it develops a conscience, it makes concessions to reason and to objective fact. Consequently, there is civil war in the palace of the mind. The imagination must now struggle against the intellect and the moral sense; finding itself no longer able to possess the world through a serene solipsism, it strives to annihilate the outer world by turning in upon itself; it flees into irrationality and dream; and all its dreams are efforts both to recall and to simulate its primal, unfallen state.
"The Haunted Palace" presents us with a possible key to the general meaning of Poe's architecture; and this key proves, if one tries it, to open every building in Poe's fiction. Roderick Usher, as you will remember, declaims "The Haunted Palace" to the visitor who tells his story, accompanying the poem with wild improvisations on the guitar. We are encouraged, therefore, to compare the palace of the poem with the house of the story; and it is no surprise to find that the Usher mansion has "vacant eyelike windows," and that there are mysterious physical sympathies between Roderick Usher and the house in which he dwells. The House of Usher is, in allegorical fact, the physical body of Roderick Usher, and its dim interior is, in fact, Roderick Usher's visionary mind.
The House of Usher, like many edifices in Poe, is in a state of extreme decay. The stonework of its facade has so crumbled and decomposed that it reminds the narrator, as he puts it, "of the specious totality of old woodwork which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault." The Usher mansion is so eaten away, so fragile, that it seems a breeze would push it over; it remains standing only because the atmosphere of Usher's domains is perfectly motionless and dead. Such is the case also with the "timeeaten towers that tremble not" in Poe's poem "The City in the Sea"; and likewise the magnificent architecture of "The Domain of Arnheim" is said to "sustain itself by a miracle in mid-air." Even the detective Dupin lives in a perilously decayed structure: the narrator of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" tells how he and Dupin dwelt in a "time-eaten and grotesque mansion, long deserted through superstitions into which we did not enquire, and tottering to its fall in a retired and desolate portion of the Faubourg St. Germain." (Notice how, even when Poe's buildings are situated in cities, he manages to circumscibe them with a protective desolation.)
We must now ask what Poe means by the extreme and tottering decay of so many of his structure. The answer is best given by reference to "The Fall of the House of Usher," and in giving the answer we shall arrive, I think, at an understanding of the pattern of that story.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" is a journey into the depths of the self. I have said that all journeys in Poe are allegories of the process of dreaming, and we must understand "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a dream of the narrator's, in which he leaves behind him the waking, physical world and journeys inward toward his moi intérieur, toward his inner and spiritual self. That inner and spiritual self is Roderick Usher.
Roderick Usher, then, is a part of the narrator's self, which the narrator reaches by way of reverie. We may think of Usher, if we like, as the narrator's imagination, or as his visionary soul. Or we may think of him as a state of mind which the narrator enters at a certain stage of his progress into dreams. Considered as a state of mind, Roderick Usher is an allegorical figure representing the hypnagogic state.
The hypnagogic state, about which there is strangely little said in the literature of psychology, is a condition of semiconsciousness in which the closed eye beholds a continuous procession of vivid and constantly changing forms. These forms sometimes have color, and are often abstract in character. Poe regarded the hypnagogic state as the visionary condition par excellence, and he considered its rapidly shifting abstract images to be—as he put it—"glimpses of the spirit's outer world." These visionary glimpses, Poe says in one of his Marginalia, "arise in the soul . . . only .. . at those mere points of time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams." And Poe goes on to say: "I am aware of these 'fancies' only when I am upon the very brink of sleep, with the consciousness that I am so."
Roderick Usher enacts the hypnagogic state in a number of ways. For one thing, the narrator describes Roderick's behavior as inconsistent, and characterized by constant alternation: he is alternately vivacious and sullen; he is alternately communicative and rapt; he speaks at one moment with "tremulous indecison," and at the next with the "energetic concision" of an excited opium-eater. His conduct resembles, in other words, that wavering between consciousness and sub-consciousness which characterizes the hypnagogic state. The trembling of Roderick's body, and the floating of his silken hair, also bring to mind the instability and underwater quality of hypnagogic images. His improvisations on the guitar suggest hypnagogic experience in their rapidity, changeableness, and wild novelty. And as for Usher's paintings, which the narrator describes as "pure abstractions," they quite simply are hypnagogic images. The narrator says of Roderick, "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 without knowing why—from these paintings (vivid as their images now are before me) I would in vain endeavor to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words." That the narrator finds Roderick's paintings indescribable is interesting, because in that one of the Marginalia from which I have quoted, Poe asserts that the only things in human experience which lie "beyond the compass of words" are the visions of the hypnagogic state.
Roderick Usher stands for the hypnagogic state, which as Poe said is a teetering condition of mind occurring "upon the very brink of sleep." Since Roderick is the embodiment of a state of mind in which falling—falling asleep—is imminent, it is appropriate that the building which symbolizes his mind should promise at every moment to fall. The House of Usher stares down broodingly at its reflection in the tarn below, as in the hypnagogic state the conscious mind may stare into the subconscious; the house threatens continually to collapse because it is extremely easy for the mind to slip from the hypnagogic state into the depths of sleep; and when the House of Usher does fall, the story ends, as it must, because the mind, at the end of its inward journey, has plunged into the darkness of sleep.
We have found one allegorical meaning in the tottering decay of Poe's buildings; there is another meaning, equally important, which may be stated very briefly. I have said that Poe saw the poet as at war with the material world, and with the material or physical aspects of himself; and I have said that Poe identified poetic imagination with the power to escape from the material and the materialistic, to exclude them from consciousness and so subjectively destroy them. Now, if we recall these things, and recall also that the exteriors of Poe's houses or palaces, with their eye-like windows and mouth-like doors, represent the physical features of Poe's dreaming heroes, then the characteristic dilapidation of Poe's architecture takes on sudden significance. The extreme decay of the House of Usher—a decay so extreme as to approach the atmospheric—is quite simply a sign that the narrator, in reaching that state of mind which he calls Roderick Usher, has very nearly dreamt himself free of his physical body, and of the material world with which that body connects him.
This is what decay or decomposition mean everywhere in Poe; and we find them almost everywhere. Poe's preoccupation with decay is not, as some critics have thought, an indication of necrophilia; decay in Poe is a symbol of visionary remoteness from the physical, a sign that the state of mind represented is one of almost pure spirituality. When the House of Usher disintegrates or dematerializes at the close of the story, it does so because Roderick Usher has become all soul. "The Fall of the House of Usher," then, is not really a horror story; it is a triumphant report by the narrator that it is possible for the poetic soul to shake off this temporal, rational, physical world and escape, if only for a moment, to a realm of unfettered vision.
We have now arrived at three notions about Poe's typical building. It is set apart in a valley or a sea or a waste place, and this remoteness is intended to express the retreat of the poet's mind from worldly consciousness into dream. It is a tottery structure, and this indicates that the dreamer within is in that unstable threshold condition called the hypnagogic state. Finally, Poe's typical building is crumbling or decomposing, and this means that the dreamer's mind is moving toward a perfect freedom from his material self and the material world. Let us now open the door—or mouth—of Poe's building and visit the mind inside.
As we enter the palace of the visionary hero of the "Assignation", or the house of Roderick Usher, we find ourselves approaching the master's private chamber by way of dim and winding passages, or a winding staircase. There is no end to dim windings in Poe's fiction: there are dim and winding woods paths, dim and winding streets, dim and winding watercourses—and, whenever the symbolism is architectural, there are likely to be dim and winding passages or staircases. It is not at all hard to guess what Poe means by this symbol. If we think of waking life as dominated by reason, and if we think of the reason as a daylight faculty which operates in straight lines, then it is proper that reverie should be represented as an obscure and wandering movement of the mind. There are other, and equally obvious meanings in Poe's symbol of dim and winding passages: to grope through such passages is to become confused as to place and direction, just as in reverie we begin to lose any sense of locality, and to have an infinite freedom in regard to space. In his description of the huge old mansion in which William Wilson went to school, Poe makes this meaning of winding passages very plain:
But the house—how quaint an old building was this!—to me how veritable a palace of enchantment! There was no end to its windings—to its incomprehensible subdivisions. It was difficult, at any given time, to say with certainty upon which of its two stories one happened to be. From each room to every other there were sure to be found three or four steps either in ascent or descent. Then the lateral branches were innumerable—inconceivable—and so returning in upon themselves, that our most exact ideas in regard to the whole mansion were not very far different from those with which we pondered on infinity.
Dim windings indicate the state of reverie; they point toward that infinite freedom in and from space which the mind achieves in dreams; also, in their curvature and in their occasional doubling-back, they anticipate the mind's final spiralling plunge into unconsciousness. But the immediate goal of reverie's winding passages is that magnificent chamber in which we find the visionary hero slumped in a chair or lolling on an ottoman, occupied in purging his consciousness of everything that is earthly.
Since I have been speaking of geometry—of straight lines and curves and spirals—perhaps the first thing to notice about Poe's dream-rooms is their shape. It has already been said that the enclosures of Poe's tales incline to a curving or circular form. And Poe himself, in certain of his essays and dialogues, explains this inclination by denouncing what he calls "the harsh mathematical reason of the schools," and complaining that practical science has covered the face of the earth with "rectangular obscenities." Poe quite explicitly identifies regular angular forms with everyday reason, and the circle, oval, or fluid arabesque with the otherwordly imagination. Therefore, if we discover that the dream-chambers of Poe's fiction are free of angular regularity, we may be sure that we are noticing a pointed and purposeful consistency in his architecture and décor.
The ball-room of the story "Hop-Frog" is circular. The Devil's apartment in "The Duc de l'Omelette" has its corners "rounded into niches," and we find rounded corners also in Poe's essay "The Philosophy of Furniture". In "Ligeia," the bridal chamber is a pentagonal turret-room; however, the angles are concealed by sarcophagi, so that the effect is circular. The corners of Roderick Usher's chamber are likewise concealed, being lost in deep shadow. Other dream-rooms are either irregular or indeterminate in form. For example, there are the seven rooms of Prince Prospero's imperial suite in "The Masque of the Red Death." As Poe observes, "in many palaces . . . such suites form a long and straight vista"; but in Prince Prospero's palace, as he describes it, "the apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect." The turret-room of "The Oval Portrait" is not defined as to shape; we are told, however, that it is architecturally "bizarre," and complicated by a quantity of unexpected nooks and niches. Similarly, the visionary's apartment in "The Assignation" is described only as dazzling, astounding and original in its architecture; we are not told in what way its dimensions are peculiar, but it seems safe to assume that it would be a difficult room to measure for wallto-wall carpeting. The room of "The Assignation," by the way—like that of "Ligeia"—has its walls enshrouded in rich figured draperies which are continually agitated by some mysterious agency. The fluid shifting of the figures suggests, of course, the behavior of hypnagogic images; but the agitation of the draperies would also produce a perpetual ambiguity of architectural form, and the effect would resemble that which Pevsner ascribes to the interior of San Vitale in Ravenna: "a sensation of uncertainty [and] of a dreamlike floating."
Poe, as you see, is at great pains to avoid depicting the usual squarish sort of room in which we spend much of our waking lives. His chambers of dream either approximate the circle—an infinite form which is, as Poe somewhere observes, "the emblem of Eternity"—or they so lack any apprehensible regularity of shape as to suggest the changeableness and spatial freedom of the dreaming mind. The exceptions to this rule are few and entirely explainable. I will grant, for instance, that the iron-walled torturechamber of "The Pit and the Pendulum" portrays the very reverse of spatial freedom, and that it is painfully angular in character, the angles growing more acute as the torture intensifies. But there is very good allegorical reason for these things. The rooms of "Ligeia" or "The Assignation" symbolize a triumphantly imaginative state of mind in which the dreamer is all but free of the socalled "real" world. In "The Pit and the Pendulum," the dream is of quite another kind; it is a nightmare state, in which the dreamer is imaginatively impotent, and can find no refuge from reality, even in dream. Though he lies on the brink of the pit, on the very verge of the plunge into unconsciousness, he is still unable to disengage himself from the physical and temporal world. The physical oppresses him in the shape of lurid graveyard visions; the temporal oppresses him in the form of an enormous and deadly pendulum. It is altogether appropriate, then, that this particular chamber should be constricting and cruelly angular.
But let us return to Poe's typical room, and look now at its furnishings. They are generally weird, magnificent, and suggestive of great wealth. The narrator of "The Assignation," entering the hero's apartment, feels "blind and dizzy with luxuriousness," and looking about him he confesses, "I could not bring myself to believe that the wealth of any subject in Europe could have supplied the princely magnificence which burned and blazed around." Poe's visionaries are, as a general thing, extremely rich; the hero of "Ligeia" confides that, as for wealth, he possesses "far more, very far more, than ordinarily falls to the lot of mortals"; and Ellison, in "The Domain of Arnheim," is the fortunate inheritor of 450 million dollars. Legrand, in "The Gold Bug," with his treasure of 450 thousand, is only a poor relation of Mr. Ellison; still, by ordinary standards, he seems sublimely solvent.
Now, we must be careful to take all these riches in an allegorical sense. As we contemplate the splendor of any of Poe's rooms, we must remember that the room is a state of mind, and that everything in it is therefore a thought, a mental image. The allegorical meaning of the costliness of Poe's decor is simply this: that his heroes are richly imaginative. And since imagination is a gift rather than an acquisition, it is appropriate that riches in Poe should be inherited or found, but never earned.
Another thing we notice about Poe's furnishings is that they are eclectic in the extreme. Their richness is not the richness of Tiffany's and Sloan's, but of all periods and all cultures. Here is a partial inventory of the fantastic bridal-chamber in "Ligeia": Egyptian carvings and sacrophagi; Venetian glass; fretwork of a semi-Gothic, semi-Druidical character; a Saracenic chandelier; Oriental ottomans and candelabra; an Indian couch; and figured draperies with Norman motifs. The same defiance of what interior decorators once called "keeping" is found in the apartment of the visionary hero of "The Assignation", and one of that hero's speeches hints at the allegorical meaning of his jumbled decor:
To dream [says the hero of "The Assignation"]—to dream has been the business of my life. I have therefore framed for myself, as you see, a bower of dreams. In the heart of Venice could I have erected a better? You behold around you, it is true, a medley of architectural embellishments. The chastity of Ionia is offended by antediluvian devices, and the sphynxes of Egypt are outstretched upon carpets of gold. Yet the effect is incongruous to the timid alone. Proprieties of place, and especially of time, are the bugbears which terrify mankind from the contemplation of the magnificent.
That last sentence, with its scornful reference to "proprieties of place, and . . . time," should put us in mind of the first stanza of Poe's poem "Dream-Land":
By a route obscure and lonely,
Haunted by ill angels only,
Where an Eidolon, named NIGHT,
On a black throne reigns upright,
I have reached these lands but newly
From an ultimate dim Thule—
From a wild weird clime that lieth, sublime,
Out of SPACE—out Of TIME.
In dream-land, we are "out of SPACE—out of TIME," and the same is true of such apartments or "bowers of dreams" as the hero of "The Assignation" inhabits. His eclectic furnishings, with their wild juxtapositions of Venetian and Indian, Egyptian and Norman, are symbolic of the visionary soul's transcendence of spatial and temporal limitations. When one of Poe's dream-rooms is not furnished in the fashion I have been describing, the idea of spatial and temporal freedom is often conveyed in some other manner: Roderick Usher's library, for instance, with its rare and precious volumes belonging to all times and tongues, is another concrete symbol of the timelessness and placelessness of the dreaming mind.
We have spoken of the winding approaches to Poe's dreamchambers, of their curvilinear or indeterminate shape, and of the rich eclecticism of their furnishings. Let us now glance over such matters as lighting, sound-proofing, and ventilation. As regards lighting, the rooms of Poe's tales are never exposed to the naked rays of the sun, because the sun belongs to the waking world and waking consciousness. The narrator of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" tells how he and his friend Dupin conducted their lives in such a way as to avoid ail exposure to sunlight. "At the first dawn of the morning," he writes, "we closed all the massy shutters of our old building; lighting a couple of tapers which, strongly perfumed, threw out only the ghastliest and feeblest of rays. By the aid of these we then busied our souls in dreams. . . ."
In some of Poe's rooms, there simply are no windows. In other cases, the windows are blocked up or shuttered. When the windows are not blocked or shuttered, their panes are tinted with a crimson or leaden hue, so as to transform the light of day into a lurid or ghastly glow. This kind of lighting, in which the sun's rays are admitted but transformed, belongs to the portrayal of those half-states of mind in which dream and reality are blended. Filtered through tinted panes, the sunlight enters certain of Poe's rooms as it might enter the half-closed eyes of a day-dreamer, or the dream-dimmed eyes of someone awakening from sleep. But when Poe wishes to represent that deeper phase of dreaming in which visionary consciousness has all but annihilated any sense of the external world, the lighting is always artificial and the time is always night.
Flickering candles, wavering torches, and censers full of writhing varicolored flames furnish much of the illumination of Poe's rooms, and one can see the appropriateness of such lighting to the vague and shifting perceptions of the hypnagogic state. But undoubtedly the most important lighting-fixture in Poe's rooms—and one which appears in a good half of them—is the chandelier. It hangs from the lofty ceiling by a long chain, generally of gold, and it consists sometimes of a censer, sometimes of a lamp, sometimes of candles, sometimes of a glowing jewel (a ruby or a diamond), and once, in the macabre tale "King Pest," of a skull containing ignited charcoal. What we must understand about this chandelier, as Poe explains in his poem "Al Aaraaf," is that its chain does not stop at the ceiling: it goes right on through the ceiling, through the roof, and up to heaven. What comes down the chain from heaven is the divine power of imagination, and it is imagination's purifying fire which flashes or flickers from the chandelier. That is why the immaterial and angelic Ligeia makes her reappearance directly beneath the chandelier; and that is why Hop-Frog makes his departure for dreamland by climbing the chandelier-chain and vanishing through the sky-light.
The dreaming soul, then, has its own light—a light more spiritual, more divine, than that of the sun. And Poe's chamber of dream is autonomous in every other respect. No breath of air enters it from the outside world: either its atmosphere is dead, or its draperies are stirred by magical and intramural air-currents. No earthly sound invades the chamber: either it is deadly still, or it echoes with a sourceless and unearthly music. Nor does any odor of flower or field intrude: instead, as Poe tells in "The Assignation," the sense of smell is "oppressed by mingled and conflicting perfumes, reeking up from strange convolute censers."
The point of all this is that the dreaming psyche separates itself wholly from the bodily senses—the "rudimental senses," as Poe called them. The bodily senses are dependent on objective stimuli—on the lights and sounds and odors of the physical world. But the sensuous life of dream is self-sufficient and immaterial, and consists in the imagination's Godlike enjoyment of its own creations.
I am reminded, at this point, of a paragraph of Santayana's, in which he describes the human soul as it was conceived by the philosopher Leibniz. Leibniz, says Santayana, assigned
a mental seat to all sensible objects. The soul, he said, had no windows and, he might have added, no doors; no light could come to it from without; and it could not exert any transitive force or make any difference beyond its own insulated chamber. It was a camera obscura, with a universe painted on its impenetrable walls. The changes which went on in it were like those in a dream, due to the discharge of pent-up energies and fecundities within it. . . .
Leibniz's chamber of the soul is identical with Poe's chamber of dream: but the solipsism which Leibniz saw as the normal human condition was for Poe an ideal state, a blessed state, which we may enjoy as children or as preexistent souls, but can reclaim in adult life only by a flight from everyday conciousness into hypnagogic trance.
The one thing which remains to be said about Poe's buildings is that cellars or catacombs, whenever they appear, stand for the irrational part of the mind; and that is so conventional an equation in symbolic literature that I think I need not be persuasive or illustrative about it. I had hoped, at this point, to discuss in a leisurely way some of the stories in which Poe makes use of his architectural properties, treating those stories as narrative wholes. But I have spoken too long about other things; and so, if you will allow me a few minutes more, I shall close by commenting briskly on two or three stories only.
The typical Poe story occurs within the mind of a poet; and its characters are not independent personalities, but allegorical figures representing the warring principles of the poet's divided nature. The lady Ligeia, for example, stands for that heavenly beauty which the poet's soul desires; while Rowena stands for that earthly, physical beauty which tempts the poet's passions. The action of the story is the dreaming soul's gradual emancipation from earthly attachments—which is allegorically expressed in the slow dissolution of Rowena. The result of this process is the soul's final, momentary vision of the heavenly Ligeia. Poe's typical story presents some such struggle between the visionary and the mundane; and the duration of Poe's typical story is the duration of a dream.
There are two tales in which Poe makes an especially clear and simple use of his architectural symbolism. The first is an unfamiliar tale called "The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether," and the edifice of that tale is a remote and dilapidated madhouse in southern France. What happens, in brief, is that the inmates of the madhouse escape from their cells in the basement of the building, overpower their keepers, and lock them up in their own cells. Having done this, the lunatics take possession of the upper reaches of the house. They shutter all the windows, put on odd costumes, and proceed to hold an uproarious and discordant feast, during which there is much eating and drinking of a disgusting kind, and a degraded version of Ligeia or Helen does a strip-tease. At the height of these festivities, the keepers escape from their cells, break in through the barred and shuttered windows of the dining-room, and restore order.
Well: the madhouse, like all of Poe's houses, is a mind. The keepers are the rational part of that mind, and the inmates are its irrational part. As you noticed, the irrational is suitably assigned to the cellar. The uprising of the inmates, and the suppression of the keepers, symbolizes the beginning of a dream, and the mad banquet which follows is perhaps Poe's least spiritual portrayal of the dream-state: this dream, far from being an escape from the physical, consists exclusively of the release of animal appetites—as dreams sometimes do. When the keepers break in the windows, and subdue the revellers, they bring with them reason and the light of day, and the wild dream is over.
"The Masque of the Red Death" is a better-known and even more obvious example of architectural allegory. You will recall how Prince Prospero, when his dominions are being ravaged by the plague, withdraws with a thousand of his knights and ladies into a secluded, impregnable and windowless abbey, where after a time he entertains his friends with a costume ball. The weird decor of the seven ballrooms expresses the Prince's own taste, and in strange costumes of the Prince's own design the company dances far into the night, looking, as Poe says, like "a multitude of dreams." The festivities are interrupted only by the hourly striking of a gigantic ebony clock which stands in the westernmost room; and the striking of this clock has invariably a sobering effect on the revellers. Upon the last stroke of twelve, as you will remember, there appears amid the throng a figure attired in the blood-dabbled graveclothes of a plague-victim. The dancers shrink from him in terror. But the Prince, infuriated at what he takes to be an insolent practical joke, draws his dagger and pursues the figure through all of the seven rooms. In the last and westernmost room, the figure suddenly turns and confronts Prince Prospero, who gives a cry of despair and falls upon his own dagger. The Prince's friends rush forward to seize the intruder, who stands now within the shadow of the ebony clock; but they find nothing there. And then, one after the other, the thousand revellers fall dead of the Red Death, and the lights flicker out, and Prince Prospero's ball is at an end.
In spite of its cast of one thousand and two, "The Masque of the Red Death" has only one character. Prince Prospero is one-half of that character, the visionary half; the nameless figure in grave-clothes is the other, as we shall see in a moment.
More than once, in his dialogues or critical writings, Poe describes the earth-bound, time-bound rationalism of his age as a disease. And that is what the Red Death signifies. Prince Prospero's flight from the Red Death is the poetic imagination's flight from temporal and worldly consciousness into dream. The thousand dancers of Prince Prospero's costume ball are just what Poe says they are—"dreams" or "phantasms," veiled and vivid creatures of Prince Prospero's rapt imagination. Whenever there is a feast, or carnival, or costume ball in Poe, we may be sure that a dream is in progress.
But what is the gigantic ebony clock? For the answer to that, one need only consult a dictionary of slang: we call the human heart a ticker, meaning that it is the clock of the body; and that is what Poe means here. In sleep, our minds may roam beyond the temporal world, but our hearts tick on, binding us to time and morality. Whenever the ebony clock strikes, the dancers of Prince Prospero's dream grow momentarily pale and still, in half-awareness that they and their revel must have an end; it is as if a sleeper should half-awaken, and know that he has been dreaming, and then sink back into dreams again.
The figure in blood-dabbled grave-clothes, who stalks through the terrified company and vanishes in the shadow of the clock, is waking, temporal consciousness, and his coming means the death of dreams. He breaks up Prince Prospero's ball as the keepers in "Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether" break up the revels of the lunatics. The final confrontation between Prince Prospero and the shrouded figure is like the terrible final meeting between William Wilson and his double. Recognizing his adversary as his own worldly and mortal self, Prince Prospero gives a cry of despair which is also Poe's cry of despair: despair at the realization that only by self-destruction could the poet fully free his soul from the trammels of this world.
Poe's aesthetic, Poe's theory of the nature of art, seems to me insane. To say that art should repudiate everything human and earthly, and find its subject-matter at the flickering end of dreams, is hopelessly to narrow the scope and function of art. Poe's aesthetic points toward such impoverishments as poésie pure and the abstract expressionist movement in painting. And yet, despite his aesthetic, Poe is a great artist, and I would rest my case for him on his prose allegories of psychic conflict. In them, Poe broke wholly new ground, and they remain the best things of their kind in our literature. Poe's mind may have been a strange one; yet all minds are alike in their general structure; therefore we can understand him, and I think that he will have something to say to us as long as there is civil war in the palaces of men's minds.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2084
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 nineteenth-century culture, critics of "The Fall of the House of Usher" have almost universally failed to recognize that it is a Gothic tale, like "Ligeia," and that a completely satisfactory and internally directed interpretation depends on vampirism, the hereditary Usher curse. Madeline is a vampire—a succubus—as the family physician well knows and as her physical appearance and effect upon the narrator sufficiently demonstrate. The terrified and ineffectual Roderick, ostensibly suffering from pernicious anemia, is her final victim.
It is not my purpose here to trace sources and analogues, for example, the body of a murdered person hidden in a makeshift coffin in the haunted wing of a castle (Clara Reeve, The Old English Baron, 1777), or the climactic and cataclysmic description of eerie, horrible sounds (the final chapter of Charles Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, 1820). Poe was sufficiently familiar with Gothic materials and techniques (effectively summarized in chapter seven of James R. Foster's History of the Pre-Romantic Novel in England, 1949), and both male and female vampires abounded in literature by the time he published his contribution to the genre in 1839. The bibliography of poetry, fiction, and drama appended to Montague Summers' The Vampire (1929) lists at least twenty-five separate works that Poe could have read, or known about, by the time he came to invent Roderick and Madeline. Among these are Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Byron's The Giaour (1813), Polidori's The Vampyre: A Tale by Lord Byron (1819), Scribe's Le Vampire (1820), Keats's Lamia (1820), Hugo's Han d'Islande (1823), Merimee's La Guzla (1827), Liddell's The Vampire Bride (1833), Gautier's La Morte Amoreuse (1836), and a host of German works—mostly bearing the title Der Vampyr, or something close to it—published in the 1820's. And although it was not published until 1847, I cannot forbear mentioning Thomas Prest's enormously popular Varney the Vampire.
Roderick is the central figure of the narrative, Poe seeming at first glance to devote less than passing attention to Madeline as a character. Her personality seems unrealized, for she appears only three times: toward the middle of the story she passes "through a remote portion of the apartment"; some days after her supposed death she is seen in her coffin, with "the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death"; in the final paragraph but one she reappears to die again, falling "heavily inward upon the person of her brother." These brief appearances are nevertheless fraught with darkly suggestive significance, enough to inspire D. H. Lawrence's impressionistic diagnosis, although he takes a wrong turn: "The exquisitely sensitive Roger, vibrating without resistance with his sister Madeline, more and more exquisitely, and gradually devouring her, sucking her life like a vampire in his anguish of extreme love. And she was asking to be sucked."
Roderick, neither consumed by love nor acquiescent, faces a classic dilemma. He must put an end to Madeline—the lore dictates that he must drive a stake through her body in the grave—or suffer the eventuality of wasting away, dying, and becoming a vampire himself. As an intellectual he regards either course with growing horror and at length summons an old school friend, the narrator, whom Usher tentatively plans to confide in. From the outset the evidences of vampirism are calculated to overwhelm the narrator. Even before entering the house he feels the presence of supernatural evil. Reining in his horse to contemplate the "black and lurid tarn," he recalls Roderick's "wildly importunate" letter, speaking of bodily as well as mental disorder. He remembers that the Usher family has "been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested, of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity" (a typically ironical Poe commentary upon charity as expiation). Before he rides over the causeway to the house, the visitor reflects further upon "the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race .. . had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variations [accounting for the twins], so lain."
Once within, the narrator wonders "to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up." On the staircase he meets the family physician, whose countenance wears a "mingled expression of low cunning [denoting knowledge of the Usher curse] and perplexity." He finds Roderick "terribly altered, in so brief a period," (an inconsistency: earlier the narrator says, "many years had elapsed since our last meeting") with lips "thin and very pallid," a skin of "ghastly pallor," oddly contrasting with the "miraculous lustre of the eye"; his manner is characterized by "incoherence—an inconsistency" and nervous agitation. He has, in fact, all the symptoms of pernicious anemia—extreme pallor, weakness, nervous and muscular affliction, alternating periods of activity and torpor—but it is an anemia, as Usher now makes perfectly clear, beyond the reach of mere medical treatment. He explains "what he conceived to be the nature of his malady .. . a constitutional and a family evil and one for which he despaired to find a remedy." He confesses that he is a "bounden slave" to an "anomalous species" of terror. Roderick discloses, further, that he is enchained by superstition in regard to the Usher house, and that "much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin—to the severe and long-continued illness—indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution—of a tenderly beloved sister." And the invalid reveals immediately that tenderly beloved is ironically intended by speaking with a "bitterness which I can never forget" of Madeline's impending death.
When Madeline herself now appears, at some little distance, the guest regards her with "an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread; .. . A sensation of stupor oppressed me [a characteristic reaction to the succubus] as my eyes followed her retreating steps." Roderick himself is quite evidently terror-sticken. Reluctant to grasp the import of the plain evidence with which he has so far been presented—not to mention the supernatural assault upon his own psyche—the narrator learns that Madeline's illness has been diagnosed as "of a partially cataleptical character," which is to say, to even the most casual student of necromancy, that she has the common ability of witches to enter at will upon a trance-like, death-like state of suspended animation. Her "settled apathy" and "gradual wasting away of the person" are to be accounted for by the corresponding condition in her victim.
Following Madeline's presumed death the friends occupy themselves with poring over old books that have a curiously significant connection with Usher's dilemma. Among them are the "Chiromancy" of Robert Flud, Jean D'Indagine, and De la Chambre (dealing with palmistry). Even more significantly, "One favorite volume was a small octavo edition of the 'Directorium Inquisitorium,' by the Dominican Eymeric de Gironne" (on exorcising witches and ferreting out other sorts of heretics). But Usher's "chief delight, however, was found in the perusal of an exceedingly rare and curious book in quarto Gothic—the manual of a forgotten church—the Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae." The "wild ritual of this work"—the Watches of the Dead according to the Choir of the Church of Mainz—is, of course, the "Black Mass."
These books fail to provide a text for Roderick, who decides to imprison Madeline, as he says, by "preserving her corpse for a fortnight (previously to its final interment,) in one of the numerous vaults within the walls of the building." Here the plodding narrator at last scents the truth: "The brother had been led to his resolution .. . by consideration of the unusual character of the malady of the deceased, of certain obtrusive and eager inquiries on the part of her medical men, and of the remote and exposed situation of the burial-ground of the family. I will not deny that when I called to mind the sinister countenance of the person whom I met upon the staircase on the day of my arrival at the house, I had no desire to oppose what I regarded as at best but a harmless, and by no means an unnatural precaution" (italics mine).
Alone the two friends encoffin the body and bear it to the vault. One last look at the mocking features of Madeline, and then the lid to the coffin is screwed down, the massive iron door secured. "Some days of bitter grief ensue, but soon, sensing danger from a wonted quarter, Roderick Usher spends his restless hours consumed by the old horror, which he verges on confiding to the narrator: "There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage." As he confesses later—"I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movement in the hollow coffin"( hollow in the sense that its vampiric occupant is scarcely physical in nature)—Usher is perfectly aware of Madeline's impending escape. And on the final night the guest himself suffers an experience which suggests that her evil spirit is already abroad. Endeavoring to sleep, he cannot "reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me." The room, he feels, is exerting a bewildering influence: "An irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm. Shaking this off with a gasp and a struggle, I uplifted myself upon the pillows" (italics mine), and now he hears "low and indefinite sounds." Shortly he is joined by Usher, radiating "mad hilarity" and restrained hysteria, who rushes to a casement window and throws it "freely open to the storm." It is not difficult to imagine that all the old fiendish Ushers in the distant cemetery are, disembodied, somehow present. A whirlwind (traditionally signalizing a spiritual presence) "had apparently collected its force in our vicinity; for there were frequent and violent alterations in the direction of the wind; and the exceeding density of the clouds .. . did not prevent our perceiving the life-like velocity with which they flew careering from all points against each other."
The last of the Ushers is persuaded to leave the window, which is closed against electrical phenomena of "ghastly origin," and the guest begins to read aloud from the "Mad Trist," whose descriptions of sound are horribly reproduced by Madeline as she leaves her prison and approaches the listeners. Roderick's final words are "a low, hurried, and gibbering murmur" punctuated by extraordinarily meaningful phrases: "'I dared not speak!... Oh! whither shall I fly? . . . Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart?'" (Again, the slow and heavy pulse is traditionally characteristic of preternatural creatures.) Poe's accentuation of the miraculous aspects of the tale continues to the end. The sister reels upon the threshold, "then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated." She is a vampire to the finish, and there is no escaping the shock of absolute recognition in "From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast."
In this view "The Fall of the House of Usher"—typical of Poe in its exploration of abysmal degradation—creates an experience that possesses, within itself, credibility and unity of technique once the basic situation is granted. And from the artist's treatment of the theme, the active existence of malignant evil in our world, emerges his partly optimistic and partly ironic commentary: Evil in the long run feeds incestuously upon itself, and it is self-defeating, self-consuming, self-annihilating; the short run is another matter.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3375
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 characteristic of the American romance—indeed, are among the criteria that define it—as our authors argue out for themselves the question of daylight versus night.
It might seem odd to mention "The Fall of the House of Usher" in connection with such a formulation, but this familiar tale is an especially interesting illustration of the foregoing thesis. The reader first must be asked to shift his attention slightly from the gothic horrors depicted in the story to the subtle opposition set up between the character of Roderick Usher and that of the narrator. Usher is a portrait, somewhat caricatured, of the artistic temperament in its most decadent—that is, romantic—state. He has a "remarkable" face, with large and liquid eyes, lips "of a surpassingly beautiful curve," and a fine nose "of a delicate Hebrew model." Phrenologically considered, his "finely moulded" chin shows "a want of moral energy" (clearly suggestive of his capacity to indulge in forbidden practices), and the "inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple" bespeaks great intellectual powers.. He is morbidly sensitive:
The most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.
His emotional life is characterized by a preponderance of the darkest of all human states, absolute Angst. "I dread the events of the future," he explains lucidly, "not in themselves, but in their results." This "intolerable agitation of soul" makes every incident and experience pregnant with unnameable terror for him. "I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive," he confesses, "when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR."
Usher is thus admirably suited by nature to exploring and giving expression to the direst aspects of human life, and his beliefs and training are what we should expect. He holds an opinion, we are told, concerning the "sentience of all vegetable things": nature for him is not only a force, animated and alive, but a source and reflection of hidden powers at work in the world. And the titles of his favorite books—of which Poe supplies a carefully constructed (and partially invented) list—read like a card catalog of subjects and materials for the most lurid of romancers, apt illustrations of the notion that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by the most sagacious of novelists. Usher reads "the Heaven and Hell of Swedenborg; the Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm of Holberg"; several volumes of "Chiromancy"; the "Journey into the Blue Distance of Tieck; and the City of the Sun of Campanella," as well as a volume on the Inquisition by a Dominican friar. Most suggestive of all, perhaps, "there were passages in Pomponius Mela, about the old African Satyrs and Œgipans, over which Usher would sit dreaming for hours," while "his chief delight" was in perusing the "rare and curious . . . Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae" Usher's favorite fantasy material—undoubtedly connected, any psychoanalytically inclined reader would say, with his excruciatingly intense anxieties—is a combination of sexuality and death.
As an artist—he is at once poet, painter, and musician—Usher adheres strictly to the school of the fantastic and the extreme. His guitar impromptus are either perverse variations on familiar tunes or "wild improvisations." And his paintings and poems, at least judged by the two detailed examples that Poe supplies, are the very type of the romancer's art: lurid symbolism verging on hideous allegory, or ominous allegory heightened by weird symbolism. Roderick's creations hint at the terrible secret about the House of Usher, presenting an intolerably dark view of human nature.
Into this house of horror enters Poe's narrator, the sort of man who in happier days and more cheerful circumstances might have written the novels of Anthony Trollope. Although by no means unemotional or unfeeling, he is an eminently, even doggedly, reasonable person with a great need to make sense of his experiences, or at least to believe that everything ultimately is capable of some rational explanation. Strange occurrences fascinate him—he is the kind of man who is frequently tempted to peer over the brink of an oddity—but he is finally disturbed enough by the inexplicable to want only to avoid it. His speech is formal, complicated, and intricately logical, as if to express a hope that the coherences of grammar might make up for the incoherencies of life. He is intelligent, but his intelligence is more often used to protect himself from knowledge than to explore the unknown.
Numerous concrete instances of all these characteristics are provided by Poe throughout the tale. When the narrator first sees the House of Usher, its melancholy aspect depresses and unnerves him, and that he should be so affected strikes him as "a mystery all insoluble." He is assailed by "shadowy fancies," and to escape them resorts to what we learn is his usual expedient, an attempt at rational explanation: "I was forced to fall back upon 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." The explanation, admittedly "unsatisfactory," offers the appearance rather than the substance of intellectual acuteness, but it at least temporarily allays the narrator's fears and protects him from a darker conclusion—that the capacity for Angst, seemingly groundless and unreasoning fear, is part of everyone's human makeup. Later, when the narrator finds Usher in just such a state, he can only term it "anomalous"—that is, abnormal and unwarranted. And toward the end of the tale, when he himself is finally infected with the "incubus of utterly causeless alarm," his only resource is to attempt to shake it off "with a gasp and a struggle," since the sentiment is "unaccountable yet unendurable." Our narrator has no power against the "unaccountable," and his "yet" is beautifully characteristic; that a horror without an apparent cause should be unendurable (indeed, worse than an explainable horror) makes no sense to him. He has not learned to accept the awful truth—Usher's truth—that the world's worst horrors are unendurable because they are unaccountable.
The narrator perpetually shies away from the suggestion of inexplicability and ultimate mystery in human affairs. Disturbed by his first vision of the house, he attempts to calm himself by resorting to the "somewhat childish experiment" of observing, instead of the house itself, its reduplicated image in the tarn. The experiment fails, his nervousness is only increased, and he feels compelled to explain: "There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition—for why should I not so term it?—served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, as I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis." He is content to rest in a general "law," no matter how paradoxical, and to account himself a victim of "superstition," rather than confront a profound personal puzzle. But his solicitude extends beyond himself to the reader. His explanations are clearly meant to reassure us, and he avoids exploring the ambiguous, we may understand, mainly for the sake of our peace of mind. The "equivocal hints" he receives from Usher concerning the latter's mental state which relate to "certain superstitious impressions" about the house are, we are told, "conveyed in terms too shadowy here to be re-stated." Usher's strange theory of vegetable "sentience," especially in regard to the malign influence exercised over him by the very stones of the house, is brushed aside: "Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none." And whatever the narrator may have learned from Usher's "few words" about the "sympathies" existing between himself and his sister, he is not eager to go beyond reporting that they were "of a scarcely intelligible nature." Poe's main purpose in all of these instances is, of course, to heighten the sense of implied horror by being suggestive rather than explicit. And the narrator serves this purpose splendidly, in spite of himself, since his attempt to allay our fears by overlooking the "anomalous" only increases the air of the sinister. As with his first vaguely disquieting impression of the house, the narrator prefers consistently to shake off the inexplicable intimations that he believes "must have been a dream" and turn his attention to the "real aspect" of things, hopefully to dispel the atmosphere of unreality.
"The naked Senses," Poe wrote in Marginalia, as if he were thinking of his narrator, "sometimes see too little—but then always they see too much." The narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" has a "noticing" eye which, clearly in defiance of his conscious intention to enlighten and demystify, weaves a pattern of surrealistic detail that contradicts any common-sense view of reality. What he sees, without apparently being fully aware of it, is a barely definable similarity between the house and its master. The "minute fungi" which cover the exterior of the house (and which play a part in Usher's theory of sentience) overspread the building, "hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves," while Roderick's hair, "of a more than web-like softness and tenuity," had been "suffered to grow all unheeded" and floated wildly about his face. The house gives the impression of a "wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts and the crumbling condition of the individual stones"; likewise, in Roderick's behavior, the narrator is "at once struck with an incoherence—an inconsistency." The atmosphere reeking from the mansion is that of a "pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued"; Roderick's voice is "leaden," and from his mind "darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe in one unceasing radiation of gloom." ("A sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit," reports the narrator as he first approaches the house.) And, worst of all, "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." That "scrutinizing observer" is of course our narrator, sharp enough to perceive, and willing to report, this obscure sign of inherent instability in the house, but not eager to divine for himself, or convey to us, that "oppressive secret" which is the parallel cause and sign of instability in the decaying Roderick. "The eye," says the narrator entering Usher's room, "struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber." Some things are too dark even for his scrutinizing eye.
The nightmarish view of reality suggested by the resemblance of house and master defies the narrator's explanations and discourages him from attempting to draw any conclusions, but we are not ultimately left to rest contentedly in his limited point of view. Instead, we are offered Roderick Usher's own artistic productions as oblique elucidations of the mysteries everywhere adumbrated in the tale. Usher's poem, "The Haunted Palace," seems to be a flat allegory, with an "under or mystic current" of meaning, as the narrator suggests, insinuating "the tottering of his [Usher's] lofty reason upon her throne." The verses do equate a reasonable head that has gone bad with a "Radiant palace... In the monarch Thought's dominion" which has been assailed and captured by "evil things, in robes of sorrow." (The palace once had "banners yellow" for fair hair, "two luminous windows" for eyes, a "pearl and ruby" door for teeth and lips, and a king full of "wit and wisdom" for sanity.) But it is worth noting that the loss of reason is signalled by a shift from "Spirits moving musically / To a lute's well-tuned law" to "Vast forms that move fantastically / To a discordant melody"—the shift from "lawful" music to the "wild fantasias" of Usher's improvisation. The poem thus represents Usher's fate as a romantic artist: he may begin in joy and gladness, but he inevitably moves to despondency and madness as his vision darkens and he becomes aware of the "evil things" in himself and others—truths that cannot be overlooked by the artist who descends into the human depths. The narrator's visit to the House of Usher is not only a visit to the soul of Roderick Usher but a glimpse into the "Haunted Palace" of the romancer's art itself.
As an example of the kind of experience necessarily encountered in the realm of romance, we are offered one of the "phantasmagoric conceptions" painted by Roderick Usher:
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 the 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, and 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.
Looking ahead to Hawthorne's Marble Faun, we might wish to name this painting "Subterranean Reminiscences." But by itself it sufficiently suggests that realm of the submerged—the underside of human consciousness—which is the peculiar province of romance. Ordinarily dark and inaccessible, it is now exposed and illuminated by the "ghastly" light of the romancer's imagination.
In the tale the picture adumbrates the dungeon-tomb reserved for Roderick's sister, Madeline, and thus suggests that the particular kind of underground experience which lies at the heart of this (and, as it turns out, most other) romance art involves the darkest aspects of sexuality. Roderick Usher's secret subject, with an obvious but unacknowledged borrowing from Byron, concerns what can be called the Manfred Syndrome: the artist-brother's illicit and finally murderous passion for his twin-sister, usually identified—as in Byron's poem—with Astarte, the eastern Venus. (Ultimately, as in Melville's Pierre, the underlying suggestion is drawn out that the artist's narcissistic love for his female mirror image symbolizes his infatuation with his own psyche—a destructive involvement with his own unconscious which is at once the romancer's inspiration and his undoing.)
Since Poe's tale is, at its deepest level, a kind of fictional debate which argues for the seriousness of romance as a way of exploring the secret soul of man (Roderick's point of view), it is altogether fitting that the awful truth about the House of Usher should be most fully revealed by a romance within the larger romance: "the 'Mad Trist' of Sir Launcelot Canning." Poe underlines the narrator's common-sensical obtuseness and his imperviousness to the serious implications of the romance form by having him choose to read to Usher, in order to calm him, a tale which exacerbates him to the point of madness and, ultimately, death. The narrator himself at first calls the tale one of Usher's "favorite romances," and then adds, characteristically, that he was joking, "for, in truth, there is little in its uncouth and unimaginative prolixity which could have had interest for the lofty and spiritual ideality of my friend." In fact, the "Mad Trist" is a highly imaginative symbolic representation of the sordid reality of Usher's psychosexual nature. And it is Usher himself who spells out its meaning for the bewildered narrator, as the incidents read out of Canning's tale coincide with the final events of Poe's tale in one final ghastly demonstration of the power and living truth of romance.
The "Mad Trist" relates an episode in which the hero Ethelred comes upon and slays a "scaly and prodigious" dragon, with "fiery tongue" and "pesty breath," which has been polluting the precincts of a golden and silver "palace." While the narrator reads, the details of this last horrible night in the house mingle with those of the "Trist" as the ravished and dying sister Madeline makes her way, with many a clinking and clanging, up to the chamber containing Usher and his friend. The tortured, terrified Roderick himself makes the connections: "Ethelred—ha! ha!... 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!" In Roderick's version of the "Mad Trist" (the wonderfully ambiguous title suggesting both insane sorrow and a mad love meeting)—and here we must gather up the repetitive elements of the fantasy woven throughout Poe's tale—the sexually tempting sister is the "dragon" that has infested and corrupted the "palace" of his soul. Roderick's own haunted palace can be restored to its pure use only by the slaying of this evil thing "in robes of sorrow" ("the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline" appears at the end with "blood upon her white robes"). For Madeline, of course, the sexual dragon is her lustful and attacking brother.
But the assigning of blame is ultimately of no importance. Since Roderick and Madeline are twins—that is, one person—Ethelred / Roderick's confrontation with the dragon/sister represents a symbolic confrontation with his own sexuality. It is an awareness of his own secret and forbidden desires that has darkened the imagination of the artist, and the romancer can never return to the "pure" state when he was free of such knowledge. Roderick's determination to slay the dragon/sister coincides with his own death. Illicit sexuality, for Roderick Usher, is inseparable from life.
For Poe's narrator, however—the rational man of daylight sensibility, whose experience of the self is blissfully free of such dark knowledge—the revelation in the House of Usher is not a truth about human existence but a bad dream that can be shaken. He arrives there on a "dark" and "soundless" day, having traveled into the "shades of evening." His first ghastly impression of the House seems to him the "after-dream" of an opium eater. It "must have been a dream," he insists. He sees the lady Madeline for the first time with a "sensation of stupor" and listens to Roderick's wild guitar "as if in a dream." He can scarcely believe the strange world he has entered, and yet he finds it difficult not to be affected by and caught up in it: "I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his [Usher's] own fantastic yet impressive superstitions."
The danger of being permanently infected by so dark a vision increases with time; long dreams are hardest to forget. And so he must rouse himself with a violent effort to escape the horrors he has viewed, fleeing "aghast" "from that chamber, and from that mansion," and thereby releasing himself cataclysmically from the grip of nightmare: "—my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder—there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters—and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the 'HOUSE OF USHER.'" For the narrator, the ghastly world of romance is dissolved as the dark waters of night close over the fragments of his shattered dream. But for the reader, and for Poe, this world continues to live.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4539
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 first narrator comments that Marlow, unlike other tale-spinning sailors, saw the significance of a narrative not as a core meaning of some kind but as a system of structures: "The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. [But to Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine." So it is with Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839), a tale that bears a number of similarities in theme, imagery, and structure to Heart of Darkness. Poe's tale is a structure of interpenetrating structures that shifts its aspect with a slight shift of perspective by the reader. Given the initial focus of a reader, the primary answer to any question presented by the story varies, though the relationships among the various structures of the story do not.
This can be partially illustrated by reference to the recurrent concerns of critics of the tale; most of the critical commentary returns obsessively to a few central points, compulsively repeating with slightly altered angles of vision the same set of haunting questions. What is the significance of the close resemblance of Roderick Usher and his sister, and are the two the products of and, simultaneously, guilty of incest? Did Roderick intentionally try to murder Madeline, and did Madeline actually return from her tomb, vampirelike, to claim her brother's life? Is the physical House actually "alive" and by some preternatural force of will controlling the destinies of the Ushers? Or is the story not a tale of the supernatural at all, but rather a work of psychological realism? What then is the precise role of the narrator? And can the work be read in Freudian or Jungian terms? If the tale is a psychological or symbolic work, what is the meaning of the interpolated story of "The Mad Trist" of Sir Launcelot Canning? What significance have the titles of the books in Usher's library, and what significance are we to attach to Usher's strange, neurasthenic art works? The very fact that these questions persist year after year suggests that at the dark heart of the story lies an essential ambiguity, carefully insinuated and carefully wrought.
The present essay... is no exception to this eternal return to the same questions. But it is misleading to conceive of the meaning of the tale as developing solely upon, say, the supernatural character of the House, or of Madeline Usher, as opposed to a Gothic homily on the neurasthenia of the ultimate in narcissistic artist-heroes, or as opposed to the incestuous guilt and hereditary curse of the family. The tale is a concatenation of all these, and not an either/or question. Nevertheless, there is, I submit, a basic structure that integrates all the others, a set or system of relationships that remains constant and primary, enveloping the rest with a further meaning without disturbing each as a coherent system within itself. This primary structure is the product of the objective synthesis generated by our perceiving as readers the double aspects of the tale as simultaneously supernaturalistic (symbolic of deep structures in the human mind or not) and yet also "realistic" in a conventional sense. This multiple perception of the simultaneous or parallel levels of the tale derives primarily from our perception of the subjectivity of the narrator. That is, we experience a series of "supernatural" events (which have Freudian and Jungian resonances) through the mind of the narrator whom we recognize as disturbed—so that we simultaneously are subjectively involved in and detached from these experiences.
Poe's method in his Gothic tales, I have argued elsewhere, is in the American tradition of the "ambiguously explained supernatural," in which clues to the basic psychological action of the tale are carefully insinuated into the Gothic atmosphere of supernaturalism. Thus, underlying or enveloping a typical "supernatural" tale by Poe, there is, on one level, a rational explanation of the seemingly supernatural events, on a second level, a psychological explanation, and on a third level, an insinuated burlesque (under or around the whole structure of explanations) of both the content and the mode of the tale. That is, the whole system of interpenetrating levels or structures of the tale leads ultimately to Poe's mockery of the ability of the human mind ever to know anything with certainty, whether about the external reality of the world or about the internal reality of the mind.
Much of the present discussion of "Usher" derives from the brilliant analysis of the tale as a psychodrama of the mutual hysteria of the narrator and Roderick Usher by Darrel Abel [in "A Key to the House of Usher," University of Toronto Quarterly 18 (1949)]. What I offer as progressive to our understanding of the tale is principally addenda to such evidence in terms of a reconsideration of the principal symbols of the tale within the primary structural context proposed—that is, the structure wherein the subjectivity of the narrator provides the basic system of structures holding in tension all the others. I shall attempt to demonstrate the pervasiveness of this primary structure principally by reference to the pattern of the double and its redoubled manifestations (Roderick and Madeline, Roderick and the House, Roderick and the narrator, Madeline and the narrator, the narrator and the House). This pattern is further redoubled by the imagery of the face or skull, which ultimately inverts back on the self as a symbol of the "reality" seen from the inward perspective of characters caught in a labyrinth of mental surmise.
On its most obvious level, the tale is concerned with the traditional Gothic subjects of death and madness and fear. The matters of madness (especially Roderick's) and fear have been frequently (though not definitively) commented on, but the other pervading subject of death (physical, familial, spiritual, and mental) has not been closely enough linked to the themes of fear and madness. It is curious, for example, that no one has ever seen fit to remark that when the narrator rides up to the House of Usher, he is immediately confronted with a death's-head looming up out of the dead landscape. The image of the skull-like face of the House Poe obviously intended 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. Eventually, the pervasive image of the psychically split face reflects the internal landscape of the narrator himself (rather than just Usher), so that the primary structure of the tale merges with its central image. Even when the House sinks into the pool at the end, the motifs of the skull and face (Usher's, the House's, that of the mind gone mad in "The Haunted Palace," and the narrator's) represent the internal spiraling of the complete subjectivity of consciousness. That is, the sinking of the House into the reflective pool dramatizes the sinking of that rational part of the mind, which has unsuccessfully attempted to maintain some contact with a stable structure of reality outside the self, into the Nothingness that is without and within.
Usher's weird painting of what might be a tomb for the burial of the body of Madeline, imaging nothing but rays of light rolling throughout a passage without outlet, is also reflective of the death and burial of consciousness and rationality themselves; thus it is a painting of Usher's internal void, which is objectified by the final collapse of the House into the image of itself in the pool. The spiraling further and further inward leads us to the mocking irony of the ultimate theme of Nothingness, which is all the mind can ever truly know, if it can know anything. The Nothingness without (in the landscape) and the Nothingness within (in the minds of Usher and the narrator) are nothing less than mirror images or doubles reflecting the theme of Nothingness in the tale. And the collapse of the universe of Roderick Usher includes the double collapse of his mind along with the narrator's—productive of an overall structure of collapse mirroring the pattern of the universe itself, as expressed in Eureka.
That Usher's mind disintegrates as the tale progresses is obvious. Both Usher and the narrator comment variously on the matter. The inciting event, in fact, is Usher's written appeal to the narrator to preserve him from the final collapse of his mind. Moreover, as mentioned, a major concern in the tale is the mechanism of fear itself, which has perversely operated on Roderick Usher before the narrator arrives, and which operates on the narrator through Usher afterwards, so that we apprehend the basic dramatic action of the tale as psychological—the presentation of the progressive hallucination of the two protagonists. In the supernaturally charged atmosphere of the first level of the story, the narrator seems to serve as a corroborating witness to the actual return of Madeline, and to the strange, simultaneous "deaths" of the Ushers and of their House. But Poe meticulously, from the opening paragraph through to the last, details the development of the narrator's initial uneasiness into a frenzy of terror, engendered by and parallel to Usher's terrors. The tale opens with the narrator's account of his lonely autumn journey through a "singularly dreary tract of country" in response to a "wildly importunate" summons from Usher. At nightfall, as the "melancholy" House of Usher comes into view, the narrator feels a sense of "insufferable gloom" pervading his spirit. He pauses to look at the "mere house," trying to account rationally for its total weird effect. But the scene still produces in him "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 . . . an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought . . . it was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered." The primary effect of the opening paragraphs, of course, is to suggest something horrible and supernatural about the House of Usher. But, as in Poe's other tales, there is no overstepping of the real; the strange impression of the scene is relegated to the "fancies" of the narrator. Because the narrator tries to account for the effect rationally, however, we are led, for the time being, to attribute the weirdness of the scene not to his subjective impressions but to the scene itself.
Yet Poe uses this apparent rationality to heighten the irrational. The narrator reflects on the possibility that "there are combinations of very simple natural objects" that have the power to affect the mind, but "the analysis of this power lies among considerations" beyond our "depth"; and at this moment, he looks down into "a black and lurid tarn," to see the reflected, remodelled, and inverted images of "the gray sedge, and the ghostly tree stems, and the vacant and eyelike windows." The effect of this vision in the pool is to produce in him a "shudder even more thrilling than before" and to "deepen the first singular impression." He comments to himself that "There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition—for why should I not so term it?—served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis" (my italics). After this objective recognition of an inward self-division that results in yet further subjectivity, he again lifts his eyes "to the house itself, from its image in the pool" and he becomes aware of a "strange fancy" growing in his mind: "I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung... a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued" (my italics). But Poe then reasserts the narrator's rationality: "Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building." The paragraph that follows is organized, however, so as to bring the "real" description back again to the "impression" the scene makes upon the narrator's "fancy." Although the narrator begins his "analysis" of the House at the (rational) roof, with its fine tangled web-work of fungi, his eye travels down along a zigzag fissure to become again "lost in the sullen waters of the tarn," by now clearly emblematic of the subconscious mind.
The apprehensive, fanciful, superstitious, but "rational" narrator then goes into the House to meet Usher, where, during the course of the next several days, he comes increasingly under the influence of Usher's own wild superstitions. "In the manner of my friend," the narrator says, "I was at once struck with an incoherence—an inconsistency. . . ." He continues: "To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave. 'I shall perish,' said he, '. . . in this deplorable folly. . . . 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 sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.'" Usher's statement of his own condition applies also to the narrator, who struggles with the same phantasm, heightened by Usher's own phantasms. It is Usher, for example, who remarks to the suggestible narrator that the House is alive and has exerted a malignant influence on his mind. Later the narrator, looking for something to read, finds that the only books in Usher's library are accounts of strange journeys, eerie meetings, and death-watches. Then Usher reads his weird poem about the decay of reason, the single extended metaphor of which suggests the "face" of the House of Usher itself, and extends the pattern of descent from roof to basement, of rationality to irrationality, and the inverse ascent of irrationality welling up to overwhelm the rational. Soon after the reading, Madeline dies, and Usher and the narrator bury her in a crypt in the cellar. She has the "mockery of a faint blush of life" upon her skin and a terrible "lingering smile" upon her lips, phenomena that the "rational" narrator attributes to the peculiar ravages of her cataleptic disorder but which Usher intimates is something less natural. Then, as Usher's behavior becomes even more distracted (a continual "tremulous quaver, as if of extreme terror, habitually characterized his utterance"), the narrator confesses to himself his own increasing apprehensiveness. Slowly, although he tries to see in Usher's behavior "the mere vagaries of madness," the narrator feels growing in himself a vague fear that Usher has some horrible "oppressive secret" to divulge. "Rationally," however, the narrator acknowledges that Usher's "condition terrified ... it infected me. I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet uncertain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions."
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. Shortly after Madeline's burial, the narrator is unable to sleep, especially since, as with the reflected image of the House in the tarn, he is aware of his increased terror: "an irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an incubus" of "utterly causeless alarm." "Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror," the narrator begins pacing nervously; suddenly he is startled by a light footstep outside his door. But it is only Usher. Usher's intensely agitated condition, however, is the more unnerving, especially when he suggests that a supernatural and luminous vapor has surrounded the House in spite of the rising wind without.
What is perhaps the clearest of clues to the theme of doubled and redoubled fear comes next. The narrator, in an attempt to calm Usher, reads from a volume called "The Mad Trist." The title calls attention to the basic situation in which the narrator finds himself. Usher is about to keep a mad trist with Madeline, even as the narrator has kept his mad trist with Usher. The tale, this "Mad Trist," is an absurd parody of a Medieval romance about the delusive meeting of the knight Ethelred with a hermit who disappears and changes his form into that of a fearful dragon. The narrator's reading of "The Mad Trist" to Usher is interrupted by strange sounds of creaking wood, of shrieking, and of grating metal. These sounds, beginning at the bottom of the House and moving upward toward them, eerily (and ludicrously) correspond with the sounds evoked in the chivalric romance. The sounds, of course, are supposed to be the results of the cataleptic Madeline's efforts to free herself from her tomb. Usher, at least, tells the narrator that this is so and that she is, in fact, now standing outside the door. And, in the end, the narrator sees her too: bloody, frail, emaciated, trembling, and reeling to and fro, falling upon Usher in her "now final death agonies" and bearing Usher "to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated. " As a last emphatic psychological detail, Poe has the narrator tell us that "from that chamber and from that mansion, I fled aghast." Thus we do not know for sure that the House splits apart and sinks into the tarn in a lurid blaze, for the narrator has by now been revealed to be totally untrustworthy.
Yet, even here, Poe provides one more turn of the screw: for, buried in the details about the House, is the information that the oxygenless dungeon has been a storage place for gunpowder or "some other highly combustible substance." Thus if the House cracks open and crumbles, rather than a necessarily supernatural occurrence, as it seems to the hysterical narrator, it is explainable as the combustion generated when the lightning of the storm crackles near the previously airless crypt—the inrushing electricity being conducted along the copper floor and igniting the remnants of powder. Yet these mocking clues are not all. The miasma enshrouding the House provides yet another, for marsh gas was then thought to have hallucinatory effects, and Poe elsewhere mentions this very effect.
If the stated terrors of the narrator are not convincing enough for a complete psychological interpretation of the supernaturally charged events, the recurrent dream imagery and the very order of the opening paragraphs regarding the images of the House in the pool should confirm such a reading. The dream images culminate in the return of Madeline and in the "Mad Trist." Madeline, supposedly the victim of a cataleptic fit, is presumably not a ghost or other supernatural manifestation, even though her appearance at Usher's door produces a ghost-like effect in the best tradition of supernatural Gothic. We do get our Gothic thrill, even though she is not a supernatural being. Yet, if she is not, then how, in her frail and emaciated condition, would she be capable of breaking open the coffin, the lid of which the narrator specifically tells us they screwed down tightly? Or of pushing open the door, "of massive iron" and of such "immense weight" that its movement "caused an unusually sharp, grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges"? These details of Madeline's entombment, given us at the midpoint of the tale, underscore the dream motif and link her dreamlike manifestation directly to the psyche of the narrator; for Poe also makes a point of having the narrator tell us that Madeline's tomb is at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was "my own sleeping compartment." The images of sleep, mist, water, and descent, recurring throughout the tale, forcibly suggest Poe's focus on the subconscious mind. The night of Madeline's return, just before the reading of the "Mad Trist," the narrator cannot sleep, and a detailed description of his troubled drowsiness is given. Neither can Usher sleep, for he is troubled by the dreamy mist enshrouding the House. Finally, the events, the disappearances, the transformations, and the correspondences of sounds in the tale of the "Mad Trist" which follows, all have the order of a dream, and, moreover, move from the depths of the House upward toward Usher and the narrator.
Yet the "Mad Trist" is made purposefully ludicrous; it reads like a parody, and even the narrator comments on its absurdity. The correspondence of sounds, especially, heightens the ludicrous effect. But the intruded tale of the "Mad Trist" also has a clear ironic effect; it destroys the Gothic illusion. As in "Ligeia," Poe intrudes an ironic distance clearly and rather suddenly between the narrator and the reader, here calling attention to the real psychological situation of the two protagonists engaged in their own mad trist.
Connected with the dream images and reinforcing the suggestion of subconscious action is the dreamlike reflection of the House of Usher in the pool and its parallel in Usher's "Arabesque" face. In fact, Usher's famous face (supposedly a pen portrait of Poe's own according to biographically oriented critics), with its parallels in the appearance of "The Haunted Palace" of Usher's wild poem and in the appearance of the House itself, provides a major clue to the irony insinuated into, under, and around the apparent Gothic surface of the story. Usher's face in a sense is the image of the narrator's own, whose mind, if not disintegrating also, is capable of slipping in an instant into the same kind of madness or hysterical fear to which Usher is subject. The narrator, as he becomes absorbed in his "superstitious" reflections, says that he had to shake off from his fancy "what must have been a dream." The narrator's first impression of the House is that it is like a human face, especially with its two vacant eye-like windows. Then he looks down into the pool, but sees only the reflection of the "face" of the House. What is equally likely, of course, is that he should see imaged there his own reflected features, since Poe is careful to point out that the narrator wheels his horse up to "the precipitous brink" of the tarn and thus gazes straight down. Then he remembers Usher's hysterical letter and mentions, along with Usher's "mental disorder," that he had been Usher's close and only friend. Next he remembers that the peasants refer to both the House and the family as the House of Usher and immediately returns to the image of the "face" in the pool. When he looks up at the House again, he tries to "analyze" its weird effect, and describes once more its prominent details, especially the overspreading fungi "hanging in a fine tangled webwork from the eaves." The nervous narrator, conscious of his own vague terror and therefore the more apprehensive, goes into the House to meet Usher, and his attention is focused on the weird appearance of Usher's face. Usher's face has a generally decayed aspect, like the House itself, but especially noticeable are his large and luminous eyes and his hair "of more than web-like softness and tenuity." This tangled, "weblike," "silken hair," of a "wild gossamer texture," thus imagistically merges the facelike structure of the House with Usher's face, the "Arabesque expression" of which the narrator cannot "connect with any idea of simple humanit." As we have seen, the narrator grows "terrified" and "infected" with Usher's hysteria. He becomes like Usher. In meeting Usher, he is symbolically staring into the face of his psychological double, and when he steps through the "Gothic" archway of Usher's house into the dark, black-floored hall with its carved, niched, fretted architectural features, lit by "feeble gleams" of "encrimsoned" light that barely makes its way through elaborately "trellised panes," it is clear that the narrator has stepped into the confused, subjective world of Gothic terror and horror. Once inside, in another absurdist touch, he is taken by a servant who "ushers" him into Usher's presence. Thus, Usher's "Arabesque" face and the face of the House are the same, and when the narrator gazes into the pool, the reflected "Arabesque" face is merged with his own—symbolically is his own. The image of the face is then reemphasized in Usher's poem about the attack of "madness" on the "haunted" castle.
The ghosts in the tale of Usher, then, are those of the mind. Such an analysis does not deny the supernaturalistic surface level of the tale, nor other significant patterns such as the incest motif, the eerie hint of vampirism, the use of abstract art to suggest sexuality, entombment, or Nothingness, or the carefully balanced themes of order and sentience that other critics have noted. Rather, such a reading incorporates them into its overall pattern, while wrapping a layer of dramatic irony about the whole. As in other of Poe's Gothic tales, the delusiveness of the experience is rendered in and through the consciousness of the narrator so that we participate in his Gothic horror while we are at the same time detached observers of it. In the image of the House as skull or death's-head, and the merging of the narrator's face with the face of the House which is also Usher's face in the pool, we see as so often in Poe the subtly ironic paralleling of the narrative structure of the tale to its visual focal point. And by having the facelike House of Usher sink into its own image, the final collapse into that void which is both the self and the universe simultaneously is complete. This, then, is the larger pattern of meaning generated by the overall narrative system enveloping the other levels of narrative. And yet there is, by implication, a further enlargement. Since it is clear that we do not know that anything the narrator has told us is "real," the whole tale and its structures may be the fabrication of the completely deranged mind of the narrator. Nothing at all may have happened in a conventional sense in the outside world—only in the inner world of the narrator's mind. Of this redoubled Nothingness, then, also comes Nothing. And this further perception of the structures of Nothingness becomes our ultimate perception of the tale as simultaneously involved and detached observers.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7132
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 curiosity-driven hero who descends into the maelström, the naive voyager who narrates "The Fall of the House of Usher" makes the special journey inward which demands a reversal of vision and a relinquishment of ego in order to attain what Emerson called "an invisible, unsounded centre in himself." Both explorers enter the deadly mouth of an apparently chaotic world and both explorers are confronted with the necessity for absurd choices in order to pass the aesthetic test and solve the problem in form posed by the dissolving house and the perilous whirlpool. While the maelström narrator deliberately descends into an aquatic version of the Gothic castle, the Usher narrator merely falls. The aesthete who surrenders to the fatal grip of the whirlpool is rescued by his veneration of form and actually ascends to a higher awareness of beauty, but the trespassing materialist who invades the House of Usher sets in motion a sequence of falls culminating in the destruction of the domicile of art itself, Usher' s ideal world which the narrator disparages as "the kingdom of inorganization." Within such a precarious kingdom of aesthetics the rationalist is clearly out of his element and he poses a threat to invisible order and higher beautiful form unless he can develop an aesthetic response to Gothic experience. Such a restructuring of attitudes is the primary transcendental accomplishment of the maelström descender while the refusal to see beyond the immediate Gothic hazards of his own concern for sanity and safety mark the Usher narrator as the tale's unconscious villain and the secret agent of disorder within inorganization's kingdom. In short, the House of Usher falls because the alien intruder fails to rise to a new consciousness of aesthetic responsibility. It is he and not the Ushers or their house who is both victim and victimizer although this inversion of roles is beyond the limits of the narrator's imagination.
The narrator's mansion sojourn is a Gothic ordeal for him precisely because he chooses to view it Gothically and to treat his analytic helplessness as conclusive evidence of a nightmare world full of insoluble Gothic dilemmas and governed by decay, absurdity, and death. What is beyond analysis must be intolerably fearsome to such a skeptical intellect. Like previous orphans of the castle in Gothic fiction, the Usher narrator regards his adventure as a typical Gothic entrapment and comes to see the Ushers as a pair of castle spectres. Once within the kingdom of inorganization, he consistently refuses to become a part of it and is an insider only in the superficial sense of being present as an observer. A master of external detail, he nevertheless fails to see the duty he owes toward the crumbling house and its febrile occupants. By his obtuse reliance upon reason he annihilates the prospective dreamworld and by his Gothic reactions to the double threat of madness and disintegration the narrator precipitates all of the falls in the story. No mere spectator or witness to the collapse of the house, he may really be the causal agent whose aesthetic insensitivity and rejection of visionary habits of seeing bring about the catastrophe of amorphousness at the climax of the tale. The more the narrator seeks to apply rational postulates to the mysteries surrounding the palace of art, the weaker the structure enclosing him becomes until the dreamworld melts into the tarn having been dematerialized by the alien visitor's obtuse perceptions of his mission at Usher. Most of Poe's best serious tales are concerned with how to see or how to expand visionary consciousness while making a fatal journey or while confined to the circumscribed turbulence of a Gothic building or chamber. In "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe has written his grandest parable of defective vision and imaginative timidity, for in the voice of the storyteller we recognize the defeated rationalist who has violated the kingdom of aesthetics, who has sinned against the reality of the supernatural, and who has caused a resurgence of primordial chaos by his failure to use his imagination once he enters the portals of the palace of art. It has been observed [by James W. Gargano] that "Poe often so designs his tales as to show his narrators' limited comprehension of their own problems and states of mind." But nowhere in the Poe canon are the consequences of a narrator's imaginative deficiencies and his refusal to participate in the transcendental dreamworld that "lieth sublime, Out of SPACE—out of TIME" so complexly treated as in the vain quest of the Usher narrator.
Although many critics have called attention to the flawed mind of the Usher narrator, no student of the tale has yet argued that his presence within the House disturbs the fragile triangle of aesthetic order that still exists when he arrives. But in regarding the storyteller merely as a spectator or witness to the holocaust the crime of the narrator is overlooked and the inner meaning of the Usher narrator's flight from the kingdom of inorganization is missed. Thoroughly horrified and Gothified by the weird events that he thinks he has witnessed, the Usher narrator deserts the palace of art at the crucial moment and refuses to succeed Roderick as the future artist-monarch over this kingdom of dreams. Aesthetic heroism involves a willingness to remain within the House not as a guest or as a skeptical investigator but as a new resident who is prepared to put the quest for beauty ahead of all mortal considerations. But unlike the maelström descender who saves himself by seemingly dooming himself, the friend of the Ushers is incapable of the act against reason and selfpreservation that can disclose a world of higher form amidst Gothic turmoil. For him, the case of the Ushers remains unsolved while his own imaginative cowardice is never examined. He handles internal or psychic events as if they were external happenings and in his effort to reconstruct the experience he omits the most significant fall among the seven falls that occur in the story: the collapse of his own arrogant confidence in the infallibility of reason as a shaping power. As it disappears into the tarn, the House is both a symbolic reminder of the faulty psycho-architecture of the rationalist and an emblem of a permanently lost world within the narrator himself. For all of its factual minutiae and medical data, the narrative itself remains a perplexed fragment of what really took place at Usher,—the distressed monologue of a frustrated analyst who can see parts but never the whole. In the poem, "Dream-Land," Poe had reflected upon the fact that divine unity can only be reached through the dreamer's irrational crossover into the regions of sleep. "Never its mysteries are exposed / To the weak human eye unclosed." It is the "weak human eye unclosed" of the Usher narrator which distorts the value of the fatal experience and transforms a potential dream of beauty into a fragmentized Gothic nightmare for himself.
By concentrating upon the narrator's abuse of the dream experience we may be able to answer in aesthetic terms several provoking questions which "The Fall of the House of Usher" poses concerning the superiority of the synthetic over the analytic outlook in Poe's hierarchy of mental functions. If the House of Usher finally falls because of the reluctance of the narrator to submit to the dream experience and to unite himself organically and spiritually with Roderick Usher's kingdom of aesthetics, we can extend this hypothesis to a pair of Dupin-like questions about the anti-imaginative voyager's true position in the aesthetic scheme of the story. First, what kind of criminal is the Usher narrator and where does he belong in Poe's catalogue of maniacs? And second, what is the exact nature of the crime and punishment of this [man who, in Barton Levi St. Armand's words, is an] "unwilling initiate who has failed to comprehend the significance of the Mysteries he has witnessed and the passion-drama in which he has participated?" Such an approach means that the story really belongs to the narrator and is far more about his unknowing desecration of the palace of art than he himself realizes. Ironically, the fearful disintegration which he believes has overtaken and swallowed up the Ushers and their House has actually befallen the blasphemous pilgrim whose attempt to impose a rational control over his sojourn is a failure.
The architectural cataclysm of the sinking of the House into the tarn is preceded by several anticipatory falls. Beginning with the fall of the narrator's eyes into the dark unyielding mirror of the tarn, each subsequent fall is the result of his attempt to order the transcendental world by applying rational criteria and each fall further undermines the palace of art. In arranging for the narrator to move through a sequence of seven falls Poe may have had in mind a septenary design for the story to suggest the perversion of aesthetic vision by a non-believer who rejects seven chances to ascend to the throne of art. The numerology underlying the seven falls has a deep religious significance just as the one life shared by the three bodies of Roderick, Madeline, and the House is a bizarre play on the doctrine of the trinity. In their order of occurrence, the seven falls may be enumerated as follows: the peer downward into the "remodelled and inverted images" of the tarn, an initial invitation to see all that lies over the tarn in reverse; the narrator's Gothic interpretation of the "Haunted Palace" rhapsody in which he thinks he detects "the tottering of his [Usher's] lofty reason upon her throne," when it is actually the narrator's own rationality which is beginning to fall; the dropping of the narrator's spirit into Gothic premonitions of sleepless horror and his overpowering by terrifying noises as he struggles within the solitude of his apartment "to arouse [himself] from the pitiable condition into which [he] had fallen, by pacing rapidly to and fro" in his unconscious mimicry of Roderick Usher's "hurried, unequal, and objectless step;" the twin falls featured in the Gothic inset legend of Sir Launcelot Canning, "'the head of the dragon, which fell before him'" and the brazen shield adorning the castle wall which "'fell down at his feet upon the silver floor, with a mighty great and terrible ringing sound'," the repeated double fall of Madeline atop Roderick in a ghastly parody of the classical sexual posture as she "fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother;" the outer fall of the dream edifice into the tarn, the visible result of the narrator's chaotic impact on the palace of art; and the inner fall of the narrator's selfassured belief in the power of reason as he flees "aghast" from the Gothic crisis his mind has created. The multiple connotations of falling throughout the story again suggest the narrator's aesthetic delinquency and his capitulations to Gothic terror. From each successive trial of the imagination the purely analytic temperament recoils in horror until it literally fragmentizes the visionary opportunity of beholding primal unity. What we see through the eyes of the narrator at the end of the tale is precisely what we see through his eyes as he studies the facade of the House at his arrival: a confusing spectacle of disparate parts that lies beyond his depths.
Clearly, it is the prolonged gaze downward into the tarn, the probing of the depths of self, that furnishes the clue to all of the other inversions of reality contained in the story. Within the so-called kingdom of inorganization all of the laws of empirical reality are reversed. Much madness is divinest sense, stone truly is alive, the dream power supersedes the waking state as a route to knowledge, illusion takes precedence over reality, and dying by diving into the image of the House shimmering in the tarn becomes the preferred mode of behavior. A total immersion of his mind in the beckoning pool of imagination followed by further attemps to fuse himself with the dreamworld of the Ushers ought to prevent all of the various falls. By conjoining himself with the kingdom of inorganization he could then endow his words with the poetic energy required to sustain the structure through [what Poe defines in "The Poetic Principle" as] the "rhythmical creation of beauty." Indeed, it is the unnamed narrator's duty, just as it is the esoteric obligation of all potential visionaries and dreamers in Poe, to merge himself with the higher world through the power of words. In the cosmic fantasy, "The Power of Words," Poe has the celestial voyager, Agathos, show his companion, Oinos, how wisdom and beauty must be sought in "the abyss of nonentity." Agathos proclaims the law of opposites by which the suicidal hero can transform various kingdoms of inorganization into trancendental paradises. His powerful words to Oinos correspond almost exactly to the sort of mystic appeal exerted by the tarn upon the inquisitive yet hesitant Usher narrator. Agathos says, "Look down into the abysmal distances!—attempt to force the gaze down the multitudinous vistas of the stars, as we sweep slowly through them thus—and thus—and thus! Even the spiritual vision, is it not at all points arrested by the continuous golden walls of the universe?—the walls of the myriads of the shining bodies that mere number has appeared to blend into unity?" Descending and not falling then, first with the physical eye and then with the entire mind and soul is the proper path for the Usher narrator to follow as he contemplates the individual particles that compose the Usher universe. But in his thoroughgoing hostility to reverie, he does not tell or order events properly. In his very way of remembering his nearly fatal occupancy of the mansion he uses the power of words negatively to demolish the palace of art.
The Usher narrator's crime, therefore, lies in the manner of the telling. From the first words of the overture passage in which he fights off the temptation to fall asleep and to enter the magic castle as a reverent dreamer, the tone of his account never goes beyond the traditional Gothic hero's emotions of horrified perplexity and a losing struggle with the tenebrous and demonic forces which hold him prisoner. His vocabulary is an unpoetic mixture of the medical and the hysterical as he speaks a language highly inimical to the poet's idiom. Habituated to classification, he clings desperately to the old diction falling back upon such terms as "hypochondriac," "maladies of a strictly cataleptical character," "restrained hysteria" and "settled apathy" to protect his reasoning self from the absurd possibilities which intimidate his "lofty reason." Or in describing his dire situation he retreats into the maudlin rhetoric of the typical Gothic victim who finds himself cut off from air, light, and hope in the bowels of some murky Gothic dungeon. Such phrases as "the hideous dropping off of the veil," an echo of the major device of suspense in Mrs. Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), and "there sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm" not only revert to the frantic style of the English Gothic novel from which they are derived but underscore Poe's stress upon the verbal constrictedness of the narrator. Plainly, his power of words is limited to two inadequate voices: the voice of the scientistanalyst-physician which wants to busy itself "in earnest endeavors to alleviate the melancholy of [his] friend;" and the voice of the Gothic victim who dreads live burial just as much as one of Monk Lewis's incarcerated maidens and who longs to escape from the haunted castle before it can consume him. Recital of the tale within the confines of these two voices is an act of destructive retrospection. Rather than serving as a verbal defense against encroaching madness, his words deprive him of the artist's insight. Standing in bewilderment on the threshold of chaos and nothingness at the close of the tale we are left to ask the romantic poet's question which the narrator declines to utter: "Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?"
By failing to reflect deeply enough upon the mystic signal given to him by the tarn to "invert and remodel" his consciousness the narrator dooms his quest to failure from the outset. All that will now befall him as he proceeds across the tarn and penetrates the head of Roderick Usher will by its very nature be irreducibly symbolic like the stylized movements of a religious ritual or self-exploratory dream. By venturing boldly through the sleeping mind's Gothic corridors the acolyte of beauty might eventually pass into a higher degree of wisdom and share the mysteries of the castle. A passage in Freud's work On Dreams explains the process of inversion which accompanies the transition through which the narrator passes when he enters the dream temple of art and is "ushered" into "the presence of his master." For Freud, the reversal of vision induced during the dream state leads to a "new unity," the proper goal for the Usher narrator within the kingdom of inorganization.
Ideas which are contraries are by preference expressed in dreams by one and the same element. "No" seems not to exist so far as dreams are concerned. Opposition between two thoughts, the relation of reversal, may be represented in dreams in a most remarkable way. It may be represented by some other piece of the dream content being turned into its opposite—as it were by an afterthought. We shall hear presently of a further method of expressing contradiction. The sensation of inhibition of movement which is so common in dreams also serves to express a contradiction between two impulses, a conflict of will.
By ignoring the law of opposites as projected in the tarn reflection he brings himself into direct conflict with the artist-ruler of the inner world and by clinging to empirical categories he menaces and finally destroys the poetic entity symbolized by the House. The narrator's failure to invert the Gothicism of his experience also justifies Roderick Usher's desperate epithet, "'MAD-MAN,'" because from Usher's point of view the visitor has not grasped the salvational law of opposites upon which the palace of art rests and has lost all contact with the aesthetic realities of Usher's dreamworld. Both the painting and the poem within the poem, "The Haunted Palace," are efforts on the part of Roderick Usher to reveal to the narrator his own shortcomings but he overlooks the selfreflective quality in these symbols just as he cannot or will not allow himself to be converted to the law of reverse vision on the brink of the tarn.
If the universe of Roderick Usher is a pure poetic abstraction that can be imagined into existence, it then follows that it can be reasoned out of existence by an uncooperative observer who repeatedly reduces the whole to parts or fragments by his way of visualizing the challenge of the Gothic fortress. Although on the edge of annihilation, the architectural and psychological parts of the House of Usher nevertheless do possess a totality when the House first comes into the narrator's view. Just how heavily strained the delicate triangle of order is when he beholds its face is indicated by the zig-zag fissure which scars the House's countenance. The slightest disturbance of the taut harmony underlying the aesthetic composition of the House and owner will insure the destruction of the whole. Mysteriously, and contrary to any known physical law, the structure of the House as well as its interior synthesis are literally kept in place by an exertion of Roderick Usher's poetic imagination. Conversely, the imagination of the artist is held in place by the palace of art. By an imaginative analogy which defies all of the analytic speculations of the narrator Roderick Usher is like a poet and his House is like the divinest structure of the mind at its highest condition of creation, or like a poem. Such a relationship can be discerned only by discarding sensory prejudices and Gothic fears in order to see the House and master synthetically. Between Usher and his House there is a tension that is both creative and fatal, a private universe of form resting upon the supra-rational principle of the perfect psychic congruity of the two worlds of mind and matter. For the Usher narrator to understand his aesthetic obligation toward this precarious oneness he should immediately embrace the dreamer's timeless selfless perspective. For only a reversal of rational safeguards and a release of the imagination can preserve the coalition of art and artist symbolized visually in the fragile condition of the House and its lord. Roderick Usher's imaginative vitality, long burdened by such immense creative strain now stands threatened with a breakdown. The atrophy of Usher's aesthetic energies is accurately diagnosed by the narrator as a downward pressure of the senses upon his mind, "a morbid acuteness of the senses" accompanied by "a host of unnatural sensations." Sensing that his imagination cannot maintain the balance much longer, Usher has summoned his friend in the hope that he will be able to envision the artistic problem in form and will then ascend to Usher's stewardship of the mansion as new keeper of order in the kingdom of inorganization. If Usher can somehow transfer the responsibility of imagination to the skeptical and frightened visitor, as indeed he tries futilely to do, then coherence and unity might be retained and the kingdom of aesthetics continue to stand though Usher himself perishes.
It is precisely such an absurd collaboration between the external structure of the House and the internal structure of a sensitive and gifted mind that the puzzled narrator cannot or will not acknowledge. Seeing such a connection would require not only a suspension of his Gothic preconceptions toward the frowning and ominous castle which rises up before him, but also an absurd decision, the cardinal act against reason which enables certain Poe questers to elevate their identities by choosing death over life. What the House demands of its tenants is not siege or conquest but the outré reverence of the artist who is willing to dwell inside the timeless and tenuous world of the poem.
None of these duties are perceived by the Usher narrator.
During his analytic appraisal of the grim visage of the House he is much taken with its "vacant eye-like windows," an overt organic feature dating back to the incredible aliveness of architecture in Gothic fiction as well as a masonic sign made to him by the House to go "beyond [his] depth." Chagrined by the eruption of certain irrational dreads within himself the narrator's feelings are much like those of any typical Gothic victim contemplating the horrors that await him within the haunted castle as he approaches its sinister bastions. But if the law of reverse vision is applied, the stare of the House is not vacant but replete with sentience and not merely eye-like but genuinely ocular in its urgent appeal and invitation to the narrator. As the contest of eyes continues the visitor's eye travels to the base of the House where there lie "a few white trunks of decayed trees," a brilliantly surrealistic image of bones scattered before a mighty stone face. Since Poe ends "The Fall of the House of Usher" by echoing a passage from Ezekiel 43:2 ("And his voice was like the noise of many waters") it seems plausible given his sense of singularity of impression that he has chosen to begin the story with the image of the wanderer in the valley of the dry bones. And given the ironies of the narrator's own rational madness the House ceases to be an objective reality in his mind's eye and becomes a traumatic projection of his own secret insecurities and desires. Somewhere behind the apparent Gothic hideousness of the House's "Arabesque expression" there lurks an occult totality which the narrator can sense but cannot articulate in scientific language. Unable to tabulate the Gothic data before him into a logical whole or to reduce his wild feelings to a formula he is obstinately committed to putting things in their right order as he probes for an explanation: "What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?" Shortly thereafter, his scrutinizing eye will single out the "barely perceptible fissure," the ultimate fractional detail in a mental picture consisting of disquieting fragments. The more intently he gazes the more diminished his vision grows as his unsympathetic outlook and the power of his words accelerate the sublimai processes of disintegration already at work within Usher's kingdom of inorganization.
Once inside the House itself the Usher narrator pursues a campaign to determine and relieve the malady of the Ushers. Having shaken off the temptation to dream and to see in reverse he assumes that he is still in the "real" world although his unexpressed Gothic fears that the House can see, feel, think, and change shape at will continue to trouble him. Unwittingly, he is the author of a series of miniature falls which lead to major deterioration of aesthetic sensibility at the climax. The narrator's close analysis of Roderick Usher's head, for example, is a repetition of the facial perusal undertaken by him prior to the glance into the tarn. And just as he misreads the symbolism of the House by failing to enter into the attitudes of the dreamer, so he misjudges the symbolism of Usher's forehead and eye. The cranial details which the narrator reports form a composite of pallid Byronic outcasts and Gothic men of feeling. The strange virility of Monk Lewis's Ambrosio, the crepuscular grandeur of Mrs. Radcliffe's Montoni and Schedoni, the cryptic eye of Beckford's Vathek, the equivocal handsomeness of Byronic heroes such as Cain and Manfred, the preternaturally powerful voice of Brockden Brown's Carwin in Wieland (1798), and the wild hair and volcanic eyes of Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer seem to have coalesced in the super-human features of Roderick Usher, Poe's penultimate reproduction of the English Gothic villain. While the desperate malice of the Gothic tradition's satanic hero appears to be perfectly duplicated in Usher's Gothic face, Poe has inverted the meaning behind this mask of evil. Transplanted from the pages of the Gothic novel to the contorted phrenology of Roderick Usher the standard Gothic face loses all previous moral significance as an index to the struggle of good and evil within the tempest tossed soul of the Gothic novel's tormented tormentor. What the Gothic face symbolizes in the inverted context of Usher's world is not guilty anguish coupled with an all-consuming passion for evil but a terminal fatigue of imagination. Although he resembles the Gothic villains outwardly Usher's inner tension is much closer in kind to a wasted figure such as Kafka's hunger artist. For the attentive observer, the face of Usher spells out the intimate nexus between creativity and death. The miraculous organ of sight in particular, Usher's "eye, large, liquid, and luminous" contains the answer to the riddle of survival within the house of art. Preoccupied with his medical inspection of Usher's extraordinary cranial properties, the narrator does not make the vital symbolic connections between Usher's eyes and the tarn. The tarn is also "liquid and luminous" and a deeper look into its depths will lead to illumination for the quester. Introspection of Usher's remarkable face will also illuminate and carry the observer beyond the horror to a new depth of soul. Certainly, there is no more compelling facial image of the exhausted artist to be found in Poe's work as he has converted the conventional grimace, glare, and pallor of the Gothic novel's evil men into a figure of aesthetic depletion. When the narrator notes that the "finely moulded chin" shows "a want of moral energy," he once more reveals his inability to see symbolically and his reluctance to go deeper than the literal levels of experience. He is guilty of moralizing over Usher's features when the eye like the tarn is exerting the key command to "invert and remodel" in order to transcend horror.
Further analysis by the narrator is bound to push art and artist into a disastrous disharmony. Yet, with each phrase that he utters about his host's head, or Madeline's cataleptic peregrinations, or the Gothic acoustics which seem to be approaching a hellish crescendo, he weakens the artistic structure and falls further into aesthetic insanity. With each degree of descent into the whirlpool the maelström descender was able to beautify the horrible through the power of words; his philosophical opposite, the Usher narrator, insists upon Gothicizing all that is potentially beautiful within the palace of art. Having twice been confronted with his aesthetic alter-ego, first in the face of the House and then in the face of the host, he denies himself the higher identity that the maelström decender achieves. Looking at the various falls he causes, it is possible to see the friend of Usher as a satiric embodiment of the "heresy of The Didactic" to which Poe [in "The Poetic Principle"]attributes a debasement of the sense of the beautiful. Although not wholly lacking in imagination, the narrator distrusts it as an impractical and dangerous faculty. To use the imagination is to indulge in a "somewhat childish experiment" that can only deter the moralist from his mission to save the Ushers from their peculiar disease. Vexed by a twinge of the irrational within himself as he gazes into the tarn he quickly makes a rational recovery to scan "more narrowly the real aspect of the building." This counterpointing of vision and revision is the basic psychological pattern into which the narrator's mind falls throughout the story. And nowhere is his vacillation between imaginative action and rationalistic reaction so destructive to the kingdom of aesthetics as in the central conversation he has with Usher concerning the preposterous theory of inorganic sentience.
Usher's heady discourse on "the sentience of all vegetable things" is perhaps the most complicated moment in the story for the narrator. For him, Usher's impassioned disclosure of this wild theory is the omega point of unreason in "the mental existence of the invalid." In reviewing the incident with his customary factual precision the narrator admits that he "lack[s] words to express the full extent" of Usher's bizarre ideas. In all other respects, the narrator's recollection is complete:
I well remenber that suggestions arising from this ballad led us into a train of thought wherein there became manifest an opinion of Usher's which I mention not so much on account of its novelty (for other men have thought thus), as on account of the pertinacity with which he maintained it. This opinion, in its general form, was that of the sentience of all vegetable things. But, in his disordered fancy, the idea had assumed a more daring character, and trespassed, under certain conditions, upon the kingdom of inorganization. I lack words to express the full extent, or the earnest abandon of his persuasion. The belief, however, was connected (as I have previously hinted) with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers. The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones—in the order of their arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around—above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn.
To the narrator, the psychological damage of such bold imaginings is obvious in the impending insanity which threatens Usher. He conceives of his duty to be the relief of such psychotic enthusiasm in order to prevent a total disunity of self from overpowering his friend. Because Roderick Usher knows that his own reign over the kingdom of inorganization is about to end, the supreme task in his view is the successful transfer of aesthetic trusteeship to the narrator, his potential artist-successor. But the mere possibility that the House is far more than a physical structure, that it is the living symbol of all artistic endeavor and higher imaginative activity, is so repugnant to logic that the narrator must dismiss the idea as mad or risk madness himself. Never understanding that Usher's belief in the aliveness of the House is absolutely valid inside the inverted world he cannot take this crucial conversation seriously. Instead, he extends his earlier "feeling half of pity, half of awe into a moral contempt for such eccentric ravings. All chance for aesthetic rapport with Usher is lost as the narrator rationalizes away the wild lecture by abruptly declaring that "such opinions need no comment, and I will make none."
Sometime previous to the discussion of organic sentience Usher must have attempted to convince his guest of the truth of this supernatural proposition, for the narrator remembers that he was "enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted." Earlier examination of his patient has also led the narrator to conclude that Usher's environmental delusions are cannibalizing his sanity. His morbid anxiety, for example, is diagnosed by the narrator as "an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, a length, brought about the morale of his existence." Communication or an alliance between the rational and the aesthetic sensibilities is imperative at this pivotal point in the tale if the balance between artist and work of art is to be restored. Furthermore, it is vital that the outside narrator now go beyond his former depths and engage freely in unreason in order to assume the House's legacy. He must quickly consent to take Usher's place for if he procrastinates or moralizes, then the energy-starved mansion will drain off Usher's dwindling power of words. That is, the architectural organism will overfeed itself, the creation will turn upon its creator, and the aesthetic universe of the Ushers will revert to an inchoate mass. To see his appointed part in such a non-rational crisis means of course that the narrator would have to transmogrify both his vision and his vocabulary. But the narrator lacks the poet's daring; he will not pursue his own anti-rational impulses to a fulfillment of form; he cannot give himself over to that absurd gesture of faith in irrational descent which brings revelation. According to the law of opposites as fixed by the tarn mirror, Usher's eyes, and the colloquy on inorganic sentience, it is the narrator who is indeed the Gothic madman of the tale. If the palace is haunted, it is haunted by the phantom of reason. The term, "inorganization," which ambiguously refers both to inorganic substance such as stone and metal and to disorder or disorganization is also subject to the law of reverse vision which governs the House of Usher. Beheld with the imaginative eye, the kingdom of inorganization becomes the exact reciprocal of itself,—a kingdom of transcendent order or a poetic unity. Beheld as the narrator beholds it via the "weak human eye unclosed," it is indeed a chaotic spectacle.
After the crucial and abortive conversation with Usher, the negative forces represented in the narrator cause the remainder of the tale to deteriorate into Gothic melodrama. Premature burial, cadaverous resurrection, diabolic sound effects, a mounting spiral of terrified helplessness, lurid radiance, visceral disturbances in the Gothic substructure of the building, and the mandatory tempest all precede the narrator's expulsion from the castle. Rather than simply escaping from his Gothic predicament, the vain quester is literally disgorged or vomited forth by the submerging House as if he were some profane, foreign object. Also before his flight from the mansion all further demonstrations of inverting and remodelling assume a Gothic form. For example, the imbalance between art and artist, between the microcosm of poetic structure and its dying god, is now evidenced by the horrific fact that House and Master are beginning to exchange their metabolisms. Upon examining his patient on their last fatal night together in the House the narrator is astonished to discover that "throughout his whole countenance there reigned a stony rigidity" [italics mine]. Such a symptom of petrifaction is not just an indication of the onset of some weird variety of rigor mortis although such a paroxysmal stiffening would by no means be an unexpected medical development. What is unexpected, however, is the Gothic fact that Usher and his House are trading bodies in a perverse defiance of all the laws of nature. As Usher becomes progressively stony and inorganic, his counterpart and other self, the House, becomes increasingly corpuscular, plastic, and organic until the point of oversaturation is reached and the House liquefies into primal nothingness. With this final unbalancing of the equation between thought and feeling or between science and art, a universe comes to an end and a god is dead. And the party responsible for the aesthetic tragedy is the disconcerted narrator who entered the House of Usher with such noble intentions.
As for the lethal embrace of brother and sister, their posthumous reunion might compel the narrator to abandon his spectator's role and look beyond the ghastliness of this supernatural event. But once more his inability to use his imagination when faced by a Gothic crisis keeps him from seeing the reunion as something more than Madeline's retribution upon her incestuous sibling, the necro-rapist raped and murdered by his undead sister. The narrator has already experienced a visual analogue of the sister atop the brother in the image of the House astride its reflection in the tarn. In a higher sense, this death clasp is yet another "combination of very simple natural objects" whose mystic principle of arrangement eludes the rationalist. It never occurs to the narrator as he watches this horrible liaision that the House and its patrons are making a final plea to him to look beyond the horror he is now witnessing and rise above his spectator's role. Can be afford to take the absurd risk of remaining within the House at this climactic moment and become the new sovereign of the aesthetic realm? Looking to his own mortal survival, his tone is typically horror-struck as he recalls this gruesome Liebestod which completes his nightmare and drives him from the citadel of his innermost self. Gouted with blood and energized with a superforce from beyond the grave that is reminiscent of Ligeia, Madeline "bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated." So reads the rational deposition of this erstwhile doctor in residence now become makeshift coroner. He remains unenlightened to the fact that what he has concluded about Usher's extinction really applies to the higher aspects of himself, for the capacity to dream Poe's dream of supernal beauty is forever shattered.
The sudden appearance of the "blood-red moon" wedged into the fissure and boring like some mad eye through the corroding masonry of the House is a final Gothic beacon in which all previous signs and hints of aesthetic lunacy come to a destructive focus. In signalling the fall of the rational consciousness, the eye-like, crimson orb is a fine objective correlative for the narrator's own eye and gaze throughout the story. His fascination with the ruby moon as it seems to trickle down the gaping wound on the face of Usher's House like some impossible bubble of blood oozing from fractured stone is a last instance of mishandled symbolism. What he sees as an objective event is in truth a subjective event for he is now looking back upon his own fragmented consciousness or his own internal collapse. As denoted by the lunar eye, he is both the "red slayer" of Emerson's famous poem ["Brahma"] and the slain. But none of the internal meaning of his symbolic experience within the kingdom of inorganization is clear to him. In Marginalia, Poe would write: "It is the business of the critic so to soar that he shall see the sun." Since solar revelation is Poe's figure for critical lucidity, the lunar opposite at the finale of "Usher" must symbolize aesthetic consternation and loss of self. Pausing again on the edge of the tarn to survey the world which he has helped to destroy (actually he is scientifically curious about the nature and origins of the "wild light") the House dematerializes within his mind's eye. The Biblical overtones inherent in the signature of the "long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters" imply that the Day of Judgement is at hand—certainly a day of damnation for the once-proud reasoning self. Like the earth itself on the eve of creation, the House of Usher is "without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep."
As shown in the seventh fall in the final paragraph of the story, the Usher narrator's quest terminates in a grotesque cul-de-sac for the inquiring mind as the dreamworld disintegrates. Rationally depressed, verbally exhausted, and scientifically frustrated, he will never again be able to enjoy the Todestraum or dream of creation through death. While his fellow voyager, the intrepid mariner who descends into the maelström, designs his higher experience within the Gothic vortex to his own visionary satisfaction, the Usher narrator cannot stabilize or unify the imaginative elements of his adventure into the dark center. The limited central intelligence who repeats the tale within the tale that is "The Fall of the House of Usher" is hopelessly alienated from the aesthetic wonders of the universal mind and overwhelmed by feelings of rational impotence. According to Maurice Lévy, "The vocation of Gothic heroes is essentially that of losing their way" Standing in awe on the "safe" and solid periphery of the liquid and lethal domain of art, the vain quester is not just another anonymous Gothic hero who has lost his way but the ultimate outcast of Poe's private universe.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3311
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 his other duties, attempts to clarify the author's intention and to unmask narrators with bogus claims to credibility. In Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (1973),G. R. Thompson argues that it was part of Poe's intention as an ironical author to make the most of the unreliable narrator device, and that he did so in a good many of his most famous tales, including "MS. Found in a Bottle," "Ligeia," and "The Fall of the House of Usher."
Having long believed that Poe wanted his readers to give credence to, indeed to the identify with, the visitor to Usher's house, and finding myself unpersuaded by the opposite proposals in Thompson's book, I should like to review the matter in some detail. Taking up four points that are worth more or less discussion: the appearance of the house, the narrator's experience, the ending of the story, and its theme, I shall try to show that in this case it may be the critic of the story rather than its narrator whose reliability is more open to question.
THE APPEARANCE OF THE HOUSE
"It is curious," Thompson writes, "that no one has ever seen fit to remark that when the narrator rides up to the house of Usher he is immediately confronted with a death's head looming up out of the dead landscape. Poe obviously intended the image of the skull-like 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."
There can be no objection to describing as "dead" the landscape in which the house is sited, but two other assertions are made here which are not so self-evident. To take the house first: what does it look like? Very few architectural specifications are given, but it is obvious that the house is very old and very large. It dates back to feudal times and, though no doubt remodeled since then, remains what it originally was, a castle. Poe's misuse of the recherché words donjon and donjon-keep does not inspire one with confidence in his expertise about castles, but he conveys, nonetheless, a sufficiently graphic picture: the house of Usher is a castellated mansion of medieval origin. And of considerable size. "Vast" is the narrator's word for it, when, in the final paragraph, he records his last look at the front of the house. Approximately how vast may be inferred from the dimensions of Usher's "studio," the windows of which are at "so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within." If this is only the studio, imagine the scale of the great hall! But the question is whether a vast, castellated mansion, seen from in front, where the entrance is, can have a plausible resemblance to a death's head. I would say no. The proportions of the building, its generally rectilinear structure, its turrets, and above all its dimensions make this resemblance extremely difficult to visualize. And so I, for one, do not find it curious that the alleged houseskull resemblance has, prior to Thompson, gone unremarked.
Nor can I go along with Thompson's other contention, that the image of the skull-like facade of the house dominates the tale, with Poe returning to it again and again to give it more extensive treatment. The disagreement here may be reduced to a matter of statistics. "The Fall of the House of Usher" has 41 paragraphs. Counting "The Haunted Palace" as part of paragraph 18, and scrutinizing the text for evidence Thompson would use to support his view, I come up with only paragraphs 1, 4, 5, 18, possibly 19, and 41. In these paragraphs I do not find "extended descriptions," nor do I find them, as Thompson does, "at symmetrically located places in the narrative."
THE EXPERIENCE OF THE NARRATOR
It is of importance to Thompson's case that a close link be discerned between the narrator and his host, since the essence of the case is that the two are psychological doubles and hence the initial uneasiness felt by the narrator develops into a "frenzy of terror, engendered by and parallel to Usher's terrors." As evidence of such a link, Thompson adduces the three-way relationship he sees between the face of the narrator, the facade of the house, and the face of Usher. He pairs the first two this way: "The narrator's first impression of the house is that it is like a human face, especially with its two vacant eyelike windows. Then he looks down into the pool, but sees only the reflection of the 'face' of the house. What is equally likely, of course, is that he should see imaged there his own reflected features, since Poe is careful to point out that the narrator wheels his horse up to 'the precipitous brink' of the tarn and thus gazes straight down."
So far there is no mention of a three-way connection, but two passages on a later page deal with this emphatically: "Usher's 'arabesque' face and the face of the house are the same, and when the narrator gazes into the pool the reflected 'arabesque' face is merged with his own—symbolically is his own . . . [plus] the image of the house as skull or death's head and the merging of the narrator's face with the face of the house which is also Usher's face in the pool."
In my opinion, the evidence offered for a three-way tie-up is unconvincing, for these reasons:
1. The narrator's first impression of the house is that it is "melancholy," and to such a degree that he feels overcome by a "sense of insufferable gloom." Neither in the first scene nor elsewhere does he allude, even distantly, to a resemblance between the house and a human face, much less a skull. To be sure, there would be some basis for imputing to the narrator the impression of such a resemblance if the text read, per Thompson's paraphrase, "two vacant eyelike windows." In fact, the numeral two is not used by the narrator. (It is probable that Thompson borrowed it from the third stanza of "The Haunted Palace," but Usher's poem is hardly relevant evidence about the narrator's first impression of the house.)
2. When the narrator gazed at the tarn, could he have seen his face reflected, overlaid, as it were, on the reflected image of the house? It seems to me that, given his initial position, across the water from the house, he could have seen one or the other, but not both. Only after crossing over the causeway, standing with his back to the house, and then looking down could he have seen his reflection, within the frame of the reflected facade of the house. But since he does not cross the causeway until after his visual experiment is made, the laws of geometric optics would seem to rule out the possibility of the double-reflection phenomenon.
3. Another reason for questioning the face-facade theory may be worth mentioning. When the narrator enters the house and meets his host, his attention, Thompson says, "is focused on the odd appearance of Usher's face," which recalls to the reader "the facelike structure of the house." In a very general way this deduction is correct, for a basic donnée of the story is that some kind of occult connection, necessarily imprecise, exists between the house and its owner. But by giving such minute attention to Usher's face—its luminous eyes, its curved lips, its delicately shaped nose (distinguished, moreover, by an unusual "breadth of nostril")—the description negates Thompson's earlier suggestion that, de rigueur, an association is to be made between the house and a skull or death's head.
A more important contention in Thompson's argument is that the story is essentially about the mental collapse of the narrator, and that the stages of the collapse are given careful documentation: "Poe meticulously . . . details the development of the narrator's initial uneasiness into a frenzy of terror," etc. The word uneasiness is perhaps not sufficiently strong to do justice to the state of mind of the narrator when he has a mauvais quart d'heure in the opening scene. But once he is inside the house does this uneasiness augment by differentiated stages and eventually partake of the terrors that afflicted Usher? This is not shown.
Between paragraphs 6 and 24 the narrator's account does not reflect any progressive deterioration of mind or feeling. How could it? For his account is concerned almost entirely with Usher, his appearance, behavior, and obsessions with several varieties of fear. And rather than respond to and interiorize these obsessions, the narrator attempts to distract Usher from them. For several days after his arrival, he says, "I was busied in earnest endeavors to alleviate the melancholy of my friend." Following the interment of Madeline, "some days of bitter grief having elapsed," Usher's condition takes a serious turn for the worse. As he reads the symptoms, the narrator is unsure whether to diagnose their cause as "extreme terror" or "the more inexplicable vagaries of madness." Either way, Usher's condition has become terrifying, and it is now, after perhaps a week of residence in the house, that the narrator begins to feel real distress. Up to this point there has been no meticulous recording of a developing uneasiness. The development starts now, but it does not approach the intensity ("frenzy of madness") of Thompson's estimate.
Thompson's version of what takes place at this crucial juncture (paragraphs 24, 25, 26) adds some details to the text and, inexplicably, ignores others. The text reads: "There were times, indeed, when I thought his [Usher's] unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage." In Thompson's version of this statement the emotional ante is raised considerably: ". . . the narrator feels growing in himself a vague fear that Usher has some horrible 'oppressive secret' to divulge." Recognizing that Usher's terror is becoming contagious, the narrator says: "I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influence of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions." Thompson renders this as "slow yet uncertain degrees"; but whether certain or uncertain, the degrees by which the infection spreads are not itemized. Instead, Poe at once sets his final scene, which is enacted a week or so after Madeline's burial.
The scene begins with the narrator's account of experiencing "the full power of such feelings"—that is, those induced by Usher's condition. He is, to quote Thomspon again, "unable to sleep, especially since, as with the reflected image of the house in the tarn, he is aware of his increased terror: 'an irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an incubus [of] utterly causeless alarm.'" What the resumé as quoted does not reflect are two sentences in the text which describe the narrator's efforts to deal with, to dispel, his feelings of terror. The resumé continues: "'Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror,' the narrator begins pacing nervously; suddenly he is startled by a light footstep outside his door. But it is only Usher. Usher's intensely agitated condition is the more unnerving, especially when he suggests that a supernatural and luminous vapor has surrounded the house in spite of the rising wind without."
Here also is an omission of some consequence. The narrator does not pace to and fro because, as Thompson seems to imply, he feels "overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror." Rather, he resorts to this action as a means of fighting back, "to arouse myself," as he puts it, "from the pitiable condition into which I had fallen." He is not "startled" (nor could he be) by Usher's light footstep; the sound merely "arrested [his] attention." He does not find Usher's distraught appearance "the more unnerving." What he says is quite simply and credibly this: "His air appalled me—but anything was preferable to the solitude which I had so long endured, and I even welcomed his presence as a relief."
Usher does not "suggest that a supernatural and luminous vapor" has surrounded the house; all he does, without comment, is open a casement window. The narrator sees for himself an "unnatural" light glowing about the house. It seems, then, that one of Usher's specific fears—that the house would become increasingly sentient, with increasingly ominous implications for himself—is in fact borne out. But instead of succumbing to this fear the narrator tries to explain away both it and the apparent basis for it. The phenomenon, he tells Usher, is only hallucinatory. "You must not—you shall not behold this!" he exclaims, and further to deflect Usher's attention he begins reading aloud from the "Mad Trist." As things turn out, the reading proves less than therapeutic, but the intention behind it was certainly sane.
At this point the action of the story is within a few moments of its close. Surely by now, if Thompson is right, the narrator, despite himself, would reveal how he is being victimized by a "frenzy of terror" on a par with Usher's. He is not so victimized. Usher is the one who succumbs, "a victim to the terrors he had anticipated." The narrator, on the other hand, "unnerved" and "aghast" as he understandably is, retains sufficient sang-froid to get out of the house in time and witness what happened to it.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE HOUSE?
The question is not as frivolous as it looks, for it involves one of the major theses of Thompson's book. The thesis is that Poe, as an ironical writer in the romantic mode of irony, characteristically provides in his tales one kind of meaning for the average, untutored reader, and plants, or "insinuates," another meaning, which, in Poe's words, "only minds congenial with that of the author will perceive." In the present instance, the thesis applies in this way: The reader of average gullibility will not think of questioning the veracity of Usher's visitor, and his account of what took place will be appreciated for the uncanny kind of excitement the tale gives rise to; whereas an inner circle of readers, aware that Poe's technique is one of "deceptive, ironic, psychological realism," will read the story for its clues (Thompson's word), just as a detective does in a mystery story. Therefore we either accept the narrator's word about what happened to the house, or, following Thompson's lead, we "clue in" to a different hypothesis.
According to the narrator, the house of Usher, almost immediately after his exit from it, split into two great sections and sank into the tarn. Since Thompson's opinion is that the man is revealed as "completely untrustworthy," he sees no reason why this professedly eyewitness report should be accepted as definitive. He offers an alternative explanation. The copper-floored vault in which Madeline was interred, he points out, was once a storage place for powder or some other highly combustible substance. This is textually exact. And so, Thompson continues, "if the house cracks open and crumbles, rather than a necessarily supernatural occurrence, as it seems to the hysterical narrator, it is explainable as the combustion generated when the lightning of the storm crackles near the previously airless crypt—the inrushing electricity being conducted along the copper floor and igniting the remnants of powder." This is an ingenious explanation, but it depends on too many improbabilities.
It seems improbable, for instance, that there was enough residual gunpowder in what is described as a small and damp vault to cause (when ignited) an explosion adequate to blow up the house; for the house, it can be assumed, is "vast." I have no idea what critical mass of gunpowder would be required to blow up a castle of even average size, but what Thompson refers to as "remnants of powder" would not seem to be nearly enough, for the phrase suggests only a few scattered, unswept grains. (The text, incidentally, makes no mention of such "remnants." It was apparently the copper sheathing that led the narrator to infer that the place had once been a powder magazine.)
If we assume that there was gunpowder in sufficient quantity to cause, when ignited, the blowing up of the house, a question arises as to the agency that might have caused the ignition. Thompson's theory is that a lightning bolt, finding access to and then conducted along the copper flooring, provided the spark. What is not explained is how such a bolt could have found access to the burial vault. Located "at great depth" underground, and therefore windowless, and of course damp, it would seem as lightning proof as any interior chamber could imaginably be.
There is the further (or rather preliminary) question as to whether the storm produced lightning. Rain is not mentioned, or thunder, and as for lightning, all that is said on this score is: "nor was there any flashing forth of the lightning." Thompson would certainly have a better case if the statement were less negative. I think it is possible that one reason why the tempestuous final night of the story is described as "wildly singular" is that all the makings of a thunderstorm were present—but, singularly, there was neither rain, nor thunder, nor lightning. Since, however, the text is not absolutely negative on this point, the possibility may be entertained that there was lightning that night. It was not seen as "flashing forth" because, presumably, it was concealed by the cloud cover, which was very dense and hung low enough to "press upon the turrets of the house." Such lightning as there may have been, therefore, was of the cloud-to-cloud variety, for flashes from cloud to ground, given the unnatural visibility of the occasion, would have been seen. So perhaps a bolt or two may have struck one of the turrets. But an explanation is still in order as to the route and the conducting material by which an electric charge traversed the anfractuous distance between turret level and the vault, sequestered well below ground level. The text offers no basis for such an explanation.
THE THEME OF THE STORY
In "The Fall of the House of Usher," as Thompson interprets it, Poe, through the narrator's account of his experience, ironically mocks "the ability of the human mind ever to know anything with certainty, whether about the external reality of the world or the internal reality of the mind." I find it impossible to reconcile this definition of the story's theme with the contention, variously phrased, that the narrator of the story is mentally unstable, disturbed, prone to hysteria and hallucination—that he is, in fine, "completely untrustworthy." Surely it was as obvious to Poe as it is to us that a deranged mind, mired in its own subjectivity, is unable successfully to perceive objective reality, much less cope with it. There would be no point, ironical or otherwise, in mocking such inability. Therefore, only if the narrator's mental credentials are in good order, and the story he tells is accepted as reliable, can there be any possibility that the thematic drift of the story is as Thompson describes it.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5590
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 reprinted, wherein he analyzes the centrality of symbolism embodying the conflict between life-reason and death-madness. In no way will I challenge this or other readings that argue for serious import inherent in "Usher," although I wish to examine a facet of Poe's technique not charted by Abel, nor by many others who use his justly famous essay as a foundation for their theories. My aim is to illuminate Poe's comic impulses, as I discern them, in this tale. Comedy and burlesque, to be sure, have been noticed, but not extensively treated, by James M. Cox, G. R. Thompson, and, implicitly, Daniel Hoffman. External and internal evidence support a comic perspective within "Usher," as I will show. Although my "key" may unlock only the back door of the house of Usher, I trust that it will nevertheless afford entrance to yet another area of Poe's artistic imagination.
What is the "text" of "Usher"? Recent critical theory suggests that "textuality" is also a matter of "contextuality." External evidence places "Usher" inescapably within the realms of Gothic tradition. Indeed, Abel's critique begins with the "exquisitely artificial manipulation of Gothic claptrap and décor," but careful reading reveals admirable and clever method in Poe's handling of materials generally regarded as mere decoration. Recent critics have paid attention to the "otherness,"—if I may so term the artistry that surpasses the mere horrific, as the Gothicism in "Usher" does—while noting the abundant clichés from the tradition. Clark Griffith mentions Poe's drawing upon older Gothicists, like Radcliffe and Walpole, as well as upon the Blackwood's variety of his day, although he emphasizes the former. An equally certain influence was the vastly popular novelist of contemporaneous fame, G. P. R. James, whose numerous "solitary horsemen" stand as literary brethren to the narrator, who reins in before the house of Usher to survey the scene and begins to register fears for his readers, eager for the anticipated thrills in terror literature. If we admit that Poe embraced the entirety of Gothicism, we might, in the light of recent studies, perceive "Usher" as parodic of not just the Gothic in general but, like some of his other tales, a hit at some of his own characteristic tendencies as a fictionist. If we also admit that "Usher" betrays its creator's ambivalent attitudes toward his art, as Roppolo suggests, we might see the tale as one of many examples of American romantic writing that simultaneously uses and attacks the Gothic legacy from European literature.
An important aspect of the European impact on American literature, by way of its British parent, is "Germanism," or Gothicism, that oft mentioned term of disapprobation in critical circles. In the autumn of 1839, the time in which "Usher" appeared in the September issue of Burton's, Poe had good reason to think of "Germanism," and think of it he did, as is attested in the repeatedly cited (and perhaps as often misunderstood) preface to his collected fiction,Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Poe s assertion that "terror is not of Germany, but of the soul" may imply (whatever else it indicates) that the "soul," given his current frame of mind, is that of a humorist, so far as one level of "Usher" (and perhaps other tales) is concerned—a connotation that does not exclude possibilities of equal sobriety in any given piece. Furthermore, if "Metzengerstein" or "Von Jung" comes more readily to mind as the "single exception" to Poe's disclaimers of "that species of pseudo-horror which we are taught to call Germanic," we must remember that he called no attention to them in the critical extracts he included in volume II. "Usher," however, was highlighted, more than any other talc, with five notices that called attention to it and, moreover, emphasized its stern, somber, and terrible elements. One commentator states that it "would have been considered a chèf d'oeuvre if it had appeared in the pages of Blackwood." Reasonably, we may wonder whether Poe presented all these encomiums for clues to alert readers as to what lay under the Blackwood article surface of "Usher."
The charge of "Germanism" was hurled at Poe from the time he began to publish fiction in the Southern Literary Messenger. He quickly had to apologize to editor White for the horrors in "Berenice," his first tale for the journal, though he justified his creation by pointing out how common (and remunerative) such Gothicism was in the literary marketplace. With the appearance of "Morella" in the next number came adverse criticism of Poe's ventures into "the German school," which recurred over the next several years.
Such hostility toward German Gothicism had a long history by the time Poe got around to countering it, and for examples (surprising ones, no less), let us look to the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the preface to The Bravo of Venice, Monk Lewis stated that the original German might be "too harsh for the taste of English readers"; consequently, he altered passages to soften them. But his bowdlerization failed to deter critical stricture [such as J. F. Hughes' complaint]: "The writers of the German school have introduced a new class [of novel], which may be called the electric. Each chapter contains a shock; the reader not only stares, but starts, at the close of every paragraph." Apologetics like Lewis's continued; apparently, no respectable British writer wished to be bracketed with German excesses. Maturin, for instance, remarked in his first novel, The Fatal Revenge; or, The Family of Montorio (1807): "Whatever literary articles have been imported in the plague ship of German letters, I heartily wish were pronounced contraband by competent inspectors. Turning the pages of this lurid novel, we must conclude that Maturin's practice and preaching diverged. He continues, though, in phraseology anticipating Poe's notions of "Germany": "I question whether there be a source of emotion in the whole mental frame, so powerful or universal as the fear arising from objects of invisible terror" Thirty-three years later, Poe said much the same thing: "I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul,—that I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources, and urged it only to its legitimate results." The rub may be in determining the precise nature of those sources and results.
Another circumstance that is relevant to Poe's sensitivity about "Germanism" is his practice of alternating serious with comic Gothic tales. We know that such tales as "Ligeia," "How to Write a Blackwood Article," and "A Predicament," published prior to "Usher," provide clues to his divided aims in writing terror fiction. So do later tales, such as "The Premature Burial," "Tarr and Fether," and "The Sphinx." Why not, then contemplate possibilities for perceiving a mixed mode in "Usher"?
I believe that in "Usher" we find an allegorical (dare I say it?) presentation of the baneful effects of taking the sensational aspects of "Germanism" too seriously. As in "Silence—A Fable," we are spectators as a man (the narrator) looks at another man (Roderick) whose story is his own. In "Usher," too, what happens to the second man symbolizes what happens within the first. In meeting again his childhood friend who is named, interestingly enough, for the last of the Goths (in Poe's sly manner of wordplay) and whose all too "Gothic" adventures amidst all too "Gothic" surroundings quite literally enchant him, our narrator resembles earlier Gothic personages who were duped because of their credulity, such as Catherine Moreland or Cherry Wilkinson. That Poe's two characters were previously acquainted might be apprehended as a revelation by the narrator (carefully manipulated by Poe) of his immature reading tastes. Although he has become a man, he has not put away childish things, and in remaining too near his Gothic background, as exemplified in "Usher," he has paved the way for yielding to the effects of irrationality. Like the heroes in "The Man Who Was Used Up" and "Tarr and Fether," this narrator is used up in the course of events—not so much as to preclude his telling his tale again but enough to indicate to readers the hazards in subscribing wholeheartedly to "Germanism." Sensing that it is going askew, he can do nothing to break the spell, so to speak, and, like Coleridge's wedding guest, he cannot choose but to participate in the drama (the tragedy) of collapse.
With these matters in mind, let us scrutinize the text of "Usher." Some of the exaggerations and repetitions, the veritable gallery of Gothic horrors, may make better sense if we consider their comic potential. I mentioned above the solitary horseman; other elements are equally recognizable as primary features of Gothicism: the supersensitized narrator-protagonist; the persecuted, frail maiden; the diabolic villain, modified in Roderick (à la Byron and Bulwer) into a latter-day hero-villain; the minor characters; the hyberbolic language; the eerie setting; the weird art and music; and the "supernatural." All are constituents of a fine "German" tale, and I suggest that Poe worked his materials for as much comic, ironic value as for any Gothic impact.
First, 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 for out-Heroding Herod (to use one of Poe's favorite phrases). The narrator approaches the house of Usher through a foreboding countryside (to understate its negative implications), surely passing beyond the natural scenery of a Radcliffe or Maturin and into the spooky qua spooky. Those "few rank sedges . . . and . . . few white trunks of decayed trees" partake of the "desolate and terrible," not because they convey "half-pleasurable" sensations of the well-known "Sublime" but because they do not. Their sole inspiration is "insufferable gloom" for our narrator, who, as the tale runs its course, proves unable to suffer (in the biblical sense) any terrors, present or future. Later, he is moved to tell his story, after the manner of Poe's other confessional narrators, because he is actuated by the worst features in his chronicle. And if the overt aim of Gothic fiction is to arouse a sense of gloom, this tale fulfills, and overshoots, that aim.
We also sense that, gloomy or not, the narrator relishes the substance of his tale. Like other Gothic protagonists, he unceasingly conveys sensations of uneasiness, but his repetition of such stock "Germanisms" as "singular," "gloom," "melancholy," and "ghastly" causes us to wonder whether his reiteration is not more than "half-pleasurable." Also, it may be no accident that several times he tells us he "found" himself confronting menacing phenomena, as Gothic protagonists always do. He is ripe, we quickly discover, for his first "view of the melancholy House of Usher" (a haunted castle that out-Gothicizes many of its species), which to him appears to be human (or inhumanely human)—a fine touch in a tale wherein the characters look like their haunted house and vice versa. The narrator's function, first and foremost, is to tell a story, which he does with gusto, festooning his tale with rhetoric that passes beyond the edge of credibility, in comparison with most terror tales. For example, the visual persuaders commence "within view" of the Usher mansion and intensify with such phraseology as "first glimpse," "I looked upon the scene before me," "I reflected," "gazed down." These and other like passages urge that we realize Poe is manipulating the narrator, in such fashion that this character seems almost an avid reader of a terror tale, who, like the central figure within, is only too willing to register trauma. Maybe Poe intends another turn of the comic Gothic screw, in that he creates a figure who resembles an ordinary reader, eager for thrills, as well as (simultaneously) epitomizing all that is worst in Gothic protagonists.
Significantly, the narrator states that "in this mansion of gloom I now proposed to myself a sojourn of some weeks" and that the "proprietor, Roderick Usher, had been one of my boon companions in boyhood." Twice, he emphasizes the "personal" nature of their friendship, adding: "As boys, we had been even intimate associates." Can such rhetoric be Poe's subtle dropping of clues, implying immaturity among fans of "Germanism," who he knows cannot subdue their propensities for the horrific? That is, we behold in the narrator a being who is long familiar with thrillers and who nonetheless enters the house of Gothic fiction, as symbolized in the Usher mansion, only to become enmeshed in its toils. The bond between the narrator and comic Gothicism is strengthened when we remember that Roderick is modeled upon a doomed hero, well known to Poe and his audience through contemporary literary sources.
Elsewhere, the narrator unwittingly reveals his intent preoccupation with sensationalism. For example, in language that echoes a more overtly burlesque Poe character, the Signora Psyche Zenobia, he remarks, after yet another glance at the mansion: "There grew in my mind a strange fancy—a fancy so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination. ... " Those devilish terms, "fancy," "sensations," "imagination," all obviously hallmarks of overstrained sensibility, add bold relief to the personality through whom "Usher" is sketched for us. He suggests, on one hand, his uneasiness with the environment that we (and doubtless he himself) understand as Gothic, or "German," and, on the other, he undercuts his reasons for such agitation in betraying the subjectivity with which he creates this atmosphere. Perhaps his penchant is enjoyment of grim Gothic mansions.
By now, we should be ready to conclude that we are dealing with a "sick" narrator, whose malady stems from overindulgence in the "pseudo-horrors of Germanism." In this light, the journey into the self, perceived by numerous readers of "Usher," may be viewed as a journey by someone akin to the stock types travestied by Jane Austen, E.S. Barrett, or T. L. Peacock. Poe's Mr. Lackobreath also comes to mind as one of their literary descendants. Such questers encounter comic Gothic situations (to us, if not them), and may embody salient traditional traits, combinations that heighten the fun for readers who can laugh at the ludicrous, ever lurking near the fringes of terror tales. The "Usher" narrator falls into these ranks. He is irresistibly drawn to the house of Usher, earmarked for extremes with Gothic appurtenances or by what he ingenuously accepts as such.
His relish for the Gothic or "Germanic" is more evident after he enters the house. His familiarity with the environs of foreboding and decay becomes apparent when he informs us: "The carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode, were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy." In tandem with his boyhood ties to Roderick, this exposition hints of another facet of our narrator, steeped in matters "Germanic" and smacking of the apartments in "Metzengerstein." Furthermore, he is so "practiced" upon (in the Elizabethan sense) that, by the end of the tale, he can no longer function, except as a participant in the spirit of Gothicism, which Poe presents at its most exaggerated. Our narrator articulates a welter of hyperboles as he reads the "Mad Trist," certainly a farrago of Gothic nonsense and a parody of the same in "Usher." The "Mad Trist" resembles "The Haunted Palace," but contains none of the serious undercurrent in the poem. The narrator continues to purvey sensationalism in "seeing" Madeline's return from the tomb, in witnessing the "fall" of the mansion into the tarn, and in going through it all again in telling "the fall of the house of Usher."
These experiences result from his enchantment by the Gothic tradition, so to speak, and, implicitly, a similar fate awaits others (characters within tales as well as the unwitting, who are eager to read about them) who succumb to the witchery of overdone Gothicism. As the narrator flees the scene of Madeline's overpowering of Roderick, amid a barrage of Gothic props, he "finds" himself again, this time in crossing the causeway; in other words, he realizes that he was attempting to escape the mansion of gloom. But he has taken flight too late; the Gothic spell has undone him. His brain reels, and his last, emphatic impression is of "fragments of the 'House of Usher'"—or what he designates as such (as Poe indicates in the punctuation). Like the too curious, sensation-oriented visitor to the madhouse in "Tarr and Fether," whose perceptions are battered by the close of the tale, the narrator of "Usher" is spiritually drubbed because of his febrile submission to "Germanism."
Two more anomalies attest the narrator's unreliability, implying that his sensations are prone to irrationality. First, one may ask where he learns that "House of Usher" is "a quaint and equivocal appellation .. . in the minds of the peasantry who used it." Had he perchance lingered to gossip with such persons as he journeyed toward the mansion, or does this inconsistency align him with Melville's Ishmael (who cannot be present in certain situations he details as if he were on the scene) as a first-person narrator whose authority many readers would not dispute? This discrepancy in "Usher" is functional, if Poe intends the character's recountings of this circumstance to appear valid to readers who revel uncritically in the supernatural.
Second, what are we to make of the narrator's statement that "many years had elapsed" since his last meeting with Roderick and, shortly afterward, continuing: "Surely, man had never before so terribly altered in so brief a period as had Roderick Usher!" A lapse may not be apparent, were we to discern in Usher's malady a submerged commentary upon the decadence of Gothicism. If he represents the last stages of the tradition, then, so far as the span of the tradition goes, his rapid decline is plausible because of the mode's sudden decline from favor. Poe's censors believed that "Germanism" was passé and wished he would heed their criticism.
We may ask, then, what initially drew the narrator into this "Germanic" atmosphere. A letter, of course (which often substitutes for the "mouldering ms."), and a strange one. It is "wildly importunate," revealing "nervous agitation .. . acute bodily illness" and, as Poe originally phrased it, "pitiable mental idiosyncrasy." A good Gothic comeon—and unable to resist, the narrator responds with a "personal reply" by journeying to visit Roderick. The consequence of this personal involvement is the narrator's growing awareness of his increasing superstition, which multiplies because of his "infection" from the "wild influences of [Roderick's] fantastic yet impressive superstitions." These terrors wax noticeably after his assistance with the premature burial of Madeline, as if participation in another bit of shopworn Gothic horror topples his rational faculties and prepares for his direct attendance in the uproar of her "return." Maybe the repeated use of "wild" and compounds incorporating it is another device by which Poe calculated to insinuate comedy relevant to the crazy developments in the chronicle of the Ushers and their guest.
Having drawn the narrator through a landscape "horrid" enough to titillate Catherine Moreland and into the frights within the Usher mansion, Poe involves him with characters who are hackneyed personages of Gothicism. At the same time, Poe contrives to lead his narrator farther and farther from the mundane world outside of romance. The narrator meets the other dramatis personae in a series of encounters that are staged with Poe's subtlest artistry.
At the entrance to the house, his horse is taken by "a servant in waiting," who does not enter the mansion. His presence may symbolize normal humanity. Then, as if Poe wished to sketch lightly with the brush of suspense, our narrator is led by a "valet of stealthy step" (why "stealthy," if not to indicate that this opinion is the narrator's subjectivity?) to the master of the strange house. Along the way, they meet the family physician, whose "countenance, I thought [italics mine], wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity," who "accosted me with trepidation and passed on." This storyteller's imagination grows irrational and untrustworthy because of his eagerness "to think Gothically," as it were.
Next, the narrator is greeted by Roderick, whose physique and emotions epitomize the decadence of Gothic herovillains as a type, engendering in his friend that "species of pseudo-horror, which we are taught to call Germanic." Indeed, the description of Roderick is a visual aid to such instruction. With Poe arranging these meetings in ascending order of importance for their terrifying effects upon the narrator and those who enjoy his tale, our quester attains a high "Germanic" peak when, finally, he watches Madeline glide through a distant section of her brother's apartment and sees her as Roderick's feminine counterpart. Of course, the narrator stands upon the "German" summit, in terms of his emotional responses to the terrors that surround him, when (later) he "sees" Madeline come back from the tomb.
We must now attend to Roderick Usher and his sister. Years ago, Mabbott emphasized the significance of his name, which derives from the last great ruler of the Visigoths. As the last master of his weird, tottering house, where the commonplace traits of hero and villain of Gothic romance are confusedly intermingled, Poe's Roderick may be intended to exemplify the last "Goth" of another decadent tribe, the timeworn literary populace of terror tales. Lest my reading be considered "ingenious," we must not overlook the implications in Usher's premature burial of his twin sister. Siblings and premature burials were linked phenomena, with parricides or near parricides (only slightly less sensational) occurring frequently among the cast of Gothic figures from the days of Walpole. Twins seemed especially fated to come to early and awful ends, and Madeline's "illness" triggers Roderick's downfall. Just so, the grim atmosphere in the opening scenes may symbolize more "sickness"—not only of the twins, whose contagion affects the narrator, but of the tale and, through it, Gothicism in general.
To detect a travesty of Gothic hero-villains in Roderick is no absurdity. Like the narrator, whose makeup as a Gothic hero he shares, he is sensitive to art, music, poetry, romance (if we may so designate the "Mad Trist"), and architecture—in this case the overdone Gothic variety, his house. Because he epitomizes his type at the end of its tether, Roderick allows his "home" to dominate him (haunted castles often assume dimensions of characters), until he can no longer resist its evil charms. The approaching dissolution of the mansion is evident in the fissure in its facade and its crumbling stones. Like the one-hoss shay, this house, undeniably a Gothic castle, has endured, but its time draws nigh. Like the narrator, Roderick also is "practiced" upon and, more readily, acknowledges the baneful influence of his house and the sensations it engenders: "I must perish in this deplorable folly . . . I must inevitably abandon life and reason together, in my struggles with some fatal demon of fear."
Like many another Gothic character, Roderick encounters a "fatal demon," and his characteristics from this point become more and more those of the villain, with his deliberate burial of Madeline deepening his fears, until he becomes a madman, though sufficiently forceful to persuade his companion, the narrator, that the vision of vengeful Madeline is genuine. Roderick portrays the necromancer or magician, common in terror tales. If we have difficulty accepting that Madeline can not only survive the airlessness of her tomb but manage her incredible escape, we might perceive her as a genuine supernatural being (as she is in the narrator's mind), drawn from her grave by the fears of her brother, which effect the "spell" that can summon spirits. These fears, in turn, are symbolized in the great storm. That they ought to be viewed by readers as rationally explainable is clear in the narrator's words to Roderick: "'These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon,'" and miasma from the tarn may account for the terrifying atmosphere. Once more the narrator unwittingly reveals the truth. A debilitated hero-villain, from a decayed tradition, however, will have none of such explanations. Roderick persists in "Germanically" interpreting the "Mad Trist" of multiple meanings and, consequently, falls prey to its suggestions of his own situation, with disastrous results.
It is proper now to turn our attention to the lady Madeline, because all interpreters of "Usher" see Roderick's fate inextricably linked to hers. Her name, so redolent of Maddalenas and Rosalinas in earlier Gothic works, bears special import here, because it derives from "Mary Magdalen" and means "a tower" and "a lady of house." Madeline, as lady of the house of Usher, unfolds additional ironies. Initially, she brings qualities of passivity together, typifying Gothic heroines with features of the dying consumptive, another stock figure. Of course, her baffling malady recalls the catalepsy that afflicts Berenice and Ligeia, as well as their innumerable sisters in literature of the age. Perhaps this fated maiden is Poe's ironic bow to still another hackneyed aspect of "Germanism," particularly in the terms that describe her appearance in the tomb, with "the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death." To alert readers, the mockery and the smile might intimate a "hoaxical" aspect in this seemingly ordinary Gothic heroine.
Remembering that Mary Magdalen was among those at the Crucifixion, should we conclude that Poe, ever alert to scriptural themes, added another irony in naming Roderick's sister for one who was present at a colossal sacrifice? Madeline's reappearance as a terrible "ghost," which frightens Roderick to death and the narrator nearly to death, is couched in terms that suggest hallucination (in Roderick or the narrator, as the case might be). In the ornate, hysterical language, detailing a perfect medley of "sensations," we may discern Poe's wily hand pulling all stops for a crescendo conclusion. Literally and figuratively, this crescendo brings down the house.
Well it might, considering the probable exacerbation of Poe's imagination after several years' charges of "Germanism" had rung in his ears. His imagination could set forth literary Gothicism in well-appointed forms yet, simultaneously, jeer at its excesses. Such is the tenor of the preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. Nor need we wonder, as we perceive his conscious manipulation of the "Usher" narrator's sensibilities, undone by overexposure to Gothic castles, abbeys, and mansions and peopled by such haunting types as Roderick, Madeline, the valet, and the doctor. Poe's artistry leads the narrator, himself a cliché figure of Gothicism, a kinsman of the Cherry Wilkinsons and Catherine Morelands, to pull the house down around his ears. With it falls (figuratively) the accumulated nonsense of overdone Gothicism, a lineage, to be sure, as time-honored as the Usher family itself. Perhaps Poe insinuated another sly bit of wordplay in "Usher," with its connotation of "bringing in" a new era of fiction after the demise of a debilitated stock. As the protagonist-narrator of "Tarr and Fether" concludes his chronicle on an ironically rueful note, the narrator in "Usher" closes his: with the implied moral that outrageous "Germanism" is indeed treacherous.
That the narrator senses the weaknesses inherent in typical Gothicism, in terror for terror's sake, is by no means assured at the end of his tale. Like many of his Gothic relatives, he seems compelled by the onslaught of terrors he endured to retell them to others. Unlike Catherine Moreland, he has no Jane Austen to chasten his discernible Blackwood's raison d'être. He remains a creature of feeling, or, in Poe's descriptive phrase, "all soul"—a proper consort for the ridiculous Signora Psyche Zenobia. She, in turn, serves to lampoon Poe's more serious portraits of Psyche and, with the "Usher" narrator, repeatedly reminds us how thin is the line differentiating the serious from the ludicrous.
If our "Usher" narrator possessed a broader outlook, he would not view his situation so Gothically. Doubtless from his "childhood" (read "immaturity"), acquaintance with the fantastic—that is, steeping himself in Gothic romance—has unbalanced his vision. Thus he enters and is overwhelmed by the "world" controlled by Roderick's wizardry. Although this storyteller senses that something is amiss within the world of his tale (it's too Gothic), he cannot comprehend the nature of its defects. This subservience to the witchery of the roman noir is highlighted in the reading of the "Mad Trist," an evident (to perceptive readers of Poe's tale) distillation of all the hokey "medieval" ingredients of the Gothic. Mad it is, and mad its readers grow, if they are not already halfway there—so that they "see" the specter of the lady Madeline.
Again, we must examine some of Poe's phraseology. Dubbing the "Mad Trist" a favorite romance of Roderick, the narrator seems to derive greater pleasure in its perusal than does his companion. What Usher detects, and much more quickly than his impercipient friend, is his own death knell, sounding in this overdone tale. How ironic that a Gothic romance signals the end of Gothic romance! And as with many others of its ilk, this Gothic tale evinces "uncouth and unimaginative prolixity," which had been under fire from the days of Mrs. Radcliffe. Scott's review of Maturin's The Fatal Revenge; or, The Family of Montorio censured its length, and Poe was later to lament "the devil in 'Melmoth,' who plots and counterplots through three octavo volumes for the entrapment of one or two souls, while any common devil would have demolished one or two thousand."
In such light we return to our too-Gothic narrator, exhorting his too-Gothic friend: "I will read, and you shall listen;—and so we will pass away this terrible night together" (italics mine). Recalling that the physician, whose brief appearance is colored by the narrator's subjectivity, had also "passed on," we may read this passage as covert, sly mockery of dying Gothicism. Such wordplay keeps good company if we also remember that, earlier, the valet "threw open a door and ushered me into the presence of his master," or that, previously, the narrator had "entered the Gothic archway of the hall." With final italicizing for my emphasis, I note that Roderick's favorite reading was "an exceedingly rare and curious book in quarto Gothic," perhaps not uncoincidentally the Vigils for the Dead of an old German church. Other books that are listed among Roderick's delights may also hint at comic undertones, one a burlesque that features a comic parrot.
It may not be amiss to comment that Roderick's painting of nothingness is deemed worthy of emphasis by the narrator and that the "last Waltz of Von Weber" is recalled as a sample of his performances. The painting ought to alert us to absurdity, because it depicts glaring light where no light can shine. The music was composed just prior to its supposed creator's death; as such it is a swan song for Usher and all that he represents of faded Gothicism. Poe had elsewhere engaged in such innuendoes, and I think we should not discount their importance in "Usher." Indeed, all these things, every one redolent of "Germanism," will pass away.
From the foregoing, it should be evident that Poe's comic impulse was active in "Usher." Although in his famous preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque he apparently eschewed the "Germanic," we cannot pretend that he never served it up liberally in some of his tales (witness "Metzengerstein," "Berenice," and the Mesmeric tales). Given the brief time between conception and publication of "Usher," and then between the Burton's and Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, we cannot ignore implications in this tale of covert lampooning of the Gothic tradition, tied to Poe's commentary on "Germanism," like a pudding richly studded with Gothic clichés. Not the first, or last, attempt by Poe to mock the very sort of fiction that earned him a (meager) living, "Usher" accomplishes far more subtle humor at the expense of Gothicism than, say, "Loss of Breath" or "The Premature Burial."
Disenchanted with the terror tale that was so much in demand but unwilling to lay down the reins with which he could so ably steer its course, Poe satisfied two audiences in "Usher." For one, he provided the horrors they expected and enjoyed. For the other, he created a work that embodies (among much else) a moral about succumbing to the extravagances of the Gothic. Thus, to paraphrase Abel, "Usher" is a matchless example of "Poe's .. . art which conceals art." Although he composed other tales that mingle tragic with comic substance, nowhere else was he so artistic.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5147
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 developments, with their stark removal from the "everyday" and the hallucinatory quality of their description, but it points to Poe's own clear perception of how his tale's dramatic tension is to be maintained. For if "The Fall of the House of Usher" is distinguished by its forays into the fantastic and the grotesque, it also remains tethered to the real. What I am calling reality is most usefully apprehended in this case from the perspective of medical history. An understanding of such history not only affords insight into the maladies of both Roderick and Madeline Usher but suggests both how and why the latter suffers premature burial at the hands of the one person who loves and needs her most.
Thrice in the course of the narrative, Roderick Usher is referred to as a "hypochondriac." David W. Butler has demonstrated that Usher suffers not so much from a morbid belief in imaginary ills (the popular conception of hypochondria) as from hypochondriasis, a serious medical disorder widely known and discussed for centuries as well as during Poe's own time. It is evident that Poe was familiar with the various symptoms of the malady, for they recur in nearly textbook fashion in the story. Among these symptoms were the predilection to look on the dark side of things and to fall under the influence of environment and habit; fluctuations between high spirits and depression; a sudden acuteness of the senses; and the fear of impending doom. Benjamin Rush, the prominent American physician (and signer of the Declaration of Independence), commented on the alternation of high spirits and depression as an early stage of hypochondriasis and singled out "despair" as the "most awful symptom." Roderick Usher possesses "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." His behavior, at least prior to his sister's demise, is "alternately vivacious and sullen"; he suffers from a "morbid acuteness of the senses" which at one juncture even allows him to "distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of [Madeline's] heart"; and he is convinced that he must soon perish. Hypochondriasis was also commonly linked to cultivation and personal refinement, qualities which Usher, with his "lofty and spiritual ideality," possesses in abundance. Even the commonly understood "remedies" for the malady, which included the pursuit of fine arts and an agreeable course of reading, along with the cultivation of cheerful society, are attempted by Usher, an erstwhile musician and painter who solicits the "cheerfulness" of the narrator's "society" in an effort to gain "some alleviation of his malady."
But neither Butler's valuable essay, which posits a connection between the mind-body disorder of hypochondriasis and the Romantic's faith in the ability of the imagination to affect the corporeal world, nor an earlier discussion by I. M. Walker about the medical implications of the "miasma" that surrounds the house and tarn fully accommodates Poe's complex handling of pathology. Neither Butler nor Walker, for example, explores the implications of Poe's use of medically cognate terms such as "melancholy" and "madness" in further describing Roderick Usher. And neither examines the malady that torments Madeline Usher while baffling her physicians. Yet Poe enumerates several specific symptoms of Madeline's distress and otherwise encourages us to believe that it has a definite basis in reality. By understanding this malady and by further examining the implications inherent in the descriptions of Roderick Usher, we may arrive at a clear understanding of the medical basis for Madeline's unhappy fate and Roderick's mysterious behavior.
Poe is at pains to show the similarities between the two Ushers. When the narrator notices the "striking similitude between the brother and sister" as he gazes down upon what he imagines to be Madeline's corpse, he learns at once that the two not only are more alike than most siblings but are in fact twins—twins in whom "sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed." Just as the Ushers are closely allied in sympathies, it follows that their ailments may be related in some way as well. This notion is consistent with what we have earlier learned about Roderick: that he suffers not merely from a "constitutional" but a "family" evil. Throughout the course of its medical history hypochondriasis was consistently linked with one other common malady: hysteria. The eminent seventeenth-century English clinician Thomas Sydenham declared that hypochondriasis was as like hysteria "as one egg is to another." Bernard Mandeville's A Treatise of the Hypochondriack and Hysterick Diseases (1730) took for granted the twin nature of the two maladies, as did such later eighteenth-century productions as George Cheyne's popular The English Malady or a Treatise of Nervous Diseases of All Kinds as Spleen, Vapours, Lowness of Spirits, Hypochondriacal, and Hysterical Distempers and Robert Whytt's more clinical Observations on the Nature, Causes, and Cure of those Disorders which have been commonly called Nervous, Hypochondriac, or Hysteric. And during Poe's lifetime the association between hypochondriasis and hysteria remained sufficiently widespread that when the Royal Society of Medicine of Bordeaux attempted to ascertain whether there were any difference at all between the maladies, a writer in the Foreign Quarterly Review, reporting on the Society's efforts and positively affirming the differences between the two disorders, immediately assumed that he was correcting the misimpression of the multitudes. For most people, he readily acknowledged, the "identity" of hypochondriasis and hysteria remained intact up to the present.
Probably the most conspicuous difference between the two maladies was that hypochondriasis was believed to afflict men and hysteria to afflict women. This difference is of course consistent with the hypothesis of twin ailments, for if Roderick Usher suffers from hypochondriasis, it is Madeline Usher who suffers from hysteria. But it was also believed that "sympathy" between the nervous systems of different individuals could lead to the transferrence of symptoms from one person to another through the organ of the mind; in particular hysteria was "found to be catching." Upon Madeline's supposed demise, Roderick exhibits a marked change of behavior. When the narrator encounters him near the start of the tale's climactic scene, he notices "a species of mad hilarity in his eyes—an evidently restrained hysteria in his whole demeanour" (Poe's italics). Poe's use of the nominative rather the adjectival form of the word "hysteria" and particularly the emphasis he places on it through the expedient of italics suggest an actual malady rather than a temporary type of aberrant behavior. So deep are the "sympathies" between the twins that upon Madeline's "death" she bequeaths her brother the ravages of her own distress. He in turn confers upon the narrator, who rapidly reaches the limits of his own reason, a portion of that same abundance.
While it might be supposed that any medical authority versed in the history of pathology and observant of the close ties between Roderick and Madeline Usher should have been able to diagnose the latter's disorder, such is not the case here, where "the disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physicians." There are two reasons why this is so. The first is the difficulty of arriving at the initial diagnosis even under the best of conditions because of the malady's protean nature. Sydenham remarked succinctly on this point: "The frequency of hysteria is no less remarkable than the multiformity of the shapes which it puts on. Few of the maladies of miserable mortality are not imitated by it." Even in Poe's day the difficulty of diagnosis was conceded. As the writer in the Foreign Quarterly Review noted, "the attacks of hysterical pain are sometimes so sudden and so violent as .. . to excite, even in the mind of the practitioner, much doubt as to their possible origin and tendency/' While Madeline's symptoms are consistent with those most commonly associated with hysteria—she is stricken in "the maturity of youth" and suffers from "a gradual wasting away" and a variety of catalepsy—the very paucity of these symptoms, as well as her "settled apathy," which would tend to occur between rather than during episodes of hysteria, could militate against proper diagnosis. Her current physician's "perplexity," however, is coupled with an appearance of "low cunning," which strongly suggests a second reason why the correct diagnosis is not made. Simply, this physician is one of a small legion of medical practitioners who, during Poe's day, were known to "prey upon the weakness and credulity" of both hypochondriacal and hysterical patients. By constantly altering his treatment of his patient, he ensures himself of the largest possible retainer. It is no wonder, then, that upon the entrance of the narrator, an outsider, the physician evinces "trepidation." For all he knows, his unethical practices are about to be exposed.
Poe's handling of Madeline's disorder, no less than his handling of her brother's, is both sophisticated and medically correct. Moreover, his decision to make Madeline a victim of catalepsy (twice in the story, as if to emphasize the point, he notes the cataleptical nature of her malady) affords us a medically credible way of explaining how she is buried alive. For centuries, catalepsy had been regarded as one of the most prominent, certainly in its more extreme manifestations the most dramatic, of hysterical symptoms. In a cataleptic or hysterical fit, the patient experienced a muscular paroxysm which froze the body and limbs in whatever position they happened to be placed last. Sometimes the patient lost consciousness. Breathing often slowed and the pulse rate diminished to the point where they were scarcely perceptible or at times even brought to a temporary halt. In the more extreme cases, no doubt aided and abetted by the motionlessness of the victim, the cataleptic fit was widely assumed to be capable of imitating death itself. The description offered by the sixteenth-century French surgeon Ambroise Paré of this extreme manifestation of hysteria was one that may fairly be said to have persisted in the popular imagination for centuries:
it bringeth a drousiness, beeing lifted up unto the brain, whereby the woman sinketh down as if shee were astonished, and lieth without motion, and sense or feeling, and the beating of the arteries, and the breathing are so small, that sometimes it is thought they are not at all, but that the woman is altogether dead.
Paré went on to suggest that in the severer manifestation the body could also turn cold. The famous nineteenth-century German phrenologist Johann Christoph Spurzheim, in his early classic on mental derangement, Observations on the Deranged Manifestations of the Mind or Insanity, agreed that in the convulsive, hysteric, and hypochondriac fits the patient might seem "almost dead" and added that the fit itself could last for several hours. In regard to this latter point, the English physician Alexander Crichton went even further, noting instances of sleep "of the comatose kind, or mixed with catalepsy" in which the "state of torpor" continued for several days, during which the person afflicted took no food whatever. Such a feature would be consistent with Madeline Usher's "emaciated frame" upon her reappearance at the end of the tale. In brief, whatever substance there may have been to the fairly common reports during Poe's time of "trances in which patients have been supposed to be dead," there is no doubt that the belief in such trances was widespread and that those trances were "of the family of hysteria." Indeed, as the century advanced, papers on "Hysteria Simulating Death" appeared in reputable medical journals. When Roderick Usher, awaiting in dread the return of his buried sister, cries out in horror, "We have put her living in the tomb!" (Poe's italics), there is, then, medical reason to suppose that he may be taken at his word.
Of course the question remains as to whether Roderick knew that his sister was still alive at the time of burial. Given both medical and popular opinion on the matter, as well as the contributing effects of environment, of mental derangement, and of forebodings of death, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Roderick at first imagines his sister to be dead when he entombs her in the donjon-keep in a remote region of the family manor. Assuming that Madeline has suffered a particularly severe seizure of the type described above, it would have been difficult even for an expert to determine at once whether the victim were alive or dead. When the narrator views Madeline, it is in the darkness of the vault with only "half smothered" torches affording light and with "little opportunity for investigation." At that, the glances of the narrator and Roderick Usher "rested not long upon the dead." There seems little doubt that Poe means to suggest, even at this early juncture, the possibility that Madeline may still be alive. He reminds us at this point that hers was a malady "of a strictly cataleptical character" and proceeds to describe both "the mockery of a faint blush" and a "suspiciously lingering smile" upon her face. Even Madeline's physical appearance at the end of the tale, with the blood staining her white robe, may appertain here, for Spurzheim reported cases of catalepsy that had been cured by spontaneous hemorrhages. The bloodied robe may be taken as the sign of Madeline's momentary recovery from the seizure itself.
But though Poe implies that Madeline may still live, the degree to which Roderick suspects that his sister is alive at the time of the burial remains unknown. The likelihood persists that he is deceived by the apparent signs of death, but there is no way of proving conclusively that this is so. A more material point is the fact that eventually he believes that his sister still lives—yet fails to do anything about it. Within a few days of the burial, we are told, Roderick undergoes "an observable change," his utterance marked by "a tremulous quaver, as if of extreme terror." Even the rather slow-witted narrator perceives that Usher's "unceasingly agitated mind was labouring with some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage." During periods of relative calm, Roderick gazes about him "for long hours, in an attitude of the profoundest attention, as if listening to some imaginary sound," the sound, presumably, of his sister struggling to free herself. Poe continues to drop broad hints until Roderick openly confesses to having detected his sister's movements in the coffin for many days past, although not, it should be added, to having known that she was alive at the initial moment of burial. The obvious question is, why does Roderick, upon learning the truth, make no attempt to rescue the one person in the world whose life he most despairs of losing? To understand his motive—for it is a motive and not merely an exaggerated case of fright—we must turn again to Roderick's malady, this time placing it in the wider medical perspective Poe provides.
There is evidence that Roderick suffers not only from hypochondriasis but from the related disorder of melancholia. The afflictions had long been tied to one another, probably because of their similar symptoms and mutually uncertain etiology. In the early nineteenth century, the terms "melancholy" and "spleen" were often assumed to be synonymous with "hypochondriasis." Even when the disorders were not seen as strictly alike, they were viewed as associative or causative. Benjamin Rush classified hypochondriasis and melancholia as differing grades "of the same morbid actions in the brain"; Spurzheim bracketed "hystery" and "hypochondry" (as well as dyspepsia) under the broader division of melancholia; and Crichton saw melancholy as frequently giving rise to and commingling with hypochondriasis. Poe uses the term "melancholy" twice in the course of his narrative. Once he applies it to Roderick in reference to the narrator's attempts to "alleviate the melancholy" of his friend, and again he uses it in reference to the house itself, along with its inhabitants, in the phrase, "the melancholy House of Usher," For his part, Roderick evinces symptoms and behavior clearly in accord with those of melancholia as it was then understood: he suffers from profound uneasiness; tends to avoid society and bodily exercise; and, conversely, seeks out solitude, quiet, and darkness, where he can spend long hours in brooding. In addition, he suffers from extreme distress, extravagant ideas of persecution, and innumerable imagined objects of terror—all of which were among the common symptoms of melancholia.
Poe's fusing of the hypochondriacal and melancholic disorders is, once again, medically correct. But the term "melancholy" gains added currency from its close association with suicide. In fact, Spurzheim declared that "the morbid inclination to suicide" was no less than "the same disease which is commonly called melancholy." Certainly Roderick Usher is inordinately embittered and demoralized by the prospect of his twin's impending demise. Madeline's death, he says with a "bitterness" the narrator "can never forget," will "leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Usher." Roderick also speaks of Madeline's prostration with "inexpressible agitation." It is apparent that he believes himself about to be deserted by his beloved sister. Coupled with his melancholic symptoms, there is a clear motive here for desiring his own death. Yet Roderick does not die at his own hands. Once again the medical literature helps to explain why. While some melancholics committed suicide, Spurzheim noted that most suicidal patients of this type were timorous and pusillanimous, and the German physician Johann Christian Heinroth observed that sufferers of melancholia, despite their tendency to self-destructiveness, usually do not commit suicide because of an attendant loss of will power. Roderick Usher appears to be exactly this sort of pusillanimous soul. Faced with the prospect of living alone, the melancholic Roderick wants desperately to join Madeline in death but lacks the will power to kill himself. The most that he can do, by burying his twin, is to act out the "promise" of his own death. By burying Madeline, Roderick symbolically terminates his own life.
Symbolically but not actually. In actuality Roderick continues to face the terrifying prospect of a life utterly alone. Yet Madeline's first stirrings in the coffin afford him a means of bringing his death wish to fruition. These means, as it turns out, are those of the madman, but then madness is nothing less than the cumulative effect of Roderick's maladies. Of course the suspicion of Roderick's madness is present throughout the tale and made explicit when the narrator says of Roderick, "At times, again, I was obliged to resolve all into the mere inexplicable vagaries of madness." But this suspicion, divorced from a medical context, constitutes little more than a crude device intended to enhance the narrative's emotional appeal. It is instead the virtual certainty of Roderick's insanity from a medical standpoint, the way that Poe's allusions to his hypochondriacal and melancholic character comprise mutually converging efforts to certify this insanity, that allows us to appreciate the full extent of Roderick's psychological disorganization and the bizarre logic behind his willingness to keep Madeline entombed.
Just as hypochondriasis enjoyed a close association with melancholia in medical history, both maladies were consistently linked to insanity. Hypochondriasis and hysteria, for example, had long been seen either as possible preliminaries to insanity or as modifications of it. Benjamin Rush observed how hypochondriacs sometimes sought relief through madness; Thomas Upham, the American philosopher and psychologist (and a contemporary of Poe), removed hypochondriacal delusions from the realm of general misapprehensions and placed them in a category that we would recognize today as psychosis. Likewise, melancholia had a long history of association with insanity, dating at least from Hippocrates, who designated melancholia and mania as divisions of insanity, and continuing on through Spurzheim, who designated idiotism, mania, and melancholia as insanity's three common forms. Poe conveys the connection between melancholia and insanity through the device of Roderick Usher's poem, "The Haunted Palace," wherein the "Radiant palace," a metaphor for the sovereign reason, is "assailed" by "evil things in robes of sorrow." That is to say, reason is assaulted by the evil of madness ("a hideous throng") exteriorized in the form of melancholia ("robes of sorrow"). Other observations also pertain. Crichton might have been describing Roderick Usher himself in observing that the melancholic commonly grew more absent and silent and at the same time "wild and alarming in his looks" before succumbing finally to a "violently disordered state of the brain." In the same way, with the high attainment of his art, poetry, and music alternating with his episodes of despondency, Roderick is the classic example of the person of sensibility and genius who was thought to be particularly susceptible to the melancholic's fluctuations between "mental brilliancy and a state bordering on moody madness."
The fact that hypochondriasis and melancholia were aspects of or precursors to a more general derangement (what Rush called "general madness") and that Roderick Usher clearly falls victim to this latter disorder offers a clue to some of the tale's perplexities. Assuming, for example, that Madeline has also fallen victim to madness (her name alone implies that this is the case), the medical literature may "explain" how she manages to free herself despite the fact that her coffin lid was screwed down and the tomb secured. Poe may have been playing on the fact that one of the symptoms of insanity or madness was long believed to be an inconceivable strength. Spurzheim, for example, confirmed instances in which the "muscular energy" seemed "almost supernatural" and in which "the strongest bands yielded to the efforts of the maniac." Moreover, medical history points to the particular route to death that Roderick takes. His willingness to bury his sister alive or at least to keep her buried alive is not a function of malice or overtly murderous design but of a profound desire to die himself. Spurzheim noted that the propensity to commit suicide appeared under three basic modifications: actual suicide; murder of another (especially a relative), followed by suicide; and murder of another "in order to be put to death." Roderick's pusillanimous character rules out the first two alternatives. Recognizing his inability directly to terminate his own life, he in effect chooses the third, and in electing to keep his sister buried despite his belief that she still lives, commits, in the eyes of the law, a murder. Such linking of murder and suicide as a manifestation of insanity was well known in Poe's day. Crichton observed the connection between an insane person murdering "the one he is most fond of and the primary "wish of putting a period to his own existence," a circumstance, he added, "too notorious to be denied."
This circuitous route to death offers certain advantages to the psychopath. For one thing, it allows for the fragmenting of the self: Roderick purposely blurs the boundaries between his own identity and his sister's. By fragmenting the self in this way, the individual simultaneously abdicates all responsibility for being. Roderick joins himself to the tide of dissolution on which his sister is relentlessly conveyed. Paradoxically, by keeping her buried he denies the need to come to terms with the prospect of his own survival. Along with the fragmentation of the self, Roderick's means of achieving death allow him to abdicate all decision-making and assertive action. It was not uncommon, according to the medical literature, for "those who begin with destroying their relations or others" subsequently to "surrender themselves to justice, and request to be punished with death." While Roderick does not surrender to legal justice, he nevertheless courts retribution. That is, he takes advantage of his twin's condition to improve the possibility of his own death—by fright. Whether he knowingly or unknowingly buries his sister alive at the start, eventually he does all that he can do to increase the terror of his environment: he throws open the casement to the storm, swings his chair round to face the door of the chamber through which Madeline must pass, and generally does whatever he can to stoke his own deepest fears. Thus prepared, he becomes a perfectly passive vessel at the moment of Madeline's reappearance. The sister metes out justice, the brother receives it willingly. With a minimum of assertive action on his part, Roderick is borne to death, "a victim to the terrors he had anticipated."
In setting up his own death, the mad Roderick not only ends the threat of solitary existence but also the nightmare of inherited history. As D. H. Lawrence once suggested in regard to the tale, this nightmare or family curse is incest. Certainly the tale makes it easy to suspect an unnatural relationship between the two Ushers. As Roderick grieves, for example, over his "tenderly beloved sister—his sole companion for long years," the narrator perceives how "a far more than ordinary wanness had overspread the emaciated fingers through which trickled many passionate tears." And as the tale climaxes, we are told that Madeline, "with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother." In this latter case, the sexual component seems unmistakable.
And yet seen in this light, the incest motif tells us remarkably little. We do not know, for example, whether the incest has been previously consummated—or not. We do not know whether the impulse is cause or effect of the Ushers' maladies, or what, if any, relationship it bears to primordial sin. However, an understanding of the medical history of hysteria lends insight into each of these matters while confirming that incestuous desire is at the source of the Ushers' relationship. Throughout most of medical history, hysteria was linked to sexuality, and starting with Galen was expressly tied to enforced sexual abstinence. The ancients regarded the uterus as a virtually independent organism or "animal" that might become displaced, at times literally ascending in the body and causing emotional instability and other symptoms of hysteria. Galen refuted the notion of uterine displacement, maintaining that the female's retention of a secretion analogous to the male's semen was the primary cause of hysteria and that males who retained their semen could suffer from a companion disorder. Despite their differences, both the ancients and Galen were in implicit agreement that a resumption of sexual relations was therapeutic. Around the early seventeenth century, the term "vapours" originated in reference to the emanations from a disordered uterus that were now presumed to ascend through the body. Subsequently the term "vapours" became synonymous with hysteria itself (significantly, it is a "vapour" that surrounds the Ushers' house and has "reeked up"). By the end of the eighteenth century the eminent French psychiatrist Philippe Pinel, working on the basis of empirical observations, reaffirmed the connection between hysteria and sexual abstinence. And during the nineteenth century the repression of sexuality and of erotic desire as an etiological agent in hysteria continued to receive medical support. The notable interregnum occurred during the Middle Ages, when all organic disease was seen as a manifestation of innate evil, consequent upon original sin. Since during this period a new distinction also arose between physical union for the purpose of procreation and union for the unholy purpose of carnal gratification, the therapeutic value of sexual activity was of course sharply challenged. Particularly in the case of hysteria—for many people the visible token of bewitchment—both the means and ends of medical treatment were called into question.
Poe conjoins these two views—one tracing its lineage back to antiquity, the other to the Middle Ages—through the motif of incest. Early on in the tale we learn that "the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain." This "deficiency . . . of collateral issue" violates probability and hints at a pattern of repressed sexuality. In particular, Madeline's hysteria, coupled with her singular attraction for her brother, implies an unrealized sexual desire. A pattern of such unauthorized desire would be consistent with the family's curious genealogical development and would, in its presumed realization at some earlier period, account for Roderick's hereditary madness. The point here, though, is that Roderick and Madeline have attempted to breach this pattern of family incest. The medical evidence strongly suggests that the Ushers have not consummated their incestuous desires; on the contrary, they have abstained from sexual activity. In the process, Madeline has succumbed to hysteria, the ailment of sexual abstention, and Roderick to hypochondriasis, the male's counterpart to hysteria. The Ushers' maladies, in short, are the product of a refusal. Nevertheless, the illicit desire remains so strong that the Ushers finally do achieve the equivalent of sexual consummation when at last it is safe to do so, as Madeline's "violent and now final deathagonies, bore him to the floor a corpse." Such a dark impulse, so malign and ineradicable, serves the same function as disease itself did in the Middle Ages: it is the signature of innate depravity in a world otherwise suffused with inexplicable suffering and doom. It is the dark fate that Roderick Usher hints at when he refers the narrator to the "terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him . . . what he was" (Poe's italics). It is the fate signified too by the house, with its "atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven" and with its apocalyptic "fall." Where sexual abstinence constitutes the organic cause of the Ushers' maladies, human sinfulness constitutes the moral counterpart.
An understanding of medical history sheds valuable light on Poe's famous tale of the doomed Ushers. It helps in identifying the Ushers' maladies and in providing a medical basis for supposing that Madeline is indeed buried alive. A full understanding of Roderick's disorders helps account for his curious willingness to leave his still-living sister entombed, while a knowledge of the history of hysteria helps locate the Ushers' mutual doom in a pattern of incest, itself a token of a darker fatality to which all mankind is heir. If the external effects of "The Fall of the House of Usher" remain largely a function of the tale's gothic extravagance, to a considerable extent its moral and imaginative substance is a function of its close ties to medical history.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6651
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 challenge to put imagination, and feeling, and critical intelligence to work, in controlled harmony. The mode then is not merely Gothick, but rather a 'Gothick' which at every turn signals a consciousness of its own operation, its own language and vision. From the outset we have before us, too, a narrator we must both respond to, and carefully watch responding:
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was—but with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.
This could be the opening script for a thousand 'horror' stories and films: the adjectival atmospherics, the compositio loci as the titles come up, the dreary landscape, the gathering darkness, the melancholy house, the lonely horseman, the preternatural feeling of gloom.
But just as the sense of something worked-up becomes conscious, becomes overdone with the word 'insufferable'—we are made aware of it as a word through a scruple, made to stand back and look, at both the Gothick and the motives of its audience. In other words, Poe keeps a controlling distance on what the opening paragraph terms 'that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible'; this story will be no mere sensationalist exercise in 'horror'. Still less are we offered that darker romanticism which seeks in hallucination or drug some goading or torturing of the imagination into the sublime—but rather something more like the aftermath of that: the hideous awakening from illusion into sick depression and hangover, so that everyday reality seems poisoned and bitter. The narrator is both suspect and comes through. If there is a touch of 'romantick' or even decadent expertise, of one who has known the pull of the Gothick theatre and the opium den, nevertheless the outcome is a clearing away, from what we are to attend to, of those self-pleasing but necessarily falsifying and even sickening kinds of veil. We can hope for good Poe when the temptations to what can be bad in him are so clearly renounced.
From beginning to end in 'The Fall of the House of Usher' Poe requires of us a peculiarly double kind of reading response, at once attuned to the depressive qualities of the story, yet aware that we are being asked to think and to feel more than simply 'sensation'. That double note can be felt simply in looking
upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—.
Something is there, both in and behind the detail of the passage, a horror certainly but a horror conscious of its own effect, its own elusive power. Something. . . .
'What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me . . . ?' Again the narrator anticipates by a split second the thoughtful (not Gothick) reader; but only to discover that rational 'analysis' cannot explain the strange 'power' of that 'combination of very simple natural objects'. Indeed it is that inability that can cause 'shadowy fancies' to accompany the realization of being out of one's depth. But just as there was a challenge to a different quality of imagination from the falsely 'romantick', so now the narrator tries a different kind of 'thought': contemplation, or more exactly, reflection. This shares with 'analysis' (i.e. taking to pieces) a kind of objectivity, an ability to stand outside an experience to see whether by deliberately rearranging its elements and shifting perspective, the experience can be made clearer. But this 'reflection' is unlike analysis in that it seeks not to dissect or explain but to re-cognize, seeing again but more whole, because mirrored against greater and darker depth. The lake suggests the bowl of the mind, in which reality can be not only reflected but reflected on, in a medium whose depth is not merely rational but holds darker and even ominous fathoms of consciousness below the surface, giving deeper focus to the image on the retina. In such reflection (it seems) imagination can join mind and what we now call the subconscious, in a wholeness of cognition.
The immediate effect however is to increase disturbance. In the dark medium the reflection of sedge and trees has become greyer and more 'ghastly', though still without explanation. It is nevertheless clearer. About now, if not before, the nature of what was caught in the original seeing and the inverted image ought to be graspable. Was it not an intimation of something deathly?—because what is in itself merely bleak and vacant, inorganic, becomes deathly if you see it as what has happened to a face and eyes?—and what is organic, still growing, is even more deathly if you see it as rank grey or ghastly white like mortifying flesh and bone? What we glimpsed was no mere seasonal decay, but death-in-life or living deathliness, further confirmed and increased by the sense of life inverted, perceived in reflection, though not yet articulated by more than a shudder.
Then, through a process of association, the narrator's mind produces the further fathoming for his reflection to work more fully: the intuition of the connection between his response to the scene before him, and what he has learned of the state of Roderick Usher, disordered in body, nerves and mind, inheritor of a whole process of dynastic life and growth now withering into a last death-in-life—the connection between the 'family', its last representative, and the 'house', that is implicit in the name the locals have given it. So that, returning to his 'reflection', the narrator not only feels his apprehension heightened to a kind of terror, but is able to pin down more precisely three of its causes. He is frightened that he is about to encounter, indeed is already encountering in the House of Usher, an atmosphere not only deathly but infectious; a disintegration already almost complete beneath what still feels whole; and worst of all, that he himself may be already implicated in that infection and disintegration, entering the House. The atmosphere peculiar to the family mansion, and almost palpable like a miasma reeking up, is not merely death-in-life but 'pestilent', and evil, with 'no affinity with the air of heaven'. The extraordinary combination of total decay ('Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior') with still 'perfect adaptation of parts', becomes threatening with the discovery of the 'barely perceptible fissure', which can nevertheless be seen to run from top to bottom and into the tarn below the surface. The concealed threat of the comparison with 'the specious totality of old woodwork which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air' is that the first breath of air from outside will bring instant disintegration—and there is the narrator entering. But most sinister of all is the possibility that it may not, after all, be a matter of the outsider risking infection or introducing an alien element.
For the House of Usher seems terribly familiar, a world he is used to, as well as producing unfamiliar and frightening fancies. If what seems living can be deathly, and what seems whole be about to disintegrate, might this not be true of the narrator?—it is his mind, after all, that is mirrored in the tarn. There is another but also possible irony in the evil physician he meets on the stair; for the narrator, too, purports to be coming to heal. Yet his scruple and capacity for self-examination do seem reassuring; this man who keeps accusing himself of childishness, superstition, fancy, dream, surely shows a sane mind and a good heart as well as imagination and intuition? But it is also true that, having renounced false forms of imagination and feeling, his language keeps trembling near the brink of indulgence in them; the tarn in which his reflection is mediated is 'lurid' as well as deep, and may be poisoned. And most disturbing of all is his own sense of disturbance, and of recognition, much exceeding ours—suggesting that he does feel peculiarly implicated and threatened, as though he somehow belonged to the 'House' and the 'Family', as more than just a childhood friend. We cannot tell yet how to feel, but one thing is more and more certain: the questioning or response is not only continuous, but increasing.
However, our introduction to Roderick Usher (though of course we see him only through the narrator) begins to clarify the difference between them. He is the protagonist of the Gothick/Romantick which the story began by distancing: at the centre of its 'intricate' passageways; its dark spaces and recesses beyond inspection; its in-turned enclosure; its 'encrimsoned light' from windows not meant to see out of, but rather to transform the daylight artificially into a richer atmosphere of inner sensation. Indeed Roderick is the artist in these modes, the culmination of a long line—but both the narrator and Usher himself proceed to clarify what that development of imagination and sensibility may cost, in the loss of vitality and the reduction of fully human being:
Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.
We soon discover why. The one-sided development of that kind of artist clearly involves a loss of physical vitality, indeed an atrophy of the body, so that the narrator can hardly recognize the 'wan being' Usher has become. Intuitions about the House are reinforced and diagnosed in the impressions made by its owner. His extraordinary luminous eyes may seem very different from the vacancy of the house-face (though we have just had a hint of how they might look from outside in the daylight) but the 'cadaverous complexion' and hair 'of a more than web-like softness and tenuity', floating about the high temples—everybody remarks on the resemblance to Poe himself—also irresistibly and horribly remind one of the previous sense of grey substance and floating fungoid growth, living but corpse-like, a death-in-life now located in the poet and musician as well as in his House. Moreover the delicate mouldings of lip and nostril, bespeaking beauty and sensibility, are at odds with the lack of moral energy betrayed by the chin. The cost of lustrous eye and Arabesque expression is a radical splitting of 'simple humanity': a deep division of personality betrayed by inconsistency and incoherence of behaviour, attitude, voice. Roderick's 'cordiality' is both 'overdone' and sincere; he both deeply needs and deeply rejects human contact and relation:
His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic concision . . . which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement.
Apathetic hangover and drugged excitement appear again—and it becomes clear that it is the willed and unnatural over-development of the senses in the artist that has caused his 'malady'. As his capacity for sensation has become more acute, it has also become not only 'unnatural' but 'morbid'. Alexander Pope imagined how a more-than-human sense of smell might become fatal, so that one might 'die of a rose in aromatic pain'. In Usher the artist's over-developed senses have indeed made him helplessly vulnerable—like the lute which cannot help resounding—to all their objects in the sensible world, so that, in self-preservation:
the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odours of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.
Moreover, the over-development not only defeats itself, but strikes Usher as certain to be fatal. The trembling nervous agitation, which had seemed partly excitement at communicating himself to his friend, reveals itself more deeply as terror: terror of anything 'other', not in itself, but in its deadly impact on his own excitability, so that responsiveness has become the risk of self-annihilation.
I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. . . . 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.
Still worse, it is dawning on Usher, in the guise of 'superstitious impressions' about the influence of the 'mere form and substance' of the grey house and dim tarn upon him, that things which seem merely in the dimension of 'physique' (of the body) can actually affect the 'morale' of existence (of the soul). He has begun to suspect that the Gothick/Romantick habitation, 'by dint of long sufferance' of its influence, may not only have produced physical deterioration, morbid over-sensitivity, and nervous agitation, but an effect upon his spiritual being.
And finally in this catalogue of gloom—confessed with the greatest hesitation—is the dying of his 'tenderly beloved sister' which will leave him the last of the Ushers—the most 'natural' and 'palpable' sorrow of all, as it seems.
At this point the narrator seems wholly vindicated. His first intuitions have been confirmed, not only by what he finds in Roderick Usher, but also by what Usher himself has made explicit. And however he may have been familiar with and even tempted by Usher's world in the past, his perception of its disastrous consequences is now clear, and keeps him clear of it. But just here we find a paradox. At the moment of the reader's greatest confidence in the narrator's power of 'reflection', he suddenly produces a wholly inexplicable response, as never before. As 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 aston-ishment 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.
There is some kind of intuition at work; but why 'dread'? and 'stupor'? Moreover the strangeness of response is immediately followed by a mystery of event; and one which recalls the previous suspicion about the possible effect of the narrator's intrusion into the House of Usher. 'Post hoc' may not be 'propter hoc', but on the very evening of his arrival the Lady Madeline takes finally to her bed. 'For several days ensuing, her name was unmentioned by either Usher or myself'—which seems highly peculiar, from both sides. Again, why? Before we know where we are, the news comes 'abruptly' that she is dead . . . but even before that, the mystery has deepened by our sense, along with the narrator, that the blackness which 'pours' like a fountain from Roderick Usher must spring from some source darker than we have yet fathomed. For:
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.
There is no explanation. Just as we determine that we can trust the narrator, we are left to ourselves.
Or rather, we are given Roderick Usher's art as our clue to the deeper source of such darkness. The narrator imparts only vague suggestiveness: 'An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all'—'a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air'—'vaguenesses at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why'—'there arose out of the pure abstractions . . . an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which felt I ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli'. He is obviously out of his depth; both his language and in the last instance his syntax have gone soggy. He clearly intuits something 'distempered', 'sulphureous', 'perverted' and shudderingly awful behind what he insists is ideal and abstract—the adjectives are very telling when one looks. But he is clearly unable to pin down what that is. Or perhaps he is subconsciously unwilling to do so, feeling that vagueness is safety and preserves the glow; the remark about Fuseli being too concrete may be significant.
It is all the more striking after this that Roderick's poem and his picture should be so specfic; even, in what the narrator admits is 'the nakedness of their designs', an exposure, demanding interpretation. The poem is only superficially disguised in allegory and very quickly unlocks itself into explicitness, as soon as one recognizes that once again the 'building' is a way of bodying forth the inner nature of the human being within. It is a confession of the inner corruption and perversion of a human being. We first see the 'Haunted Palace' in its Eden-state, a green and fertile valley, a fair palace-of-man where, because 'the monarch Thought' is on the throne, there is also always spiritual power and protection, radiant light, golden movement and liveliness, sweet fragrance. How different from the dreary country, the ruined and fissured house, the most ungolden fungoid-hair, the reeking pestilential tarn where the Artist of Sensation has ruled! The contrast is further underlined in terms both of consciousness and the art that springs from it. Here the 'luminous windows' of the eyes are clear and open to the day, and one can see into an interior behind them where spiritual energies move musically to 'a lute's well-tuned law'—as opposed to the automatism of the aeolian lute resounding to every impetus of sensation. Where Mind/Spirit, born to the purple, rules, the song that comes through the pearl and ruby of the mouth is both an everflowing of 'surpassing beauty' and also specifically a celebration of wit and wisdom. (We are to imagine Usher's song, conversely, as performed with 'fervid facility' and, in the notes of accompaniment, as a 'wild fantasia'.) But in the Haunted Palace the monarch has been overthrown and is dead, the old times are 'entombed', and the palace has been transformed to the House of Usher. There, in the final stanza, are the 'red-litten' windows of Roderick's Gothick habitation, eyes still luminous, but behind which portentous fantasies spring in discordant melody; there, the 'ghastly' spate of speech and hysteria of the man close to mental and nervous breakdown. The narrator cannot but recognize 'in the under or mystic current of its meaning . . . a full consciousness on the part of Usher of the tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne'. The diagnosis of Usher's malady has come a step further; the hypertrophy of the senses comes about through atrophy of the High Reason (which includes both the rational and the spiritual), so that there has not only been a splitting apart of faculties which belong in harmony when the hierarchy is right, but an overthrow of the highest part of the self followed by its death and burial. But what the narrator fails to recognize is that Usher is exposing his awareness, not only of mental breakdown and the growth of sorrow, but of having given domination to evil things in sorrow's garb, a 'hideous throng'. That apprehension has been touched on once or twice, but it is becoming more and more explicit; we have to attend to more than physical and nervous breakdown, more than mental breakdown, to the growth of something redder-litten in the Red-man of Usher, something infernal. Moreover, as the Romantic is always aware that the human being creates, or at least partly creates the world, so that 'sentience' flows between him and a living rather than inorganic universe, so Usher has come to believe that his line of development has indeed created in their House—which we can now define as Gothick/Romantick art—an almost palpable atmosphere' of artifice and reflection which has an importunate and terrible influence' on any inhabitant. The 'darkness' we have to see into is blacker than mere sorrow.
We are yet however to seek for the nature of what (to use the words the narrator is unwilling to follow up) might be 'sulphureous', or 'perverted'. What could have filled him with such stupefying dread that he will not even make enquiries? Suddenly we are reminded of his strange response to the Lady Madeline . . . and then discover that we too know more than we thought we knew, when we confront her brother's picture. For if we once imagine that the picture might be 'about' the relation of the brother with the sister, it becomes far from 'phantasmagoric' let alone 'abstract'. We already know that Roderick and Madeline are the last representatives of a family which had for generations no 'collateral' branches; that is, had only the most minimal relations and connections with other people. This chimes with Roderick's terror of anything 'other': a terror both physical and psychological which would be bound to affect the possibility of any relationship, unless with someone who felt least 'other'. If it is something 'perverted' we are looking for, the possibility exists in the ambiguity of 'his only relative'.
We turn to the picture to guess at the resonances of the 'vault or tunnel', the smooth whiteness, the intense light, which have no access to the outside world but are buried far underground. The suggestions are (are they not?) of intense possessiveness or even imprisonment, and of intense secrecy or repression; and it seems to be the enclosure that makes the light, so intense and splendid in itself, seem 'ghastly and inappropriate'. (The vault or tunnel may also be a sex-symbol—though that might be Freudian stockresponse, and 'rectangular' is discouraging!)
But as the word 'incest' forms as a possibility in one's mind, it would be as well to be careful, since the most interesting part of the chain of deduction is the psychological explanation rather than any Gothick sexual frisson. And we have established nothing about the Lady Madeline herself, or her malady. The only clue to the nature of the Lady is her name—but fortunately that says a great deal. For if Usher represents an overdevelopment of the senses at the expense of High Reason and Spirit, the Magdalen who lies behind all forms of the name is the archetype of the refining of the fleshly into saintliness—she is, although of the same flesh as her brother, the opposite kind of development. (It should be no surprise to learn, a page or two later, that they 'had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them'.) If we think of the story as monodrama like the poem in it—as it seems increasingly useful to do—we could see them as the twin dimensions of human being which require to be harmonized in the Fair Palace of an integrated personality. But then, incest really is a perverter of the psyche and the soul, since, far from the higher faculty being enthroned, far even from its otherness being respected, it is usurped, possessed, pent in and submerged, kept from relating to the world or even existing in its own light, and made complicit in Usher's own sensationalism. The Magdalen, too, might be made mad-line.
We begin to sense what the effect on the Lady might be, and catch the resonances of first 'apathy', and then 'catalepsy'. But this is to bring out a second 'horror' metaphor: the vampire, who bleeds his victim's life-blood away until she becomes passive, devitalized, paralysed, and dies. If the narrator, who is sensitive to the Gothick, intuited anything remotely of this nature from the apparition of the lady and its effect on Usher, it is hardly surprising that he—who betrays a distant resemblance to the House of Usher and a familiarity with their kind of habitation—should dread and repress what he will not dare to think. Only (one repeats) the point is not to create Gothick frisson, but to diagnose the evil that its one-sided development has brought about by deranging the psyche of its habitués, and the art which it produces. Since the story clearly is about a kind of art, its protagonists can be seen as three dimensions of an artist's self-inquisition, in order to grasp its consequences. The narrator will be the daylight self, but still attached to the others below the surface, and likely to repress knowledge of what they have been up to, that is 'insufferable'.
All this of course is sheer speculation as one reads—the evidence is only what fits with the details that have gone before. As the story now goes on, with the abrupt news of the Lady's death and the plan to entomb her in the dungeon (which the narrator readily accepts, to guard against the sinister doctor who might try to dig her up and conduct an investigation), the only thing that will perhaps strike every reader is the uneasy reminiscence of the vault in the cellarage to the vault in the picture, though this one is far more confined and there is no light in it whatever. The body of the Lady also creates disquiet because of 'the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face' but especially because of the 'suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death'. It is appropriate enough to her character, since the final mark of the Fair Palace is that its 'pale door' should 'smile'; but it is not at all appropriate in what is supposed to be dead, and being buried.
Moreover the effect of the death and burial on Usher is disastrous. The luminousness in his eyes, which seemed the one compensation for the bodily decay and the incipient nervous and mental breakdown, goes out altogether. The division in the self seems to have disappeared, but only because he is possessed altogether by an even more extreme terror than before. He seems 'labouring with some oppressive secret', or like a madman 'gazing upon vacancy for long hours, in an attitude of the profoundest attention, as if listening to some imaginary sound'. The narrator begins to feel 'infected'. 'I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.' Then suddenly we are plunged into the full Gothick experience: the sleepless night, the gloomy furniture, the tattered draperies swaying fitfully in the draught, a tempest brewing outside, the awakening—with uncontrollable and inexplicable shuddering—to mysterious sounds in the intervals of the storm. After being held at a distance for so long, the full Gothick flesh-creeping seems to have taken over, with the narrator leading the required response, as the door opens to reveal the Gothick protagonist in a state of 'restrained hysteria". (Usher himself of course had predicted a 'species of mad hilarity' as the end of the process described in his poem.) As he now throws open the window to the storm, it is clearly a reflection of the inner tumult now reaching its climacteric, and an admission of both its beauty and its terror. If it images a psychological state, the significant feature would seem to be that the densely oppressive cloud-cover is now being visibly disintegrated by 'frequent and violent alterations in the direction of the wind' to produce a contention in which, with 'life-like velocity' the warring energies 'flew careering from all points against each other, without passing away into the distance'. Not only can the clouds no longer 'prevent our perceiving', but the 'under surfaces' of the issueless war are 'glowing in the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion'—an electric manifestation of what one might call spiritual energy turned lurid. The whole universe seems to be at war, and Roderick Usher, throwing the window open, seems to insist on the correspondence of 'outside' with 'inside'.
But the narrator will have none of this. He tries to insist that the storm is a merely physical phenomenon with natural causes, or at worst the result of miasmas from the tarn; and that 'You must not—you shall not behold this.' The daylight self, shuddering, insists that the cover-up continue. He even thinks that a milder form of romantic experience could be useful therapy; and reads from the 'Mad Trist' of Sir Launcelot Canning in the 'vague hope' that, however little its 'uncouth and unimaginative prolixity' may interest 'the lofty and spiritual ideality' of his friend, it may act as a kind of inoculation, a mild dose of the disease of folly, to calm his fevered excitement.
Now there is an entirely new note; and critics who find the 'Mad Trist' a lapse in what they take to be a truly Gothic offering, tend to miss both its meaning and its comedy. For this is the point at which the attentive reader passes decisively beyond the narrator's limitations, indeed begins to convict him of short-sighted complacency. He failed before, by not daring to enquire about the Lady Madeline and Usher's art; but now a blind optimism makes his selfassurance comic, though we only see this fully on a second reading. For the 'Mad Trist' is just what its title suggests, a crazy trust or confidence misplaced. Its kind of Gothick depends on the belief that the knight-errant can safely engage with the powers of evil and come off, magicshielded and victorious, rescuing the Maiden of Innocence in the end. Sir Launcelot is a secular author, not Sir Galahad or even Sir Perceval. Waxing doughty on wine—the note of self-intoxication again—his errant knight does not bother to come to any understanding with the 'obstinate and maliceful' reclusiveness that imprisons the Lady, but with sturdy confidence merely breaks the door down. He is just as confident in dealing with the evil dragon that takes the hermit's place, guarding the treasures and the Maiden—again he bluffly knocks it on the head.
Is there not a parallel with the assurance of the narrator that he can open up, control, and cure, the House of Usher and its owner, and his refusal, now, to heed the sinister warning echoes which accompany each stage of Sir Launcelot's story? He feels superior to its 'uncouth and unimaginative prolixity'—but he exactly shares and mirrors it. He fails altogether to identify the hermit, and the dragon, because he persists in a fiction of Usher's 'lofty spirituality' against all the evidence: the poem, the picture, the self-diagnosis, and the hysterical affinity with the dark tempest. But insofar as he does recognize something of his friend's 'mental disorder' (though he persists in trying to think it 'hypochondriac') he has Sir Launcelot's utterly misplaced belief in his ability (with 'gentle violence') to control, shield, and cure it. He is, and has been, blundering into a situation he does not in the least understand; unaware especially how each move makes things worse, as the dragon is worse than the hermit, and the next manifestation will be more dangerous still. When one re-reads, there will be a grotesque comedy of complacency in the language—as against the sinister echoes which comment on each phase of the 'Mad Trist' and its reading of the situation. Of the first sinister sound of breaking open in the House of Usher he remarks:
It was, beyond doubt, the coincidence alone which had arrested my attention . . . the sound, in itself, had nothing, surely, which should have interested or disturbed me. [There is no question mark.] I continued the story. . . .
After the 'most unusual screaming or grating sound' he congratulates himself that he
retained sufficient presence of mind to avoid exciting, by any observation, the sensitive nervousness of my companion. I was by no means certain that he had noticed the sounds in question; although, assuredly, a strange alteration had, during the last few minutes, taken place in his demeanour. . . .
In fact the utter fear of Usher, the turning of his whole body to face the door, the hysterical rocking, betoken somebody in the last extremity of terror; but simply do not register with the voice that can say 'I knew he was not asleep', or describe the agonized rocking as 'a gentle yet constant and uniform sway'.
Moreover the narrator, and Sir Launcelot, have also quite mistaken the nature of the 'shield'. Far from enabling anybody to rescue the Lady Soul from enchantment, the dropping of the shield is the falling of the last scale of protection from their eyes, to reveal a condition unrescuable and incurable, a psychological disaster reaching its inevitable end in total destruction. Far from rescuing the Maiden, it is necessary to recognize that she has been dangerously, fatally transmuted, and for ever.
Now the secret comes out, in the 'distinct, hollow, metallic and clangorous, yet apparently muffled, reverberation' which cannot be ignored, and the gibbering confession which accompanies the Lady's approach up the stairs and into the open.
Ethelred—ha! 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! Oh whither shall I fly?
What followed incest and vampirism was attempted murder. The coming of the narrator (we may deduce) so greatly increased Roderick Usher's anxiety—partly desiring cure, but mostly terrified of exposure—that he hastened, on the Lady's latest catalepsy, to bury her, alive. Both his poem (about not only the overthrow but the evil death of the monarch) and his picture (imagining the means) show some premediation and awareness of how repression could become final burial. His confession, now, proves that even if he only subconsciously knew what he was doing at the time, he knew beyond question soon afterwards and did nothing. And now:
Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart? . . . 'MADMAN! I TELL YOU THAT SHE NOW STANDS WITHOUT THE DOOR!'
It is not quite clear whether 'Madman' is addressed to himself or to the narrator, but it does not matter, it will do very well for both (especially if both are sides of the same person). Usher's madness is beyond question. The narrator's consisted in imagining that he could control or cure such disintegration: of relationship on one level; or on the other, monodramatically, such preying on one side of the psyche by another, with the inevitable reaction. In case one had forgotten . . . the last result of vampirism is the creation of another vampire. The red one has tried to devitalize, paralyse, bury the white one—and there she stands now, with 'blood upon her white robes', in a doorway that opens like jaws. As she falls 'heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse . . .', we watch the inevitably destructive reaction of that which has been buried alive against its repressor; an appalling parody of the sexual act by what had been the saintly Lady; and the ineluctable movement back into unity of that which had been split. (As Poe was to write in Eureka a decade later, 'in the original unity of the first thing lies the secondary cause of all things, with the germ of their inevitable annihilation'—though here the splitting of the soul has been so unnaturally violent that the return to unity is correspondingly appalling.)
There can be no cure or compromise as death-in-life completes itself—only the narrator's headlong flight in selfpreservation. As he crosses the causeway his final glimpse of the Fall of the House of Usher exactly images how, after such splitting, unity can only be regained in annihilation. As the zig-zag Assuring opens wider and wider, the radiance that comes through and sheds its 'wild light' along the narrator's path is that of a blood-red and setting moon: red-and-white in a moment of fusion but at the price of annihilation. The House disintegrates and the deep tarn closes over its fragments—the last 'reflection', the last conscious act of the narrator precipitately fleeing back to his daylight worlds is to cover a ruinous process in unconsciousness.
But because Poe is so much more than the narrator and the actors (those sides of himself who play out his deliberate nightmare of disintegration), it is possible for the reader to become more fully conscious—so as neither to evade, nor to succumb to, the Fall of the House of Usher. The story itself tells us how to read it: not as an indulgence in the Gothick, but as an imaginatively critical exploration into the implications, the fascinations, and the price of the Gothick artist's over-development of imaginative sensationalism at the expense of body, thought and spirit. Poe was fascinated by the genre, and its exaggeration of certain aspects of 'the romantic poet' offered a persona that clearly had its appeal. But what is the real distinction of this story above all his stories, is the capacity for self-scrutiny with which he set out both to explore, and to understand and criticize, that appeal, to grasp what was deathly and dehumanizing in it through admitting, but also examining, its fascination. I can think of no story which offers its author, its narrator, or its reader more opportunity for Gothick indulgence and frisson. But it is not only meticulously made, so that every detail counts, but also, and on a much deeper level, it has real psychological penetration. I take it that it is the House of Usher because it is also a prophecy, of what uncritical indulgence in that kind of imaginative over-development would usher in, and cost. Here (as not always in Poe or his critics) it is clear that art must be more than a sounding-board for gusts of 'feeling' or 'idea' masquerading as inspiration; must make more intelligent, aware, and more deeply humane and spiritual music than [that in Coleridge's, 'Dejection: Anode']:
The dull sobbing draft, that moans and rakes
Upon the strings of this Aeolian lute,
Which better far were mute.
And the artist needs to be intelligent and self-critical too; able to peer into the abyss of his own psyche, but also to build a Coleridgean Fair Palace, not merely a haunted one.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2799
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 can no longer sympathize." 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. 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, 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). 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)" 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, 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. 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. 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. 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. 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 feared—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, 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. 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?" The narrator muses over his friend's "very ancient family" 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; 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 skullface 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." 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. (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." 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." 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." Roderick ambiguously describes to his friend "the nature of his malady" as "a constitutional and a family evil" 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." 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." 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. 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. . . .
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" 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." 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." 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."
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 middleclass 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"—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"—a voice representing perhaps a thousand sisters emerging from their airless vaults.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7340
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 most deceptive of mental strategies. We have only to recall his persistent and active pursuit of mental and physical self-destruction—the drinking, his habits of provocative and violent argumentation, the alienation of his guardian and other authority figures who might otherwise have given him support, the pedophilic-incestuous undercurrents of his marriage. Then there is the miasma surrounding his death—was it the outcome of one of his provocations, or disease, alcoholism, suicide, dementia? In living his life and even in his manner of negotiating death, Poe was a captive of the imp of perversity. But with Art as his shield, the realms of perversity became a haven for his troubled soul. He left to posterity a documentation of the spirit of the imp who held him enthralled.
In "The Imp of the Perverse," Poe explained the logic beneath the apparent unreasonableness of this "innate and primitive principle of human action" which prompts us to act solely "for the reason that we should not" Whereas all other faculties and impulses of the human soul could be seen as expressions of the human need for self-preservation, in the instance of perversity "the desire to be well is not only not aroused, but a strongly antagonistical sentiment exists."
With that cagey "not only not," Poe renders precisely the double negative duplicity of the perverse strategy. From a psychoanalytic perspective, perversion is not only not simply (or necessarily) an aberration of the sexual life, or merely some irresistible impulse to perform an act insidious to the moral order. Perversion is a complex strategy of mind, with its unique principles for regulating the negotiations between Desire and Authority. To achieve its aims, the perverse strategy employs mechanisms of mystification, concealment, and illusion, devices characteristic of the tales of Edgar Allan Poe. The perverse strategy is, as Poe might have put it, a faculty of the human soul.
Among the elements of the perverse strategy that we will encounter in "The Fall of the House of Usher" are certain literary devices aimed at revealing truth by way of concealment. Poe believed that truly imaginative literature locates its deepest meaning in an undercurrent. The surfaces of his tales are always deceptions. Initiated readers of Poe relish the deceptions and anticipate having to pore diligently over his texts to detect the embedded secrets. The tale of Usher is shrouded in mystifying atmospheres, references to obscure texts, and hints of enigmatic events. Poe's impish invitation to detect hidden meanings in one place distracts the reader from other crucial events going on behind the scenes. Whatever enigmas Poe brings into focus in "The Fall of the House of Usher" there are always the shadows of the unseen, the uncanny, the unknowable, implications of some darker secret that is being kept from us.
Indeed, to apprehend the ambiguities in "The Fall of the House of Usher" a reader must possess the analytical skills of a good detective. A few years after his account of the fall of Usher, Poe invented the detective story and created the prototypical detective, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin is "found of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics; exhibiting in his solutions of each a degree of acumen which appears to the ordinary apprehension praeternatural." Poe cautions, a person of mere ingenuity may be incapable of analysis. Despite his lavish (and duplicitous) displays of scientific reasoning. Dupin arrives at his solutions by way of imaginative leaps and an uncanny attunement with the mind of the criminal. Roderick Usher is at once an imaginative artist and a criminal. Although a certain fondness for enigmas is necessary to appreciate "The Fall of the House of Usher," it is our grasp of the perverse strategy that provides an attunement with Usher's troubled soul.
Poe was not above employing puzzles and enigmas as seductions into the mere ingenuity he disdained. In the history of Poe criticism, these seductions have been all too successful. For example, those not wise to the diversionary tactics of the imp have attributed Poe's facility with the logic of perversity to the primal traumas of his infancy and early childhood. When Poe was about eighteen months old, his alcoholic father abandoned the family. Shortly thereafter, Edgar witnessed the sickness, decay, and death of his mother. He became an orphan and his sister and brother disappeared. Poe's tales are convincing depictions of the castrations, separations, abandonments, and annihilations that constitute the typical anxieties of childhood, anxieties that in Poe's case must have reached overwhelming and therefore traumatic proportions. Poe's portrayals of body mutilations, smotherings, drownings, entombments of the living, the wasting away and rotting away of bodies, situations emptied of human dialogue, are calculated to re-evoke in the reader the archaic fears of childhood. It would not be farfetched to conjecture that Peo embraced these themes as a way of mastering the passively suffered traumas of his childhood.
We miss the point of all this, however, if we reduce "The Fall of the House of Usher" to Poe's personal traumas or his inclinations to sexual aberration and violence. Instead, as I said, I will take Poe at his word. I will use the tale of Usher as a demonstration of Poe's mastery of the perverse strategy, with its mystifications and concealments, its ambiguous relationship to the moral order, its pretense of a fundamental antagonism to representational reality. As I assess the currents and undercurrents of "The Fall of the House of Usher," my interpretations of the moral and aesthetic plights of the artist protagonist, Roderick Usher, will be guided by the principles of the perverse strategy. Nevertheless, in this tale, where specters of incest and necrophilia hover in the background, perversion in its narrower and customary sense—as sexual aberration—will inform my concluding interpretations.
First printed in 1839 in Burton's Magazine, "The Fall of the House of Usher" was six years later included in Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. The very terms Poe chose to describe his tales are expressive of the confusions between the real and the imaginary, the animate and the inanimate that characterize the perverse strategy. Arabesque is derived from Arabian and Moorish art and refers to an elaborate design in which highly stylized human and animal figures are embedded among intertwined branches, foliage, and fanciful scrollwork. Crucial to the complexity of the artistic design of "The Fall of the House of Usher," is the way in which Usher's person and fate are intertwined with the decaying foliage and crumbling ornate architectural scrollwork of his House. We are repeatedly reminded of the sentience of nonliving matter and the decay of living matter back into nonbeing. Grotesque is an ornamental style of antiquity, which one of Poe's lesser known critics [Wolfgong Kayser] has described as "something playfully gay and carelessly fantastic but also something ominous and sinister, in the face of a world in which the realm of inanimate things are no longer separated from those of plants, animals and human beings and where the laws of statics, symmetry, and proportion are no longer valid."The Fall of the House of Usher" depends for its emotional effects on the dissolving of the boundaries between the inanimate and animate realms and the breaking down of the laws of everyday reality. Though this tale could hardly be recommended for its playful gaiety, the reader is playfully engaged in solving mysteries, protected until the very end from the full knowledge of the ominous and sinister events going on behind the scenes.
The tale's epigraph from De Béranger warns of a potential dissolution of the borders between illusion and reality. We learn at once that the heart of the artist, Roderick Usher, is like a lute that resonates to all that touches it:
Son coeur est un luth suspendu: Sitôt qu'on le touche il résonne.
Poe, the creator of Roderick Usher, does not lose his boundaries. Through the trickery, call it technique, of mystification and enigma, Poe achieves the deceptions, call them illusions, that comprise his artistic strategy. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" various illusory devices are employed to preserve the borders of the moral order, even as they mischievously render a picture of moral disintegration.
The House of Usher decays, crumbles, and falls into oblivion but it does so in a manner eminently lawful and orderly. The tale is partitioned, one could say precisely measured, into three equal and distinct acts. The events take place within a month, beginning with the desolation and gloom surrounding the narrator's approach to the House and ending with the abrupt, noisy, and violent circumstances of his departure.
Act One introduces the characters, depicts the eerie effect the House of Usher has on its viewers and inhabitants, and apprises us of Roderick's family background and the general nature of his illness. The first character we meet is the narrator, who, in response to an agitated letter from his childhood companion Roderick Usher, has set off on a journey to his House. He has certain misgivings and the closer he comes to the House the more these misgivings increase. Nevertheless he hopes that his presence will help alleviate his old friend's maladies—a mysterious bodily illness accompanied by an oppressive mental disorder. We learn that Roderick and his sister, Lady Madeline, are the last of the Ushers, a family known for its inbreeding and deficiency "of collateral issue" as well as for its unassuming deeds of charity and devotion to the intricacies of musical science. As the narrator moves through numerous, winding passageways to the studio of his friend, he encounters a valet with a stealthy step and the Usher family physician, whose expression of "low cunning and perplexity" further enhances the mood of suspicion, gloom, and FEAR that envelops the Usher mansion. Save for the peculiar dialogues between the narrator and Rodrick, the universe of ordinary human dialogue is notable for its absence. Aside from the brief appearances of the valet and physician the staff of the mansion is invisible and uncannily silent. Madeline utters not one word. But the canny dialogue of detection between Poe and his reader is vibrant.
Roderick tells the narrator that his sufferings stem from a disorder of the senses: He is oppressed by every odor, even of flowers. His tastebuds can endure only the most insipid food; his skin can tolerate only garments of the slightest texture; his eyes are tortured by the faintest of lights, and save for the tones from his own stringed instruments, every sound inspires Roderick with horror. Existence itself is a torment for Rodrick. He lives with the dread that this pitiable condition of his senses will eventually lead him to "abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR." He is possessed by a superstition that the form and substance of the House itself, the very sentience of the stones and foliage, have obtained a power over his spirit. Finally Rodrick hints that his gloom could be attributable to the severe and lengthy illness of his beloved sister, "his sole companion for long years—his last and only relative on earth". As Rodrick utters these words, Lady Madeline passes through a remote corner of his large studio and vanishes.
In Act Two the narrator quickly discovers the futility of "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." Nevertheless he does not give up on his mission of salvation. He spends several days alone with Roderick, reading from the esoteric texts in his library, watching him paint, listening to the wild improvised dirges his friend plucks from his speaking guitar. Most of this act is given over to detailed descriptions of Roderick's paintings, music, and poetry. It concludes with the "death" of Madeline and her entombment in a vault at the bottommost reaches of the House of Usher. As the narrator and Roderick go about the preparations for Madeline's burial, the reader learns that she is Roderick's twin sister, and also the disquieting fact that her features still glow from the blush of life. Immediately following Madeline's entombment, Roderick's mental condition deteriorates and the narrator becomes infected with his friend's fantastic imaginings and superstitions.
Act Three takes place on a stormy night about a week after the entombment of Lady Madeline. Usher comes to the narrator's room in a state of "mad hilarity" and hysteria. In an attempt to calm him, the narrator reads aloud from the tale of the "Mad Trist." The sounds described in this tale are soon echoed by the sounds of Madeline escaping from her tomb. Roderick exclaims, "We have put her living in the tomb!" Madeline appears in the doorway, and in her final death agonies, falls inward on her brother, bearing him "to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated." The narrator flees in terror from the chamber and from the mansion. He looks back to see the mighty walls of the House of Usher burst asunder and fall into a dank tarn that closes over its fragments.
With sin and violence so much in the foreground of Poe's tales, we are apt to forget that they are as much about the structures of reason and moral order as they are about the forces that undermine those structures, causing them to totter and collapse in on themselves as they do in "The Fall of the House of Usher." The protagonist, Roderick Usher, is an artist and the central conflicts concern the artist's ambiguous relation to the moral order. In a tale of an artist, matters of Art cannot be incidental. The decay and eventual fall of the House of Usher are inextricably linked to the crumbling away of the borders between reality and illusion in Roderick's art. The lengthy descriptions of his paintings, musical performances, and poetry are crucial to the undercurrents of "The Fall of the House of Usher," and to the affinities between creativity and perversion. Poe's tale of the life and death of the artist, Roderick Usher, depicts the creative processes that enabled Usher's art along with the moral nihilism his art was striving to regulate and contain.
In his essay "The Poetic Principle" Poe stated that the highest art is to be "found in an elevating excitement of the Soul—quite independent of that passion which is the intoxication of the Heart—or that Truth which is the satisfaction of the Reason." Richard Wilbur, in "The House of Poe," distinguished between Poe's proclaimed aesthetic of repudiating the human and earthly in favor of poésie pure—the visionary uncontaminated by passion, the imaginative unconstrained by logic or reason—and his more down-to-earth literary method of posing moral riddles in the form of prose allegories. Wilbur deplored the aesthetic expressed by the visionary Poe in his essays on music and poetry, but honored the method employed by the logical Poe in allegories such as "William Wilson," "Ligeia," "MS. Found in a Bottle," and "The Fall of the House of Usher.".. . .
Whereas Poe's aesthetic entails a conscious undermining of reality and authority in order to attain the rhythms of a pure visionary art, his prose allegories derive their effects from the vibrancy of the negotiations between Desire and Authority. In other words, "the civil war" in the palace of the mind acts as a resistance to the wish for pure gratification. In the absence of such resistance, without moral conflict, the aesthetic of poésie pure is the equivalent of a moral nihilism.
Analogously, we might say that sexual aberration with its conscious claim for unrestrained gratification is the aesthetic of perversion, whereas the perverse strategy is an unconscious method that regulates the life of Desire. In contrast to the sexual aberrations which have, as a conscious aim, an undermining of Authority, the strategy of perversion is an attempt to preserve the moral order. Paradoxically then, the interests of the moral order—what some psychoanalysts call "ego and superego" and others "the symbolic order" and still others "the structures of language"—are served by the perverse strategy. In a canny duplicity, the perverse strategy achieves its moral aims by permitting a token expression to Sin and even to the torments, anxieties, melancholia, and violence that accompany moral disorder. As in all Poe's allegories, in the tale of Usher these frightful states of mind are given a due measure of expression—but all regulated and contained within the boundaries of art.
Like Usher, who evinces a fundamental antagonism to earthly reality in favor of imaginative purity, Poe spurned realistic descriptions and representational devices in favor of setting tones and creating moods that would engender abnormal states of mind. He wanted to shake readers loose from the moorings of everyday earthly life so their imaginations might be freed; so they might suspend disbelief and accept as true something patently untrue. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" Poe engenders illusion and yet preserves a sense of reality; he replaces what otherwise might be a feeling of overwhelming dread with playful shudders, thrills, excitements. Literary devices that confound what is true by masking it with the untrue, or substitute pleasurable emotions for painful ones, are analogous to fetishism, the paradigmatic instance of the perverse strategy.
Imposturing, petty lies, plagiarism, in fact, any act, object, thought, or artistic device that wards off the perception of an unwelcome or unbearable reality and substitutes instead perceptions that facilitate ambiguity and illusion can be thought of as the equivalent of a fetish.
In sexual fetishism, for example, a fetish—a garter belt, boot, slipper, whip, corset, negligee—is employed to counteract the unwelcome and frightening reality of a woman's actual body and to engender the illusion of a phallic woman, a person who is female but whose genitals nevertheless are identical to those of a male. This act of fetishizing a woman's body protects the fetishist from the anxious reality of the differences between the sexes. However, this shield against the "real" reality, though it enhances an illusion that rescues the capacity for sexual intercourse, can only be accomplished through a dehumanization and deanimation of the sexual partner. Thus in fetishism an experiencing, breathing body is deadened, entombed as it were, like the still blushing, earthly body of Madeline Usher, in the realm of the living dead. My concluding interpretations will stress how Roderick Usher's break with the moral order is connected with his need to repudiate the reality of Madeline's sexuality. For now I am using the model of fetishism to show how Roderick Usher's artistic devices contrasted with those of his creator, Edgar Allan Poe. In his quest for a pure aesthetic, Usher eventually loses his connection with the moral order. Poe never does.
The fetishist's apparent antagonism to reality is not so absolute and fundamental as it first appears. Nor is Poe so wholeheartedly committed to the aesthetic of pure Supernal Beauty he promulgates in "The Poetic Principle." Poe demonstrates his divided loyalties by always acknowledging the principles of reason and logic even as he creates an atmosphere of illusion and mystification. With his fetishistic devices, the fetishist is disavowing the reality of differences between the sexes, while simultaneously avowing that reality. His fears engender an illusion of identity between the sexes. The passions of his heart, his earthly sexual desires, are an acknowledgment of the sexual difference. With one part of his mind working to conceal differences, another part is still aware of reality. There is what is called in psychoanalysis "a split in the ego," a fissure or rupture in the mind, but not a full departure from the world of reality. The fetishist is not a madman who simply denies or repudiates reality, as Roderick Usher eventually does. Nor is he one of your standard neurotics, like perhaps the narrator of Poe's tale, who represses any knowledge that frightens or humiliates him.
In the life of Edgar Allan Poe, artistic creation served as a version of disavowal, a kind of fetishistic device that enabled him to conceal and yet still reveal the unbearable secrets and phantoms that haunted his mind. Moreover, the lies, tricks, conundrums, enigmas, and mystifications characteristic of Poe's tales function like a fetish. In "The Fall of the House of Usher," various artistic media and art objects are employed in a fashion analogous to a fetish. Like translucent veils placed between the reader and what would otherwise be a full knowledge of some dark, unwelcome reality, the ambiguity and illusory quality of Roderick's works of art serve to distract and conceal. Yet, and this is the heart of Poe's artistic strategy, these same art objects simultaneously reveal in a symbolic form what would be too unbearable to acknowledge directly. While readers are kept busy detecting the enigmas suggested by Roderick's art (and the esoteric books in his library), Lady Madeline is being de-animated, buried alive, entombed in the land of the living dead. Yet, just as an analysis of the symbolic structure of a sexual fetish would tell us about the unconscious mental life of the fetishist, so the symbolic structure of Roderick's art reveals his unconscious forbidden wishes.
Poe tells us that Usher's heart is like a lute that can only quiver helplessly and passively to the throbs of nature. Usher himself laments that his body, his very soul is being pervaded by the atmosphere of his house, but this complaint to the narrator may very well be a vast deception, a clever subterfuge. In Usher's ascetic avoidance of sensuous earthly pleasures is he not, in fact, inviting a merger with spirits, phantoms, foliage, stones, atmospheres? Would our earthbound narrator ever dare such risky excitements of the soul?
When the House of Usher first comes into sight, the narrator finds it impossible to erect any cover of illusion between the decaying images before his eyes and his soul. In fact the very opposite occurs. There is "a hideous dropping off of the veil." The narrator experiences "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."
Though the narrator strives to impress us with his altruism and therapeutic zeal, one suspects that he has responded to Roderick's summons in order to gratify his personal quest for the sublime. With a mental contrivance that merely impersonates Art, the narrator turns his eyes away from the awe inspiring spectacle of the House and interposes an illusory arrangement of its features. He stops before a tarn that reflects the inverted image of the house with its grey and ghastly foliage and "vacant and eyelike windows." His gaze into the tarn does not, however, entirely dispel his anxiety; it transforms anxiety into a more tolerable fear. Indeed, the new visual arrangement brings "a shudder even more thrilling than before," but thrilling is a distance from the overwhelming melancholy and sinister import of the actual images. Poe's "thrilling" is all the seduction his readers require. We will not be disappointed. We are in for a bit of excitement. Our playful quivering apprehension will capture the essence of some terrible anxiety and shield us from the displeasure and terror we might otherwise experience. A roller coaster ride may scare us to death, but we gladly defy death for the elation of the thrills it promises. We enter the illusion willingly, even daringly, assured that we are not actually going to be smashed to pieces and die. In the tale of Usher, elated feelings of risk and excitement replace the mental sufferings—anxiety, depression, madness—we might otherwise experience if we were to actually feel as Roderick feels.
Poe invites us to resonate with Roderick's "FEAR." The thrilling tale the narrator relates will be the artifice that shields the reader from Roderick's unbearable moral plights. Poe, the artist, renders a tale that both reveals and conceals the torments of a soul that loses the boundaries of the symbolic order.
The logical Poe sides with truth and reason, but from the point of view of the visionary Poe, Roderick's release from reason and descent into madness is an act of artistic courage. The narrator who tells Usher's tale in his earnest, measured, reasonable way, is a coward who flirts with the dangerous process of Art and then furtively shrinks into the shadows of normality.
At each step of the way, from the moment the narrator has the inspiration to rearrange the particulars of the scene by inverting them, Art is evoked to conceal yet reveal the gradual but inexorable dissolution of Roderick's tie to the world of ordinary mortals. The art forms, poetry, painting, music, and even the obscure scholarly texts on the sentience of the inanimate world, books which "had formed no small portion of the mental existence of the invalid," express and reflect Roderick's plight, while by their continued connection to the symbolic order, they veil the horrors they express. As the last of his futile efforts to protect Roderick from the terrors encroaching on his mind and consuming his soul, the narrator reads aloud from the "Mad Trist," a vulgar grotesque by Sir Launcelot Canning. In this choice, the narrator confesses to an ingenuous duplicity: "I had called it a favorite of Usher's more in sad jest than in earnest; for, in truth, there is little in its uncouth and unimaginative prolixity which could have had interest for the lofty and spiritual ideality of my friend." The subtly "thrilling" shudders of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" rouse the imagination and we accept as real and actual the ghastly sounds of Madeline Usher clawing her way out of her tomb. However, the blatant clangings and rattlings of the merely fanciful "Mad Trist" are so cheaply obtained as to be laughable.
Roderick's art, his music, his paintings, his poetry strive for aesthetic purity. Roderick is willing to risk his soul for Art. His bodily asceticism serves as a protection against earthly human desires. With his art, Roderick seems to be deliberately negating the palpable representational world. This negation of tangible reality is Roderick's effort to achieve a more intimate attunement with nature and even go so far as to dissolve his being in the sentience of nonliving matter. Only with this painful and frightening dissolution of the boundaries of the self can Roderick free his imagination and create new art forms. As D. H. Lawrence said in his essay on Poe, "old things need to die and disintegrate . . . before anything else can come to pass. . . Man must be stripped even of himself. And it is a painful, sometimes a ghastly, process."
A contemporary reader might well wonder if Roderick did not invent abstract expressionism. The sounds and images created by Roderick overpower the ordinary, definitive, and concrete realities, replacing them with perceptions that facilitate ambiguity and illusion. "An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphureous lustre over all." Even when his images lean on reality, Roderick distorts that reality beyond any ordinary recognition. An example is his "singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber."
The narrator is enthralled as he watches Roderick's paintings grow "touch by touch into vaguenesses." The more abstract and ambiguous they become "the more thrillingly" the narrator shudders. Of these "phantasmagoric conceptions" the narrator recalls one painting that was "not so rigidly of the spirit of abstraction." The imagery was just sufficiently representational to allow the narrator to "shadow forth, although feebly, in words," a description. The image the narrator recalls is the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault that lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. Though no source of light is discernible, "a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendor." We later learn that this chiaroscuro image is a harbinger of Madeline's tomb.
Another of Roderick's productions is far less abstract and more obviously premonitory. With the advantage of hindsight, the narrator, now comfortably distant from the frightening events he relates, recollects the words of one of the ballads Roderick sang as he strummed his singing guitar. In its conventional phrasing and structure "The Haunted Palace" evidences a mind capable of the "collectedness and concentration" the narrator admires. When he wrote the ballad Roderick was still in command of the formal properties of poetry. His madness was still only incipient. Yet the words imply, at least to the conventional and cautious narrator, that Roderick is aware of the fate that awaits him. "In the under or mystic current of its meaning, 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."
Whereupon the narrator recites the verses of Usher's ballad, an abbreviated version of a poem written by Poe for another occasion and self-plagiarized to express the plight of Roderick Usher. Inevitably, the avid detectives who delight in fathoming Poe's deeper meanings note that all his mansions and buildings are structured like the human body, parts of the human body, or as layers or aspects of the mind. Often as not, the Usher mansion or the haunted palace of the mind in Roderick's ballad are cited as epitome and proof of this interpretation. The first four stanzas are said to represent a head, moreover a head with a lawful and orderly mind still capable of uttering words of authority; the flowing, glorious, golden banners are likened to hair, the windows through which wanderers might see "Spirits moving musically / To a lute's welltunéd law" are linked to luminous eyes, the pearly and ruby doorway giving forth the wit and wisdom of the king is, of course, a mouth. The two concluding stanzas, which depict "red-litten windows" and "forms that move fantastically / To a discordant melody," are said to represent a sick and disordered mind. Like the narrator who is himself a missionary from the land of law and order, many of Poe's critics interpret "The Haunted Palace" as Poe's lament to the tottering of Roderick's mind, his loss of connection to the life of reason. Surely, however, there must be an undercurrent beneath the current so easily and ingeniously detected by our reasonable narrator.
Let us consider "The Haunted Palace" from the point of view of the artist, Roderick Usher, rather than from the perspective of the frightened traveler who turned aghast from the revelations of Usher's Art, running as fast as he could back to civilization with its clear boundaries between real and not real, animate and non-animate, to tell an orderly tale. For Usher, as for any imaginative artist, the lyrics of his ballad might be less a lament to lost reason and more a tribute to innocence and free imagination. In this light, the "glory that blushed and bloomed" and now will "smile no more" could be interpreted as the innocent soul of the child. The child is the king who utters wisely, whereas the adult, the moral authority who enforces the life of reason, depriving the child of his contact with the world of sensate flux, is the corrupt one. The "evil things, in robes of sorrow" that "assailed the monarch's high estate" are the forces of civilization.
Poe, like the poets he idealized to the point of plagiarism, envisioned childhood as a time of glorious innocence, an innocence betrayed by the laws of reason and morality. Childhood was discovered (some say invented) in the eighteenth century in response to the dehumanizing trends of the industrial revolution. By the nineteenth century, when artists began to see themselves as alienated beings trapped in a dehumanizing social world, the child became the symbol of free imagination and goodness. Blacke and Wordsworth, and soon Dickens and Twain, were preoccupied with themes of childhood innocence. The image of the child was set in opposition to the prison of civilization. By peering into the soul of the child, the artist hoped to rediscover some divine state of selfhood. The artist looked to the child as the representation of that original True Self that was lost when man became a social being. Whatever is noble and pure and good about the human being could be found in the child, who, living freely in the world of sensate flux, a world uncorrupted by language and reason, is closest to the natural world, the realm of existence where soul and imagination flourish.
Clearly the narrator and Usher are at odds, not only in their attitudes to art but also in their moral values. The narrator is a conventional moralist, who even as he follows Usher into vaults and cellars and underground passages and thrills to the shudders they evoke, still clings desperately to the world of reality. Usher, on the other hand, has deliberately isolated himself from the world of earthly delights and from the moral order itself, in order to create visionary abstractions. The narrator, who has entered this heart of darkness on a mission of rescue, is frustrated by Usher's passive surrender to his illness. He suspects that Usher is nourishing the dark melancholy that he projected "upon all objects of the moral and physical universe" as if it were a positive force. With a mind still fettered by the temporal, physical world that Usher has shaken off, the narrator cannot apprehend "The Haunted Palace" as anything other than a sign of Usher's descent into madness. Finally it is Usher who turns to the narrator, crying out "Madman." But who is the madman?
Recall that the perverse strategy encourages an illusory excitement that approximates madness in order to shield the mind against a more profound madness. To appreciate the nature of this other madness, let us return to the narrower meaning of perversion, perversion as sexual aberration.
Fetishism, in its literal, narrow sense enables sexual intercourse through a displacement of sexual desire away from the whole identity of a woman to some accessory or garment, some object ancillary to her being—a shoe or a garter belt. Why should a man be unable to experience sexual desire for a woman without the protection of a fetishistic device?
Until quite recently when psychoanalysts began to scrutinize the symbolic structure of the sexual fetish, the need to create a fetish was taken as presumable evidence of the castration anxiety evoked by the frightening vision of the absent and therefore castrated female genitals. It was assumed that there is something innately horrifying about the female body, something about her life-giving passages of sexuality and procreation that would inevitably bring to men's minds the stigmata of humiliation, degradation, multilation, and death. However, this perennial theme of the female stigmata is now appreciated as a disguise, a cover-up we might say, for a man's secret and forbidden unconscious wishes—to merge with woman, to be her, to never leave the Garden of Eden of Childhood where sacred mother and innocent child are united for eternity. In Eden the mother is pure and asexual. To acknowledge the mother's sexuality and her earthly desire is equivalent to a banishment from Eden. The fetish object conceals and disguises the sexual difference, thereby granting simultaneously an earthly passion of the Heart and the exalted spiritual wish to be reunited with the mother.
These currents of Poe's tale surface in the relation between Madeline and Roderick. Although much intervenes to intrigue and distract the reader of "The Fall of the House of Usher," the specter of incest is omnipresent from the beginning. We are told at once that the barely perceptible fissure down the center of the mansion and the decay of its stones are expressions of the deficiency "of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name." In a tale heavy with ambiguities, Poe's words to describe the incestuous family background of Madeline and Roderick are ominously ambiguous:
[T]he stem of the Usher race, 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.
Unless the twins, Madeline and Roderick, surrender to their earthly passions and commit incest, they are doomed to be the last of the Usher line. Was Roderick's asceticism, his avoidance of all bodily temptations, aimed at avoiding incest? Or did he endure the ghastly process of self-disintegration in order to create new forms of art? D. H. Lawrence introduces his essay on Poe by saluting the forces of dissolution, disintegration, and death, declaring them vital to the life of free imagination. However, Lawrence recognized that as much as "The Fall of the House of Usher" is about the risky ecstasies of a genuine artistic sensibility, it is also a tale of love. This is where the moral ambiguities lie. The spiritual ecstasy that is essential to Roderick's creativity becomes a force of evil in his love for Madeline. To put these issues another way: The tale of love in "The Fall of the House of Usher" reveals the terrible consequences of an aesthetic of pure gratification, when that aesthetic no longer engages the resistance of the moral order.
Lawrence warned, "There is a limit to love." He grasped precisely the force of evil in the spiritual bond between the two last survivors of the House of Usher. In sensual love, there is never a complete fusion or merger. The boundaries between self and other never completely dissolve. In spiritual love, however, the lovers vibrate in unison and their beings merge. [As Lawrence writes], in the vibrating, spiritual love between Madeline and Roderick:
the mystery of the recognition of otherness fails, [and] the longing for identification with the beloved becomes a lust. And it is this longing for identification, utter merging, which is at the base of the incest problem. .. . In the family, the natural vibration is most nearly in unison. With a stranger, there is greater resistance. Incest is the getting of gratification and the avoiding of resistance.
Both Madeline and Roderick are dying of asceticism, of their mutual need to banish every sign of sensuality or earthly desire. Madeline's physical presence is a reminder to Roderick of his earthly passions. She is slowly wasting away, but her skin still blushes with the blood of life. In light of Roderick's conflicted feelings toward his sister, I would interpret "The Haunted Palace" as an expression of his wish to restore the spiritually of his love for Madeline. The contrasting images in this ballad represent two images of Madeline: the Madeline of childhood in her days of glorious innocence, and the bloody, lewd Madeline, the Madeline of sexual desire and the wild intoxications of the Heart.
Childhood innocence is about the life of Desire before the knowledge of female sexuality and the male-female sexual difference. It is the oedipal child, the child who must leave the world of sensate flux and free imagination and enter the symbolic order with its rules of language, reason, and morality, who resurrects the earlier uncomplicated infantile wish to merge with the mother, now as a defense against the knowledge of the irrevocable and irreversible differences between the sexes. With a full acknowledgment of these differences would come the painful acknowledgment that the life of Desire can never be pure. Once the child enters the moral order, the elevating excitements of the Soul cannot exist independently of earthly passions and the intoxications of the Heart—or the Truth of Reason.
Asceticism, the total avoidance of sensual pleasure, is an avoidance of the complex negotiations between Desire and Authority. When the effort to banish passion through asceticism fails, as eventually it must, there is either a fulfillment of a forbidden sexual desire or something worse—the madness of total emotional surrender to the other and a loss of identity.
Emotional surrender entails a total dissolution of the boundaries between the real and the not real. Thus, in ridding himself of the intoxications of the Heart, the passions of incestuous desire, Roderick is attempting a more insidious violation of the moral order. For, as Lawrence detected, latent in the undercurrent of an apparent sexual incestuous wish is the wish for a spiritual merger with the other. Roderick's deepest and most frightening wish is to merge with Madeline, to be eternally united with her in some smooth womblike utopia where the rough realities of earthly existence would no longer disturb his peace. Our most profound fears are always a reflection of our unconscious forbidden wishes. Roderick's "FEAR" of total annihiliation resides in his wish to be one with Madeline, to dissolve his being in the sentience of non-living matter.
Alongside my own interpretive version of Madeline, I am ready to acknowledge a grain of truth in previous interpretations of her as double or doppelgänger, or as representation of Roderick's darker consciousness, or unconscious desires, or as witch or vampire. They all miss the essential point of the perverse strategy employed in "The Fall of the House of Usher." This prose allegory is about the regulation of Desire through the fetishistic devices of Art. Roderick's aspiration for a Supernal Beauty, the pure excitement of the soul expressed in his music and painting, is the counterpoint of his bodily asceticism. By ridding himself of all earthly passion he is attempting to repudiate his incestuous longing for Madeline. However, Roderick's sublime art only disguises and conceals his forbidden wishes and in the end the Truth is out—revealed. Roderick's effort to bury the life of Desire by deanimating his still living, breathing sister is doomed to fail. Madeline's return from her walled-off place beneath the House of Usher represents the return of Usher's repudiated desires and the granting of his forbidden wishes.
The nature of Madeline's dying gesture is ambiguous. When Madeline falls inward on Roderick is it a fulfillment of their sensual passions? Or is her apparently violent gesture an act of blanketing generosity, an affirmation of their spiritual bond, a granting of her beloved brother's wish to merge with her? Either way, Madeline's final enactment represents a destruction of the symbolic order and a violation of social morality. The civil war in the palace of the mind is over. The perverse strategy has failed.
The perverse strategy employs a symbolic structure. The perverse strategy enables illusion but also still retains a connection with the moral order and reality. The price is a split-in-the-ego, much like the barely perceptible fissure that extends down the walls of the House of Usher. On the other hand, a repudiation or total denial or earthly reality entails a breakdown of symbolic structures and always invites a return of the repudiated in its most archaic and awesome guises. Whether as witch or vampire or as the specter of incestuous desire, the terrifying, emaciated, white-shrouded, bloody Madeline returns from her tomb to grant her brother's forbidden wishes. The twins are reunited in death, merged as one for all eternity. With Madeline's substantiation of the aesthetic of pure Desire, her overthrow of moral Authority, Heaven cries out, venting its full wrath on the House of Usher, which cracks apart along its fissure, collapses like a house of cards—and is no more.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 671
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: Falling into Text." In Reading Frames in Modern Fiction, pp. 109-14. Princeton,N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Offers a deconstructionist reading of frame devices in 'The Fall of the House of Usher."
Dayan, Joan. "The Dream of the Body." In Fables of Mind: An Inquiry into Poe's Fiction, pp. 199-200. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Briefly comments on Madeline as representing the idea of the body.
Haggerty, George E. "Poe's Gothic Gloom." In Gothic Fiction/Gothic Form, pp. 81-106. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.
Discusses Poe's fascination with the mechanics of Gothic literature, with reference to "The Fall of the House of Usher."
Herrmann, Claudine and Nicholas Kostis. "The Fall of the House of Usher' or the Art of Duplication." Sub-Stance 26, No. 1 (1980): 36-42.
Analyzes the significance of mirroring effects in "The Fall of the House of Usher."
Hoffman, Michael J. "The House of Usher and Negative Romanticism." Studies in Romanticism 4, No. 1 (Autumn 1964): 158-68.
Examines "The Fall of the House of Usher" as an example of the post-Enlightenment loss of faith in human reason.
Lynen, John F. "The Death of the Present: Edgar Allan Poe." In The Design of the Present: Essays on Time and Form in American Literature, pp. 205-72. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1969.
Argues against allegorical interpretations of "The Fall of the House of Usher," and of other Poe stories.
Matheson, Terence J. "Fatalism in The Fall of the House of Usher.'" English Studies in Canada VI, No. 4 (Winter 1980): 421-29.
Defends the common-sense attitudes of the narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher."
Pahl, Dennis. "Disfiguration in The Fall of the House of Usher'; or Poe's Mad Lines." In Architects of the Abyss: The Indeterminate Fictions of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, pp. 3-24. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989.
Employs deconstructionist techniques to argue that "The Fall of the House of Usher" resists ultimate interpretation.
Smith, Herbert F. "Usher's Madness and Poe's Organicism: A Source." American Literature XXXIX, No. 3 (November 1967): 379-89. Identifies a source for Roderick Usher's belief in "the sentience of all vegetable things."
Thompson, G. R. "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, edited by G. R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke, pp. 313-40. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1981.
Rebuts Patrick F. Quinn's critique of his earlier essay "The Face in the Pool."
Voller, Jack G. "The Power of Terror: Burke and Kant in the House of Usher." Poe Studies 21, No. 2 (December 1988): 27-35.
Interprets the "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a critique of the aesthetic of the sublime.
Voloshin, Beverly. "Transcendence Downward: An Essay on 'Usher' and 'Ligeia.'" Modern Language Studies XVIII, No. 3 (Summer 1988): 18-29.
Discusses "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "Ligeia" as reactions against American Transcendentalism.
Woodson, Thomas, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of "The Fall of the House of Usher. " Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969, 124 p.
Collects important essays on "The Fall of the House of Usher" from the first half of the twentieth century.
Additional coverage of Poe's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 14; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1640-1865; Discovering Authors; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 3, 59, 73, 74; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 1; Something about the Author, Vol. 23; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 1; and World Literature Criticism.