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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Discussion Topic

The relationships between Roderick Usher, Madeline Usher, and the narrator in "The Fall of the House of Usher"

Summary:

Roderick Usher and Madeline Usher are twins who share a deep, almost supernatural bond. The narrator is an old friend of Roderick's who visits to offer companionship and support during Roderick's illness. The relationships are marked by themes of isolation, madness, and the supernatural, with the narrator observing the eerie connection between the siblings as the story progresses.

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How does the relationship between Roderick and Madeline Usher drive "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

The whole story leads up to the climatic ending in which brother and sister die together and the house almost immediately collapses into the tarn.

Roderick and his twin sister, Madeline, are the last remaining members of the Usher family, known as the house of Usher. Their line—the genealogical house of Usher—is somehow mystically and supernaturally tied to the physical house of Usher they live in.

Beyond that, Roderick and Madeline share a strange symbiotic tie. They are dopplegangers, the mirror images of each other, and clearly, as Roderick understands, he cannot live if Madeline dies. When she escapes from the crypt and falls dead at his feet, he too perishes in the same moment:

With a low moaning cry, [Madeline] 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 . . .

The strange physical decline in Madeline is mirrored in the nervous mental condition that plagues Roderick. Both characters are symbols of sickness, and the house, too, covered in mold and fissures, replicates that sickness.

This is classic Gothic literature: Gothic holds up a mirror of parts of ourselves we don't want to see. In the dying Madeline, Roderick sees his own dying, and it terrifies him. Likewise, Gothic literature shows the creepy side of family that we often don't want to acknowledge, symbolized in haunted or creepy houses like Usher that are a distorted version of the happy homes our conscious minds like to conjure.

Both Madeline and Roderick are joined by decline and a deathly sickness, and that drives the story to its gruesome and terrifying end.

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How does the relationship between Roderick and Madeline Usher drive "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

The idea of the "soul tie" that Edgar Allan Poe puts forward definitely drives his story, but we must recall that the story has a dual filter. First, the story is told by the narrator, an old friend of Roderick who admits to not actually knowing him all that well. Second, Roderick is the sole source of the information that the narrator shares with the reader. We do not actually hear from Madeline so we cannot be sure that she shares the idea of being her brother's soul mate.

The theme of family lineage being tied to incest is key in two ways. Roderick is convinced of its centrality, and shuts his sister up while he contemplates the next step. But because he acted rashly, he actually killed his sister and thereby destroyed their line—their house, which crumbles around them.

So says the narrator.

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What is the relationship between the narrator and Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

Appropriately enough for an Edgar Allan Poe story, the relationship between the narrator and Roderick Usher is somewhat strange. Although they're supposed to have been friends since childhood, it's clear that the narrator doesn't really know Usher all that well. And as the story unfolds, and Usher's psychological condition progressively deteriorates, the narrator comes to look upon him less as a friend and more as an object of scientific curiosity. The narrator is a man of reason, a man of critical intellect, who uses his keen powers of observation to determine the presence of a mental disorder in Usher's feverish, over-heated brain. Yet the narrator's intellect can only really understand Usher as a mental patient rather than as a friend. It's only when he abandons critical methods of thinking to embrace a superstitious mindset that he's able to get into Usher's mind and gain some insight into his motives.

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What is the relationship between the narrator and Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

Quite simply, the narrator and Roderick Usher were boyhood friends.  This is stated outright in the second paragraph of Poe's short story.  "Its proprietor, Roderick Usher, had been one of my boon companions in boyhood; but many years had elapsed since our last meeting."  Poe continues to confirm this fact throughout the story by continuing to call Usher "the companion of my early boyhood."  We also learn in the same paragraph that Usher feels that the narrator is still "his best and indeed his only personal friend" which in itself is strange because "although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend."  The narrator reveals that it was "the apparent heart that went with [Usher's] request" that made the narrator fly to Usher's side.  Truly, it is a strange situation.

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What is the relationship between the narrator and Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

The narrator and Roderick Usher were friends in "early boyhood." This long lasting bond of affection colors the narrator's view of Roderick and softens him towards his old friend's odd demeanor and behavior. His sympathy towards Roderick impacts the story by encouraging the reader to feel compassion for this troubled character.

For example, on first seeing Roderick, the narrator is both convinced of his old friend's "perfect sincerity" and shocked at how much he has changed in the time since they last saw each other:

I gazed upon him with a feeling half of pity, half of awe. Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher!

It could be very easy, given a less sympathetic narrator, for the reader to find Roderick unbearably creepy, strange, or even evil. Yet this narrator responds to him as a fellow human being and shows his kindness. Despite all that has happened to Roderick, the narrator refers to him as his "friend" seven times over the course of the story. For example, he states:

I was busied in earnest endeavors to alleviate the melancholy of my friend.

The narrator feels a bond with Roderick. He recognizes that Roderick is mentally ill—suffers from a "mental disorder"—but still appreciates his core humanity. He remains at the house of Usher more than a week to try to be of aid. This is no mean feat, as the house is draped in black, occupied not only by Roderick but also by his ghostly, dying, and later entombed twin sister, and filled with Roderick's creepy paintings and the sounds of the odd, discordant music he likes to play. This is hardly a homey or inviting environment. Yet the narrator shows his loyalty and good nature by remaining with Roderick until he dies and the house begins to disintegrate.

It is easy to focus on the horror this story--as we should--but we could also remember that it depicts someone acting as very good friend to a man most people would not probably want to spend more than a few minutes with.

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What is the relationship between the narrator and Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

The narrator in Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Fall of the House of Usher serves, as narrators always do, the important role of observer. In Poe's story, however, the narrator's role is magnified by virtue of his relationship to Roderick Usher. The two were childhood friends, but had not communicated in many years, probably since childhood or, perhaps, young adulthood. The narrator admits to a certain gap in his level of knowledge of Roderick, noting, for instance, that the latter's "reserve had been always excessive and habitual." The years, however, have not relieved the narrator of his concern for and curiosity about the Usher family and, having received Roderick's plea for his friend to visit, hastens to the Usher estate.

As Poe's story progresses, the narrator and Roderick spend many days together, the former endeavoring to raise the latter's spirits while Roderick mourns his imminent doom and that of his sister Madeline, whose mysterious illness is characterized by death-like states that lead the narrator to believe Roderick's conclusion that Madeline has died. The interactions of the narrator and Roderick throughout, however, seem to exist solely for the purpose of providing a witness to Roderick's continued descent into insanity, and to the horrific developments pertaining to Madeline who, of course, is not dead when entombed by the two men -- a fact known to Roderick and belatedly discovered, to his horror, by the narrator. 

The events described in The Fall of the House of Usher are, needless to say, horrific and melancholy. But for the presence of the narrator as an active participant in the final days of the Usher family, there would be no record of the events described, and that is the principal role of this third character in the story. He exists to serve as witness to Roderick's final days and to the horrors that befall Madeline. Only as an old and trusted friend of Roderick's, however, has he been permitted this vantage point. The character of Roderick needs a friend or accomplice with whom to spend time reading the stories that figure prominently in Poe's narrative, especially The Haunted Palace, the verses of which occupy an inordinate amount of space in the story. The final verse of that ballad are particularly relevant for the broader tale:

And travellers now within that valley,

Through the red-litten windows see

Vast forms that move fantastically

To a discordant melody;

The narrator is the traveler who has crossed a great deal of land to be with this childhood friend whom he confesses to barely really know. The narrator is more than a  mere observer; he and he alone can survive to document the final days of this depressing clan and its crumbling estate.

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How does the narrator find his friend Roderick Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher?

As indicated by the title of the story, when the narrator finds him, Rodrick Usher is in a state of decline to say the least. He seems to have developed multiple neuroses and psychological disorders, including a hypersensitivity to sensory stimuli and a severe anxiety. His sister, Madeline, is the only other remaining member of the Usher family and also seems to be in no state to improve the fortunes of the family.

Furthermore, Usher seems to be in a delusional state, believing his house to be alive and intertwined with his own personal fate. The home is in an incredible state of disrepair, and Usher seems to associate his theory with the vegetation growing around the home. Though he is is an obviously demented state, he still acts very cordially to his old friend.

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How does the narrator find his friend Roderick Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher?

When his boyhood friend catches up with him, Roderick Usher's in a terrible state. Physically and mentally, he's an absolute wreck. This is perfectly consistent with the picture that Roderick gave the narrator in the letter he wrote to him. But even so, nothing can prepare the narrator for the shock he receives on seeing his childhood friend after all these years.

Though Roderick acts in a friendly, cordial manner, his physical appearance is completely different from how the narrator remembers it. There's a cadaverousness about his complexion (this is a polite way of saying he looks like a corpse). In addition to Usher's ghostly pallor, his lips are somewhat thin and pale. And to top it off, he has large, gleaming eyes as well as matted hair grown long and wild. His whole appearance mirrors the state of decay and disorder into which the House of Usher has fallen.

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What is the narrator's relationship to Roderick Usher?

The narrator in Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" has known Roderick since they were boys.  He says

Roderick Usher had been one of my boon companions in boyhood ; but many years had elapsed since our last meeting. A letter, however, had lately reached me in a distant part of the country - a letter from him - which, in its wildly importunate nature, had admitted of no other than a personal reply. 

The narrator travels to the Usher home and is immediately disturbed by the appearance of the house, which is in itself a character in its own right. Even though the narrator is tempted to leave, he remembers that Roderick

. . . spoke of acute bodily illness - of a mental disorder which oppressed him - and of an earnest desire to see me, as his best, and indeed his only personal friend, with a view of attempting, by the cheerfulness of my society, some alleviation of his malady.

This "bodily illness" turns out to be hyperesthesia, which is a severe acuteness of the senses; and hypochondria, which is an irrational belief that one is sick.  This hypochondria is so intense in Roderick that it becomes self-fulfilling.  Even though the narrator feels uncomfortable in the presence of his friend and his house, he remains because he knows Roderick truly has no one else.

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