The Fall of the House of Usher
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is a case of “fear at a distance” or terror (the atmosphere seems ominous and the personification of the mansion makes it seem capable of something evil), “fear at contact” or horror (the setting is “marvelous” in itself for the way it is described and for what the narrator sees but chooses to shake off as a “superstition”), and “fear without an object” or dread (the narrator chooses to shake off what he sees, and if the reader does the same, she is left with no object to fear, but constant suggestions as to the contrary), all at the same time.
Poe was a genius. He didn’t need Frye to tell him how to utilize the fearful or induce fear in the reader. Although he does seem to be corresponding with the reader, somewhat, about what fear is, as though the experience of the story is up for discussion. In the first paragraph, the narrator says there is nothing romantic in feeling about the setting, saying that it is “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.” The feeling is an “utter depression of the soul,” “a sickening of the heart… no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.” The feeling is not from the narrator’s imagination, so the narrator cannot turn it into anything pleasurable; instead, he is made to feel the “gloom” and the sorrow, as though something in the setting were fooling with the health of his soul, his very life-force, through some kind of psychic/supernatural power of its own. Poe seems to be working on taking the genre one step further; maybe because finding pleasure in the romantic made the terrible not terrible enough, or maybe because the idea that a character in the story could find solace in the “sublime” undermined the very plot of the story, for if the narrator were not truly afraid (and taking the terrible nature of the setting seriously), how could the reader take the story seriously? An idea you can push to the back of your mind, but the narrator was in actual pain (gloom and sorrow are arguably forms of pain), which he should’ve taken seriously.
This supernatural power, or implied curse, of the mansion was making Usher visibly ill. He called it a “mental idiosyncrasy which oppressed him” or a “morbid acuteness of the senses,” where any source for vitality (pleasurable food, the scent of flowers, light) was unendurable and “oppressive.” He calls it a “family evil.” Here, we have Poe associating “evil” with pain and fear. The narrator calls Usher’s illness a “species of terror.” And Usher says, interestingly, the absolute effect of danger is terror, as opposed to other reasons for why we would call the dangerous “dangerous,” such as the pain it could lead to. Usher also says that the only way to lose the illness would be to “abandon life and reason together, in my struggle with some fatal demon of fear.” He does not dread pain alone, but more significantly, the fear of what else may cause in him the sensations which make him ill (oppressive gloom and sorrow). He cannot bear being afraid and a “slave” to the fear of what could happen; and he is considering suicide (which, ironically, is orthodoxly considered a sin) to rid himself of evil. It is here I wonder whether it was death itself which Poe was calling evil, or dying, or being made to die.
Throughout the story, you get a feeling of confinement. It’s stormy and dark outside, pushing the narrator into the lighted mansion; only the mansion is surrounded by a visible presence (an “atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees… in the form of an inelastic vapor or gas”), which is obviously not that of angels, but from the dying or dead; but which the narrator rationalizes away by considering the “paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis.” (Here, we have Poe continuing his thoughts on fear, telling us that terror only begets more terror.)
The story is scary, because everything points to approaching Death: the atmosphere, the mansion, which is showing signs of decay and is on the brink of total collapse, by a small fissure, which the narrator also notices in the beginning. He goes in anyway, and he finds his boyhood friend, Usher, now looks like a corpse, while Usher’s twin sister, Lady Madeline, no longer responds to outside stimuli. When Lady Madeline presumably dies, Usher buries her within the grounds of the mansion; and then, when Lady Madeline reappears, having survived being buried alive and somehow having managed to escape from her entombment, it is as though the living and the dead are made to stand in the same plane of existence: death is that much more closer to Usher, so that upon his sister falling on him, the two meet physically and in death.
It is not all terror, however; there is intrigue in the mysterious, and Usher and his family are enshrouded in mystery. Roderick Usher had no close friends from outside his family, other than the narrator, who recalls that Usher had, in boyhood, carried on with “excessive and habitual reserve.” Was that because Usher or the Usher family had secrets to keep? Usher had become mysteriously ill, with a mysterious illness, and the mansion and its vicinity has a mysterious atmosphere. The family survives only by a direct line of descent, which makes it appear very pure or at least singular (they don’t branch out to other families and “endure,” but other families are absorbed into theirs). The narrator calls the Ushers an “ancient family,” which shows us that they have been strong enough or smart enough or attractive enough, in some regard, to survive. It also conjures up a sense of the supernatural and makes us wonder about where the family comes from. History has often been replaced with myth. The Bible places Adam and Eve at the beginning of humanity, while the Greeks had their own creation stories. The farther back we go, the more easy it is to associate a subject or family with the mythical. This idea of the ancient ties into the scary, of course, by our being constantly made aware of something to dread, something that has to do with the family mansion, made more eerie by it being a family mansion (as opposed to some random place where Roderick Usher resides), and by all the furniture and rooms of the house having been used by generations long dead.
Also, there is the mysterious bond between Roderick Usher and his twin sister, and their personal connection to the family mansion. They seem to be connected both physically (Roderick says he was afflicted with his ailment after Lady Madeline was with hers, and from which he feared her imminent death) and psychically (Roderick could hear Lady Madeline long before the narrator could, from her entombment). The two are twins and thus look identical to each other. And then, Lady Madeline survives being buried alive, as though she can not die without her twin brother dying as well. She then somehow, maybe psychically, finds Roderick who dies with her, as the mansion collapses over them; their death bringing an end to the family and, as though psychically linked, to the family mansion.
There is some speculation as to Lady Madeline being a vampire, which would explain her apathy, how she got out of her tomb and the underground vault on her own (super-human strength), and possibly why Roderick looked the way he did (she could’ve been sucking his blood, he could’ve been lying to the narrator and buried her to get rid of her, and in the end, he could’ve died not out of fear, but by Lady Madeline sucking his blood one last time). However, saying this is so, giving an explanation, would deflate the mystery and undermine the effect Poe wished to achieve — keeping some fear at a distance, so that if not the anxiety, the wonder over the family and whatever secrets they may be keeping, can remain, and thus, the story can continue to haunt its readers.
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- August 18, 2007 / 2:15 am
- Poe Edgar Allan