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The Fall of the House of Usher | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


What examples are there of the literary device anaphora in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

As a poet and a prose writer who is particularly concerned with sound and the rhythm of language, Poe makes use of various literary devices related to the sound of language. One of them is anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a series of clauses. For example he writes, "many minutes, many hours, many days" and then "many, many days ago." This repetitive sound underscores the very thing it describes: multiple instances of the same thing. In another instance, Poe repeats the word upon three times in the span of four lines: "upon the walls," "upon my very heart," and "upon the pillows." This comes at a time when the narrator is suddenly seized by fear and terror is upon him.

What is significant about the description of the door through which one must pass to reach the burial vault in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

Poe gives great attention to describing the door through which the narrator and Roderick Usher pass on their way into and out of the vault where Madeline Usher's body is held. The door of the vault is made "of massive iron" and "carefully sheathed with copper." When the narrator and Roderick leave the vault, they "secured the door of iron." The attention given to the formidable security of the doors is significant because it raises questions about how Madeline got out of the vault. Could a frail and ill woman somehow break through the secured, iron door? Was she resurrected as a "lofty and enshrouded" ghost who is not limited by the rules of the physical world that limit the living? Or is she a figment of Roderick's or the narrator's frenzied imagination?

In "The Fall of the House of Usher" if the house is read as the human mind, and Madeline as illness, what is the significance of the secured vault?

One way of reading "The Fall of the House of Usher" is to interpret the House of Usher as a mind or personality. In such a reading Madeline Usher, as the Gothic double of her brother Roderick, is the embodiment of illness, and Roderick and the narrator bury her deep in the secured recesses of a vault. This action could be seen as a symbolic attempt—perhaps made by all humans—to bury in their psyche the tragic impermanence of life. However, this attempt to suppress the reality that all living things are subject to deterioration over time fails. Madeline and the grim reality about life that she represents return as an ever greater threat and effectively destroy Roderick and the house, or the healthy part of the mind.

To what end does Poe use the trope of the Gothic double in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," Madeline is established as the double of Roderick. This is made clear by the fact that the two are twins. Madeline, as the embodiment of illness, is so intermingled with her twin double, Roderick, that as her health deteriorates, so does his. It would seem that Madeline is in some way a symbol for the inevitable deterioration and decay of the human body, one that is born with us, and which ultimately overcomes us. Despite the fact that Roderick tried to bury Madeline (and the looming threat of death with her), Madeline returns and can be seen overcoming Roderick in the closing scene of the story. Just as he came into the world, he will leave the world with his double. Poe uses the Gothic double in this story about the deterioration and transience of life to illustrate how we are born with death.

Which elements of Poe's arabesque style are present in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

Though the words arabesque and grotesque are often conflated and even used interchangeably, there are distinctions between the two styles in literature. Sir Walter Scott is said to have defined the arabesque as that which is "vividly accessible to the influence of imagination." Another element he articulated is that the arabesque story need not be bound by reason. Poe's works aimed always to appeal to the imagination rather than to morality; thus his works are designed to influence and engage the reader's imagination. "The Fall of the House of Usher" and Poe's other short stories often depart from reason and the ready understanding of reality. Indeed, in "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe takes on directly the boundary between fantasy and reality, or the natural and supernatural.

How is the extended metaphor of the palace as a human mind developed in Poe's poem "The Haunted Palace," which appears in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

An extended metaphor is a metaphor that is developed over the majority or the entirety of a poem. In the poem "The Haunted Palace," presented as a song written by Roderick Usher in "The Fall of the House of Usher," the extended metaphor of the palace as a human mind is carefully developed. The first clue that the palace should be read this way is in the first stanza, when the "Radiant palace—reared its head." This personification of the house is the first signal to the reader that the palace is not merely a building. In stanza three the impression of eyes is created by the line "through two luminous windows" and then in stanza four, the door is described as a mouth of "pearl and ruby" (teeth and lips), "whose sweet duty/Was but to sing." Evil rushes into the house disguised as sorrow, leading the house to "laugh," perhaps out of insanity, "but smile no more." Once again, the palace is endowed with human qualities such as laughing and smiling.

What is the significance of the isolation of the mansion in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

The narrator describes his journey to the mansion as one that he passed "alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country" and only "at length" did he find himself "within view of the melancholy house." These details are relayed in the second sentence of the story, establishing a remote setting where the House of Usher stands in isolation. This setting detail creates an air of mystery and spookiness about the house, and is perhaps the inspiration for modern haunted house stories in which there is an old house sitting alone high atop a hill. The isolation of the house also suggests that its location affords Roderick and Madeline Usher privacy to live beyond the harsh gaze of society, something they may have valued if they were indeed engaged in an incestuous relationship. If the House of Usher is read as a symbol of the human mind, then the isolation of the mansion mirrors the isolation and also the mystery of the human mind, and the deterioration of the house could signal a slip into insanity.

In what ways does "The Fall of the House of Usher" fit into the horror genre?

The horror genre is defined by its ability to instill fear, disgust, or horror in the reader. Much of Gothic literature has elements of horror, notably Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and of course Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." While some of his other stories, like "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado," develop a sense of internal, psychological horror, the horror of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is, for the most part, externalized. The narrator is overcome by a sense of fear and horror as he approaches the house and as he moves through the rooms within. He is later really horrified when he begins to hear inexplicable sounds, and when Madeline Usher appears "lofty and enshrouded ... blood upon her white robes."

How does Poe create a sense of the sublime in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

It is clear from the beginning of the short story that the narrator is aware of and attempting to connect with the sublime. As he rides up to the mansion, the narrator reveals that no matter what he does, he cannot get his imagination to connect with "aught of the sublime," or anything of the sublime. Poe's introduction of the sublime in the first paragraph signals to the reader that the concept is central to the story. Indeed, beyond connecting his characters to the sublime, Poe's work attempts to connect the reader to the sublime. According to Edmund Burke's articulation of the sublime, it generates the most intense emotions a mind can experience, and these emotions transcend the rational. The experience of the sublime is associated with astonishment and with a sense of infinity or grand dimensions. Poe's rendering of these events that resist rational explanation encourages the reader of "The Fall of the House of Usher" to abandon rationality and give in to the sensory experience that generates intense emotion.

How does "The Fall of the House of Usher" demonstrate a reverence for the aesthetic in literature?

The notion of art for art's sake was as central to Poe's work as it was to the Aesthetic movement. Aesthetics maintained that the beauty of a work of art is more important than its meaning; indeed, Poe believed that a work of literature ought not aim to teach a lesson, but rather create an experience for the reader. Though Poe's works have themes, they do not have a didactic purpose as do some works of other American Gothic writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" the themes sanity versus insanity, fantasy versus reality, and deterioration are present, but they serve to create the effect of the terror of the soul rather than to offer a morality statement. Readers are able to experience the story on a deep level because they are held in the tension between sanity and insanity, constantly questioning what is fantasy and what is reality, and witnessing the deterioration of both man and house.

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