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The Fall of the House of Usher | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How might "The Fall of the House of Usher" have served as mining ground for Poe's 1849 poem "A Dream Within a Dream"?

In 1849 Poe published a poem titled "A Dream Within a Dream," in which the speaker asks the question, is "all that we see or seem/But a dream within a dream?" In addition to a general dreamlike quality throughout the short story, there are specific references to dreaming. The first is when the narrator approaches the House of Usher and compares the sensation he gets to "the after-dream of the reveller upon opium." Later the narrator again suggests a dreamlike experience when he says he shook "off from my spirit what must have been a dream." The entire story can be read as a dream, which would explain why such fantastic events occur.

What might be the significance of the name Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

While there is speculation that "The Fall of the House of Usher" may have been inspired by the real-life story of Hezekiah Usher's house, where two bodies were discovered, the word usher literally means "to escort or guide," and the Ushers do just that. "The Fall of the House of Usher" is a story concerned with the boundary between fantasy and reality, and connecting with the sublime in an unconventional sense. In some way, Roderick Usher and Madeline Usher guide the narrator into new experiences where the boundary between fantasy and reality blurs, as they lead him into a state of total terror of the soul.

How is Madeline Usher characterized upon the narrator's first sighting of her in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

When the narrator first encounters his friend Roderick Usher's twin sister, Madeline Usher, she "passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and ... disappeared." The narrator's reaction to seeing Madeline, who did not seem to have noticed the narrator, is one of "not unmingled dread." Though the narrator cannot readily account for this feeling of dread that overcomes him, Madeline is described in such a way as to liken her to an apparition; the choice of the word passes rather than walks gives the impression of a floating woman, moving without human exertion. Similarly the choice of the word disappeared suggests that, rather than having left the room, the woman vanished into thin air, as a ghost might. This introduction to the character Madeline Usher prepares the reader for what is to come and also suggests that she might not even really exist except as an element of Roderick's or the narrator's imagination.

In "The Fall of the House of Usher" how does the uncertainty about Madeline Usher's illness serve the story?

The illness that brings Madeline Usher to her death "baffled the skill of her physicians." Though no official diagnosis is given in the story, she seems to suffer from cataleptic bouts, during which she appears to go lifeless or comatose. Poe creates intrigue around her illness to lend an air of mystery to her death, but also to plant a seed of doubt in the mind of the reader and the characters. Roderick suspects that they buried Madeline alive, having mistaken a cataleptic episode with death; however, the narrator tells the reader that the second time he sees Madeline, she is no longer living. This tension between accounts of what happens heightens the sense of mystery in the story in a way that another illness or an explained death could not.

How does Edgar Allan Poe foreshadow the resurrection of Madeline Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

After the narrator describes in some detail the illness with which Madeline Usher is afflicted, and her doctors' inability to properly diagnose or treat it, he tells the reader she has died with the words, "the evening of my arrival at the house, she succumbed ... to the prostrating power of the destroyer." Instead of saying that night was the first and last time he would ever meet Madeline, the narrator says, "The glimpse I had obtained of her person would thus probably be the last ... at least while living." Poe sets the words at least while living apart from the rest of the sentence with a dash, alerting the reader to the special importance of this detail. It is at this moment in the story that a careful reader realizes that Madeline will appear again in death.

How is "The Fall of the House of Usher" a meditation on the limits of art?

Given Poe's allegiance to the aesthetic movement, which called for art for art's sake, one can reasonably assume that he contemplated art and its capacities. In the beginning of "The Fall of the House of Usher," the narrator notes the impact an exact arrangement of elements can have on a person, echoing some of the ideas about storytelling Poe outlined in his essay "Philosophy of Composition." Later in the story the narrator struggles to recount the events accurately. He says, "I should fail in any attempt to convey an idea of the exact character of the studies." There is a parallel here between the narrator and the writer, Poe. While the narrator does his best to describe events in detail that will give the audience the impression of having been there, he acknowledges that there are limits to what can be conveyed through language. Though Poe's stories are meticulously crafted, and he is considered a master of the art, it is likely that he, as all artists, often felt he could not adequately capture the sense or sentiment of a thing entirely.

What elements of the mystery story does Poe use in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

The narrator signals to the reader very early that there is a mystery to be encountered in the House of Usher. As he approaches the house he wonders, "What was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?" He then answers, "It was a mystery all insoluble." Poe then delivers on this promise of an impossible-to-solve mystery. Along the way he invokes many of the conventions of the genre of mystery, mainly foreshadowing, suspense, and inference gaps. Madeline's rise from the dead is foreshadowed by the narrator's comment that the first time he saw Madeline was the last "at least while living." Suspense is steadily built from the approach to the House of Usher to the dramatic climax, where the most intense use of suspense occurs in the scene in which the narrator reads from Mad Trist and he and Roderick Usher begin to hear fantastic sounds in the house just before Madeline reappears. Most interestingly there are inference gaps—things never explained fully in the mystery, rendering it insoluble even to the narrator who witnessed the strange events.

How does Poe use alliteration in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

Poe is a writer who gives a great deal of attention to the sound of language. In his essay "Philosophy of Composition," Poe wrote that he "resolved to diversify" the refrain often used in poetry and "heighten the effect, by adhering in general to the monotone of sound, while I continually varied that of thought." Although "The Fall of the House of Usher" does not feature refrain, it does feature repetition that oftentimes creates a sense of a monotone sound. One strong example of this technique of similar sounds with varied thought or subject is the closing line of the story: "and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the 'House of Usher.'" There are two instances of alliteration in this sentence. First, "deep and dark" repeats the d sound, suggesting a certain unity of the tarn, and then the many-times-repeated s sound featured in "sullenly," "silently," "fragments" and "House of Usher." In these instances the rhythm created by the repetition of sound carries the reader through a sentence that delivers a number of things: a tarn, the narrator's feet, and the submersion of the House of Usher. Poe expresses varied thoughts, while maintaining the monotone quality of the refrain.

In "The Fall of the House of Usher" how does Poe use punctuation to create and heighten suspense?

Suspense is central to most of Edgar Allan Poe's works, and it is also a characteristic of the gothic genre. Poe often creates and amplifies a sense of suspense in part by a strategic use of punctuation. The most striking example of his use of punctuation to create and amplify suspense in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is toward the end of the story, when Roderick seems to go mad. He finally reveals that he has heard what the narrator is now hearing for only the first time: the sounds of Madeline's return from the death vault. He says, "Yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days have I heard it." Poe's use of the dash has the effect of elongating the sentence, and delaying the revelation of what it is that Usher is hearing. This technique builds suspense. He then amplifies that suspense by introducing exclamation points before delivering the reader to the fearful conclusion: "I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb!"

Which macabre characteristics are present in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

Macabre elements, often featured in Poe's works and those works of other Gothic writers, include disturbing events and horrifying depictions of death, illness, and injury. The macabre can be described as dreadful, grotesque, and gruesome, among other things. "The Fall of the House of Usher" certainly fits this bill, with its disturbing sonorous events, where fantasy and reality mingle upon the reading of Mad Trist. Poe also offers a horrifying description of death, illness, and injury with the depiction of Madeline after she rises from the dead, standing before the narrator and Roderick Usher with "blood upon her white robes ... evidence of some bitter struggle."

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