Edgar Allan Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher: A Two-Minute Summary and Literary Analysis
Magnum opus to Poe’s canon, “The Fall of the House of Usher” single-handedly could have ensured his reputation. While others may contend for the title of “Greatest” in the catalogue, the influence of “Usher” is unquestionable. Nearly all of the principle Poesque motifs are present in its atmosphere of palpable anxiety. United here are “Metzengerstein,” “Berenice,” “Ligeia,” “Silence,” and “Shadow.” Here we see the struggles between free will and destiny, idealism and reality, physical limitations and spiritual aspirations, and all the messy, psychological frustrations that those agonies engender. And in no other story is this wrestle between the material and the mental more perfectly symbolized than in the bizarre relationship between Roderick and Madeline Usher, nor more perfectly actualized than in their miserable fate.
The story was in part inspired by E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Entail" -- another haunted house tale about an ancient family who are gradually destroyed by the legacy of familial sin personified in their estate on the Baltic Sea. Both stories involve an adventurous narrator travelling to this mansion on the precipice of a body of water, where he is immediately struck by its ominous atmosphere, and has a strange, otherworldly encounter with one of the female occupants, before witnessing its destruction coincide with the family's oblivion. Unlike Hoffmann, however, whose story is intricate, layered, and byzantine, "Usher" trims back the fat and focuses on one generation's story, leaving us to simply imagine what sins previous generations of Ushers must have committed -- and Usher leaves little doubt that the family's history of isolation and introspection have -- like the vampires in Stevenson's "Olalla" -- been cloaked in secret evil.
While incest has always been a popular topic when discussing this tale, I can't agree that it is the cardinal crime at the center of this saga: as in so many of Poe's tales, that honor falls to ambitious idealism -- Usher's refusal to accept mortality, his rejection of human society, his obsession with his female counterpart's embodiment of spiritual perfection, and his resorting to physical violence in a bid to nail her down. It is this psychological furor and rich symbolism that has made "Usher" one of the best haunted house stories in World literature.
"House of Usher" has a uniquely grotesque legacy inspired by its vast openness to interpretation, it's command of Gothic tropes, and its elegant plot. The ambition and scope it offers are unique to his short stories, bearing the weight of a novella in a concise structure. The ultimate progenitor of the weird fiction, psychological horror, and Southern Gothic genres, it is a nightmarescape of guilt, dread, and repression, engaging critics as far-removed as Freudians, feminists, structuralists, mythicists, gender theorists, and Marxists in a prolific conversation. Placing his chef d’oeuvre in a Gothic setting – an appropriate if not satiric homage – Poe deluges chaos upon what might otherwise have been a predictable tableau of premature burial with a monsoon of spiritual and psychological terror, mythic symbolism, and palpitating atmospherics which would combine to recharge and reorient the momentum of Gothic-inspired literature for another century to come.
“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher…”
So begins our unnamed narrator’s otherworldly recount of his fateful visit to an ailing childhood friend – the hypersensitive hypochondriac, Roderick Usher. Having known each other from school, without having seen one another since, the friends are brought together by Roderick’s intractable manic depression which has driven him to write his friend a request of company. The narrator responds accordingly, and his ride through the countryside terminates at the foot of a dank, motionless lake, or tarn, with the gloomy House of Usher rising from its banks.
The house is uncommonly depressing, steeped in an atmosphere of sorrow: “an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart – an unredeemed dreariness of thought.” He imagines that the house has absorbed this evil atmosphere from the decaying vegetation all around it: "I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul..."
Standing on the other side of the tarn, the narrator is chilled by the sight of the house’s reflection in the still, black water – a perfect duplicate. He also notices, with curiosity, a barely perceptible fissure tracing its way down the middle of the ancient abode, and disappearing into the dank water at its feet.
Upon entering the gloom-drenched home – utterly Gothic with its black wainscoting and red-lit, peaked windows – the narrator is horrified at Usher’s appearance. He has wasted away into a farce of a corpse: his form is pale and emaciated, his forehead dome-like, his lips thin, his gossamer hair white and weblike, his fingers spindly and long, and his eyes large, watery, and luminous. Usher’s hypersensitivity forces him to eschew sunlight, any but the softest fabrics and the blandest food. He can also bear no music except the gentlest plucked instruments. All other sights, sounds, foods, and fabrics torture him.
The narrator learns that the greatest source of Usher’s misery is the approaching death of his twin sister, Madeline. The ancient Usher family has been direct without any branches – only one son has survived from each generation to produce his own heir – and the two siblings are the sole survivors. With Madeline’s death, Usher will be left alone in the world, and with his, the family line will die. Usher soothes his manias with art and music and poetry. One painting shows a bizarre, subterranean scene illuminated by unnatural light. His poem, "The Haunted Palace,” uses the metaphor of a beautiful castle falling into Gothic decay after being invaded by “evil things, in robes of sorrow” to illustrate a beautiful woman’s descent into madness.
Amidst all of this eccentric imagination, Usher nervously confesses that he believes that the house is somehow alive – that something in the fetid swamp air arising from the rotten vegetation of the tarn and mingling with the arrangement of the masonry – and that its supernatural life is somehow intermingled into the Usher family line. In a sense, he argues, the house is a physical projection of the family’s spiritual state: broken, corrupted, and dying. He agrees that the house is evil and that its influence is destroying both he and Madeline’s health, but feels helpless to resist his destiny: that he will perish at the hands of his own folly. Furthermore, he intimates that he is haunted by a premonition that the time will soon come when he “must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.”
Madeline suffers from a gruesome, wasting disease that fascinates her morbid doctors and has fits of catalepsy that leave Usher unsettled. When the narrator learns one morning that Madeline has died, he is not surprised that Usher wants her body to lie in state in the Usher vaults for a week before being buried – both men worry that her unscrupulous physicians would dig her up for experiments. As they carry her into the copper-paneled tomb, the narrator is surprised to see the flush on her cheeks – a flush which he writes off as death’s cruel mockery of life. They set the wooden coffin on a framework, and close the iron door with a clang…
The week passes by tensely. Both men seem to sense something brewing in the tarn’s miasmic atmosphere – approaching evil and the exposure of the Ushers’ terrible secret. On the last night of the vigil, a massive storm hammers the House, sending swollen clouds scudding across the rising full moon. The narrator can’t sleep with the gales swirling against his casements and is surprised when a hysterical Usher enters the room. He throws open the windows, consumed by the power of the storm, steeping himself in its natural violence. The narrator rushes to close the window and drag his friend away from such a hideous mania, but is arrested by the sight of a phosphorescent glow rising from the swampy tarn and encompassing the House – a sourceless light like that in Usher’s subterranean painting. Usher reiterates his belief in the consciousness of inanimate nature and the interconnectedness of human and inanimate spirituality.
The narrator demands that Usher relax and forget about his metaphysical theories. He makes him listen to his favorite fantasy novel, “The Mad Trist,” about a knight named Ethelred, who smashes open an evil hermit’s door, battles a dragon inside, and knocks over a magic shield. Both men are startled when the narrator’s reading of each event is punctuated by a corresponding sound bellow them – in the vault: a smashing of wood, a dragon-like shriek, and a metallic clang. By the time the third sound is heard, the narrator looks up to see Usher rocking maniacally back and forth, agonized with fear, muttering insanely.
Usher suddenly admits that he has been hearing muffled sounds coming from the vault all week and that he is not at all surprised by this cacophony: indeed, he reveals that Madeline has been buried alive, and knowingly buried alive – an attempt to avoid confronting his fate. He has heard her heartbeat, her feeble breathing, and later, her panicked struggles. Finally, he has heard her beat her way out of the coffin (the breaking wood), pry open its iron hinges (the dragon’s shriek), and its toppling onto the copper-lined floor. Even now he can hear her terrible footsteps on the stairs. When the narrator tries to understand what he’s talking about, Usher explodes: “Madman! Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!”