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”The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe Essay Sample

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”The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe Essay Sample

In the annals of American literature, Edgar Allan Poe is known for writing about the macabre and terrifying side of life.  The ideas of Poe are echoed in every horror movie, every scary novel, and often every walk into a dark alley where mysterious and lurking things reside.  And while some literary experts and critics may consider his work gothic horror, a closer examination reveals deeper psychological underpinnings that reflect the tumultuous life the author himself.  From difficult times, troublesome women, and social turmoil of ascending and descending the class ladder, Poe seems to reflect his unique perspective in nineteenth century America.  As the Industrial Revolution stormed around him, alcoholism ravaged his body, and his frequent ventures into the life of pauperism, the theme of decay runs throughout much of the work of Edgar Allen Poe and seem to reflect the isolation and deterioration he felt in his own life.

One of the other unique occurrences that Poe reflected in his writing was the ongoing march of women towards greater freedom and equality.  Women in the time of Edgar Allan Poe were decades from approaching equality in even the simplest sense.  Still relegated to the status of second-class citizens, women in the nineteenth century were often nothing more than property for their husbands and a means to producing offspring.  While Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” appears more as a macabre tale of deterioration and illness, a closer examination exposes underlying themes that reflect the author’s life and times.  Madeline’s illness could illustrate Poe’s personal experiences with his own struggles, as well as those of his wife, and it could also serve the dual purpose of reflecting the growing shift of women towards a greater equality in culture as evidenced by the declining of the oppressive regime of the male-dominated world.

In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the entire story details the gloomy deterioration into insanity and death.  While Poe is well known for infusing his stories with anxiety and fear, the story of Roderick Usher is filled with imagery that reinforces the theme of decay.  From the moment the unnamed narrator arrives at the house to care for the ill Usher, foreboding thoughts keep popping into his mind despite his best efforts to abandon them through reason.  The sight of the stately, yet decaying manor caused within him “an illness, a sickening of the heart, an unredeemed dreariness” (Poe).  He believes that his perceptions might change if he looks at things in a brighter light, but when he tries he is confronted with even more fear and the house surrounded by darkness and mystery.  The house even begins to feel human to him, looking at him with eye-like windows as he looks at it.

The narrator thinks of his sick friend as he once knew him, quiet and reserved with a morbid demeanor, but handsome and cordial.  He recalls stories of the Usher family and its former glory as a family of musical geniuses and the fact that the mansion he now looked upon had passed directly from father to son for generations, until finally being left to the last surviving member son, Roderick.  From the very introduction, it becomes apparent to the reader that the house of Usher has significant deteriorating powers over those who come in contact with it.  The house itself is encapsulated in a fungus that suggests the neglect and atrophy of the house.  The house is also surrounded by “decayed trees” and a gaseous presence that enshrouds the mansion.  When the narrator finds his friend inside the house, he finds similar decay from the once handsome young man he knew: “He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of a certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured even by faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror” (Poe).

When he learns of Roderick’s sister, Madeline, he finds a similar decay as there was a “gradual wasting away of the person” and there was little hope for recovery.  Later, Usher tells the narrator that his sister is dead, and he entombed her in the dungeon.  Usher continues to grow paler and more ill, and when unable to sleep one night during a storm, the narrator is startled by a delusional Usher and tries to calm him down by reading a book about medieval knights.  Strange and eerie sounds begin to emanate from the walls of the mansion, and finally, Usher reveals that he buried his sister alive.  When she bursts in, blood-soaked, she collapses on her brother and both collapse.  Completely unnerved, the narrator escapes the house, only to look back under the blood-red moon to see it fall apart.  The decay in The Fall of the House of Usher involves not only the house itself, but the Usher family, including the lives of both siblings, and also the general well-being of the narrator who seemed to be infected by the unhealthy environment from which he entered with trepidation and fled in fear.

Usher’s connection to the mansion is seen throughout the story, creating a symbolic parallel that cannot be ignored: “Usher is organically linked with the mansion, and the Gothic feelings of decay and disorder with which he is identified have a ‘real’ reality in man’s mysterious existence” (Olson 559).  If one was to take the house as a symbol for the entirety of human civilization, gloomy, corrupt, and deteriorating, the house of Usher might as well be named the society of man.  Perhaps as a reaction to the cold uncertainty brought with the scientific and industrial revolutions, the abandonment of the former spirit that advanced humanity, Poe attempted to display the old ways of society were no longer working: “The windows are ‘altogether inaccessible from within,’ in a sense imprisoning Roderick [and Madeline] from the outside world” (Bailey 452).

This could speak of the modern industrial world which is so wrapped up in its own technological achievements that it fails to understand the simple harmony of nature, which is obscured but human constructs.  In addition, the only light that enters into the house is “encrimsoned light” and everything inside the house seems entombed under its “vaulted” ceiling, giving more indications of eerie, blood-stained light and a sense of imprisonment.  “‘Many books and musical instruments…scattered about’ fail ‘to give any vitality to the scene’,” suggesting that all the knowledge and art of civilization is no longer vital, and instead lies wasted to a culture that ignores it (452).  The former glories of Usher could be seen as the former glories of humanity, with its artistic achievement, humility, and handsomeness.  The narrator then fills the role of the conscientious observer, a philosopher examining a world that refuses to evolve.

The inhabitants of the house of Usher can also be seen as the two primary representations of humanity—man and woman.  Roderick and Madeline are much like Adam and Eve, borne from the same line, brother and sister as much as sexual beings.  The suggestion of incest is strong in the story, not only between Roderick and Madeline, his “tenderly beloved sister–his sole companion for long years,” but within the Usher family dating long back.  The narrator notices: “I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain” (Poe).  In human civilization, this form of incest has been largely frowned upon, but is seen in degrees in concepts such as eugenics and within certain aristocratic ruling families, as the house of Usher was similar.  The rigidity and unseemliness of such incestuous relationships prevent the progression of humanity.  As the last members of the family, they Madeline and Roderick are alone capable of giving birth to a new generation, but are unable to provide anything but copies of themselves: “the Usher’s family tree becomes an elongated ‘stem’ which has never ‘put forth, at any period, any enduring branch.’  So complete is the family’s unity of development that the family tree resembles the number one” (Allison 43).  As twins that look so alike, with backgrounds identical, there is no forward direction for either to take, especially as Madeline continues to gradually waste away from her mysterious ailment.

Much of what is seen in the depiction of Madeline can also be seen in the life of Poe and the women with which he associated.  Poe’s mother, an actress noted for her charm and beauty, died when he was a young child.  Never knowing his mother, merely knowing of her beauty and early death marked much of Poe’s writing.  In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as well as other stories such as “Ligeia” and “Berenice,” Poe continuously shows women locked in the struggle between life and death.  Madeline could be said to resemble the impact his mother had on him, as when the narrator initially sees her, she “passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared.”  In her story, Berenice exhibits a similar transience, and Ligea “came and departed as a shadow.”  Like much of Poe’s work, critics often consider these stories to be supernatural in nature, dark fantasies almost, and the highly humanistic undertones are often overlooked in favor of the fantastical actions.  However, recent criticism has expanded to include the viewpoint that these particular Poe stories were far from supernatural stories about mystical women.

Literary critic Carrie Zlotnick-Woldenberg argues that Poe’s these particular short stories by Poe, especially “Ligeia,” are not supernatural at all but rather psychological exposes of women.  In “Ligeia,” the narrator experiences the death of his adored first wife, Ligeria, a second marriage to the despised Rowena, and ultimately the death of Rowena and the reanimation of Ligeia.  According to this reading, the poisoning of Rowena and the reanimation of Ligeia are hallucinated by the narrator in the course of an opium-induced psychotic break (Zlotnick-Woldenberg 403-405).  While Poe certainly painted some dramatic imagery in his work, as well as things that seem like they never could not possibly happen in reality, like the Usher house crumbling to the ground, there could be more reality than most realized.  His emphasis on women in his stories, included Madeline, could reflect his almost otherworldly fascination with the fairer sex as mysterious and inspiring individuals, however unknown, terrifying, or bewitching.

The narrators in both “Ligeia” and “Berenice” never really get to know or understand the women they observe, instead catching only fleeting glimpses and hints of their greater beauty, much like Poe’s interaction with the first woman in his life, his mother.  From the very beginning of his conscious life, Poe romanticized all women and it reflects in his work, as he searches for idealized, fragile versions of women in the throes of mysterious and oppressive forces.  Poe’s romanticism is shown in his lifelong pursuit of a woman who could “play the role of mother to him, whether Frances Allan (the first Mrs. Allan, his ‘foster-mother’); Mrs. Stanard, the mother of his chum, Richard, who became a ‘substitute-mother’ to him; Mrs. Maria Clemm, his aunt who became his mother-in-law; her daughter, Virginia, who became his ‘wife-mother’ (Benton 1).  It was his relationship with Virginia that proved to be the most impactful of his adult life.

Poe married Virginia secretly in 1836, when she was only thirteen and he was twice her age.  Though she was his cousin, his interest in her grew as she blossomed, and the year after they married in secret, they did so publicly.  Virginia was petite, attractively proportioned, limber, graceful, and playful, with pretty features, if not beautiful; she had bright eyes that looked forth from under somewhat heavy lids; her sensuous lips formed a sort of pout; and her high, pale forehead was topped by straight, black hair parted in the middle (Benton 7).  Virginia lacked the intellectualism of her cousin and husband, concerned with girlish fancies and enamored with her sophisticated older cousin.  Despite the mutual attraction between the two, the age difference did create stress on the marriage and Poe to his friend, John Mackenzie that “the marriage had not been congenial.  And he told at least two people that he and his young wife lived together as brother and sister for two years after their wedding” (Benton 8).

This scenario is strikingly similar to the relationship that Roderick and Madeline share as actual brother and sister with a deep affection for each other.  Another similarity between Poe’s relationship with Virginia and the relationship between the two remaining Ushers is that Virginia also suffered a slow deterioration of her health.  Six years after they were married, Virginia was singing to her husband when a blood vessel burst, soon leading to her increasing invalidism.  Her condition continued to fluctuate for a few years until she eventually became bedridden and steadily declined.  By autumn 1846, Poe knew that she was going to die, and in January of the next year, she finally did, adding to the list of women lost by the writer.  Many experts claim that Poe’s themes of death of a beautiful woman are due in large part to this repeated occurrence throughout his life, from his mother to Virginia (Weekes 149).  Though the “Fall of the House of Usher” came just a short time before Virginia fell ill, it reflected the author’s prior experience and his preoccupation with women.

            Removed from his personal tragedies, from the continued loss of women with which he was intimate, to the alcohol and drug addiction with which he struggled his whole life, “The Fall of the House of Usher” could also be seen as a polemic against the state of women in his time.  Madeline’s cataleptic disorder suggests that she is subject to motionless and inactivity.  Her status as a collaborated and companion with her brother, someone that allows the state of their world to fall into such terrible decline, could also be seen as a contributor to her condition.  She can be seen as complicit, not only in an incestuous relationship, but in allowing her house to become so disordered.  However, she is also a victim and subject to imprisonment, much like the women of her time.  Forced into subservience by the male-dominated society, women of middle nineteenth century American society were limited in their life possibilities, mostly relegated to the home as wives and mothers.  As representing this old way, a way that was rapidly changing at the time Poe wrote this story, Madeline’s gradual deterioration may be the death of the subservient, imprisoned woman.

When she is placed in the coffin, pronounced dead by her brother/lover who most likely had an idea that she may still live, she is finally entombed in the vault.  The old ways are abandoned, though no substitute has appeared to take its place, nor could it without the participation of both Madeline and Roderick.  He cannot survive without her, and their supernatural twin telepathy could be simply a metaphor for the complicity between the sexes for the state of the world.  Finally, as Roderick deteriorates and Madeline reemerges from her tomb, it suggests that this old way of thinking, no matter how unhealthy or unwanted, will not die as long as either sex desires it.  The final destruction of the home and the death of both Madeline and Roderick seems to suggest that the only way that a new world can be born is to complete obliterate the hackneyed past for a healthy future.

            The narrator of the story must escape, in essence to bare witness.  He sees the glory and the promise of a young Usher, and finally witnesses the deterioration and ultimate destruction of the man and the dream.  He is crucial to the story in the sense that he offers hope that there will be a continuation of life outside the Usher House.  However, he leaves the house changed, unnerved, and with the memory of what he witnessed firmly entrenched in his memory.  He is the future generations, the oral tradition almost, of what formerly was.  He alone can tell the story of Usher and the entire devolution that eventually led to his destruction.  If viewed as a metaphor for humanity, he is the race of survivors that will hopefully learn from the past mistakes and persist in avoiding them in the future.  However, in the greater sense, the narrator represents the individual’s ability to triumph even in situations of great turmoil and despair.

In an essay examining the work of Poe, Helen Maxson attempted to deconstruct the nature of Poe’s fiction by studying the concept of the individual in his works such as “The Fall of the House of Usher” and the true nature of the Poe narrator is illuminated in simple ways.  Maxson deduces that the characters displayed by Poe may often be liberated in a sense, much like the narrator that escapes the Usher House, but this does not make them unified or whole (Maxson 420).  Though the narrator escapes, he will never be the same.  In many of the works of Poe, the characters’ liberation contains both admirable and despicable qualities, and their psyche is comprised from a collection of fragments they often fail to recognize.  In this instance, the fragmentation is literally reflected in the fragmentation of the House of Usher as it crumbles to the ground in a terrible groan.  Though humanity has reached a plateau in which it cannot proceed, with both sexes decadent and sick, there is always a battered but living hope within the individual that allows it to persevere and continue to relay the events that they have witnessed. 

            The poeticism of Edgar Allan Poe, as well as his talent for creating thought-provoking and often disturbing scenarios, leaves much of his work open to wide interpretation.  It is easy to read “The Fall of the House of Usher” and claim that the characters represented two sides to Poe’s personality, or that Madeline and Roderick represented the duality of the body and the mind.  However, another reading will show that the fears of modern industrialism, social stagnation, and the oppression of females is hidden in almost every macabre line.  The house of Usher is far bigger than just a decaying mansion occupied by sick and insane inhabitants.  The house of Usher is the world, decaying, gloomy, and filled with anxiety and ill-repute.  The reclamation of the house by the tarn, leaving absolutely no trace, is similar to what nature can do to all the constructs of humanity.  However, through courage, equality, and a greater love of diversity, humans, unlike the Ushers, can manage to avoid decay and imprisonment thanks to symbolic examples provided by such authors as Poe.

Works Cited:

Allison, John. “Coleridgean Self-Development: Entrapment and Incest in ‘The Fall of the

House of Usher.’” South Central Review. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

Bailey, J. O.. “What Happens in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’?” American Literature.

Chapel Hill: Duke University Press, 1964.

Benton, Richard P. “Friends and Enemies: Women in the Life of Edgar Allan Poe.”

Myths and Reality. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, 1987. 16 Nov 1998. 29 Jun 2008. <http://www.eapoe.org/papers/PSBBOOKS/

PB19871C.HTM>.

Maxson, Helen F.Richard Poirier and Edgar Allan Poe: Reassessing the ‘world

elsewhere.’” The Midwest Quarterly. Pittsburg: Summer 2000. Vol. 41, Iss. 4; pgs. 416-432.

Olson, Bruce. “Poe’s Strategy in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’ Modern Language

Notes. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Heath Anthology of American

Literature, Volume B: Early Nineteenth Century 1800-1865. Paul Lauter ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

Weekes, Karen. “Poe’s Feminine Ideal.” The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe.

Kevin J. Hayes ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 

Zlotnick-Woldenberg, Carrie. Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Ligeia’: An object-relational

interpretation.” American Journal of Psychotherapy. New York: Summer 1999. Vol. 53, Iss. 3; pg. 403-413.

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