The Fall of the House of Usher; Edgar Allan Poe
Poe´s story “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) relates the story of one of the most famous heroes in Poe´s writings: Roderick Usher. This is a tale where “Poe is the physiognomist of the interior” ( Bercovitch and Jehlen (ed), 231 ). This is, Poe deals with the internal minds of the characters, mixing the atmosphere of the house with the mind and the life of the people who live in Usher, the mansion.
In this paper I am going to deal with this short story. I will try to give some critics point of view and my interpretation at the same time. For that, I divided the story in four parts, giving a brief summary of every part and after that, the analysis of them.
But I think that the narrator makes the story different. As I will explain later on, he only tells the story, and although he is one of the characters in it, he never participates; he never says anything for changing the main line of the story. So, I think that he is quite important in the tale. Because of that, the first section will deal with the narrator.
The first person narrative voice is the one who tells the story. We do not know anything about him: nor his name, nor his physical aspect. We only know that the narrator is male: “Its proprietor, Roderick Usher, had been one of my boon companions in boyhood; but many years had elapsed since our last meeting” (Poe, 117). What happens to him?. Is he not important in the plot and maybe because of that, this character is not very well developed?.
In all Poe´s short stories, the importance is in the plot, and not the characters. “Poe had a great genius for plot, but for characterization in the traditional sense he was very poor
equipped” (Malin, 69). Poe is very good in narrating what happens in human minds, in characters´ psyche, but not in humans´ looks - this is the reason why Poe is a physiognomist of the interior. Anyway, one of the main features in short stories is that the characters cannot be developed as in a novel, because of the length of the tale. So, there are two answers for the question I asked above.
But the narrator in this tale not only tells the story. We can learn the situation of the House of Usher through his eyes and through his emotions. “He is at the same time both the author of the story and, as spectator of its events, the audience as well” (Malin, 77). The narrator is also linked to Roderick Usher because they are friend. The problem with this narrator is that although he sees, feels and participates in the events of the house and the family he cannot explain why he is so afraid of the house, why he is so terrified there. “Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror, unaccountable yet unendurable, I threw on my clothes with haste, (for I felt that I should sleep no more during the night) and endeavoured to arouse myself from the pitiable condition into which I had fallen, by pacing rapidly to and fro through the apartment” (Poe, 127) , “An impressible tremour gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an imbus of utterly causeless alarm” (Poe, 126).
This narrator does not give explanations of the problems inside the house and inside Roderick and Madeline Usher. “whereas in most of the short stories the narrator and the hero are one and the same, in this instance some instinct told Poe not to cast the tale in this form. Here the story is told by a disinterested and impartial observer, and as a result we see Usher “from the outside”, as a tortured and unbalanced man consumed by irrational and melancholy fears” (Hammond, 71-72).
This narrator has one mission for the reader: the reader is aligned with the consciousness of this visitor to the House of Usher. Through this narrative technique, the reader, as the narrator will participate in the experience of undefined evil. As I have said before, this narrator does not go beyond the appearances, he only lives the experience (maybe because he is a guest in the house and he does not want to disturb trying to resolve the problem of the House of Usher). “The narrator of “Usher” observes Usher throughout the story at a diminishing distance from the latter´s increasing animation and disorder” (Bercovitch and Jelen, 234).
As the narrator does not help to the reader for resolving the mystery of the house, Poe provides a lot of details in the story that will solve (or try to solve) the mystery. We will discover them while analysing the story since the beginning to the end. ”The story ends with the narrator preserving his individual identity by narrowly escaping from the influence of this mysterious environment” (Bercovitch and Jellen, 234).
I have divided Poe´s “The Fall of the House of Usher” in four parts for analysing it better. Firstly, I will provide a short summary of every part, and then I am going to analyse every part.
1.ARRIVAL AT THE HOUSE OF USHER.
The narrator approaches the House of Usher “during the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year” (Poe, 317). This house - property of his boyhood friend Roderick Usher - is very gloomy and mysterious. The narrator writes that the house seems to have collected an evil and diseased atmosphere from the decaying trees and murky ponds around it. He notes, however, that although the house itself is decaying in pieces, the structure itself is fairly solid. There is only a small break in the front of the building from the roof to the ground. The narrator reveals that he is to stay in this house because his friend, Roderick, sent him a letter earnestly requesting his company. Roderick told the narrator in this letter that he was feeling bodily and emotionally ill, so the narrator rushed to his house. The narrator also mentions that the Usher family, while an ancient clan, never flourished. Only the member of the Usher family survived from generation to generation, so they were all in a direct line of descendent without any siblings.
In the first part of the story, the narrator arrives to the House of Usher and he is narrating not only what he sees in front of him, but his impressions. The details that are showed at the beginning are very important for the development and understanding of the story. “the clouds hung oppressively low in heavens” (Poe, 317), and “as the shades of the evening drew on”(Poe, 317) contribute to the gradual accumulation of tension, “already at the outset of the story the reader has a sense of a palpable, threatening presence which will gradually become more menacing as the narrative proceeds” (Hammond, 71).
The entire narrative has an atmosphere of horror. The description of the house, Roderick Usher and his behaviour; the strange and cataleptic sister, the gloomy apartments, etc. The whole story is an example of horror stories or Gothic stories. “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was --but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible” (Poe, 317).
Already in the first part of the story, the narrator establishes this atmosphere of doubt and misgiving, and he also provides the reader the source of this atmosphere, the house. The narrator is shocked by the vision of the house, but not because the house seems like if it was dead; he is impressed because the house is like death-in-life. It looks like a dead house, but at the same time, some life (almost nothing) is inside it.
The name of the house is also the family “the House of Usher - appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the mansion” (Poe, 319). Only two members of the Usher family are alive, so, the house is the man, a representation of Roderick Usher; and of his sister also, who in her subsequent cataleptic state is neither living or dead. She is like the house, “death-in-life”.
The house is a metaphor for the family. All the elements that the narrator sees in the front of the house are represented in Roderick and Madeleine Usher. “I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity” (Poe, 319). The family is very old as well, “the stem of the Usher race, all time honoured as it was”(Poe, 318). The family and the house had lived in that country for generations, but something happened inside the family, because there was not a big family. The patrimony was inherited in one line, I mean, from parents to children, and not in parallel branches. The Usher family tree had only one branch, “the entire family lay in the direct line of descendent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain”(Poe, 318). The problem the family had it was in their minds: “his very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament” (Poe, 318). These illnesses of the Usher family through the generations are reflected in the house: “Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from a extraordinary dilapidation” (Poe, 319). Although these fungus covered all the front of the house - as the mental illness of the family through generations - it was stood. Usher family, although with illness were alive, as the house.
But the damage of the house can be seen If one person was very near of it. “Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn”(Poe, 320). Apparently, the house is very good, without damages, but if a person - the narrator in this case - goes closer and investigates the faade , he can see that an important fissure crosses the house from the top to the bottom of it. This fissure symbolizes the mental illness of the family that goes to the top - the ancient members of the Usher - to the bottom - the last survivors, and more recently, to lady Madeleine.
Also the narrator mentions the contradiction in the house “no portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones” (Poe, 319). The family during a lot of centuries, although the members of the family - the “individual stones” - was damaged. “As the narrator examines the building more closely, he is amazed to perceive a contrast between, on the one hand, its antiquity and the crumbling condition of the individual stones, and, on the other, the still perfect adaptation of parts” (Malin, 81).
When the narrator sees the reflected house in the tarn, a feeling of fear appears to him. The house is very strange, and the bizarre atmosphere is all around the mansion, but when he saw the house in the water, the impression was bigger, “with a shudder even more thrilling than before” (Poe, 318). “Of the two images available, it is the shadow rather than the substance that proves to be the more terrifying” (Malin, 79). With this paradox of fear for the reflection and not for the real image, the narrator indicates that what he is going to narrate “concerns the terror of the soul” (Malin, 80) The reflection in the water is the same house, but from a different perspective, as if it was its shadow. In Ancient times, the shadow was the soul, and this is why the narrator has more fear of the shadow than to the real building; the shadow, the soul, the reflection, etc. hide more secrets and more terror than the real image.
But now, the narrator goes into the house, and he is going to see his friend, Roderick Usher, after a lot of years.
2. INSIDE THE HOUSE.THE STORY BEFORE LADY MADELEINE´S DEATH.
The inside of the house is just as spooky as the outside. The narrator makes his way through the long passages and to the room where Roderick is waiting. The narrator notes that his friend is paler and less energetic than he once was. Roderick tells the narrator that he suffers from nerves and fear. His senses are heightened. The narrator also notes that Roderick seems afraid of his own house. Further, Roderick´s sister, Madeleine Usher has taken ill with a mysterious illness that the doctors cannot even identify. The narrator proceeds to spend several days trying to cheer Roderick. He listens to Roderick playing the guitar (and makes up words for his songs), he reads to Roderick, he sits with him for hours. Still, he cannot lift his sadness. Soon Roderick posits his theory that the house is unhealthy, just as the narrator had supposed at the beginning of the story.
“[the narrator]he has left everyday life behind him when he enters upon a scene in which decay and death are the presiding elements”(Malin, 79).
When the narrator goes into the house, it seems like the faade he had left behind “It is a journey into the narrator´s mental world” (Hammond, 73). Inside the house “Gothic archway of the hall”, “many dark and intricate passages”, “sombre tapestries of the walls”, “the ebon blackness of the floors” (Poe, 320). Everything is dead, but the narrator feels these things very familiar. “I had been accustomed from my infancy - while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this - I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up” (Poe, 320). So, for the narrator, everything into the house is familiar, although the atmosphere there was as if everything was dead. Probably, because he knew the house before, because Roderick Usher and he were friends when they were children. But it can be, on the other hand, that the furniture and the architecture of the house were fashionable in that period, so the narrator´s house could be similar.
As I have said before, the house represents both, Roderick and Madeleine. The first person the narrator meets is the master of the House of Usher, and, as the house, he represents a decay, an almost-dead. Around him, an atmosphere of death is present. As representative persons of the illness of the family and the fall of the house, Roderick and his sister, lady Madeleine, suffer from mental illness, although Madeleine´s health is in a worst condition. The narrator, as he made in front of the house - he approached to the house and he saw the fissure that crosses the whole house, symbolizing the damages the house has -approaches more and more to Roderick´s inside, and he discovers that the master also has a fissure. He is not only as de used to be when children “it was with difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood”(Poe, 321), but he also suffers his family disease, “he entered, at some length , into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady. It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy - a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass of” (Poe, 322).
Roderick´s disease is attributed to the house by himself, to the atmosphere where he lives, the very house. He is afraid of his own house, “he was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which hr tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth… an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit” (Poe, 323). But, however, other reason for this mental disorder is the incurable illness of his sister, “much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a more natural and for more palpable origin - to the severe and long-continued illness - indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution - of a tenderly beloved sister” (Poe, 323). Both causes are the reason of Roderick´s disease.
Usher family survived a long time because of incestuous relationships between the members of the family, we can say this because the narrator, at the beginning of the story says “the entire family lay in the direct line of descendent” (Poe, 318). Roderick and Madeleine cannot go on with the family because of her terrible disease, so Roderick is becoming crazy: the name of Usher is going to die.
Inside the house, when the narrator sees Roderick´s sister - lady Madeleine - he feels fear. Not with Roderick; he was altered after all those years, but with Madeleine was different “I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread - and yet I found it impossible to account for such feelings. A sensation of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps” (Poe, 323). The narrator felt almost the same when he sees Roderick and his sister as when he saw the house for the first time and its reflection in the water, “the two, the twin sister and the reflected house, represent the dark, under side of Usher´s mind, the depths which cannot plainly be ´read´, and which are nonetheless forcibly exist. And therein also is the source of the man´s fatal malady” (Malin, 83).
At the end of the story, the water swallows the house; at the same time, Madeleine kills her brother. The parallelism between both is clear. But I will talk about it in the last chapter.
A very important theme in this second part is art and literature. The narrator tries to dissuade the master of the house from his melancholy by reading books. But all the books Mr. Usher loves - there is a whole paragraph in page 328 enumerating titles and authors - affect them negatively “I could not help thinking of the wild ritual of this work, and of its probable influence upon the hypochondriac” (Poe, 328). “In his writings Poe returned again and again to the theme of the transience of art, and it is possible to discern in ´Usher ´a restatement of this idée fixe. The mansion occupied by Roderick Usher is a symbol of the impermanence of literature and the arts” (Hammond, 72). All the books enumerated in the story are the books that are not fashionable in Poe´s time, and this is a way to criticise them. By reading such books, he had a bad influence on him, and the narrator tries to say that his behaviour is lead by his reading. Bad books - and bad literature - can change our minds.
Bur Roderick Usher not only reads, but he sings and paints. Into the story there is a song called “The Haunted Palace”, where the story of the house - and the family - is narrated. In the song, it is said that the palace was radiant, glorious, etc. But everything changed “But evil things, in robes of sorrow / assailed the monarch´s high estate” (Poe, 326). These “evil things” can be both, his sister´s illness and the fear he has in the house, in his own house.
However, the most impacting piece of art Roderick made was the prophetic picture he painted. The narrator says: if ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher” (Poe, 324). After that, the narrator describes what Roderick painted as “A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption of device. Certain accessory points of the design served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no torch or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendour” (Poe, 325). I called it prophetic because it represents the subterranean vault in which the body of his sister will be placed. And the atmosphere of horror that the narrator wants to describe during the story, goes on with the description of the picture. “Through the repetition of details Poe succeeds in charging the ´atmosphere´ of the story… the very stones of the house are sentient, and together with the decayed trees, the network of fungi on the exterior of the building, and the reduplication of all this is the stagnant waters of the tarn, the unholy atmosphere has been engendered”. As I have said before in this paper, as the narrator does not tell us the whole story - because he is not an omniscient narrator - Poe gives a lot of details in the story for creates that atmosphere of horror.
3. MADELEINE´S DEATH AND HER ENTOMBMENT.
Soon, Madeleine dies, and Roderick decides to bury her temporarily in the tombs below the house. He wants to do this because he is afraid that the doctors might dig up her body for scientific examinations (since her disease was so strange for them). The narrator helps Roderick put the body in the tomb. He notes that she has rosy cheeks, as some do after death. Roderick then confides to the narrator that he and Madeleine were twins. Over the next few days, Roderick becomes even more uneasy. Then, one night, the narrator cannot sleep either. Roderick knocks on his door, apparently hysterical. He leads the narrator to the window, from where they can see a bright-looking gas all around the house. The narrator explains the gas by telling him that it is a natural phenomenon that is not altogether uncommon. The narrator decides to read Roderick in order to pass the night away. He reads the “Mad Trist” of Sir Launcelot Canning. As he reads, he hears noises that correspond to the description in the book. At first, he ignores these sounds as his imagination. But soon he can no longer ignore the sounds; they have become more distinct. He also notices that Roderick has slumped over in his chair and is muttering to himself.
Lady Madeleine dies, but this is what Roderick says, it is not sure she is dead. Roderick Usher knows that his sister is very ill and there are no more members of the Usher family to go on with the name. Also, incest between them is useless, because that nervous exhaustion is hereditary . Therefore, not only in this generation unwell, but other generations have also been diseased. They must die. He had painted the prophetic picture that seemed like Madeleine tomb, and he will entomb her.
He need the help of the narrator, and as I have said before, this narrator only tells what happens in the house, without taking part, so, when Roderick asks him to help to entomb his sister, he said: “The worldly reason, however, assigned for this singular proceeding, was one which I did not feel at liberty to dispute” (Poe, 328).
They entombed Madeleine within the house for two reasons: “The brother had been led to his resolution (so he told me) by consideration of the unusual character of the malady of the deceased, of certain obtrusive and eager inquiries on the part of the medical men, and of the remote and exposed situation of the burial-ground of the family” (Poe, 328). As Malin observes, “it is interred within the house so that there will be no risk of ghoul´s prying open the coffin”(Malin, 84). Otherwise, doctors could notice that the girl is not dead, and they would try to reanimate her.
Lady Madeleine would not be dead, because of “the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and the suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip is so terrible in death” (Poe, 329).Lady Madeleine suffered by cataleptical moments because of her disease and maybe he would be in this state in the moment of her entombment. Only at the end of the story we know that Madeleine was not dead. But at the same time, she would be a ghost, and everything would be a superstitious reason “the illness of this story, as well as some of the natural phenomena, explore the theme of science versus superstition. Poe plays with this opposition, questioning how many of the strange things in life can be explained away by -->science[Author:Z2]” (www.Thespark.com).
Science versus superstition question remains an open one, because it is hard to know whether Madeleine actually fought her way out of the tomb alive after several days or whether she is a ghost that both men see. In “The Fall of the House of Usher”, Roderick Usher is the superstitious part, and the narrator always tries to explain everything by science. As, for example, the night when Roderick went to the narrator´s room because none of them could sleep. Roderick was afraid of the strange gas around the mansion - “the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion” (Poe, 331) - but the narrator calmed him saying “These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon - or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn” (Poe, 331).
Generally speaking, the narrator represents a scientific standpoint, he believes dismisses his own superstitious thoughts as a ´dream´. In contrast, Roderick acts as one who believes in the supernatural. At the end of this third part - when the narrator reads to Roderick “Mad Trist” by Sir Launcelot Canning - the contrast superstition / science is more pronounced. While the narrator is reading, everything that the tale narrates (noises in the forest, cries and so on) is heard in the house, “it appeared to me that, from some very remote portion of the mansion, there came, indistinctly, to my ears, what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very cracking and ripping sound which Sir Launcelot had so particularly described” (Poe, 332-333).
While the narrator is reading and realizing what is happening, nothing is said about Roderick. Only when the narrator stops reading, he sees Roderick “I rushed to the chair in which he sat. His eyes were bent fixedly before him, and throughout his whole countenance there reigned a stony rigidity” (Poe, 334). Roderick feels fear, he is petrified, but the narrator thinks that the noises must be made by the storm, or they have in his mind, “It was, beyond doubt, the coincidence alone which had arrested my attention” (Poe, 333). However, Roderick has “sensitive nervousness” (Poe, 333).
But this nervousness in Roderick started after Madeleine´s burial. When he and the narrator put her body into the donjon Roderick started behaving in a different way, “And now, some days of bitter grief having elapsed, an observable change came over the features of the mental disorder of my friend. His ordinary manner had vanished. His ordinary occupations were neglected or forgotten. He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step” (Poe, 329-330). His nervousness can be because of he knows that his sister is alive or because he is very sad of her sudden - although expected - death. After reading the end of the story, I think that he is nervous because she is still alive in the donjon.
The death of Madeleine would be his own death. He knew it, and he was very nervous. From the beginning he knew that he would die by fear, and it will be so. But his sister death “would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Usher” (Poe, 323). He knew his death was near, so he felt fear. But at the same time, although the narrator does not know it, he could feel fear because he heard the noises of his sister trying to go out of the donjon.
4. “WE HAVE PUT HER LIVING IN THE TOMB”.
The narrator goes over to him and listens to what he is saying. Roderick reveals that he has been hearing these sounds for days and believes that he and the narrator buried his sister alive and that she is trying to get out. He yells that she is standing behind the door. The winds blows the door open and confirms Roderick´s fears: his sister stands in white robes bloodied from her struggle. She attacks her brother as the life drains from her, and he dies of fear. The narrator flees from the house. As he does, the entire house cracks along the zigzag break in the frame and crumples to the ground.
“In bringing about the premature burial of his sister, who was his twin and counterpart, he was seeking his own death. His condition is accordingly like that of his sister, as she lies in the vault, midway between life and death. She returns from her grave only to take him with her and to complete the total extinction of the house of Usher” (Malin, 84-85).
They are twins and it is an important feature of the tale. They must die together, but not only them but the house - as I have said before, the name is both, the family and the house, and they will disappear together. Lady Madeleine would not die alone. She appears in white with blood, because during all those days, she were struggling in the donjon, trying to go out of there.
“The contemplation of women drove Poe to a kind of madness. On the one hand he thought female beauty the greatest beauty but his admiration was tinged with the morbid qualification that the death of a beautiful woman was the most beautiful fact and concept of all” (Donaldson and Massa, 92). The narrator never says that lady Madeleine was beautiful, but only when she is dead, the narrator describes the pink colour of her face and bosom, and her smile.
Donaldson and Massa go on and the say: “in Poe´s fiction, women become potential vampires, evil Eves, to be destroyed at all costs” (Donaldson and Massa, 92). Lady Madeleine could appear like a ghost, dressed in white, pale and so on, but she appears with red blood covered her dress, like an “evil Eve”, as these critics say. As she is the “evil” in the story, she is the bad character, the one who is going to finish with her brother and with the name of Usher.
In the last paragraph of the story, the narrator is out of the house. He is seeing how the house breaks and disappears into the tarn. There are some parallelisms in the story:
At the beginning, the narrator sees the house, and its reflection in the water. They are the same, but one is more shocking than the other - the reflected house is worst, it gives more panic than the other.
Later, when the narrator knows that the dead sister and Roderick were twins - Roderick Usher told him - , he sees the same face in both brothers. In this case, his sister is more shocking, gives more fear than Roderick - as the reflected house.
Later in the story, both reflections - the house in the tarn and Madeleine, as the reflection of Roderick - will be the ones that swallow the other images: Roderick and the real house. As if , as I have said, the images were the souls, or the supernatural world, they will be the causes of the fall of the house of Usher.
Analysing „The Fall of the House of Usher“
Note from www.thespark.com