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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Student Question

In "The Fall of the House of Usher," what is the narrator's impression of Usher's mental state and what is the significance of his interests in art, natural science, and his "rhapsody," "The Haunted Palace"?

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Published in 1839, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s finest short stories. The tightly constructed tale engages the reader from the opening paragraph to its dramatic conclusion.

When the unnamed narrator arrives at the house, he describes it as “the melancholy House of Usher.” This detail already hints at Roderick Usher’s condition. The narrator also repeats the detail “vacant eye-like windows” which anticipates the later quote of “the sentience of all vegetable things” indicating Usher’s symbiotic identification with house as a sentient entity.

As he approaches the house, the narrator falls into a reverie about the past. This reaction to being in the house’s presence indicates the decaying building’s power over mental states, what the narrator calls “an utter depression of soul.” The narrator’s mental state presages the mood and condition of the house’s occupants: siblings Roderick and Madeline Usher.

The narrator relates that he hasn’t seen Usher for many years, yet because of Usher’s letter indicating a “nervous agitation,” he immediately responds by traveling to see him with the intention of staying at the house for a while. Despite Usher’s reserve, the narrator is aware of his friend’s passionate side and his “peculiar sensibility of temperament,” which revealed itself in Usher’s artwork, acts of charity, and skill in music.

Note that the narrator describes Usher’s knowledge as “musical science,” indicating his friend is not a dilettante but someone who understands the structure of music and how to use it for communication. This skill will turn up during the section featuring the poem “The Haunted Palace.”

When the narrator enters the house, he notes the “atmosphere of sorrow” and “irredeemable gloom.” When they first meet, Usher is lying on a sofa, and despite the warmth with which he greets the narrator, his recumbent state indicates his real state of decline. The narrator notes the changes in his friend’s physical appearance; Usher is now a “wan being” with a “cadaverousness of complexion.” He then describes Usher’s mental state and behavior:

In the manner of my friend I was at once struck with an incoherence -- an inconsistency; and I soon found this to arise from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy -- an excessive nervous agitation.

Usher relates to the narrator that he is suffering from an unnamed disease which he thinks is a “constitutional and a family evil,” a condition that keeps him in a state of fear. The narrator describes Usher’s ailment as a combination of physical and mental symptoms:

He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; 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.

Usher is able to find some relief in music, which leads to his playing “rhapsodies” on the guitar such as his performance of “The Haunted Palace.” As Usher plays, the narrator notes:

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.

“The Haunted Palace” poem is significant in that it foreshadows (in a Romantic literary manner) the history of the House of Usher and its eventual fall.

The opening lyrics reminisce about palace “In the greenest of our valleys, / By good angels tenanted” which then is attacked by “evil things, in robes of sorrow.” The lyrics also repeat the motif of windows being the eyes of a house with the phrase “red-litten windows.” The last line “And laugh -- but smile no more” foreshadows the “mad hilarity” in Usher’s eyes the night of the storm.

Afterwards, the friends discuss the song, revealing Usher’s belief in “the sentience of all vegetable things.” However, Usher takes this concept of man’s connection to nature and the supernatural to a further conclusion, with an “earnest abandon” that he is “connected…with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers.”

Through his belief in a unbreakable connection with the house, Usher binds himself and his sister Madeline into a morbid state of fear and death. This belief and resulting mental state come to their tragic fulfillment at the story’s conclusion, which the narrator barely escapes.

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Poe crafts a story with many details, some that you have mentioned here, to create a morbid tone that foreshadows the end of Usher—both the house and the man.

When he first arrives, the narrator is struck by the inconsistencies in his character: at one moment he is "vivacious" and the next "sullen." Roderick Usher's very identity seems to have gotten lost in both his sister and his house. When the narrator first approaches, he notes that the house has "vacant eye-like windows" and that the house suffers from a "sickening of the heart," both of which reflect the demeanor of Usher himself. Usher suffers from a "mental disorder" and "nervous agitation" that brings the narrator to check on him, and he speculates that the house is the cause of some of his mental disturbances:

He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth—in regard to an influence whose supposititious force was conveyed in terms too shadowy here to be re-stated—an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit—an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence.

Thus, the mansion seems to deplete Usher's "morale" and influence his spirit in negative ways.

One of his pieces of art features a long tunnel or vault with low ceilings, symbolizing the spirit of confinement that seems to suffocate Usher's existence. Usher suffers from some type of sensory disorder and finds all music unbearable—except certain stringed instruments. He plays "The Haunted House," which contains this verse:

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.

The song seems to foretell of the death of Usher himself, which is inextricably linked to the "high estate" in which he lives. "Evil things" attack the character in the song, much as Usher's mental state seems to "assail" him, leaving only a "dim-remembered story" of the former glory of his family. Usher tells the narrator that he blames the house for his mental condition and believes that it has its own consciousness.

Combined with Usher's relationship with his sister, that he says few would understand, and the fact that he is unable to remain alive in the world without her, it seems that Usher's own consciousness belongs not just to himself. In Poe's characterization, Usher is no ordinary man but one whose sense of self-realization and reality has blended into the house in which he is almost always confined and the sister who is his near sole source of companionship. Thus, his thoughts, art, music, and surroundings reflect the tumultuous mind that is cracking much like the foundation of his house.

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