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

The Fall of the House of Usher

by Edgar Allan Poe

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What does Poe mean by "his heart is a suspended lute; which resonates as soon as touched" in The Fall of the House of Usher?

Quick answer:

The phrase "his heart is a suspended lute; which resonates as soon as touched" in Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" symbolizes Roderick Usher's extreme sensitivity. Roderick, afflicted with a nervous disorder, reacts intensely to minimal stimuli. His hypersensitivity is mirrored in the fragile state of the Usher house, ready to collapse at the slightest disturbance. The quote also suggests a supernatural connection between Roderick's condition and the house's imminent downfall.

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These words do not actually appear, but are a translation of the French that opens the story:

Son cœur est un luth suspendu; Sitôt qu’on le touche il résonne.

These words would appear to refer primarily to Roderick Usher. He is a person of "sensitive nervousness," according to the narrator. The narrator describes Roderick's extreme nerves and sensitivity: he is very little able to tolerate light, he can only wear clothes of a "certain texture," he can't bear the scent of flowers, must eat bland foods, and can only listen to certain sounds—usually peculiar ones from stringed instruments—without being seized with horror.

Roderick suffers from what the narrator calls a nervous malady. Today, we might call it mental illness. He has spent too much time alone, trapped in his own thoughts and now is preoccupied with his dying twin sister.

His sensitivity appears to be connected to the house in a supernatural way. The fissures of the house seem to reflect the psychological fissures or fragility in Roger, and when Roger and his sister die (Roger apparently from the shock of his seeing his sister collapse in front of him after her escape from the crypt), the house itself falls apart.

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The quote is actually a translation of the French poem that appears as an epigraph at the beginning of Poe's story.  As the narrator approaches the Usher house, a dark and eerie pall surrounds it; so while the poem could certainly apply to Roderick Usher's strange malady of being overly sensitive to the slightest sensory stimulation, it most likely refers to the house itself.  The house already possesses a fissure literally and figuratively and is ready to fall at any time.  The phrase "resonates as soon as touched" implies that the most minuscule disturbance will topple the house and line of the Usher family. 

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