The Fall of the House of Usher
|"The Fall of the House of Usher"|
First appearance in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine (September 1839)
|Author||Edgar Allan Poe|
|Genre(s)||Horror, Gothic, Detective Fiction|
|Published in||Burton's Gentleman's Magazine|
|Publication date||September 1839|
"The Fall of the House of Usher" is a narrative short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe, first published in 1839 in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine before being included in the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840. The short story is a work of detective fiction and includes themes of madness, family, isolation, and metaphysical identities.
The story begins with the unnamed narrator arriving at the house of his 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. As he arrives, the narrator notes a thin crack extending from the roof, down the front of the building and into the adjacent lake.
Although Poe wrote this short story before the invention of modern psychological science, Roderick's condition can be described according to its terminology. It includes a form of sensory overload known as hyperesthesia (hypersensitivity to textures, 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, deathlike trances. Roderick and Madeline are the only remaining members of the Usher family.
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 alive, and that this sentience arises from the arrangement of the masonry and vegetation surrounding it. Further, Roderick believes that his fate is connected to the family mansion.
Roderick later informs the narrator that his sister has died and insists that she be entombed for two weeks in the family tomb located 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 a 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:
- Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin;
- Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win;
With a stroke 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 knight'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.
Additionally, Roderick somehow 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 moonlight behind him which causes him to turn back, in time to see the moon shining through the suddenly widened crack. As he watches, the House of Usher splits in two and the fragments sink into the tarn.
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In "The Fall of the House of Usher", Poe's unnamed narrator is called to visit the House of Usher by Roderick Usher. As his "best and only friend", Roderick tells of his illness and asks that he visits. He is persuaded by Roderick's desperation for companionship. Though sympathetic and helpful, the Narrator is continually made to be the outsider. From his perspective, the cautionary tale unfolds. The narrator also exists as Roderick's audience, as the men are not very well acquainted and Roderick is convinced of his impending demise. The Narrator is gradually drawn into Roderick's belief after being brought forth to witness the horrors and hauntings of the House of Usher.
From his arrival, he notes the family's isolationist tendencies as well as the cryptic and special connect between Madeline and Roderick. Throughout the tale and her varying states of consciousness, Madeline ignores the Narrator's presence. After Roderick Usher claims that Madeline has died, he helps Usher place her in the underground vault despite noticing Madeline's flushed appearance.
During one sleepless night, the Narrator reads aloud to Usher as sounds are heard throughout the mansion. He witnesses Madeline's reemergence and the subsequent death of the twins, Madeline and Roderick. The narrator is the only character to escape the House of Usher, which he views as it cracks and sinks into the tarn, or mountain lake.
Roderick Usher is the twin of Madeline Usher and one of the last living Ushers. Usher writes to the narrator, his boyhood friend, about his illness. When the narrator arrives, he is started to see Roderick's appearance is eerie and off-putting. He is described by the narrator :
gray-white skin; eyes large and full of light; lips not bright in color, but of a beautiful shape; a well-shaped nose; hair of great softness — a face that was not easy to forget. And now the increase in this strangeness of his face had caused so great a change that I almost did not know him. The horrible white of his skin, and the strange light in his eyes, surprised me and even made me afraid. His hair had been allowed to grow, and in its softness it did not fall around his face but seemed to lie upon the air. I could not, even with an effort, see in my friend the appearance of a simple human being.
Roderick Usher is a recluse. He is unwell both physically and mentally. In addition to his constant fear and trepidation, Madeline's catalepsy is also a cause of his decay. He is tormented by the sorrow of watching his sibling die. The narrator states," “He admitted [that] much of the peculiar gloom which thus affected him could be traced [to] the evidently approaching dissolution [of] his sole companion” . According to Terry W. Thompson, he meticulously plans for her burial to prevent "resurrection men" from stealing his beloved sister's corpse for experimentation, as was common in the 18th and 19th centuries for medical schools and physicians in need of cadavers.
As his twin, the two share an incommunicable connection that critics conclude may be either incestuous or metaphysical, as two individuals in an extra-sensory relationship embodying a single entity. To that end, Roderick's deteriorating condition speeds up his own torment and eventual death. His mental health deteriorates faster as he begins to hear Madeline's attempts to escape the underground vault she was buried in.
Like with his sister, Roderick Usher is tied to the mansion. He believes the mansion is sentient and responsible, in part, for his deteriorating mental health and melancholy. Despite this admission, Usher remains in the mansion and composes art containing the Usher mansion or similar haunted mansions. Roderick falls to his death out of fear in a manner similar to the House of Usher's cracking and sinking.
Madeline Usher is the twin sister and doppelgänger of Roderick Usher. She is deathly ill and cataleptic. She appears before the narrator, but never acknowledges his presence. She returns to her bedroom where Roderick claims she has died. She is entombed despite her flushed appearance. In the tale's conclusion, Madeline escapes her tomb and returns to Roderick, only to scare him to death.
According to Poe's detective methodology in literature, Madeline Usher may be the physical embodiment of the supernatural and metaphysical worlds. Her limited presence is also explained as a personification Roderick's torment and fear. Madeline does not appear until she is summoned through her brother's fear as is foreshadowed in the epigraph, a quote from French poet Jean Pierre de Beranger: "Son coeur est un luth suspendu;/Sitot qu'on le touche il resonne,"meaning "His heart is a tightened lute; as soon as one touches it, it echoes".
"The Fall of the House of Usher" was first published in September 1839 in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. It was slightly revised in 1840 for the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. It contains within it Poe's poem "The Haunted Palace", which had earlier been published separately in the April 1839 issue of the Baltimore Museum magazine.
Sources of inspiration
Poe's inspiration for the story may be based upon events of the Hezekiah Usher House, which was located on the Usher estate that is now a three-block area bounded in modern Boston by Tremont Street to the northwest, Washington Street to the southeast, Avery Street to the south and Winter Street to the north. The house was constructed in 1684 and either torn down or relocated in 1830.
Other sources indicate that 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 torn down in 1830, two bodies were found embraced in a cavity in the cellar.
Another source of inspiration may be from an actual couple by the name Mr. and Mrs. Luke 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.
German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, who was a role model and inspiration for Poe, published the story Das Majorat in 1819. There are many similarities between the two stories, like the breaking in two of a house, eerie sounds in the night, the story within a story and the house owner being called "Roderich". As Poe was familiar with Hoffmann's works he certainly knew the story and cleverly drew from it using the element for his own purposes.
Another German author, Heinrich Clauren's, 1812 story The Robber's Castle, as translated into English by John Hardman and published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1828 as "The Robber's Tower", may have served as an inspiration according to Arno Schmidt and Thomas Hansen.
As well as common elements, such as a young woman with a fear of premature burial interred in a sepulchre directly beneath the protagonist's chamber, stringed instruments and the living twin of the buried girl, Diane Hoeveler identifies textual evidence of Poe's use of the story, and concludes that the inclusion of Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae (Vigils for the Dead according to the Use of the Church of Mainz) is drawn from the use of a similarly obscure book in "The Robber's Tower".
The theme of the crumbling, haunted castle is a key feature of Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764), which largely contributed in defining the Gothic genre. The presence of a capacious, disintegrating house symbolizing the destruction of the human body is a characteristic element in Poe's later work.
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 inflames his hyperactive senses. The illness manifests physically but is based in 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 "eye-like" 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.
L. Sprague de Camp, in his Lovecraft: A Biography, wrote that "[a]ccording 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 analyze it as a description of the human psyche, comparing, for instance, the House to the unconscious, and its central crack to a split personality. 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 opiate-addict. The narrator also describes Roderick Usher's appearance as that of an "irreclaimable eater of opium."
Allusions and references
- The opening epigraph quotes "Le Refus" (1831) by the French songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger, translated to English as "his heart is a suspended lute, as soon as it is touched, it resounds". Béranger's original text reads "Mon cœur" (my heart) and not "Son cœur" (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 here refers to a popular piano work of his time — which, though going by the title "Weber's Last Waltz" was actually composed by Carl Gottlieb Reissiger. A manuscript copy of the music was found among Weber's papers upon his death in 1826 and the work was mistakenly attributed to him.
- Usher's painting reminds the narrator of the Swiss-born British painter Henry Fuseli.
Literary significance and criticism
This 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 already developed 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."
"The Fall of the House of Usher" has been criticized for being too formulaic. Poe was criticized for following his own patterns established in works like "Morella" and "Ligeia," using stock characters in stock scenes and stock situations. Repetitive themes like an unidentifiable disease, madness, and resurrection are also criticized. Washington Irving explained to Poe in a letter dated November 6, 1839, "You have been too anxious to present your pictures vividly to the eye, or too distrustful of your effect, and had laid on too much colouring. It is erring on the best side--the side of luxuriance."
John McAleer maintained that the idea for "objectifying Ahab's flawed character" came from the "evocative force" of Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher.' In both Ahab and the house of Usher, the appearance of fundamental soundness is visibly flawed — by Ahab's livid scar, and by the fissure in the masonry of Usher.
In other media
- In film
La Chute de la maison Usher is a 1928 silent French horror film directed by Jean Epstein starring Marguerite Gance, Jean Debucourt, and Charles Lamy. Actress Gwendoline Watford made her film debut playing Lady Usher in The Fall of the House of Usher, a British black and white film version made in 1947 but not released until 1950.
In the low-budget Roger Corman B-film from 1960, known in the United States as House of Usher starring Vincent Price as Roderick Usher, the narrator is Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon), who had fallen in love with the sickly Madeline (Myrna Fahey) during her brief residence in Boston and become engaged to her. As Roderick reveals, the Usher family has a history of evil and cruelty so great that he and Madeline pledged in their youth never to have children and to allow their family to die with them. Winthrop tries desperately to convince Madeline to leave with him in spite of Roderick's disapproval, and is on the point of succeeding when Madeline falls into a deathlike catalepsy; her brother (who knows that she is still alive) convinces Winthrop that she is dead and rushes to have her placed in the family crypt. When she wakes up, Madeline goes insane from being buried alive and breaks free. She confronts her brother and begins throttling him to death. Suddenly the house, already aflame due to fallen coals from the fire, begins to collapse, and Winthrop flees as Roderick is killed by Madeline and both she and the Ushers' sole servant are consumed by the falling house. The film was Corman's first in a series of eight films inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
Another monochrome version appeared on British television in 1966 as part of the first series of Mystery and Imagination (1966–68) starring Denholm Elliott as Roderick Usher. It's one of only two surviving episodes of the otherwise lost first series (the other being "The Open Door" starring Jack Hawkins. It is available on the Network DVD label in the UK. It was filmed on studio sets, recorded on videotape and broadcast on ITV on 12 February 1966.
A devout fan of the works of Poe, cult director Curtis Harrington tackled the story in his first and last films. Casting himself in dual roles as Roderick and Madeline Usher in both versions, Harrington shot his original 10-minute silent short on 8mm in 1942, and he shot a new 36 minute version simply titled Usher on 35mm in 2000 which he intended to utilize in a longer Poe anthology film that never came to fruition. Both versions were included on the 2013 DVD/Blu-ray release Curtis Harrington: The Short Film Collection.
- In theater, animation and music
In the early 1970s, Steven Berkoff worked on a theatrical adaptation called 'The Fall of the House of Usher' whose 35 brief scenes follow closely the course of Poe's story. Published by Amber Lane Press, it was performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1974 and subsequently at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1975.
The 1976 debut Album of the Alan Parsons Project, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, adapted many Poe stories in musical form. The second half of the album was a five-part set dedicated to the Fall of the House of Usher, with an introductory narration by Orson Welles as the narrator.
In 2002 Lance Tait wrote a one-act play The Fall of the House of Usher, based on Poe's tale. Laura Grace Pattillo wrote in The Edgar Allan Poe Review (2006), "[Tait's] play follows Poe's original story quite closely, using a female Chorus figure to help further the tale as the 'Friend' (as Tait names the narrator) alternates between monologue and conversation with Usher."
Between 1908-17, French composer Claude Debussy worked on an opera called La chute de la maison Usher. The libretto was his own, based on Poe, and the work was to be a companion piece to another short opera (Le diable dans le beffroi) based on Poe's "The Devil in the Belfry". At Debussy's death the work was unfinished, however. In recent years completions have been attempted by three different musicologists.
Another operatic version, composed by Philip Glass in 1987 with a libretto by Arthur Yorinks, premiered at the American Repertory Theatre and the Kentucky Opera in 1988 and was revived at the Nashville Opera in 2009. The Long Beach Opera mounted a version of this work in February 2013 at the Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, Los Angeles.
Dave Malloy's 2014 song cycle Ghost Quartet includes, amongst other interwoven narratives a retelling of the story, with several major changes. These changes include the presence of two Usher children, and the moving of Roderick's symptoms to his wife, Lady Usher.
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- The Fall of the House of Usher at Project Gutenberg
- The Fall of the House of Usher at Project Gutenberg (audiobook)
- The Fall of the House of Usher public domain audiobook at LibriVox
- Full text as reprinted in The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe (1850)
- Full text at Bartleby.com
- "The Fall of the House of Usher" with annotated vocabulary at PoeStories.com
- Full text at American Literature
- Analysis by Martha Womack
- William B. Cairns (1920). "Fall of the House of Usher, The". Encyclopedia Americana.