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.
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...
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