Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”
Edgar Allen Poe is a name that conjures up images of haunting dark rooms and dreary landscapes. His poems and short stories explore the inner workings of the human imagination, the parallelism of life and death, the fine line between sanity and madness, the delicate balance of beauty and terror, and the hesitation between a natural and a supernatural explanation of unusual events. “The Fall of the House of Usher” examines these themes in a collision and intermingling of manifold, complex circumstances.
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Poe uses duality and mirror images, symbolism, and a Gothic tone to convey the terror and fear that overwhelms and finally destroys the House of Usher. Studying the characters and the connections established between them, the symbolism and duality throughout the story, and most importantly the way in which the story is told, provides insight into the deeper meanings and true significance of the story. A part of the terror of this story is its vagueness. Rather than directly exploring the internal causes of the Ushers’ illnesses, it presents these characters to the narrator and the reader as an impenetrable mystery.
While many have tried to decipher the twin motif, this paper serves to explore how the events effect the narrator, and in turn, effect the reader. As the reader tries to interpret the story and make sense of the strange events that unfold, the reader finds himself experiencing feelings that mirror the narrator’s. This is an often overlooked meaning and purpose to “The Fall of the House of Usher. ” A study of the opening paragraph is a crucial element to understanding the significance of the story.
The opening paragraph not only introduces the conflict between the natural and supernatural, but gives insight into the narrator’s reason for telling this story. First, it sets up an opposition between the narrator’s experience of a force that may be supernatural and his insistent interpretation of this experience as explainable according to obscure psychological laws or else illusory, the mere product of nerves. After struggling to rationalize his immediate “sense of insufferable gloom” upon merely glancing at the House of Usher, he acknowledges that worldly things can sometimes give shape to the mind.
He tries to change his perspective to shake his gloomy feeling, but looking into the tarn and seeing the reflection of the house provides no relief and instead deepens his terror. This experience contradicts his beliefs. The conflict between the reports of his senses and his interpretations of these reports persists when he reasons that being conscious that one is giving way to superstition accelerates the speed at which one gives way. This is “the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. Parallel to the narrator’s conflict is a subtle opposition that becomes increasingly stronger and important as the story progresses. Unlike many of Poe’s other works, the opening provides no statement of the narrator’s purpose in telling this story. Even though the narrator is never explicit about why he tells this story, he reveals his reasons indirectly from the very beginning. This narrator imagines a listener as conveyed by his conversational tone. The narrator mildly resists his own story, trying rhetorically to dissociate himself from it.
The frequency of his assertions of the present tense increases at crucial points in his narrative: when he recounts his perception of the atmosphere, when he discusses Usher’s artistic productions, and especially, when he reports Usher’s belief in the sentience of all things. This resistance suggests that he is telling this story to convince himself, or rather have the reader confirm that he is not mad. The purpose for the narrator’s visit to the Usher House is to alleviate Rodrick from his suffering by means of his cheerful disposition.
Upon discovering the physical similarities between Rodrick and the house, suggesting that both are essentially living corpses, alleviation seems futile. When Usher acknowledges these resemblances by asserting that the “physique” of the house affects the “morale” of his existence, he indicates that at the center of his malady is a growing dominance of the material world over his spirit, a world that includes both his house and his body. Rodrick’s house and body have become his prison.
Madeline’s presence later in the conversation triggers yet another unaccountable oppression and after finding Usher with his face buried in his hands, he feels helpless. Mid story consists of a succession of of images of Usher’s imprisonment in his world and of the narrator’s attempts to resist the oppressive feelings that attack him. Rather than attempting to change Rodrick’s point of view, the narrator only persists resistance to becoming “ushered. ” The narratology shifts focus to the image of Rodrick.
He proclaims his fear of going mad. In his mind, the house is causing him, body and soul, to mirror itself. The narrator, attempting to rationalize once again, concludes that Rodrick’s condition is the condition of his world. It cause is in the nature of things. Rodrick hesitantly admits “a more natural and far more palpable origin,” hence why he send for the narrator as a aversion. As the days go on, Rodrick entertains the narrator with art and poems, all of which the narrator observes reflect the polarities of Rodrick’s mental state.
As the narrator tells of his and Rodrick’s activities and of Rodrick’s behavior, his tone becomes increasingly desperate and his efforts to remind the reader of his presence, rather than just reporting the events, increase exponentially. He describes their artistic pursuits: “his long, improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears,” “I hold painfully in my mind,” “(vivid as their images now are before me). ” The narrator’s very efforts to escape into the present of the narration betray him, for what he wishes to escape in the past awaits him in the future.
Towards the end of the story, the narrator starts to mirror Rodrick. He appears to be telling his story to deny the significance upon which his story insists. As he resists his story, so his story resists him, refusing to take the shape he desires for it. His story mirrors the House of Usher. The narrator thus reveals his obsession. Could he convince his listener that what he has experienced is illusion, he might perhaps convince himself and so exorcise the story. He is compelled to tell his tale, but compelled by inner necessity to be free of the tale, to save himself.
After Madeline’s death, he claims he has been infected by Usher. After the account of Madeline’s burial, the narrator’s efforts at identifying with his listener are less frequent and less desperate. The death of Madeline is followed by the disappearance of all light from Usher’s eyes and by rhetorical hopelessness in the narrator. Usher roams without object from chamber to chamber and gazes “upon vacancy for long hours,” as if listening (95). Soon the narrator is doing the same.
When Rodrick enters the narrator’s room his “mad hilarity” appalls the narrator, but the narrator welcomes his presence rather than being alone. Usher has come to show him something, the peculiar storm outside, which the narrator at first thinks sublimely beautiful. Upon further observation, he concludes that Usher must not look at it. He reaches this conclusion when he notices that the seemingly living whirlwind appears imprisoned within “the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion” (96).
For the first time, the narrator reports direct resistance to Rodrick’s perception and a direct attempt to explain it away as “merely electrical phenomena not uncommon” or as the result of the miasma of the tarn. As a diversion, he suggests reading. As the narrator attempts to entertain Rodrick with a hopeful sounding story he is not diverted. As Usher’s arrival in the narrator’s room mocks the narrator’s earlier arrival at Usher, and as the revelation of the storm emphatically affirms Usher’s world view, so Madeline’s escape from the tomb mocks “The Mad Trist,” and her appearance turns the screw of the horror of Usher’s world view. The Mad Trist,” while it may, as the narrator asserts, lack imagination, speaks rather directly to Rodrick’s despair. The story, in the portion the narrator tells, is of the reconquest of a palace of gold, which had been reduced by a dragon into a hermit’s hut, a hut with most of the characteristics of the haunted palace of Usher’s poem. Ethelred’s progress, then, suggests the possibility that King might retake his lost kingdom and don again the purple for which he was born.
However, in the background is the opposite horror, the echoing series of events leading up to the destruction of the metaphorical king, Rodrick, and his palace. Madeline’s escape from her tomb is a mockery of the recovery of reason. Soon the narrators surrounded by dualities: the twins, the reelings, the usherings, the collapses, the doublings of storm and house. He flees, but as the his rhetoric has already revealed, he cannot escape. He is infected. The House of Usher utters him with its last breath, and he is expelled into a space identical in meaning with those he has left.
Were the narrator speaking rather than being spoken, he might seize his last opportunity to assert that with the destruction of the house and the appearance of the natural light of the moon, Usher’s disease disappears from the earth. But it is clear from the manner of his telling as well as from his vision of the moon that the narrator has not yet accomplished this exorcism. The moon insists upon being unnatural, “a wild light … a gleam so unusual … the full, setting, and blood-red moon,” which bursts upon his sight. Usher is dead and yet, in the narrator, Usher lives on. Turn where he might, he sees only Usher.
In the effort to throw off this burden, he tells his story, asking his implied listener to confirm his fruitless assertions that his experience was illusory, but in the very act of telling, he is again caught up in the compelling vision of Madeline’s return and the doubled collapse of the house. Implicit in his attempts at persuasion has been the promise that the tale would come to an end and that his unaccountable experiences would be explained. The final image of the tarn’s waters closing over the fragments of the house violates probability, and the narrator offers no explanation for it.
If the opposition between the narrator’s rational explanations and his unaccountable experiences is to be resolved, the reader must do so without the help of the narrator, and the immediately available alternatives are not satisfactory. The reader’s natural response is to re read or relieve the text, trying to rationalize what has just been presented, thus mirroring the role of the narrator. As he has failed in his pursuit to alleviate Usher from his madness, the reader in turn fails to make sense of the narrators experience.