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The Fall of the House of Usher

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Student Question

In "The Fall of the House of Usher," how does Roderick's poem foreshadow the ending?

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Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story The Fall of the House of Usher is replete with indications of horrific events to come.  Putting aside the fact that any story or poem preceded by the byline “Edgar Allan Poe” generally presages a negative series of events, Poe leaves no doubt from the beginning of the The Fall of the House of Usher that what follows is shrouded in gloom.  As the narrator first approaches the home of Roderick and Madeline Usher, he makes the following observations of the structure that lies before him:

“. . .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.”

“There was 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.” And, finally,

“. . .this mansion of gloom.”

With these observations in the opening pages of his story, Poe establishes the setting.  In a remote forested area sits the Usher estate, its appearance a reflection of the mental turmoil that pervades its inner sanctums.  Predilections of doom continue as with the narrator’s observations of Roderick and Madeline, employing such descriptions as “cadaverousness of complexion,” “the now ghastly pallor of the skin” (in describing Roderick), and “I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread” in reference to the doomed Madeline.  In short, the tone of Poe’s story is sufficiently established as gloomy and foretelling of horrific events that the narrator and Roderick’s way of passing time, reciting the poem “The Haunted Palace,” is almost comical in its metaphorical relevance to the broader story.  A poem that begins with positive images (“radiant palace,” “happy valley”) that are reminiscent of the narrator's descriptions of the good times previously experienced in Roderick's company, suddenly and dramatically descends into complete negativity:

“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.”

This passage from the poem provides all one needs to know about the atmosphere of The Fall of the House of Usher.  This particular stanza ends with a metaphor: “the old time entombed.”  Madeline is destined to be entombed alive in the mansion’s dungeon.  The long-awaited developments for which Poe’s stories became known are presaged throughout, but the recitation of “The Haunted Palace” can be said to put the final nail in the coffin.

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