Long considered Edgar Allan Poe‘s masterpiece, “The Fall of the House of Usher” continues to intrigue new generations of readers. The story has a tantalizingly horrific appeal, and since its publication in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, scholars, critics, and general readers continue to grapple with the myriad possible reasons for the story’s hold on the human psyche. These explanations range from the pre-Freudian to the pre–Waste Land and pre-Kafka-cum-nihilist to the biographical and the cultural. Indeed, despite Poe’s distaste for Allegory, some critics view the house as a Metaphor for the human psyche (Strandberg 705). Whatever conclusion a reader reaches, none finds the story an easy one to forget.
Poe’s narrative technique draws us immediately into the tale. On a stormy autumn (with an implied pun on the word fall?) evening, a traveler—an outsider, like the reader—rides up to the Usher mansion. This traveler, also the first-person narrator and boyhood friend of Roderick Usher, the owner of the house, has arrived in response to a summons from Usher. We share the narrator’s responses to the gloomy mood and the menacing facade of the House of Usher, noticing, with him, the dank lake that reflects the house (effectively doubling it, like the Usher twins we will soon meet) and apprehensively viewing the fissure, or crack, in the wall. Very soon we understand that, whatever else it may mean, the house is a metaphor for the Usher family itself and that if the house is seriously flawed, so are its occupants.
With this foreboding introduction, we enter the interior through a Gothic portal with the narrator. With him we encounter Roderick Usher, who has changed drastically since last the narrator saw him. His cadaverous appearance, his nervousness, his mood swings, his almost extrahuman sensitivity to touch, sound, taste, smell, and light, along with the narrator’s report that he seems lacking in moral sense, portrays a deeply troubled soul. We learn, too, that his twin sister, Madeline, a neurasthenic woman like her brother, is subject to catatonic trances. These two characters, like the house, are woefully, irretrievably flawed. The suspense continues to climb as we go deeper into the dark house and, with the narrator, attempt to fathom Roderick’s malady.
Roderick, a poet and an artist, and Madeline represent the last of the Usher line. They live alone, never venturing outside. The sympathetic narrator does all he can to ease Roderick’s hours, recounting a ballad by Roderick, which, entitled “The Haunted House,” speaks figuratively of the House of Usher: Evil and discord possess the house, echoing the decay the narrator has noticed on the outside. During his stay Roderick tells the narrator that Madeline has died, and together they place her in a vault; she looks deceptively lifelike. Thereafter Roderick’s altered behavior causes the narrator to wonder whether he hides a dark secret or has fallen into madness. A week or so later, as a storm rages outside, the narrator seeks to calm his host by reading to him a romance entitled “The Mad Trist.” The title could be evidence that both the narrator’s diagnoses are correct: Roderick has a secret (perhaps he has trysted with his own sister?) and is now utterly mad. The tale unfolds parallel to the action in the Usher house: As Ethelred, the hero of the romance, breaks through the door and slays the hermit, Madeline, not dead after all, breaks though her coffin. Just before she appears at the door, Roderick admits that they have buried her alive and that she now stands at the door. Roderick’s admission is too late. Just as Ethelred now slays the dragon, causing the family shield to fall at his feet, Madeline falls on her brother (the hermit who never leaves the house), killing them both and bringing down the last symbol of the House of Usher. As the twins collapse in death together, the entire house disintegrates into the lake, destroying the double image noted at the opening of the story.
The story raises many questions tied to gender issues: Is Madeline Roderick’s female double, or doppelgänger? If, as many critics suggest, Roderick is Poe’s self-portrait, then do Madeline and Roderick represent the feminine and masculine sides of the author? Is incest at the core of Roderick’s relationship with Madeline? Is he (like his creator, some would suggest) a misogynist? Feminists have for some time now pointed to Poe’s theory that the most poetic subject in the world is the “Death of a Beautiful Woman.” Is Madeline’s return from the tomb a feminist revenge story? Does she, as the Ethelred of the romance does, adopt the male role of the hero as she slays the evil hermit and the evil dragon, who together symbolize Roderick’s character? Has the mad Roderick made the narrator complicit in his crime (saying we rather than I buried her alive)? If so, to what extent must we view him as the unreliable narrator? Is the narrator himself merely reporting a dream—or the after-effects of opium, as he vaguely intimates at points in the story? Or, as the critic and scholar Eugene Current-Garcia suggests, can we generally agree that Poe, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, was haunted by the presence of evil? If so, “perhaps most of his tales should be read as allegories of nightmarish, neurotic states of mind” (Current-Garcia 81). We may never completely plumb the psychological complexities of this story, but it implies deeply troubling questions and nearly endless avenues for interpretation.
Current-Garcia, Eugene. The American Short Story before 1850. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: Studies in the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 1, 3rd ed. Edited by Paul Lauter. Boston: Houghton Miffl in, 1998.
Strandberg, Victor. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In Reference Guide to Short Fiction, edited by Noelle Watson. Detroit: Gale Press, 1994.