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 Themes

The main themes in "The Fall of the House of Usher" are madness, the supernatural, and artistic purpose.

  • Madness: The Usher family has a long history of incest and, as a result, many contemporary Ushers, including Roderick, suffer from insanity.

  • The supernatural: Whether there are supernatural forces at work is left vague, echoing the idea that fear, madness, paranoia, and superstition often influence how people interact with the world.

  • Artistic purpose: Poe espoused the notion of “art for art’s sake," aiming for a unity of aesthetic rather than the conveyance of a didactic lesson or moral.

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Fear, Imagination, and Madness

Fear is a pervasive theme throughout “The Fall of the House of Usher,” playing a prominent role in the lives of the characters. The story shows that fear and imagination feed off one another. The narrator is afraid of the old mansion, even though there is no specific threat. He recognizes that the individual aspects of the mansion are normal, but when put together, they convey an ominous presence. He is more terrified by the house’s reflection in the tarn, a distorted and ultimately imaginary image, than by the actual house.

The narrator sees Roderick losing his sanity and grip on reality, and while there is no obvious cause, the narrator admits he feels the same terror and madness setting on him. Roderick lives in a constant state of fear, which soon infects the narrator, making him superstitious as well. Roderick’s imagination makes him believe that the house is sentient, and this belief makes him fearful of his surroundings. Roderick states that he will eventually “abandon life and reason together,” and in doing so he will completely lose touch with reality and give in to his delusions.

The Moral-less Story

Many of Poe’s contemporaries were concerned with making moral and political statements through their writing. These writers believed that literature should be didactic, that it should teach a lesson. Poe preferred to write stories that focused on channeling singular emotions and effects rather than conveying a moral or a lesson. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe intentionally leaves his story without a lesson, showing that because people and nature are corrupted there is no lesson to be learned. The story ends abruptly in death and destruction, with only the narrator left alive to recount it. The narrator does not attempt to make sense of the events; he only gives detailed descriptions. Since there is no lesson attached, the story must be enjoyed for its own sake without a moral aim.

Gothic Style, Death, and the Supernatural

Poe uses the gothic-fiction device of dramatizing death, decay, and madness to show the corruption of nature and humanity. The descriptions in the story focus on the ominous and frightening. The house is decaying; its stones crumble, and a crack threatens the structural integrity of the mansion. Tattered and old furniture fills the interior of the house. While the windows are tall and high, only red light filters through and there are dark corners and shadowy places. There are many books and instruments, but they do not enliven the dreary house. The descriptions of the mansion and the grounds portray everything in a state of dilapidation, on the verge of collapse and death. The house acts as an example of how time erodes goodness and beauty.

The gothic element of madness appears most vividly in Roderick, but it also infects the narrator. Roderick wrestles with superstitions surrounding the house, and the narrator himself begins to feel an irrational terror creeping upon him. Roderick exhibits external signs of madness, while the narrator describes the experience of madness from an internal perspective.

The supernatural forces in the story are unilaterally destructive. In keeping with the gothic style, Poe depicts the supernatural as evil and relates it to insanity. Uncanny events—such as Madeline’s reanimation—push Roderick and the narrator further into madness, forcing them to reconsider their sanity. In addition, the possible sentience of the house only drives its residents insane with fear, showing how the supernatural decays what it touches.

Themes and Meanings

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Although Edgar Allan Poe claimed in his essays and reviews that he was against any didactic motive in literature, and although “The Fall of the House of Usher” is not a didactic story, Poe does communicate a definite moral message here. Importantly, however, the morality with which he is concerned is not that prescribed by any specific religion; instead, he seems to be suggesting that, despite the incestuously twisted and mentally deranged life of the Ushers, there exists an unwritten but operative universal morality that is ultimately as inescapable as the hereditary forces that determine a person’s life.

While one may argue that Roderick’s angst, as well as his acute hypochondria and seeming madness, appears to be the consequence of centuries of incest, which biologically diminishes a creature’s ability to survive, Poe is nevertheless careful to note the “repeated deeds of munificent . . . charity” offered “of late” by the Ushers (presumably by Roderick himself because the story takes place in the nineteenth century, when men, according to tradition, were in charge of financial affairs). Significant, too, is the pejorative appellation of “evil” that Roderick gives to his family, in itself an indication of his own moral sense. Indeed, it is precisely Roderick’s morality that causes the internal conflict he suffers, between his inherited traits and his moral revulsion over them, and it is his morality that prompts him to leave Madeline in the vault even after he discovers that she is still alive. Granted, knowingly allowing his sister to die, when he could save her, is immoral; yet Roderick’s sense of right and wrong has transcended concerns for what is good for the Ushers and their perpetuation, and becomes a greater, higher concern for the future of the human race. It is no wonder, then, that when the hereditary forces have succeeded in joining the brother and sister together in the house, itself an emblematic agent of those forces, a greater force prevails as it obliterates the Ushers and their house, truncating the incestuous “stem” of the family for all time.

Social Concerns / Themes

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Poe's literary theory repeatedly stressed art for art's sake, an idea somewhat removed from the era's general literary belief that literature should teach or preach a moral lesson. Furthermore, Poe advocated the "single effect" theory in his literary criticism and practiced it within his own poems and stories. It would be difficult to deduce any messages on Poe's part in his tales of horror and terror. He sought to frighten his readers or to intellectually entertain them, and thus introduces a full range of elements that straddled the line between science and the supernatural.

With the exception of "The Gold Bug" (1843) and "Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), Poe's settings are usually remote in time and space, enhancing the story's mystery and other-worldliness. "The Fall of the House of Usher" has no definite setting except for the "singularly dreary tract of country" through which the narrator must travel to reach the House of Usher. Suits of armor and subterranean dungeons tend to suggest a European rather than an American locale, but these details were established trappings of the gothic genre. Typical gothic elements in the story include the Usher house, described as "this mansion of gloom" with its dark hallways and draperies, ebony black floors, "feeble gleams of encrimsoned light," and its eerie burial vault. Complementing these elements are Madeline Usher's mysterious malady, death and burial, and her return from the grave, the latter heightened by the thunder and lightning of a violent storm, a gothic technique often adopted by modern films and stories dealing with the supernatural.

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