7 Edgar Allan Poe: The Fall of the House of Usher

Mr. Sayan Aich

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Poe’s most famous tales are the “arabesques” written between the years 1838 and 1844. He used the term “arabesque”, for the tales that were fanciful in tone but somber in meaning—possibly a tribute to the 1001 Arabian Nights which may have inspired his bizarre characters, unified plots and flowing narrative style. Poe’s “arabesques” are serious entertainments, for in their terrifying and bone chilling motifs of murder, graves and ghosts; the careful reader finds intriguing psychological dimensions. The short story The Fall of the House of Usher fascinates us because Poe has deliberately mingled the natural and the supernatural within the narrative to pose a difficult riddle—are we haunted in this world or do we end up haunting ourselves.


As is true of nearly all of Poe’s “arabesques”, the form of this short story is a confessional monologue but unlike the other tales, in this one, the narrator is not its principal actor. By means of this contrivance, Poe is able to endow his most subjective fiction with a semblance of objectivity. The readers are made to believe, albeit in the beginning, that this is not a madman’s confession, but the report, by a sensible observer, of the dire predicament of someone else. But a careful introspection would make us question such assumptions, when we see in the following sections how the narrator seems to cross over from the thresholds of rationality to madness.

The Gothic Tradition


Even though Poe made his name writing and perfecting what many have termed the “gothic”, it is imperative to remember that Poe did not invent the literary form. When he began to attract widespread attention by publishing several macabre tales in the Southern Literary Messenger in early 1835, critics sounded negative notes concerning his “Germanism,” a synonym for Gothicism, just as they deplored his wasting talents on what they deemed had become an outmoded type of fiction ( Fisher 2002: 72). It is in this context that Poe himself remarks that “ If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul—that I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources and urged it only to its legitimate results.” Despite this categorical differentiation, readers and critics have argued for decades whether these tales can be classified in terms of their tone, tenor and texture to Poe’s literary predecessor in the 18th Century, in the likes of Walpole and Ann Radcliffe.

One must remember that the term Gothic was born out of a curious coming together of history and architecture. And the clergy also played a big hand about stereotypes growing in the minds of the common people about the Gothic tradition. As Fisher notes, “The hooded, flowing robes worn by many members of ecclesiastical orders dovetailed precisely with stereotypical conceptions of ghosts in bedsheets, and, amidst the strange visionary responses otherwise created by Gothic architecture’s combination of vastness and obscurities, they offered plausible models for supernatural beings. Another off-center assumption about Catholic practices concerned live burial as punishment for clerical recalcitrance. Since paranoias about actual premature burials persisted well into the early years of the twentieth century, here was a motif with compelling outreach to many readers.”



The term “Gothic,” admittedly, originated in a confluence of history and architecture. The Goths were a northern Germanic European people whose ways and beliefs differed largely from those of Greco-Roman Classical civilization farther south. To the southern outlook, the Goths were wholly uncivilized and barbarous. When the initiation of architecture that departed radically from the low, heavily-arched forms in “Romanesque” pervasive darkness consequent upon the inability to construct large windows because they would have weakened the stonework, such newer buildings, chiefly the great cathedrals that arose all over northwestern Europe and the British Isles from the eleventh century onward, provided structures which permitted far more light to illuminate the interiors. Employment of vaulted (pointed) arches within and of huge “flying buttresses” for support outside, gave to these vast, tall cathedrals an appearance of a winged bird or a growing plant. What was essential to architectural soundness was often deemed “grotesque” by those who beheld the tangible forms. Gothic cathedrals speedily make one aware of an innate desire to look upward, and they convey senses of great space. Even with far more lighting than Romanesque buildings afforded, a sense of considerable shadowiness or obscurity is inescapable when one enters Gothic buildings or their cloisters.

Going through Gothic tales one is struck by the stereotypes motifs that exist in a “typical” Gothic narrative. To epitomize, the basic Gothic plot entails vicious pursuit of innocence/innocents for purposes of power, lust, money, at times singly, at others collectively. Issues of identity and power, often relating to family situations of lineage or marriages (which in their turn might affect history, and which in later Gothic works often were centered in smaller numbers of characters, ultimately to operate within the consciousness of just one character), along with sexuality and gender considerations, came to hold greater importance than the eerie settings that provided mysterious backdrops for equally mysterious speeches and actions in previous Gothic works. The Gothic novelists developed an atmosphere of menace and brooding horror using an almost unvarying formula. They would traditionally invoke sublime mountainous landscapes at the top of some wild, inaccessible pass and place a formidable half-ruined castle or crumbling abbey. Creating these menacing landscapes meant locating the action in bizarre or alien settings. It was  typical for these novelists to remove the reader from everyday life and place him or her in strange locations insulating the action from any possible interference from normal society.

Thus it is not surprising that the opening template of the short story contains the ingredients of the conventional Gothic melodrama: the solitary rider, passing through a “singularly dreary tract of country” (Poe, 53) is oppressed by a “sense of insufferable gloom” when, as evening draws on, he approaches the lonely and melancholic “House” of Usher. The climax of the scene occurs when the rider reins his horse at the brink of “a black and lurid tarn…”.(Poe, 56). The readers realize that the premise for the unraveling of the tale and horror has been set. It is also noteworthy that what finally emerged as a mainstay in Gothic works, architectural setting or not, was an atmosphere conducive to anxieties in the protagonist and, depending on the situation in the story, among other characters in general. The literal haunted castle, cathedral, monastery was often transformed into some natural setting conducive to unrest and fears, or, in yet another kind of development, to a haunted mind which required no castle or frowning mansion to stimulate terrors, the corridors of the psyche sufficing to engender such a frisson.



When Poe began to attract widespread attention by publishing several macabre tales in the Southern Literary Messenger in early 1835, critics sounded negative notes concerning his “Germanism,” a synonym for Gothicism, just as they deplored his wasting talents on what they deemed had become an outmoded type of fiction.

Situating Poe and his Theory of Art


The Fall of the House of Usher was published in the year 1839 and it situates the author in a very curious phase in literary history. The Romantic Period in England was officially over, and it was already a few years into Queen Victoria’s reign with the Industrial Boom looming large. However, the influence of the Age of Enlightenment was far from over in Poe’s native America and it provided the thinkers and authors with a curious conundrum of choosing between the cold rationality of Enlightenment thought or the fiery energy that Romanticism provided them with. As Timmerman notes in his study of Usher, “The Enlightenment presupposed the primacy of human reason, the ethical template of formal order, and the lifestyle of staid decorum. It may be argued that Poe’s short stories eclipse reason by the supernatural, disrupt ethical values by gothic disorder, and blast decorum by the weird and grotesque. The argument would be wrong, for Poe sought nothing less than the delicate symbiosis between the two—and the key quality of symbiosis is in the mutual benefit one  to  another.” (Timmerman       2009: 165) In order to do so, Poe had carefully structured the narrative. If the conclusion of the narrative gives the readers the feeling that it is ultimately crashing into chaos, much like the structure of the Usher house, it only does so because it is a part of Poe’s cunningly wrought plan. Not only is there a definite pattern or structure in Poe’s art, there is also what critics have called the deliberate use of “mirroring” or “coupling” within the narrative. On the surface, for our understanding, it is convenient to divide the story into three segments: the first being the narrator’s arrival to the Usher mansion and his induction into their world, the second being the unraveling of Usher’s nervous and sickly self with the climax being the death and burial of Madeline, and finally Usher’s nervous disintegration culminating in Madeline’s rise from the tomb and the extinction of the “house” of Usher. But within this framework, there is also the employment of “mirroring” which is a testimony to the brilliance of Poe’s narrative art. To quote Peeples, “The list of paired characters, events, places, and objects that can be regarded as doubles for their more-than-coincidental resemblance testifies to the density of Poe’s construction, and perhaps to the ingenuity of literary critics: the twins Roderick and Madeline; Roderick and the narrator, who eventually becomes “infected” by his friend’s condition; Roderick’s abstract but vault-like painting and the vault where Madeline is buried; “The Haunted Palace” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”; “The Mad Trist” – the Gothic romance the narrator reads to Usher – and the events that echo its sounds in the house; the thunderstorm and the tumultuous climax of the story. Then there is the house, which is “doubled” or reflected in the tarn, but also reflected in the double-meaning of “house,” referring to the family as well as their dwelling, and more specifically reflected in Roderick, whose poem likens the “palace” to its master.” (Peeples 2002: 180). He further proceeds with the argument positing that not only is there a “coupling” but also a kind of an entombment of various elements within the narrative framework. He remarks, “The emphasis Poe places on containment through his network of images and symbols underscores a reading of the story as a tragedy brought about by the Usher family’s attempt to control or seal in their private world and The Usher line, whether literally incestuous or not, has, paradoxically, contaminated itself by trying to remain pure – that is, by trying to contain and control the family lineage just as they have secluded themselves in a house so isolated that it has its own weather system. Both “houses,” for all their careful arrangement, are doomed to collapse.” (Peeples 2002: 183-184).

What we realize is that there is a direct connection, invisible to the alien eye, between the destiny of the Usher family line and the very arrangement of the stones of the mansion, the fungi which festoons them, the decayed trees and above all “in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement and it its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn.(Poe ). This Poe labels, the “the sentience of all vegetable things” and it is not surprising therefore that familial line of Usher and the physical structure of the house have their destinies entwined.



Poe, insists upon an ongoing volitional act of God apprehended by intuition. The idea led to his notorious concept in “The Poetic Principle” that the task of the poet is “to apprehend the supernal loveliness” of God’s order and that the best way to do so is through sadness. Poe reflects “that (how or why we know not) this certain taint of sadness is inseparably connected with all the higher manifestations of true Beauty”. This leads Poe, then, to the idea that the most sad thing, and therefore the most beautiful, is the death of a beautiful woman. The result is a body of work littered with female corpses.

Roderick and Madeline Usher


Readers have had raging debates as to the ‘nature’ and the symbolic function, if any, of Roderick and his sister Madeline in Poe’s narrative. Apart from the tell-tale suggestion that the “house” in the title refers to the Usher family line as well as the mansion, it is also pretty discernable that Roderick symbolically represents the narrator’s ‘other’. The narrator’s sojourn in the Usher mansion with the two inhabitants can be regarded as an inward journey into his soul, the irrational, frenzied and aesthetically prolific Usher as opposed to the rational, objective thinking unnamed narrator. Usher in the story cannot stand the taste of food or the touch of coarse linen, strong lights and even the smell of flowers. In short, Usher is a hypersensitive soul suffering from a “morbid acuteness of senses”.


Roderick is himself in the agonizing position of being able to follow the progress of his own disintegration, while being powerless to prevent it. He believes that the house has the power to dominate the lives of those within and since he has faith in the consciousness of the very stones of the house, he can very well add another human attribute—possession of the soul—to the House of Usher. The belief that he himself, Madeline and the ‘House’ have a common soul is but a short step beyond. Everything attributed to Roderick indicates mental instability—his extreme nervousness, his wild music ad most indicative of them all, his fear of fear itself which is nothing but the fear of his incipient madness. For a long time in his life, he has been immobilized by a superstitious conviction that the ‘House’, from which he never ventured forth, held an influence over his spirit. With Madeline’s approaching death, the only way for Usher to release his repressed sexual/ aesthetic energy is through music and art.


Another interesting opposition in the “The Fall of the House of Usher” is the one between Madeline and Roderick Usher. Beyond the superficial opposition of Madeline’s physical disease and Roderick’s mental sickness, we find that the actions of the latter reveal an inner fight against this illness. In this sense, the letter that he sends to the narrator can be interpreted as his last resource to overcome his condition. In comparison, Madeline’s attitude seems one of submission and surrender to the sickness that affects her. Moreover, she does not only accept her disease but also—with her final embrace with Roderick—involves him in her acceptance of the ailment and their final destruction. The not so covert incestual overtones aside, Fisher notes another curios phenomenon in the representation of the brother/sister dynamics. He argues that “Madeline’s name, which may mean “Magdalen,” “lady of the house,” and “tower of strength,” has sexual implications, the last meaning creating a deft irony in its phallicness. In depicting the Madeline-Roderick relationship, Poe may have drawn on vampire lore, as is suggested by the last volume cited among Usher’s favorite readings.” (Fisher 2002:90). On the fateful night, Usher’s mental state mirrors the storm raging outside in the natural world. The insane belief that Madeline is still living is the “oppressive secret” that he tries to reveal. Believing that he has fiendishly tortured his sister, he is prepared to have her take revenge on him. His hallucination, is not a product of an erratic mind but a wish to die himself.

The Role of The Narrator


Disapproving of Poe’s characters, many critics have commented favorably on his handling and presentation of narrators. What is most interesting is the narrator’s state of mind. In several tales, they betray derangement—usually by denying they are mad. Obsessed with proving their sanity, they tell stories that become elaborate acts of self- defense. Poe, with the characterization of the narrators, makes his point clear—the line between sanity and insanity is a thinly veiled one. A sane man can play mad and a madman can feign sanity.


That is the bent of Roderick’s friend, the unnamed narrator of the story, whose narrative is purely self-serving. Oppressed from the beginning of his tale by “an utter depression of the soul’, the narrator speaks thereafter in dark and foreboding tones. The narrator feels an overwhelming apprehension as soon as he sees the “house” of the Ushers, feeling it most keenly as he views its image and the image of its zigzag flaw in the dark tarn. The narrator’s role, at the beginning, is an observer and witness to the strange events in the house. Yet, later he turns into a participant in these events when he starts to feel the effect of the building and its surroundings on him and on its inhabitants. He becomes one of the Ushers through whom Poe tries to reveal the depths of the human psyche and its secrets. As Timmerman remarks, “In the majority of Poe’s Gothic tales the narrative point of view is first person, and, significantly, the reader is also placed inside the mind of this leading character-narrator who is only a step away from insanity. In “Usher” we also have a creeping horror and the mental disintegration of the principal persona, but the story is in fact narrated by an outside visitor (also representing the reader) who wants to find a way out of the horror. The only problem with this narrator is that, even having been given ample signs and warnings (as happens to Fortunato in “The Cask of Amontillado”), he is too inept to put the clues together. Poe has designed this deliberately, of course, for the reader is far more deductive than the narrator but has to wait for him to reach the extreme limit of safety before fleeing.”


What happens to the narrator after Madeline’s death is not altogether surprising, for since the beginning of the tale, despite his façade of rationalism, the narrator has shown signs of an imaginative and highly impressionable mind. His first sight of the mansion had affected him with a sense of gloomy foreboding, quite beyond natural explanation. Similarly, his feelings when he first sees Madeline are Impressionistic and irrational. The narrator remarks, “ I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread—and yet I found it impossible to account for such feelings.” (Poe ). On the night of the catastrophe, the narrator experiences the same depression and terror which had oppressed Roderick throughout the tale and it becomes obvious that his mental balance is being disturbed by his surroundings and by Roderick’s madness. Even before Roderick has entered his room, he is in a state of extreme terror which is an extension of Roderick’s condition.

The Symbols Used in the Story 


It is while going through the short story that one is struck by the symbolic functions that various entities perform in the narrative, where incidents and images which seem innocuous in the beginning carry within them meaning beyond themselves. The greatest and most potent symbol is that of the “house” of Usher. Not only does it talk of the dynasty or the Usher line so to speak, it is a profound and intricate metaphor for the “self”. The narrator’s invitation and the entry into the household maybe taken as a journey into the dark recesses of the  human psyche. It is the description and situatedness of his tales in huge mansions and dungeons that Poe utilized for a greater purpose “for many of the buildings or even individual rooms may symbolize the interiors of human heads, i.e., minds. Poe found in Gothic tradition the very kinds of settings and characters that, transformed in his imagination, would contribute wonderful symbolism to psychologically plausible narratives of multiple outreach.”(Fisher 2002: 84)


The most evident, but eerily complex, of course, is the House of Usher itself. Roderick himself tells the narrator that over the centuries the mansion and the family had been so bonded as to become identified as one. Moreover, the diminishment of the Usher family, through years of inbreeding to this one lonely brother and sister, precisely parallels the physical collapse of the house, standing far apart from civilization as it does in some distant, lonely tract of country. The pairing between Roderick and the mansion is sustained in the careful detailing of descriptions, as the narrator observes first the one, then the other, and discerns unnerving similarities. The sinking of the house into the reflecting pool dramatizes the sinking of the rational part of the mind, which has unsuccessfully attempted to maintain some contact with a stable structure of reality outside the self, into the nothingness within” As Timmerman notes, “Although paired in matters of neglect and in physical description, both the Ushers and the mansion are undergoing a simultaneous process of splitting. The house is rent by a zigzag fissure that threatens its stability. In his letter to the narrator, Roderick admits to “mental disorder” that threatens his stability. Similarly, the brother and sister are paired—not only by heritage but also by being maternal twins. They, too, however, are simultaneously splitting apart, Madeline into her mysterious cataleptic trance and Roderick into an irrationally surrealistic world of frenzied art-making. 

Usher’s sudden spurt of aesthetic inspiration sees him composing a lyric called the “The Haunted Palace”. It begins as a poem and on the surface is an end in itself but ends up being a dramatic monologue whose aim is to represent Usher’s rapidly disintegrating sanity. The poem is flawed, but this is by no means true of the larger by product, the actual tale that the readers are reading, of which it is a part, the effect of which is actually strengthened by the imperfections of the poem.


The black tarn is associated with the imagery of desolation ( grey sedge) and decay ( rotting trees) as well as the house itself as “ The Haunted Palace” makes clear and it operates throughout as a symbol of Roderick. An emblematic statement of the relationship between the house-man symbol and the tarn is made when the narrator sees them joined together by a crack in the structure of the mansion, the crack representing the imminent collapse of Roderick’s ruined personality.


The reading of “The Mad Tryst” which prefigures Madeline’s appearance is necessary to sustain the tension of the tale and to precipitate the catastrophe. The narrator reads the novel, in order to provide distraction to Roderick and to allay his nerves. But Roderick’s madness is beyond the stage when such diversions can help and ironically instead of distracting Roderick, the reading heightens his terror. To Usher’s deranged mind, however, the supernatural happenings in “The Mad Tryst” and the sound of the storm raging outside can only signify one thing, that Madeline has arisen from her, what the readers now realize, her premature entombment. In this fantasy, the narrator gives in, overwhelmed by the genuineness of Usher’s fear and completely unnerved by the entire atmosphere. Paradoxically, the house comes to life only to collapse and die, but for Poe, the paradox works both ways: the fall of the house gives rise to the story, which “lives” off paradox and other uncanny verbal structures.

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