Text: “The Fall of the House of Usher” in Edgar Allan Poe: The Complete Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Longmeadow Press, 1983.
In the autumn of some year, the nameless first-person narrator receives a desperate letter from his friend, Roderick Usher, begging him to come for a visit to alleviate his melancholy. They had been boyhood friends and Usher reaches out to his only acquaintance for help. He has some bodily illness and mental nervousness and longs for company. The narrator sets off at once by horseback to the gloomy country of the Usher family.
He approaches the Usher estate and mansion at twilight on an autumn evening. The house is utterly desolate and terrible in its appearance, with empty windows and depressing thoughts emanating from the very atmosphere around it. The narrator is unnerved by this mystery and thinks at first it is the mere association of dark and bleak objects that cause his sinking of the heart. He decides to look at the house upside down in the black tarn or pool in front of the house to see if it will look different. This angle produces an even stronger impression of fear.
The narrator knows little of Roderick Usher except that he comes from an ancient family noted for their overly sensitive nature. They have artistic temperaments and are known for works of charity. There are no family members who live outside the house. This curious fact that the whole family has descended in a direct line from father to son with no collateral branches accounts for the fact that the identity of the physical house and the identity of the family have merged into one, into the “House of Usher.” Roderick Usher lives alone there, the last of his race, except for his twin sister, Madeleine.
The narrator believes it is due to his superstition that he is making too much of the gloomy atmosphere of the house. The house is dream-like, with its discolored fungus and crumbling walls. He notices in particular a fissure from the roof of the house that zigzags down the walls to the pool in front. Riding over a causeway, he approaches the house where a servant takes his horse. He notices the Gothic architecture and intricate passages of the house as a servant shows him to his master. Meanwhile, he meets the family physician on a staircase, a nervous man who looks dishonest and frightening.
In a large lofty room with dark drapes, musical instruments, and books, illuminated only by gleams of crimson light, he sees Roderick Usher very altered, looking like a cadaver. His eyes are large and luminous, but his hair is unkempt. He does not think Roderick looks human. The man is very nervous and incoherent, acting now excited, and now sullen. Roderick calls his own condition the family evil, a morbidness of the senses that makes all things depress him: all odors, textures, and sounds fill him with horror.
Roderick is a slave to fear, pronouncing that he will die of it. He foresees the loss of his reason, and he seems to have the impression that the family mansion itself has a terrorizing effect on his spirit, as though it controls him, so that he can never leave the house.
He is also depressed by the fatal illness of his sister Madeleine that will leave him the sole member of the family when she dies. Her disease is mysterious; she is apathetic and wasting away. She is sometimes found in a cataleptic state of paralysis, as though dead. As they speak of her, she passes through the room at a distance as though a ghost, never noticing the visitor. Roderick is very affected by her presence and buries his face in his hands. It is the last glimpse the narrator has of her alive.
In the next days, the narrator attempts to divert Roderick by painting and reading with him. He listens to the wild improvisations on Roderick’s guitar, vague and ideal melodies. Roderick paints strange pictures, like one showing a dark vault below the earth. His art is beautiful and unworldly yet reveals he is tottering on the brink of madness. That he is conscious of his own decline is depicted in a melancholy ballad he sings called, “The Haunted Palace.” This song describes a beautiful palace that was once filled with good spirits, but it became inhabited by evil beings that destroyed the palace.
The ballad leads the two friends to discuss Roderick’s idea of “the sentience of all vegetable things” (p. 44). He believes the House of Usher and everything in it is alive and has emanated a terrible influence on the family members over the centuries, sealing their tragic fates.
One day Roderick informs the narrator that his sister has died, and that he wishes to bury her temporarily in the family vault in the cellar of the house before having a formal funeral in a few weeks. He gives as a reason that he does not want medical men or the public inquiring into her disease. The narrator is not suspicious of this wish because he has observed the sinister nature of her doctor. He helps Roderick put the body in a coffin, though he notes there is still color in the cheeks. The vault is beneath the narrator’s bedroom. The burial vault used to be a torture chamber and then a storage room for gunpowder. It is lined with copper.
The narrator notices the similarity in appearance of brother and sister. Roderick says they are twins and have complete empathy and sympathy with one another. They screw down the coffin lid and secure the iron door. Roderick begins to change from that moment, becoming restless and terrified. He seems mad and carrying a dark secret.
One night a week later, the narrator cannot sleep, nor can Roderick, who comes to his bedroom with madness in his eyes. He throws open a casement window, showing the narrator the storm brewing outside the house. There is a whirlwind collected around the house, and all the objects, including the waters of the pool, are glowing with unnatural light. The narrator leads Roderick from the window and tries to convince him these are natural and not supernatural phenomena.
The narrator diverts Roderick by reading to him from The Mad Trist of Sir Launcelot Canning, a favorite romance of Roderick’s. When he reads the part where the hero Ethelred forces the door to the hermit’s cell, which cracks and rips open due to the hero’s strength, they hear an echoing cracking and ripping in the house beneath them. The narrator continues reading about how Ethelred enters the hermit’s cottage, only to find he has turned into a dragon guarding a palace of gold. On the wall is a legend that says if the dragon is slain, the hero will win the shield on the wall. Ethelred slays the dragon that shrieks as it dies. Likewise, Roderick and the narrator hear a shriek in the House of Usher and a grating sound. Roderick sits facing the chamber door in terror as the narrator continues to read.
Once the dragon is dead, the shield falls to the floor with a clang. Similarly, there is a loud noise below the narrator’s chamber. He jumps to his feet and notices Roderick is speaking gibberish and rocking back and forth. Finally, the narrator hears Roderick confess, “We have put her living in the tomb!” (p. 49).
Just then, the door to the bedroom opens slowly to reveal the Lady Madeleine of Usher. She has blood upon her white shroud and emaciated body. She reels and falls dead on top of her terrified brother who dies of terror, as he predicted he would.
The narrator runs out of the chamber and out of the house in time to see a ray of the full blood-red moon hitting the fissure running down the wall of the house and tearing it to pieces. The House of Usher falls tumultuously in fragments into the pool. The House of Usher in both its material form and human form have disappeared.
Poe excels in the Gothic form of storytelling, mastering all the expected elements of haunted house, family curse, the death of a beautiful woman, mystery, terror, the supernatural, and unnatural types of death. The narrator and reader know from the first paragraph what to expect because of Poe’s careful build-up of atmosphere using the dark isolated estate of the Ushers, the nervous and dying inhabitants, and the crumbling house itself, which is purported to be sentient.
Poe creates terror through suggestion, never saying exactly what is going on or describing anything too realistically. He compares the landscape to an opium vision or a dream, with all detail exaggerated and distorted. It is the land between madness and sanity. Usher is hovering on the brink of madness, and the story moves like dominos falling. First, Madeleine declines, then her brother, and they begin to take the narrator and the reader with them into their world. At last the mansion itself falls over, an agent of sheer self-destructive fear. The narrator interposing as the voice of outside normalcy and reason is shown to be ineffective to stop the decline. Though he tries to assert the primacy of reason, he describes to the reader what appears to be supernatural and evil.
It is more effective to have an eyewitness describe the events than one of the characters, for then the reader has to accept the story as plausible. It is actually unbelievable that someone like the narrator would consent to Roderick’s plan to bury his sister in the basement without having an official death certification by a doctor, but it illustrates that the strange atmosphere of the house can influence even a supposedly rational person.
Like Poe himself, Roderick Usher is a sensitive artist given to fits of hypersensitivity. The opening quote is from the song “Le Refus” (1831), by the French songwriter Pierre-Jean de Bèranger (1780-1857), translated as “his heart is a suspended lute, as soon as it is touched, it resounds.” The sensitive lute is Roderick’s nervous system that registers every impression in the House of Usher. His music and painting are both weird and hauntingly ethereal. His wild guitar variation on the waltz of von Weber refers to a popular composer of the day. Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) was a British artist who painted supernatural subjects, notably “The Nightmare” depicting a demon on a sleeping man. Usher’s painting of a tomb is reminiscent of Fuseli, according to the narrator.
Usher is an idealist gone sour. Poe’s art is the same, denying that humans live in a completely materialistic world. There is mystery, the unexplainable. Yet everything seems to be in a state of decay. Is there something beyond the material body? What strength in Madeleine could break out of the coffin and copper lined vault? Although the story is not religious in nature, it suggests that there is a price to pay if one breaks laws in the spiritual world or runs into negative forces there.
The narrator gives a list of authors read by him and Roderick Usher to while away the time and to defer his melancholy. They are actual books that are of a fantastic or mystical nature, describing the heavenly and the demonic realms. They demonstrate that Usher has an affinity for spiritual realities, though not always positive ones. Some of the stories are about demonic possession. Usher is a man of culture but reads what we would now call classical fantasy and horror stories, hardly the material to cheer him up. The Vigiliae Morturorum is a book of services for the dead, which seems to motivate him to bury Madeleine prematurely. The romance that the narrator reads to Usher as Madeleine is breaking out of her coffin (The Mad Trist), however, is a story invented by Poe, whose details parallel the horror of the final scene. Usher is living in his own supernatural story, far worse than the ones he reads.
Many commentators point out the implication of incest between brother and sister indicated by the family history and the unusual closeness and empathy the two siblings experience. There is no collateral line of the Usher family, suggesting they have interbred. Interbreeding can lead to inherited weaknesses, such as madness. What is Madeleine’s mysterious ailment? She is a symbol of the family curse. Does she have an inherited disease? Is she a victim of shock or violence? She is described as apathetic and wasting away. What does the sinister doctor know that Roderick fears may be revealed if he calls in the officials? Roderick and Madeleine are the last of the Usher family, a man and woman, and if the family is to continue without outside help, they perhaps were tempted to mate, following a family curse. Poe never confirms this or any other theory, because it is the mere suggestiveness of the imagery and plot that create terror.
Another mystery is why Roderick buries his sister alive. Her cataleptic fits leave her paralyzed as though she is dead, but surely her brother knew this and would understand that her rosy cheeks indicate she is still alive. He knows that he has buried her alive. Is he afraid she will reveal their family secret? We understand that he is also committing suicide in a way, because he feels everything she feels in her living tomb. He knows he will die mad and in fear, yet goes ahead with this plan.
This brings it all back to Roderick’s own thesis that the house itself is a sinister intelligence bringing them all to ruin. His song, “The Haunted Palace,” indicates a family home that was once virtuous and happy but has fallen to evil through dark spirits haunting it. All of this could be emblematic of the family madness. Commentators delight in interpreting Poe’s story dozens of ways, from the biographical approach, showing parallels to Poe’s life, to Freudian and psychological interpretations, to the spiritual or supernatural questions—all plausible and interesting because of the story’s symbolic dimension. It is like a song or poem that suggests endless possibilities.