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It is a mistake, made by many teachers and critics, to dismiss Poe as a hack writer of horror tales, a sort of nineteenth century Stephen King, who has nothing of importance to say and who says it in a popularized, best-seller fashion. While it is true that Poe’s stories were written in conventional forms that he thought would make them popular with the general reading public, his genius transformed the gothic pot-boiler into a probing exploration of the romantic imagination and the isolated human psyche.

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The central theme in all of Poe’s works is the concept of unity, an idea that he explored in most of his works—from his simplest stories to his ambitious philosophic poem Eureka. For Poe, aesthetic and philosophic truth is determined not by measuring a work’s correspondence to external reality but by its own internal consistency. As he says in Eureka, “A thing is consistent in the relation of its truth—true in the ratio of its consistency. A perfect consistency, I repeat, can be nothing but an absolute truth.” Based on this conviction, Poe believed that the function of language was not to mirror external reality but to create a self-contained realm of reality that corresponds only to the basic human desire for total unity. In such metaphysical fantasies as “Mesmeric Revelation,” Poe asserted that the highest form of existence was what he called “unparticled matter,” by which he meant mind, spirit, and ultimately God. Arguing that the universe was a perfect plot of God, Poe thought that it was the task of the artist to strive to create perfect plots—self-contained aesthetic worlds.

Similarly, it is the God-like ability of Poe’s detective Dupin to unravel the mystery of a hidden pattern, to find a unity in what seems to be random and unrelated events, that makes him the model of the creator/explicator that has fascinated readers of the detective story. As the narrator of the Dupin stories (a model for Sherlock Holmes’s commonsense companion, Watson) notes in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Dupin has a “Bi-Part Soul,” made up of both the “creative and the resolvent.”

Poe’s most-famous character, Roderick Usher, also seems to have a double reality, embodied both in his own artistic imagination and in his more material twin sister, Madeline. Whereas Dupin is primarily the resolvent part of the self, the ideal reader who masters the seemingly meaningless material around him and perceives in it a revealing and meaningful pattern, however, Roderick is the creative soul who has retreated so far into his own imagination that he cannot tolerate any input from the world outside. Roderick’s obsession is that the house in which he lives is like a palace of art that has sentience or sensibility because of the order and arrangement of its stones. At the end of the story, his bodily twin Madeline falls in upon him, Roderick falls in upon the house, and the house itself falls into the tarn to return Roderick’s reality back to the artist’s nonmaterial imagination whence it came. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is in many ways the complete Poe paradigm because it pulls together so many of his basic themes and embodies so many of his innovative fictional techniques.

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Critical Context