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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"The Fall of the House of Usher" is one of Poe's most popular short stories. Moreover, analyzing this story provides a basis for understanding Poe's gothicism and his literary theories. As in all of Poe's short stories, "The Fall of the House of Usher" concentrates on a "single effect" — in this case, the degeneration and decay of the Usher house and family. In the story's opening, for example, the narrator comments upon the "insufferable gloom" that pervades his being as he notices the "few rank sedges," the "white trunks of decayed trees," the unruffled luster of the "black and lurid tarn," and the house's vacant "eye-like windows." Once inside, the details increase: the "antique and tattered" furniture and the other furnishings that "failed to give any vitality to the scene."

In addition, the narrator emphasizes Roderick Usher's wildly fluctuating physical and mental states and Madeline Usher's "settled apathy" and gradual wasting away. Not only do these details highlight the mystery on which the tale develops, but they also foreshadow the story's denouement when Roderick, Madeline, and the dark house itself, all crash into the dark waters of the tarn. Indeed, with its unity of character, setting, tone, and action, "The Fall of the House of Usher" epitomizes Poe's literary skills and techniques.

Because discussion groups will likely cover more than one story by Poe, some of the following topics invite comparison among his tales.

1. Poe precedes his stories with prefatory quotations that relate to theme and plot. Explain how de Beranger's quotation applies to "The Fall of the House of Usher."

2. Poe's literary techniques include dramatic openings for his short stories. By noting word choices and descriptions, comment on Poe's opening technique for "The Fall of the House of Usher."

3. In his literary theory, Poe claims that a story must concentrate on a "single effect." What is the single effect in this story and how is it accomplished in the story's opening? How is the single effect evident in setting, characters, and symbols? 4. Obvious symbols within the story are the house and "The Haunted Palace." Specifically, what do these symbolize?

4. Obvious symbols within the story are the house and "The Haunted Palace." Specifically, what do these symbolize?

5. What physical descriptions of the house's exterior relate to Roderick? To Madeline? To the Usher family?

6. In the narrative's beginning are references to Roderick's eye as being bright and luminous, but at the end his eye is described as "the luminousness had utterly gone out." What would account for this? Does a similar condition apply to Roderick's countenance, and, if so, explain?

7. Although not as extensive as in "The Masque of Red Death," "The Fall of the House of Usher" contains some color symbolism. What are the colors associated with the Usher house, Roderick, and Madeline? What colors appear in "The Haunted Palace" and what do these colors suggest?

8. One critic claims that Madeline is a vampire. By alluding to specific details in the story, agree with or refute this idea.

9. Explain why at the end of the story, Roderick calls the narrator a madman: "Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!"

10. How effective is the storm as a literary gothic effect at the end of the story? What other novels, stories, or films use a similar technique?

11. What opening details foreshadow the story's conclusion?

12. Apply Poe's "single effect" theory to one or two of Poe's other stories by narrowing the focus and concentrating on one or two plot details — for example, the story's opening and closing techniques; the symbols if any; the characters.

13. "The Cask of Amontillado" is one of Poe's perfect revenge stories and it begins, "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge." Using either one or two of Poe's other stories, explain how the opening sentences establish tone, character, plot, and theme.

14. Poe uses the doppleganger effect in "William Wilson" and "The Fall of the House of Usher." What is the dopple-ganger effect and how is it evident in one or both of these stories?

15. Explain the function of the "The Haunted Palace" in "The Fall of the House of Usher."

16. As with "The Haunted Palace," Poe uses a similar technique with "The Conqueror Worm" in "Ligeia." Do they share similar effects?

17. Choose a favorite horror film and discuss its use of gothic techniques. If these techniques are similar to ones Poe used, indicate the similarities by referring to specific stories; if they are different or innovations on Poe's techniques, explain by also referring to specific stories.

Edward C. Reilly

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