The Fall of the House of Usher | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Fall of the House of Usher | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher," first published in 1839, is one of the American author's most renowned short stories. Like much of Poe's work it features a portrayal of madness and fear, but most notably it includes a live burial. Poe's unnamed narrator observes his old acquaintance's madness as an outsider, and the reader is left to wonder which aspects of the story are real and which are hallucinations. Poe wrote in a purposely ominous and foreboding tone, showcasing his ability to incorporate fear and obsession into his characters. First serialized in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, the story was met with critical acclaim and stands as one of the defining texts of the American Gothic genre.

1. "The Fall of the House of Usher" may have been inspired by the story of two twins with mental illnesses.

The twins James Campbell Usher and Agnes Pye Usher were the children of a close associate of Poe's mother, Eliza. James and Agnes are believed to have suffered from mental illness as adults, and their connection to Poe as family friends (as well as the matching surname) suggests they were the inspiration for Poe's story.

2. "The Fall of the House of Usher" was influenced by the writings of Poe's role model, German horror writer E.T.A. Hoffman.

Poe was a great fan of E.T.A. Hoffman and admitted to drawing inspiration from his works. Hoffman's story "Das Majorat," published in 1817, tells a similar story of the warden of a decaying estate hearing eerie noises throughout his home and foreseeing his own death. The baron of the castle in "Das Majorat" also shares the name Roderick with Poe's character.

3. Roderick's madness may be the result of withdrawal from an opium addiction.

Although it is never explicitly stated, some critics believe that Poe intended for Roderick to show the signs of a man recovering from an opium addiction. In addition to describing his madness, Poe describes the interior of Roderick's estate as large and open, yet claustrophobic. The interior of the castle is thus representative of both the world under the influence of the drug and its devastating effects during withdrawal.

4. Modern psychology has attributed a number of mental illnesses to Roderick.

Although reliable psychological diagnoses did not exist at the time Poe was writing, many modern mental health experts conclude that Roderick suffers from hyperesthesia—a hypersensitivity to external stimuli such as light and sound. He also exhibits symptoms of hypochondria, a constant fear of disease and his own mortality.

5. A real House of Usher was located in Boston—and was just as eerie as Poe's.

The historical House of Usher, known as the "Usher House," was located near Lewis Wharf in Boston until around 1800, when it was torn down. Legends about the structure persisted, however, including the macabre tale that two skeletons were found in the basement, locked in an embrace after being buried alive. The story goes that a sailor sneaked in to have an affair with the homeowner's wife but was caught in the act and encased in the cellar.

6. "The Fall of the House of Usher" may have inspired the character Ahab in Moby-Dick.

Some scholars believe Poe's character Roderick and his obsessive nature inspired the Captain Ahab character in Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick. Melville was known to be a great fan of Poe's work. Poe had published a novel in 1838 entitled The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket about a whaling voyage, similar to the expedition in Moby-Dick.

7. The famous composer Philip Glass created an opera based on "The Fall of the House of Usher."

The minimalist composer Philip Glass wrote the opera of "The Fall of the House of Usher," which premiered in 1988 at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Glass aimed to maintain Poe's macabre tone in his work—he wrote the music to make the audience question whether the events were real or merely a hallucination.

8. An anonymous person left roses and cognac at Poe's grave every year for decades.

The mysterious figure known as the "Poe Toaster" left roses and a bottle of cognac at Poe's grave in Baltimore each year on the anniversary of his death, the night of January 18. While some believe this practice began in the 1930s, it's generally accepted that it started in 1949, 100 years after Poe died. In 1993 a strange note was left at the grave saying that "the torch will be passed," although the offerings stopped in the early 2000s.

9. Poe incorporated a poem he'd already written into "The Fall of the House of Usher."

Poe wrote "The Haunted Palace" in 1839, and it was originally published in the magazine American Museum. In a letter to a friend, Poe wrote that he wanted the poem "to imply a mind haunted by phantoms—a disordered brain." He chose to incorporate the poem into "The Fall of the House of Usher" because of both the similarities in theme and the physical "haunted palace" in which Roderick lives. Poe has Roderick speak lines from the poem, with the character reciting the verse as a ballad.

10. A director made a film adaptation in which he played both Roderick and Madeline Usher.

American director Curtis Harrington directed the 1942 film adaptation of "The Fall of the House of Usher." He made the film at age 16 and, with a run time of only nine minutes, it features Harrington as both the brother and the sister of the Usher family. In 2000 Harrington made a longer, 40-minute film of "The Fall of the House of Usher." In an interview, he stated that he intended it to be part of a larger collection of short film adaptations of Poe's stories, but that the anthology never materialized.

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