The Fall of the House of Usher Summary

In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator visits his childhood friend, Roderick Usher.

  • Roderick has changed drastically since the narrator last saw him. He is pale and withdrawn, and he claims that the house is negatively influencing his spirit.

  • Roderick's sister Madeline dies from a mysterious illness and her body is quickly interred.

  • Roderick's mental state declines, and he begins to suspect that he buried Madeline too early.
  • During a storm, Madeline comes back from the grave and collapses on top of Roderick, killing them both.

  • The narrator flees as the house collapses.

Summary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on April 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818

Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” was originally published in September of 1839. In the tale, the narrator visits a childhood friend who is sick and in need of company. The house is old and decrepit, and it seems to cause the madness of the last surviving Usher siblings, Roderick and Madeline. When Madeline succumbs to an illness, she is buried in a house vault, only to return after a premature burial. Madeline emerges from the vault the night of an intense storm and collapses on her brother in death. The narrator flees the house and looks back to see it sink into a swamp. Rather than convey a lesson, Poe's story explores gothic elements of the supernatural and evil to convey this tale of horror.

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Fall of the House of Usher Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Plot Summary

The story opens with the narrator riding alone on a cloudy autumn day to the House of Usher. He immediately feels depression and fear when he sees the mansion. He describes a childhood friendship with the owner, Roderick Usher. Roderick had requested the narrator’s company during his convalescence from an illness. The narrator reflects on the once-great Usher family and that they have only one surviving direct line of descendants, comparing the beautiful but crumbling house to the family living inside.

After looking at the reflection of the mansion in the tarn, or small lake, in front of the estate, the narrator believes he sees a heavy mist and vapor rising from the trees and house. He then takes a closer look at the ancient mansion and sees a crack zigzagging from the roof to the foundation, where it disappears into the tarn’s shore.

After entering the house, the valet shows him to a sitting room where Roderick lies on a sofa. The two sit together in silence, and the narrator cannot believe the man beside him is Roderick, because his appearance has changed from that of a youthful boy to a gaunt, wispy-haired, and pale-skinned ghost of the man he once was.

When Roderick speaks, he states that his illness is hereditary and without cure, which causes him to have highly reactive senses. Roderick believes he will soon go insane from fear and die. He admits that he is superstitious about the house, and that its continual gloom has broken him down. Usher states that he and his sister, Madeline, are the last of the line of Usher, and that Madeline is sick with a disease the doctors cannot diagnose. Later that night, Roderick tells the narrator that she has died.

No one mentions Madeline, and Roderick spends his time painting, playing music, reading, and writing. He paints a dark underground tunnel with beams of strange light shining through. Usher writes songs on his guitar, and the narrator recounts one entitled “The Haunted Palace.” In the song a prosperous palace falls, and only dancing ghosts remain. Roderick admits he believes the Usher house is sentient and that a foul atmosphere grows from the grounds. He states that the house has moulded generations of the Usher family and has caused his current state. Roderick decides to keep his sister preserved in a house vault before moving her to the isolated family cemetery. He soon abandons his former hobbies, and the narrator observes that Roderick is beginning to lose his mind. While watching his friend’s condition deteriorate, the narrator feels himself slip into madness as well.

A week after Madeline’s death, the narrator lies awake with an unexplained feeling of fear. A storm rages outside, and despite efforts to reason with himself, he shakes with terror. He paces around the room, and Roderick enters in a state of restrained hysteria. The storm intensifies, and objects in the room glow with unnatural light from the mist that surrounds the mansion. Trying to calm Roderick, the narrator reads The Mad Trist. Usher moves his chair to face the door, murmuring under his breath while the narrator reads to him. The narrator comes to the scene in which the hero forces his way into the home of a hermit and finds a dragon that he eventually slays with a mace. At each critical moment in the story, the narrator hears noises coming from outside the room. Just as the hero kills the dragon, the sound of a shield falling—a sound which occurs in the story—disturbs both the narrator and Roderick. Roderick begins quivering and ranting incoherently. Roderick’s following ravings reveal that he fears that he buried Madeline alive.

The door opens and Madeline stands with blood on her robes, trembling. She cries out and falls on her brother, and both die as she drags him to the floor with her. The narrator flees the house with the storm still raging around him. He looks back to see the crack in the house widen and the tarn swallow the House of Usher.

Summary

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on August 27, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997

Summoned to the House of Usher by a “wildly importunate letter,” which “gave evidence of nervous agitation,” the first-person narrator goes to reside for a time with the writer of this letter, Roderick Usher. Although Roderick had been one of his “boon companions in boyhood,” the narrator confesses early in the story that “I really knew little of my friend”; yet, by the end of this gothic tale, he has learned more about the occupants of the House of Usher than he is equipped to deal with. Indeed, one of these occupants is Roderick’s twin sister, Madeline Usher, who is suffering from an unspecified but fatal illness. One of the symptoms of this illness is catalepsy (muscular rigidity marked by a lack of response to external stimuli); significantly, this symptom is crucial to understanding what happens in the course of the story.

His sister’s illness is only one reason for Roderick’s agitation, one reason for his desire to have the “solace” of the narrator’s companionship; it is not the only—or most significant—reason. Usher himself is suffering from a “mental disorder,” which is “a constitutional and . . . family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy.” Why “evil”? one wonders, until one recalls that, in the third paragraph of this story, even before Roderick has been seen for the first time, the narrator mentions that the ancient “stem” of the Usher family never “put forth . . . any enduring branch . . . the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always . . . so lain.” In other words, Roderick and Madeline Usher are the products and inheritors of an incestuous family lineage—one that has remained predominantly patrilineal, so that the name of the family always remained Usher.

Roderick’s dilemma, therefore, is this: Madeline is the only relative he has left on earth, and the dictates of the Usher tradition require that, to perpetuate the race of Ushers and the family name, he marry his twin sister and—through incest—sire future Ushers. (It should be noted that at no place in the story does Roderick say any of this directly; while it is intimated throughout, his dilemma is made clearly apparent only by careful reading of his and the narrator’s words on this matter.) Thus, when Roderick refers to his “family evil,” the reader may better understand why the narrator earlier mentions, in the second paragraph of the story, that “of late” the family has received some recognition for “repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity.” Such alms, it should be understood, have been given penitently, in the hope that they will absolve the “evil” of incest germane to the Usher tradition. Nevertheless, absolution comes to the Ushers in no form other than complete annihilation.

During the term of the narrator’s visit with Roderick, they read to each other literature concerning classical myth, penitential rituals, theology, physiology, supernaturalism, and demonism—all of which are meant to indicate to the reader Roderick’s preoccupation with anything that might help him understand his and his sister’s dilemma. What he comes to feel certain about is that the house itself—because it was built and lived in by his forefathers, and because he believes there is “sentience [in] all vegetable things” (and the house consists of such sentient things)—has a “terrible influence” on him and Madeline, and that it has “made him.”

The House of Usher becomes a living, feeling character in Poe’s story, and one that, Roderick suggests, may be urging the two remaining Ushers to commit incest; although the narrator attempts to convince the reader that he is too rational and realistic to be taken in by Roderick’s hypochondriacal theories, he gradually begins to feel “infected” by his host’s condition: “I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his . . . fantastic yet impressive superstitions.” Thus, the stage is set for the story’s horrifying climax, beginning one evening when Roderick informs his guest that Madeline is dead.

Rather than burying his sister in the family cemetery some distance from the house, Roderick decides to keep her body for two weeks in one of the many vaults within the house—for, after all, one suffering from catalepsy may seem dead but not, in fact, be dead; it would be horrible to bury Madeline alive. In short, the narrator assists his host in entombing the body temporarily in, first, a coffin with its lid screwed down, and then in a vault behind a massive iron door of profound weight. There she remains for a week, as Roderick roams through his house aimlessly, or sits and stares vacantly at nothing for long hours.

One tempestuously stormy night—a “mad hilarity in his eyes”—Roderick enters the narrator’s bedroom, where they sit together, the narrator reading to him and both of them trying to ignore the terrible grating sound they hear coming from below the bedroom (the vault into which they placed Madeline’s body is directly below this bedroom, and the heavy door to that vault always makes a loud grating sound when it is being opened). As the sound continues more noticeably, Roderick suddenly informs the narrator that he has been listening to noises downstairs for many days, but—apparently fearful that his sister was still living, and that he would again have to face the evil prospect of perpetuating his family’s tradition of incest—he says, “I dared not speak!” Abruptly, the bedroom door swings open and Madeline, her white robes bloodied by her struggle to escape the coffin and vault, falls into the room and on Roderick, who, “a victim to the terrors he had anticipated,” hits the floor “a corpse.”

The narrator flees the house, and from a short distance away he turns to look back and sees the House of Usher split in two and crumble into the dark waters of the tarn before it.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Next

Themes