“The Fall of the House of Usher”
The narrator approaches the House of Usher on a “dull, dark, and soundless day.” This house–the estate 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 (for example, individual stones are disintegrating), 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 one member of the Usher family survived from generation to generation, so they were all in a direct line of descent without any siblings.
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, Madeline 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 play 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.
Soon, Madeline 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 examination (since her disease was so strange to 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 Madeline 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 away by telling him that it is a natural phenomenon that is not altogether uncommon.
The narrator decides to read to 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 descriptions 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. Finally, 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 wind 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 “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Edgar Allan Poe uses the setting to enhance the plot. In beginning the story with a long description of the house and vicinity, Poe sets the scene for an eerie, diseased, and bleak tale. The setting not only affects his telling of the story but changes the characters and action, too. Both the narrator and Roderick question whether the house and its vicinity are naturally unhealthy. After all, in the nineteenth century, many doctors still believed that a swampy or ancient area of land might make one sick. The setting itself seems to infect the characters.
Just as the atmosphere and landscape seem translated into the characters, the house, as another aspect of setting, functions as a symbol for the Usher family. The narrator even mentions at the beginning that “House of Usher” had come to mean both family and home. Therefore, the house itself can be seen as an embodiment of the family. Poe emphasizes this symbolism by personifying the house, giving it the anatomy of humans: “eye-like windows” and clothing: a “veil.” Moreover, the house is crumbling just as the family is. The Ushers have no relatives, only themselves, and both are ailing. Finally, after Roderick and Madeline die, the house breaks apart, representing the fate of the family.
Family is an important theme in this story. The tale essentially documents the demise of a family name. The Ushers have been an important family: their house is huge, they are well educated, and they have servants. But they have not produced enough offspring to continue their name. Further, Roderick claims that his nervous exhaustion is hereditary. Therefore, not only is this generation unwell, but other generations have also been diseased. Poe seems to be suggesting, then, that families can pass on terrible traits–like illness and the house–as well as good ones. Beyond that, families can (intentionally or not) kill off their own kind. Roderick did not mean to harm his sister, it seems, but did so.
The illnesses in this story, as well as some of the natural phenomena, explore the theme of science versus superstition. Poe plays with this opposition in much of his work, questioning how many of the strange things in life can be explained away by science. Generally speaking, the narrator represents a scientific standpoint: he believes that the house may produce illness and dismisses his own superstitious thoughts as a “dream.” In contrast, Roderick acts as one who believes in the supernatural: he hears noises and is afraid that he will one day die from fear. The two characters often clash in these beliefs. The narrator dismisses Roderick as a hypochondriac. Here, then, the narrator seems to be taking on the position that people are only sick if they can be proven so scientifically. Yet Roderick ultimately dies from what he superstitiously believed he would: fear. And, when Roderick rushes into the narrator’s room on the night he dies, he is afraid of the mist around the house, which the narrator explains away as a weather phenomenon. The science-versus-superstition question remains an open one, because it is hard to know whether Madeline actually fought her way out of the tomb alive after several days or whether she is a ghost that both men see. The physical collapse of the house makes the reader wonder whether the entire story is a supernatural phenomenon or whether it is merely a tale of (scientific) coincidence.
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