The Fall of the House of Usher: Characters, Setting, Summary, Plot, Analysis, Theme, Context

The Fall of the House of Usher: Characters, Setting, Summary, Plot, Analysis, Theme, Context

The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe

The Fall of the House of Usher Context

This is story of supernatural horror by Edgar Allan Poe published in 1839 in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine and issued in Tales (1845) one of Poe’s most terrifying tales, ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘ is narrated by a man who has been invited to visit his childhood friend Roderick Usher. Usher gradually makes clear that his twin sister Madeline has been placed in the family vault not quite dead. When she reappears in her blood stained shroud, the visitor rushes to leave as the entire house splits and sinks into a lake.

The Fall of the House of Usher Characters

Narrator

 a friend of the master of the House of Usher. When he visits his friend, he witnesses terrifying events.

Roderick Usher

 the master of the house. He suffers from a depressing malaise characterized by strange behavior.

Madeline Usher

twin sister of Roderick. She also suffers from a strange illness. After apparently dying, she rises from her coffin.

Servant

domestic in the Usher household. He attends to the narrator’s horse.

Valet

domestic in the Usher household who conducts the narrator to Roderick Usher’s room.

Physician

one of several doctors who treat Madeline Usher.

The Fall of the House of Usher Setting

The setting is referred to by the narrator as “House of Usher” to refer to both the physical structure of the house and the last of the Usher race; Roderick and Madeline are the last of the Usher family. Poe begins by description and continues with description to the extent that the whole story becomes a descriptive account of the mental breakdown of Roderick. Poe focuses on settings that had many descriptions and details such as the dark, gloomy, and dull places in the story. What he desires is to present a psychological analysis of the life of that strange family. Everything in the house is breaking down, even the mentality of its owners.

The Fall of the House of Usher Summary

A childhood companion of Roderick Usher, who has not seen him years, is summoned to the gloomy house of Usher to comfort his sick friend. The decayed mansion stands on the edge of a tarn, and is fungus-grown and dreary. Roderick and his twin Madeline are the only surviving members of the family, and both suffer serious physical and nervous maladies. Roderick entertains his friend with curious musical and poetic improvisations, indicating his morbid tastes by his choice of reading Madeline in a cataleptic trance, is thought to be dead, and her body is placed in the family vault. During a storm, Roderick is overcome by a severe nervous agitation, and his friend reads aloud from a medieval romance, whose horrifying episodes coincide with strange sounds from outside the room. Finally Madeline appears, enshrouded, and she and her brother fall dead together. The friend rushes from the house, and as he looks back in the moonlight, sees the whole House of Usher split asunder and sink into the tarn.

The Fall of the House of Usher Plot

The tale opens with the unnamed narrator arriving at the house of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, having received a letter from him in a distant part of the country complaining of an illness and asking for his help. Although Poe wrote this short story before the invention of modern psychological science, Roderick’s symptoms can be described according to its terminology. They include a form of sensory overload known as hyperesthesia (hypersensitivity to light, sounds, smells and tastes), hypochondria (an excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness) and acute anxiety. It is revealed that Roderick’s twin sister: Madeline, is also ill and falls into cataleptic, death-live trances. The narrator is impressed with Roderick’s paintings, and attempts to cheer him by reading with him and listening to his improvised musical compositions on the guitar. Roderick sings “the Haunted palace”, then tells the narrator that he believes the house he lives in to be sentient, and that this sentience arises from the arrangement of the masonry and vegetation surrounding it.

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Roderick later informs the narrator that his sister has died and insists that she be entombed for two weeks in a vault (family tomb) in the house before being permanently buried. the narrator helps Roderick put the body in the tomb, and he notes that Madeline has rosy cheeks, as some do after death They inter her, but over the next week both Roderick and the narrator find themselves becoming increasingly agitated for no apparent reason. A storm begins. Roderick comes to the narrator’s bedroom, which is situated directly above the vault, and throws open his window to the storm. He notices that the tarn surrounding the house seems to glow in the dark as it glowed in Roderick Usher’s paintings, although there is no lightning.

The narrator attempts to calm Roderick by reading aloud The Mad Trist, a novel involving a knight named Ethelred who breaks into a hermit’s dwelling in an attempt to escape an approaching storm, only to find palace of gold guarded by a dragon. He also finds hanging on the wall a shield of shining brass on which is written a legend: that the one who slays the dragon wins the shield. With a strike of his mace, Ethelred kills the dragon, who dies with a piercing shriek, and proceeds to take the shield, which falls to the floor with an unnerving clatter.

As the narrator reads of the night’s forcible entry into the dwelling, cracking and ripping sounds are heard somewhere in the house when the Dragon is described as shrieking as it dies, a shriek is heard, again within the house. As he relates the shield falling from off the wall, a reverberation, metallic and hollow, can be heard. Roderick becomes increasingly hysterical, and eventually exclaims that these sounds are being made by his sister, who was in fact alive when she was entombed and that the narrator knew that she was alive. The bedroom door is then blown open to reveal Madeline standing there. She falls on her brother, and both land on the floor as corpses. The narrator then flees the house, and, as he does so, notices a flash of light causing him to look back upon the House of Usher, in time to watch it break in two, the fragments sinking into the tarn.

The Fall of the House of Usher Analysis

The Fall of the House of Usher is considered the best example of Poe’s “totality”, where every element and detail is related and relevant.

The theme of the crumbling, haunted castle is a key feature of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, a late 18th century novel which largely contributed in defining the gothic genre.

The Fall of the House of Usher shows Poe’s ability to create an emotional tone in his work, specifically, feelings of fear, doom, and guilt. These emotions center on Roderick Usher who, like many Poe Characters, suffers from an unnamed disease. Like the narrator in The tell-tale Heart, his disease causes his hyperactive senses. The illness manifests physically but is based on Roderick’s mental or even moral state. He is sick, it is suggested, because he expects to be sick based on his family’s history of illness and is, therefore, essentially a hypochondriac. Similarly, he buries his sister alive because he expects to bury her alive, creating his own self-fulfilling prophecy.

The House of Usher, itself doubly referring both to the actual structure and the family, plays a significant role in the story. It is the first “character” that the narrator introduces to the reader, presented with a humanized description: its windows are described as “eyelive” twice in the first paragraph. The fissure that develops in its side is symbolic of the decay of the Usher family and the house ‘dies’ along with the two Usher siblings. This connection was emphasized in Roderick’s poem “The Haunted Palace” which seems to be a direct reference to the house that foreshadows doom.

Sprague de Camp, in hisLovecraft: A Biography, wrote that “according to the late Poe expert Thomas O, Mabbott, H.P. Lovecraft, in “supernatural Horror”, solved a problem in the interpretation of Poe by arguing that “Roderick Usher, his sister Madeline, and the house all shared one common soul”. The explicit psychological dimension of this tale has prompted many critics to analyse it as a description of the human psyche, comparing instance, the House to the unconscious, and its central crack to the personality split which is called dissociative identity disorder. Mental disorder is also evoked through the themes of melancholy, possible incest, and vampirism. An incestuous relationship between Roderick and Madeline is never explicitly stated, but seems implied by the strange attachment between the two.

Opium which Poe mentions several times in both his prose and poems, is mentioned twice in the tale. The gloomy sensation occasioned by the dreary landscape around the Usher mansion is compared by the narrator to the sickness caused by the withdrawal symptoms of an opium-addict. The narrator also describes Roderick Usher’s appearance as that an “irreclaimable cater of opium”. It might be argued that Roderick Usher’s hypersensitivity and hypochondria are both consistent with the withdrawal symptoms of opiate-addiction. Poe’s many mentions of opium and his exact descriptions of his effects and of opium additions withdrawal symptoms have led many to believe that Poe had first-hand experience of opium and that he might have been an opium-addict himself. The truth is that opium and laudanum (opium tincture) in the 19th were very common and many 19th century writers such as S.T. Coleridge and Charles Baudelaire were in fact opium-addicts.

The opening epigraph quotes “La Refus” (1851) by the French song writer, Pierre-Jean de Biranger (1780-1857), translated into English as “the heart is a suspended lute, as soon as it is touched, it resounds”, Biranger’s original text reads “Mon Coeur” (my heart) and met not “son coeur” (His/her heart)

The narrator describes one of Usher’s musical compositions as “a… singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber.” Poe refers to a popular piano work of his time – Weber’s last waltz was actually composed by Carl Gottilieb Reissiger (1789-1859).

Usher’s painting reminds the narrator of the Swiss-born British painter Henry Fuseli (1741-1825).

The German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, the role model and inspiration for Poe, published the story “Das Majorat” in 1819, having similarity with Poe’s story. There are atmospheric similarity- eerie sounds in the night, the story within a story and the house-owner being called “Roderick”.

Poe’s story is highly unsettling macabre work is recognized as a masterpiece of American Gothic literature. Indeed, as in many of his tales, Poe borrows much from the Gothic tradition still, as G. R. Thomson writes in his Introduction to Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe“the tale has long been hailed as a masterpiece of Gothic horror; it is also a masterpiece of dramatic irony and structural symbolism.”

Poe’s inspiration for the story may be based upon events of the Usher House, located on Boston’s Lewis wharf. As the story goes, a sailor and the young wife of the older owner were caught and entombed in their trysting spot by her husband when the Usher house was, down in 1800, two bodies were found embraced in a cavity in the cellar.

Another source of inspiration may be from an actual couple by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Like Usher, the friends and fellow actors of his mother Eliza Poe. The couple took care of Eliza’s three children (including Poe) during her time of illness and eventual death.

Scholars speculate that Poe, who was an influence on Herman Melville, inspired the character of Ahab in Melville’s novelMoby Dick. John McAleer maintained that the idea for “objectifying Ahab’s flawed character” came from the “evocative force” of Poe’s story. In both Ahab and the house of Usher, the appearance of fundamental soundness is visible, flawed – by Ahab’s livid scar, and by the fissure in the masonry of Usher.

The Fall of the House of Usher: Theory and Practice

Poe believed that a tale should have unity of effect and that everything else should be subordinated to this unity: The Fall of the House of Usher best represents his theory and craftsmanship as it is tightly structured, concentrated and possessing unity of effect, design and atmosphere. The very opening of the story establishes an atmosphere of desolation and disintegration. The oppressive autumn day and the decaying, ancient family mansion are both symbolic of the terrible loom that awaits the hero Roderick Usher, the neuropath of impotent will.

The tempestuous elements of nature, the solemn movement of prose, rising to a crescendo at the end and all the strands of the story converging to the “single effect” produce the grim phantasm, fear, which dominates the story. The strange appearance of the house, the weird actions of the mad inhabitants of the house of Usher, the strange burial and return to life of Madeline, the death of Usher and the destruction of the house, are incidents that contribute to producing the collect of horror.

But there are other and more factors that build up an atmosphere of horror. One such factor is a series of increasingly weird identification, for instance between the house and its inmates, between Usher and his sister Madeline, between the works of art and actual happenings and finally between the madness of Usher and the momentary madness of the narrator.

The Fall of the House of Usher Theme

In The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe tries to explore the nature of humanity. The story focuses on several interrelated themes, namely death, isolation and madness. This is why he is all the time looking and thinking, speaking about death, isolation, madness and violence.

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