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The Fall of the House of Usher | Discussion Questions 31 - 40

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In "The Fall of the House of Usher" how does Poe use personification to develop the symbol of the House of Usher?

The text of "The Fall of the House of Usher" makes clear that the house is meant to be taken as a symbol for the family. In the third paragraph of the story, the narrator explains that the name "House of Usher" "seemed to include ... both the family and the family mansion." As the House of Usher deteriorates and falls, so does the Usher family. With the collapse of the house comes the collapse of the line of descent—no more house, no more Ushers. Poe also uses the house to relay something about the family. He endows the house with human qualities in the opening paragraph when the narrator describes the windows as "vacant eye-like windows." This description begins to develop the house as a character, and by leaning on the adage that the eyes are the window to the soul suggests there is something vacant about the soul of the house. Roderick's poem takes the personification of the house further. He writes that the "Radiant palace—reared its head." In stanza five of the poem the house blushes, and in stanza six it laughs and smiles no more. These descriptions—blushing, laughing, smiling—are all human deeds that occur in response to something. Not only does the house have eyes and a vacant soul, it actively responds to its environment.

How does Poe use weather in "The Fall of the House of Usher" to emphasize developments in the plot?

The weather figures prominently throughout Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." Using the pathetic fallacy, Poe mirrors the spiritual turmoil of the characters and the rising chaos of the House of Usher through the evolving weather conditions. When the narrator first arrives at the House of Usher, the weather is overcast, with low-hanging clouds, but as the story progresses, the storm increases in strength. By the final paragraph, the storm is so wild the narrator describes it as a storm of wrath. The increasing severity of the storm parallels Roderick Usher's psychological state as his sister grows more ill and eventually dies. Likewise as the storm picks up force, the house comes closer to its demise, ultimately collapsing in the height of the storm. This is a technique often used in the Gothic tradition, and one that readers will recognize in all sorts of contemporary literature and film.

How is the narrator characterized as a skeptic in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

J.O. Bailey, author of the article "What happens in 'The Fall of the House of Usher,'" describes the narrator as a rationalist and a skeptic regarding the supernatural—"a man who habitually dismissed any explanation not in accord with common-place fact." This disposition of the narrator is confirmed when Roderick Usher details his theory of the sentience of the house. The narrator calls this theory the result of Roderick Usher's "disordered fancy." Though the narrator gives a detailed account of Roderick's theory, he goes on to dismiss the entire thing by saying "such opinions need no comment, and I will make none." With this, the narrator dismisses Roderick's theory of the sentience of the house and landscape as irrational and fantastical thinking.

How is Poe's narrator changed by the events of "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

The narrator's evolution in the story is from a rational skeptic to a man who cannot but attest to the presence of the supernatural. He has seen things happen that have no rational explanation, including Madeline Usher's rise from the dead, the seemingly spontaneous death of his friend, Roderick Usher, and the inexplicable collapse of the House of Usher right before his eyes. By the end of the short story, the narrator sees—and does not question or attempt to rationalize—the "blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through the once barely-discernible fissure ... [which] rapidly widened." Having witnessed and experienced the events of the story, the narrator no longer seeks to rationalize the widening of the fissure, or give any explanation of the events. The suggestion here is that he has transcended the limitations of the physical, rational world.

What evidence is there in "The Fall of the House of Usher" that the narrator experiences the sublime?

Edmund Burke's articulation of the sublime suggests that connecting to the sublime is the most intense emotional experience the mind can have. The narrator describes such an intense emotional experience of the mind in the final paragraph of "The Fall of the House of Usher." After he flees the mansion, he turns back to see some fantastic weather events and the collapse of the House of Usher: "There came a fierce breath of the whirlwind—the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight." The use of the words fierce and burst signal that the sounds and sights that cause the narrator extreme sensory stimulation. In the presence of this stimulation, the narrator relays that his "brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing sunder." The narrator's reeling brain is the consequence of the intense emotional experience of the sublime.

What are the forces that influence Roderick Usher's nervous condition in "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

When the narrator describes his former classmate Roderick Usher, he says that as a boy he had a "peculiar sensibility of temperament." Such temperament led Roderick to have "a passionate devotion to the intricacies ... of musical science." From this description, the reader gets the sense that Roderick was more highly attuned to some things that others—certainly other young boys—are not. This type of disposition or temperament might make Roderick more perceptive of psychic and supernatural forces, such as seem to be at play in the house. Indeed the story offers the suggestion that it is Roderick's scrutinizing eye that "might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure" in the House of Usher. Roderick's heightened sensory perception could be at the root of his nervousness, which many, including the narrator, might at first perceive to be insanity. This is a condition that Poe has leveraged in other stories, most notably in the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart."

In "The Fall of the House of Usher" what pattern of reasoning does Usher rely on to make his claim that the House of Usher is sentient?

After Roderick Usher reads his poem "The Haunted Palace," a poem whose plot details the events in the short story in which it is contained, Roderick outlines his theory of the sentience of the House of Usher. Roderick believes that his house possesses the capacity for sensation and perhaps even consciousness. He explains that although the house seems inorganic, it might indeed be a complex arrangement of elements that give rise to sentience: the "collocation of these stones—in the order of their arrangement," and "the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around." He further claims that life perpetuates or reduplicates in "the still waters of the tarn." Just as human life arises from a complex arrangement of atoms and elements, Roderick believes that various elements of the House of Usher combine to produce a conscious, feeling house, whose intention is to witness or bring about the demise of the Usher lineage.

What is the single effect Poe aims to create through his composition of "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

In Poe's essay "Philosophy of Composition," he maintains that the storyteller's task is to identify a singular effect that he wishes the story to have, and then to write every element of the story in such a way that it tends to this effect. In a preface to Tales of the Grotesque and the Arabesque, a collection in which "The Fall of the House of Usher" appeared, Poe wrote that the ultimate terror was the terror of the soul. It is very likely that the effect Poe aimed to create in his short horror story "The Fall of the House of Usher" was that of terror of the soul.

How does Poe collapse the boundary between the natural and the supernatural in his story "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

In "The Fall of the House of Usher" Poe explores the boundary between the natural world and the supernatural world. Through the character of Roderick Usher, Poe outlines a theory of sentience among those things traditionally thought of as inanimate. Roderick explains that as humans and organic life are a complex arrangement of elements that give rise to human and animal sentience, it too is possible that objects—like the House of Usher—possess sentience from some other complex combination of things. As the narrator and the reader see the house come alive in the story, Roderick's theory is proven true. After witnessing the events of the story, the narrator, who is originally skeptical, even dismissive of Roderick's theory, must accept that the house is in a very real sense alive. This progression of the narrator's skepticism to his observer experience of the house's sentience collapses the boundary between the natural and the supernatural. The effect is heightened because Poe through Roderick uses a logical thinking pattern to establish the possibility. Poe probes the limits of human sentience and perception, suggesting that what we deem to be "supernatural" might indeed be natural, but out of the reach of human sentience.

How is "The Fall of the House of Usher" a response to American transcendentalism?

The transcendental movement developed in the United States in the early- to mid-1830s. The movement was led by such famous writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Two tenets of transcendentalism that can be traced through "The Fall of the House of Usher" are the notion that consciousness cannot apprehend the vast nature of the soul, and that the divine is everywhere and in everything natural. Most obviously Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" underscores the limits of human consciousness to perceive the vastness—in this instance the depth of terror—of the soul. Only through the fantastical events of the story does the narrator begin to understand the limits of his own rationality. Poe's response to the notion that the divine is everywhere is a bit more subtle. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" Poe inverts the notion of the sublime experience forwarded by transcendentalists; for Poe, connecting to the sublime is not about communing with God, divinity, or eternity, but rather connecting with deterioration and decay.

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