Poe’s Short Stories – “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839)

A striking similitude between the brother
and the sister now first arrested my attention. . . .
(See Important Quotations Explained)

An unnamed narrator approaches the house of Usher on a
“dull, dark, and soundless day.” This house—the estate of his boyhood friend,
Roderick Usher—is gloomy and mysterious. The narrator observes that
the house seems to have absorbed an evil and diseased atmosphere
from the decaying trees and murky ponds around it. He notes that
although the house is decaying in places—individual stones are disintegrating,
for example—the structure itself is fairly solid. There is only
a small crack from the roof to the ground in the front of the building.
He has come to the house because his friend Roderick sent him a
letter earnestly requesting his company. Roderick wrote that he
was feeling physically and emotionally ill, so the narrator is rushing
to his assistance. The narrator mentions that the Usher family,
though an ancient clan, has never flourished. Only one member of
the Usher family has survived from generation to generation, thereby
forming a direct line of descent without any outside branches. The
Usher family has become so identified with its estate that the peasantry
confuses the inhabitants with their home.
The narrator finds the inside of the house just as spooky
as the outside. He makes his way through the long passages to the
room where Roderick is waiting. He notes that Roderick is paler
and less energetic than he once was. Roderick tells the narrator
that he suffers from nerves and fear and that his senses are heightened.
The narrator also notes that Roderick seems afraid of his own house. Roderick’s
sister, Madeline, has taken ill with a mysterious sickness—perhaps
catalepsy, the loss of control of one’s limbs—that the doctors cannot
reverse. The narrator spends several days trying to cheer up Roderick.
He listens to Roderick play the guitar and make up words for his
songs, and he reads him stories, but he cannot lift Roderick’s spirit.
Soon, Roderick posits his theory that the house itself is unhealthy,
just as the narrator supposes at the beginning of the story.
Madeline soon dies, and Roderick decides to bury her temporarily
in the tombs below the house. He wants to keep her in the house
because he fears that the doctors might dig up her body for scientific
examination, since her disease was so strange to them. The narrator
helps Roderick put the body in the tomb, and he notes that Madeline
has rosy cheeks, as some do after death. The narrator also realizes
suddenly that Roderick and Madeline were twins. Over the next few
days, Roderick becomes even more uneasy. One night, the narrator
cannot sleep either. Roderick knocks on his door, apparently hysterical.
He leads the narrator to the window, from which they see a bright-looking
gas surrounding the house. The narrator tells Roderick that the
gas is a natural phenomenon, not altogether uncommon.
The narrator decides to read to Roderick in order to pass
the night away. He reads “Mad Trist” by Sir Launcelot Canning, a medieval
romance. As he reads, he hears noises that correspond to the descriptions
in the story. At first, he ignores these sounds as the vagaries
of his imagination. Soon, however, they become more distinct and
he can no longer ignore them. He also notices that Roderick has
slumped over in his chair and is muttering to himself. The narrator
approaches Roderick and listens to what he is saying. Roderick reveals
that he has been hearing these sounds for days, and believes that
they have buried Madeline alive and that she is trying to escape.
He yells that she is standing behind the door. The wind blows open
the door and confirms Roderick’s fears: Madeline stands in white
robes bloodied from her struggle. She attacks Roderick as the life
drains from her, and he dies of fear. The narrator flees the house.
As he escapes, the entire house cracks along the break in the frame
and crumbles to the ground.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” possesses the quintessential -features
of the Gothic tale: a haunted house, dreary landscape, mysterious
sickness, and doubled personality. For all its easily identifiable
Gothic elements, however, part of the terror of this story is its vagueness.
We cannot say for sure where in the world or exactly when the story
takes place. Instead of standard narrative markers of place and
time, Poe uses traditional Gothic elements such as inclement weather
and a barren landscape. We are alone with the narrator in this haunted
space, and neither we nor the -narrator know why. Although he is
Roderick’s most intimate boyhood friend, the narrator apparently
does not know much about him—like the basic fact that Roderick has
a twin sister. Poe asks us to question the reasons both for Roderick’s
decision to contact the narrator in this time of need and the bizarre
tenacity of narrator’s response. While Poe provides the recognizable
building blocks of the Gothic tale, he contrasts this standard form
with a plot that is inexplicable, sudden, and full of unexpected
disruptions. The story begins without complete explanation of the
narrator’s motives for arriving at the house of Usher, and this
ambiguity sets the tone for a plot that continually blurs the real
and the fantastic.
Poe creates a sensation of claustrophobia in this story.
The narrator is mysteriously trapped by the lure of Roderick’s attraction, and
he cannot escape until the house of Usher collapses completely. Characters
cannot move and act freely in the house because of its structure,
so it assumes a monstrous character of its own—the Gothic mastermind
that controls the fate of its inhabitants. Poe, creates confusion
between the living things and inanimate objects by doubling the
physical house of Usher with the genetic family line of the Usher
family, which he refers to as the house of Usher. Poe employs the
word “house” metaphorically, but he also describes a real house.
Not only does the narrator get trapped inside the mansion, but we
learn also that this confinement describes the biological fate of
the Usher family. The family has no enduring branches, so all genetic
transmission has occurred incestuously within the domain of the
house. The peasantry confuses the mansion with the family because
the physical structure has effectively dictated the genetic patterns
of the family.
The claustrophobia of the mansion affects the relations
among characters. For example, the narrator realizes late in the
game that Roderick and Madeline are twins, and this realization
occurs as the two men prepare to entomb Madeline. The cramped and
confined setting of the burial tomb metaphorically spreads to the
features of the characters. Because the twins are so similar, they
cannot develop as free individuals. Madeline is buried before she
has actually died because her similarity to Roderick is like a coffin
that holds her identity. Madeline also suffers from problems typical
for women in -nineteenth–century literature. She invests all of
her identity in her body, whereas Roderick possesses the powers
of intellect. In spite of this disadvantage, Madeline possesses
the power in the story, almost superhuman at times, as when she
breaks out of her tomb. She thus counteracts Roderick’s weak, nervous,
and immobile disposition. Some scholars have argued that Madeline
does not even exist, reducing her to a shared figment Roderick’s
and the narrator’s imaginations. But Madeline proves central to
the symmetrical and claustrophobic logic of the tale. Madeline stifles
Roderick by preventing him from seeing himself as essentially different
from her. She completes this attack when she kills him at the end
of the story.
Doubling spreads throughout the story. The tale highlights
the Gothic feature of the doppelganger, or character double, and
portrays doubling in inanimate structures and literary forms. The
narrator, for example, first witnesses the mansion as a reflection
in the tarn, or shallow pool, that abuts the front of the house.
The mirror image in the tarn doubles the house, but upside down—an
inversely symmetrical relationship that also characterizes the relationship between
Roderick and Madeline.
The story features numerous allusions to other works of
literature, including the poems “The Haunted Palace” and “Mad Trist” by
Sir Launcelot Canning. Poe composed them himself and then fictitiously
attributed them to other sources. Both poems parallel and thus predict
the plot line of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” “Mad Trist,”
which is about the forceful entrance of Ethelred into the dwelling
of a hermit, mirrors the simultaneous escape of Madeline from her
tomb. “Mad Trist” spookily crosses literary borders, as though Roderick’s
obsession with these poems ushers their narratives into his own
domain and brings them to life.
The crossing of borders pertains vitally to the Gothic
horror of the tale. We know from Poe’s experience in the magazine
industry that he was obsessed with codes and word games, and this
story amplifies his obsessive interest in naming. “Usher” refers
not only to the mansion and the family, but also to the act of crossing
a -threshold that brings the narrator into the perverse world of
Roderick and Madeline. Roderick’s letter ushers the narrator into
a world he does not know, and the presence of this outsider might
be the factor that destroys the house. The narrator is the lone
exception to the Ushers’ fear of outsiders, a fear that accentuates
the claustrophobic nature of the tale. By undermining this fear
of the outside, the narrator unwittingly brings down the whole structure.
A similar, though strangely playful crossing of a boundary transpires
both in “Mad Trist” and during the climactic burial escape, when
Madeline breaks out from death to meet her mad brother in a “tryst,”
or meeting, of death. Poe thus buries, in the fictitious gravity
of a medieval romance, the puns that garnered him popularity in
America’s magazines.