The Fall of the House of Usher | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Fall of the House of Usher | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

Setting the Scene

On a dark autumn day at an unnamed time in the past, the narrator rides toward the House of Usher. At first glimpse he finds the decaying house disturbing, but he can't explain exactly why. Despite the gloom this sight inspires in him, the narrator rides on to visit his boyhood friend Roderick Usher. Roderick had written him a letter asking him to visit. Roderick's letter has described his suffering from both mental and physical illnesses. The narrator plans to stay for several weeks.

The narrator and Roderick had been friends when they were boys, but the narrator doesn't really know Roderick well because his friend had always been reserved. He does know the Usher family is an ancient one with a reputation for charity and good taste in art, especially music. However Roderick has no direct heir or cousins. This family has always had just one direct line of descent. Because there was just one Usher heir at any given time, local lore had fused the heir and the Usher family itself with the family's mansion, until it seemed like they were one and the same.

When the narrator looks up at the house again, he feels a dark and pestilent atmosphere surrounding the house, seeping out from the house's walls and from the small lake and rotting trees nearby. After a moment, he tries to convince himself this impression was a dream and looks at the house again. It seems very old and strange. As a whole it is intact, and no part of it has collapsed or crumbled. However, the individual sections are crumbling and covered with fungus and spider webs. He thinks he can see a jagged crack running from the roof down the wall and into the lake.

Roderick and Madeline

A servant takes the narrator's horse. He walks through the house, which is dark and full of strange decorations. He greets the Usher family doctor and then arrives at Roderick Usher's studio, which is large and dim. It is full of books and instruments, but it seems sad and gloomy. Roderick, who is resting on a couch, gets up to greet the narrator. Roderick's appearance has changed enough to disturb his friend. Roderick's face is pale, his eyes bright, and his hair wild. Like the house, Roderick seems a mass of contradictions. He alternates between being sullen and lively. Roderick tells the narrator how much he has wanted to see him and about his illness. His condition, which runs in the family, makes his senses especially acute. He's frightened and sure he will die soon. Roderick stays inside the house all the time and believes the house has affected his mental and spiritual state. He also admits some of his depression is because his sister, Madeline, is deathly ill.

As he says all this, Madeline moves through the room without seeming to notice the narrator, which makes him inexplicably afraid. No doctor can explain Madeline's illness. She's wasting away, and sometimes she falls into catalepsy, a state of trance characterized by loss of motion.

For the next several days Roderick doesn't mention Madeline, and the narrator tries to cheer Roderick up. They play music, paint, and talk for long periods, though the narrator is unable to recount exact specifics. He notes that when Usher paints, he paints pure "ideas," or abstractions. One of these paintings shows a long vault, without any window or light, but which is somehow still lit. Because of Roderick's overly acute senses, he can play only the guitar (no other instruments). Roderick sings a song about a haunted palace. It makes the narrator wonder whether Roderick is becoming mentally unbalanced. In the conversation following the song, Roderick speculates that all vegetation has some intelligence, and in some cases, objects thought to be inanimate become intelligent too, such as the Usher family home. He speculates the house has molded his family, and him. The narrator won't speculate on this idea, but he does say that the Usher family library, which includes numerous volumes on death and religion, has shaped his friend's mind.

Death of Madeline

Madeline dies, and Roderick says his sister wanted her body preserved for two weeks before being buried. She was concerned doctors would be curious about her medical condition and would want to examine her body. The narrator helps Roderick prepare the vault for this period. When the two men carry her casket down to the vault, the narrator looks at Madeline's face and is struck by how much alike the siblings look. Roderick mentions they are twins and have always been close. The narrator also notes how healthy Madeline looks in death.

Once they close the coffin and return to the house, Roderick changes. He gets paler and roams the house. His voice changes. He seems to be struggling with a tough secret, and perhaps going mad. Roderick stares at nothing, like he's listening for a sound, and his mood starts to influence the narrator.

Roderick's Fears

Seven or eight nights after they put Madeline in the vault, the narrator feels nervous and worried. He sits up in bed and looks around the dark room, listening to strange sounds. He gets dressed and starts pacing around his room. He hears footsteps and recognizes them as Roderick's. Roderick knocks on his door. He looks hysterical and asks the narrator if he's "seen it." Roderick opens the window to the storm, which is very powerful. There's a whirlwind, and the clouds are so heavy they can't see the moon or stars. The narrator can see strange mists around the mansion.

The narrator leads Roderick away from the window, saying he doesn't need to see these strange things. Instead he picks up a book, Mad Trist by Sir Launcelot Canning, and reads to Roderick. The distraction seems to be working, but when they reach a section with a lot of action (and noise), the narrator hears a faint sound echoing the "cracking and ripping" the novel had mentioned. After a moment, he reads on. He gets to a place where the knight, Ethelred, strikes a dragon. When the dragon shrieks, the narrator hears a similar scream from somewhere in the mansion. Even though he's astonished, the narrator still pays attention to Roderick. He's not sure Roderick heard any of the sounds, but something is happening. Roderick's head is resting on his chest, he's rocking, and his lips are trembling like he's talking.

Madeline's Return

The narrator reads on, reaching a part in which a metal shield falls off the wall with a loud clang. As soon as he reads this description, he hears a similar metal clang from somewhere in the house. He jumps to his feet and rushes over to Roderick. He puts one hand on his friend's shoulder and can finally hear what Roderick is saying. He's asking if the narrator can hear the sounds that prove they buried his sister, Madeline, alive in her tomb. He says all the sounds they've heard have been of her fighting her way out of her coffin and the vault—and he (Roderick) has to escape, because she'll be there soon. Jumping to his feet, he claims she's right outside the door.

Just as he says this, the doors open. The narrator says it is the wind—but Madeline Usher is standing there, wrapped in her death shroud and covered with blood. She wobbles in the doorway for a moment, moaning, and then falls forward on her brother. The twins fall to the ground dead.

The narrator runs from the house. The storm is still blowing wildly. As the narrator crosses the causeway, there's a strange light. He turns to look back. A blood-red moon is setting behind him. It is shining through a crack in the house. As he watches, the crack widens. The crack goes from roof to foundation. The house splits apart completely and falls into the lake, leaving no trace behind of the House of Usher.

Analysis

The Unreliable Narrator

Both Gothic literature and the horror fiction that grew out of it frequently use unreliable narrators to increase suspense by making readers less able to count on the narrator to guide them through the story. This is the case in many Poe stories. Stories like "The Black Cat" or "The Tell-Tale Heart" gain much of their power by using mentally unbalanced narrators. The narrator in "The Fall of the House of Usher" isn't quite as unreliable, but he is still odd in significant and engaging ways. To start, he shares almost nothing about himself directly. Beyond the fact that he and Roderick had been friends as children, any information about the narrator or his past has to be deduced from his words and actions. The reader never learns if the narrator is (or has been) married, how he has the freedom to come visit Roderick for weeks at a time, or even what he thinks of some of the things he observes. The narrator goes into great detail about some events in the story but passes over others very briefly. This habit contributes to the story's disturbing mood and allows Poe to have things two ways: the narrator's attention to detail and his insights make him seem almost omniscient at times, but as a character in the story, he has strictly limited narrative access at other times, boosting suspense.

As English professor Terry Heller notes in The Delights of Terror, another striking attribute of the story is that the narrator never shares his purpose for telling the story, which contributes to his unreliability. The story starts with his approach to the house and ends with the destruction of the house, but the story is otherwise causeless. Heller notes that many critics see this as the narrator's story, rather than a story about the Ushers, and as such, it is like a madman's dream.

Doubling

A number of Poe's short stories deal in some way with the image of the double, which is a common trope in Gothic literature. In "William Wilson" (1839) he introduces the idea of the doppelgänger, or the doubled self. In "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846) the narrator and the man he murders share similar backgrounds and their names have similar meanings (Montresor, "to show fate" and Fortunato, "fortune"), suggesting they are two parts of a single personality. In "The Fall of the House of Usher" Poe develops the idea of the double in several ways. The first method used in the story is reflection: as the narrator approaches the house, he reflects on it mentally, but also spends some time staring at a reflection of the house in the lake (the "tarn"). Seeing the house reversed like this sends fear through the narrator. This turns out to be appropriate foreshadowing, since the tarn completely consumes the house at the end of the story.

In addition to this visual doubling (the reflection), there are several forms of verbal and auditory doubling, or echoing. Local residents equate the House of Usher (the family) with the Ushers' house (the family mansion), and individual family members (such as Roderick) with the family and the house. And at the story's peak when the narrator reads from a novel to calm and distract Roderick, the sound effects in the novel echo the sounds Madeline is making as she claws her way out of her casket and vault.

A third way Poe develops the theme of the double is through Roderick and Madeline, who are not just siblings, but twins, and are especially close. Poe does not say precisely what the nature of this closeness is. However, some scholars have argued the twins are incestuous lovers, with some going so far as to argue that Roderick has sex with Madeline's corpse once she's been entombed. Readers don't have to go as far as literal incest to agree the two are like halves of a single whole, linked in life and death and mirroring each other.

Literary References and Allusions

While the House of Usher is amazingly self-contained for the characters who live or visit there, the story contains many allusions to other works of literature. This web of references provides considerable context for the story and some cues and clues as to how it should be read. The story opens with an epigram from the French poet and songwriter De Béranger, which obliquely foreshadows Roderick's and/or Madeline's condition: both are isolated and acutely sensitive, longing for connection:

Son coeur est un luth suspendu;
Sitot qu'on le touche il resonne.
His/her heart is a poised lute;
as soon as it is touched, it resounds.

After the narrator is settled at his friend's house, he recounts the song "The Haunted Palace," which Roderick sings. This was one of Poe's own poems. It had been published in 1839 and could be used to date the story: for Roderick to know the poem and for it to be adapted as a song would indicate the events in this story don't happen in some distant past, but rather in Poe's own time, a mid-19th-century present. This setting aligns with the narrator's discussion of the sublime in the story's opening paragraphs. Use of this poem also makes the story into a kind of self-reflexive work of metafiction: this isn't a story about people who inhabit another realm: Roderick Usher reads the same kinds of popular magazines that publish the story featuring him as a character.

Roderick has a cluster of books in his library. These all serve to indicate the nature and direction of his mind and to signal that this story should be read in the Gothic tradition. For example, the narrator mentions Heaven and Hell by Emanuel Swedenborg, which describes the afterlife, and Niccolò Machiavelli's Belphegor, which retells a story based on medieval folklore about deceased men entering the underworld (and blaming their wives for their situations). Such works signal both the story's spiritual aspirations and its link to death and the afterlife. Readers who recognize Machiavelli's Belphegor will also enjoy a kind of dramatic irony, because like the men in Machiavelli's novella, Roderick blames Madeline for his condition.

The final literary allusion in the story occurs when Roderick is upset after Madeline's death. The narrator picks up a novel essentially at random and begins reading from it. The book is Sir Launcelot Canning's Mad Trist. While there were actual knights named Ethelred who were historically important warriors, like Ethelred I, a 9th-century English monarch, this book is fictitious—something Poe created. This invention decouples the story from reality, loosening the links between the books in the library and the natural world. The Mad Trist parallels the sounds that occur in the house: as the narrator reads, he creates the sounds. This connection reiterates the idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy—a prediction that causes itself to come true—introduced earlier in the story when Usher predicted his death.

The reiteration of the concept of the self-fulfilling prophecy creates a profound psychological resonance with the earlier literary inclusion of "The Haunted Palace," which compares the palace in the poem with the head and mind of a person. This allusion establishes the idea that the House of Usher should be treated likewise as a head that encloses a mind. A quick sketch of repeating setting details reveals this image: "vacant eye-like windows" and "vacant and eye-like windows." If the house is to be interpreted as a human head that encapsulates a mind, then the twin inhabitants are aspects of that mind—inhabitants, one male and one female, whose actions and thoughts determine in a self-fulfilling manner the crumbling psychological state of the person: "a barely perceptible fissure, which extend[s] from the roof of the building front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction."

The ideas of psychologist Carl Jung (1875–1961) provide useful terms for pursuing this concept of the house as representative of the human mind, even though he would not be born till decades after Poe's death. In Jungian psychology, the psyche is often divided into conscious and unconscious realms. There is the conscious self, which represents the whole of one's personality; there is the shadow, which represents the unconscious and houses a person's dark side; and there is the anima, which represents feminine characteristics in a man, and the animus, which represents masculine characteristics in a woman. To mature successfully from childhood to adulthood, a person must achieve a healthy balance among these mental elements. If a person is unable to achieve this balance, a psychic break may occur, leaving the figure frozen at a particular stage of development. In mythic tales, one related psychic struggle often takes the form of a male hero battling a dragon, who represents his feminine anima, collecting a treasure, and saving (and often marrying) another positive feminine anima figure, indicating a conflict and then a positive reconciliation between the hero's masculine and feminine traits.

This same psychic struggle plays out in Ethelred's story. Ethelred successfully battles the dragon and reaps the reward of the shining brass shield, thus incorporating his feminine traits into his dominant male personality. In contrast, by burying Madeline in the mind's subconscious tomb, Roderick represses rather than embraces the feminine aspects of his personality. Although these feminine traits may remain buried for a while, they always re-emerge, as Madeline does when she rises from her alleged death. The inclusion of Ethelred's story reiterates the idea that "The Fall of the House of Usher" is an extended psychological parable in which Roderick attempts to rise from a childish state of consciousness to adult maturity and psychological unity, but fails. When he fails, the resulting storm tears his mind—and the House of Usher—completely apart.

The Fall of the House of Usher Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 The narrator arrives at the House of Usher.

Rising Action

2 Roderick greets the narrator and explains his condition.

3 The narrator tries to cheer Roderick up with companionship.

4 Madeline dies and the men carry her to the vault.

5 Roderick changes, becoming pale and odd.

6 Roderick becomes hysterical during a storm.

7 The narrator reads to calm him; they hear strange sounds.

8 Roderick claims that Madeline has returned from the dead.

Climax

9 Madeline appears at the door, covered in blood.

Falling Action

10 Madeline embraces Roderick; both fall to the ground dead.

11 The narrator runs from the house.

Resolution

12 The House of Usher collapses and falls into the lake.

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