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!”
And then the “ponderous and ebony jaws” of the doors swing open with superhuman power, revealing the crazed figure of Madeline Usher – her white cerements shredded and splattered in the gore of her struggles tearing through the coffin. She staggers into the room, reeling to and fro, before throwing herself upon her brother and dragging him to the floor a corpse – fulfilling the prophesy of his premonition that he would be destroyed in a struggle with Fear incarnate.
Horrified and dazed, the narrator rushes out of the room of death and flees into the storm. The gales have reached a fever pitch, and are gushing through the widening fissure in the wall, which is glowing bright red as the light of the full moon gleams through it. As he gazes into the hypnotic light, the crack suddenly splits in the whirlwind’s wake: “my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder – there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters – and the deep and dank tarn at my feet close sullenly and silenty over the fragments of the ‘House of Usher.’”
H.P. Lovecraft argued that the key to the cryptic demise of the Usher twins lay in a soul shared amongst them and their ancestral estate. It is hardly surprising that the master of American weird fiction should take an interest in the case: not only has “Usher” been described as the first American weird tale (although “Metzengerstein,” “MS.” And “Ligeia” each have sound claims to the title), but the themes and atmosphere of “Usher” pervade several of Lovecraft’s own weird tales – “The Rats in the Walls,” “Arthur Jermyn,” “The Shunned House,” “The Lurking Fear,” “The Festival,” and “The Picture in the House” are just a sample. Each of these stories concerns a decadent family, a sequestered home, a shameful secret, and a violent exposure (often expedited -- as in "Usher" -- with a sudden act of God bringing the house down).
But what Poe excels at where Lovecraft lacks is spiritual complexity. Few American writers have outpaced Poe in this category (though Hawthorne and Melville are certainly neck-and-neck with him): his deft use of parallelism, character juxtaposition, and plot mechanics combine into a vividly complex metaphysical thesis: nothing gold can last. Although we were never there to see the Usher family in its golden age (alluded to in "The Haunted Palace": "In the greenest of our valleys / By good angels tenanted / Once a fair and stately palace / Radiant palace -- reared its head") we certainly can sense the nostalgic "Paradise Lost"-mood suffered by Roderick as he rots in his self-appointed Hell. He finds himself frozen to this plot of land because of what it represents -- not because of what it IS or what it OFFERS. He is a slave to his lost love, worshiping a rotting corpse as it were, and -- most importantly -- deluded in his denial of reality.
This is paralleled in his hysterical hypochondria and hypersensitivity, which emphasize his inability to rationally and responsibly digest stimuli. He refuses, plunging so deeply into his senses and imagination that only the most bland and uninspiring sights, tastes, and sounds can leave him untraumatized. Usher -- perhaps like Poe himself -- considers himself a martyr to imagination, sacrificing his life by remaining a slave to his muse. In spite of his premonitions and very real fears, he continually faces his spiritual agonies (throwing the windows open to the storm, pouring himself into morbid poetry and art, quietly listening to the symptoms of Madeline's premature burial), while paradoxically ignoring the physical manifestations of those agonies at all costs (predominantly through his treatment of Madeline). So what is Usher's game? He is torn between his love of what Madeline represents, and his horror of what she truly is: the dying woman (the world's most poetical topic, in Poe's own words) whose fading life brings her a spiritual purity and peace, who is -- in actuality -- a physical human whose body will bloat and darken and blister and pus and putrefy after the spirit has left it.
In a sense -- like so many of Poe's protagonists -- he is projecting his own fears of mortality onto a beautiful woman who represents all of humanity's ideals and aspirations. It is not FOR Madeline that Usher is depressed and unresponsive, but for HIMSELF and for the human condition writ large. If only he could deny reality, hide it away, bury her alive so that he never has to actually see her dead (regardless of the obvious results), then he could maybe sleep at night. But he is still kept awake -- this time by the reverse (remember that reflection imagery?) problem: first he was afraid of confronting a living person's death, but now he is terrified of being confronted by a dead person's life.
Usher also believes in a kind of German pantheism (much like Ligeia) which argues that all things harbor life (of varying degrees of wholesomness and unwholesomeness) and that a spiritual energy -- like the poisonous miasma of tuberculosis -- can infect one entity from another (say... from a decaying swamp to a decaying family?). His mania orbits around his fear of confronting the interconnectedness of all things -- of stepping outside of his self-focused insulation and acknowledging the ludicrous vanity of his egoism -- and hones in on a few telling symbols: the house (whose reflection in the lake represents the duality of human nature, spirituality, and ego), his twin sister (whose physical and genetic connection to his represents his lasting tether to mankind -- both to its exultations and its sufferings -- and his own inescapable, psychological duplicity), and the gaseous tarn surrounding his mansion (whose silent dominance over the landscape, opaque surface, and patient timelessness represent death and oblivion).
The story is certainly among Poe’s finest; unrivalled in scope and vision, it unites his central motifs in a grandiose drama signaling the transition from tales of mystic women to tales of sheer, homicidal madness, incorporating the philosophical dynamism of the former (the struggles between the mental and the material) while laying ground for the later; “Usher” certainly is the philosophical breeding ground where “Berenice” and “Ligeia” gave birth to “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat.” A Gothic nightmarescape, “Usher,” more than any other tale calls into question the tenuous borderlands between perception and imagination, sanity and psychosis, the physical and the psychical. It pits freewill against fate, and examines the toxic and contagious nature of fear.
Usher is bound inextricably to his fate (symbolized in his abhuman, ghostly sister), and in what might be viewed as a mad-dash gambit of willpower, he attempts to suppress (and repress) his destiny by entombing it below his feet. Nonetheless, his mind deteriorates as it detects determination stirring under the coffin lid, and when the doors open to reveal his still-vital sister swaying in blood-streaked burial robes, they are the black jaws of fate opening to swallow him in spite of his scrambled machinations. Willpower falls, a victim to destiny. As the narrator shakes the contagion of madness from his spirit, dashing from the House reeling in its death-agony, the netherworld between reality and imagination is inextricably intertwined, and the already feeble consciousness represented by the House splinters and is pulled into the mind-damning, black unconsciousness of relentless oblivion.