The Fall of the House of Usher | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Fall of the House of Usher | Motifs



The narrator's approach to the House of Usher is relatively silent: the opening sentence even describes the day as "soundless." However once he's in the house, sounds receive continual emphasis throughout the story. Roderick's condition makes him overly sensitive to sound, so both he and the narrator must moderate their noise production. He can listen to only certain types of music, and other sounds fill him with terror. Once Madeline dies, the emphasis on sound becomes even stronger. Roderick wanders through the house, listening for something. Strange sounds awaken the narrator in the night. As the story nears its climax and the narrator tries to distract Roderick by reading aloud to him, the house resonates with strange sounds. Grating hinges, screaming, and ringing sounds terrorize Roderick and the narrator. Roderick's sensitivity to sound, as well as to light and touch, is a symptom of his psychological illness.


In many ways, this story would not exist without illness: Roderick's illness provides the inciting event for the narrator's visit. Roderick is preoccupied with mental and physical issues that end up overtaking him and his sister. The relationship between Roderick's and Madeline's illnesses is revealing. Madeline is both wasting away and cataleptic, a rare condition in which one becomes rigid and non-responsive to stimuli from the outside world. Roderick's condition contrasts hers: he is overly sensitive to noise and overreacts to stimuli. It is possible that Madeline is merely the physical manifestation of Roderick's fear of death. It is also possible that Roderick, as Madeline's caretaker, is affected negatively through his care of the sick. The story hinges on this question: Is Roderick the victim of supernatural events, or is he mad?


When the narrator arrives at the House of Usher, he finds Roderick a slave to fear. In fact fear dominates Roderick to such an extent that the fear itself becomes worse than its real or imagined object. As a controlling force in Roderick's life, his fear takes on the power to manifest reality. Because Roderick fears death, his fear leads to his death. Poe's story suggests that people have the power to create negative situations through their fear of them. In fact, in this story, fear not only creates the reality of Roderick's death, it spreads like a contagion. As a temporary resident in the House of Usher, the narrator, too, grows more fearful of both his imaginary and real experiences as the story progresses, until the world seems nothing but fear.


The House of Usher is isolated. In turn the house acts as a barrier that keeps its inhabitants from interacting with the outside world. Roderick has not left the house in years. The profound isolation of Roderick and Madeline has caused their eerie closeness and contributes to the mood of entrapment. There is a claustrophobic fear brewing that no one ever leaves the House of Usher. This isolation is briefly penetrated by the introduction of the narrator, an outsider, into the setting. Yet, the longer the narrator stays in the house, the less able he is to maintain an outsider's perspective.

Before her death Madeline worries about being buried alive, which would trap her in an even smaller enclosure than the house. In the end this is exactly what happens. The sensation that everyone in the house is trapped steadily builds and culminates in Madeline's being buried alive. The narrator's escape at the story's end may be possible only because he does not share the Usher bloodline.

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