Poe and the Macabre
Most people know Edgar Allan Poe for his macabre stories, macabre meaning gruesome. These stories of horror deal with all sorts of macabre ideas: death, decomposition, premature burial, coming back from the dead, and sorrow. Lucky for us, 'The Fall of the House of Usher' includes all of these elements, which is likely why it's his most celebrated short story.
Poe is known for his Gothic fiction.
The narrator of the story remains nameless throughout. We learn right away that he is a childhood friend of Roderick Usher and is there for a visit. The story is told from first-person limited point of view, which means it is told from his point of view and is going to be limited to his experiences. This is important as we meet the other characters.
Roderick Usher is the narrator's friend, and he is sick. He has numerous physical ailments, but as the story unfolds, it's obvious that Roderick is suffering psychologically. He lives in fear, and it has addled his brain.
Madeline, Roderick's twin sister, is also sick, but more physically than mentally. She doesn't interact with the narrator during the story. She just sort of pops in and out - and with great effect, as you will see in the plot.
Finally, we can consider the house itself a character in this story. Yes, the house. While the house may not literally be alive, it certainly possesses some supernatural qualities that make it appear to be a living, breathing being (though much like the Usher children, its life isn't in the greatest shape). It is the house that the narrator sees both first and last in this story, and its presence is much more than just bricks and mortar.
As with any story, Poe begins his with a description of the setting. But, this is Poe, so of course the setting is dark and full of potential evil. The narrator explains that he is on his way to an old friend's house, and as he approaches the home, he becomes unsettled by the dreariness and ghastliness of his surroundings.
The narrator continues to explain that he received a letter from his old friend Roderick Usher, inviting him to come for a visit. According to the letter, Roderick has suffered 'a mental disorder which oppressed him,' so the narrator feels that he must go see the man, though he is hesitant. It is Usher and his sister, Madeline, who live in the house that is creeping the narrator out at the beginning of the story. And while he stands, sort of hesitating to approach the house, he notes that the two Ushers are the last in a long family heritage, and their death will be the end of the bloodline.
As the narrator enters the desolate house, he finds both Roderick and his sister in a severe state of depression and both appear sickly. The narrator tries to make Roderick feel better, but he is unable. Roderick adds to the seemingly supernatural quality of the house by suggesting that the house itself might be making him sick.
A few days later, Madeline dies, and the narrator and Usher take her body to a temporary tomb in the basement. As the narrator helps Roderick carry Madeline's body, he reflects on Madeline's pink cheeks and realizes that she and Roderick are actually twins. Roderick, who is saddened by the loss of his sister, spends days slipping into a sort of nervous depression.
One night, when both men cannot sleep, Roderick points that a brightly colored gas is glowing all around the house. In hopes of easing the creepy tension of the night, the two men sit and read 'Mad Trist' by Sir Launcelot Canning, a medieval romance. This, however, does not help because they begin to hear strange noises. To make the scene even more sinister, Roderick admits that he's been hearing noises for days, and he's afraid that they may have buried Madeline alive. In true Poe fashion, the wind from an oncoming storm dramatically blows open the door, and Madeline appears in the room, looking ghostly. She is able to make her way to Roderick, almost attacking him, but falls on him and dies. Roderick, realizing he has buried his sister alive, dies of shock.
The house seems to react to the loss of the twins and too begins to die, collapsing all around the dead brother and sister. The narrator barely escapes before the House of Usher falls.
Poe uses dark word choices to personify the Usher mansion.
Poe's writing style is unique. His diction, or word choice, fuels the images that he conjures to create such macabre stories. His word choice is both sophisticated and chock-full of terrifying connotations, or emotional meanings, and for this story in particular, those connotations evoke fear.
'I know not how it was - but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.'
Words like 'insufferable gloom,' 'unrelieved,' 'half-pleasurable,' 'sternest,' 'desolate,' 'terrible' are not words that are meant to make the reader want to pick up their bags for a vacation at the Usher mansion. Instead, they are words that are depressing at the least.
Poe's emotion-filled words are given to us through the narrator's thoughts, a limited point of view that adds to the feelings of claustrophobia as the story continues. He is able to create terror in the reader in several instances through his description of Usher's face, the burial of Madeline, the eerie sounds in the house, the reappearance of Madeline, and of course, through the initial description of the Usher mansion. As the narrator begins the story, he stares at the House of Usher, in confusion, awe, and something that he can't quite put his finger on (of course, we know it's fear, but he's not quite willing to admit that yet).
'I looked upon the scene before me - upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain - upon the bleak walls - upon the vacant eye-like windows - upon a few rank sedges - and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees - with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium - the bitter lapse into everyday life - the hideous dropping off of the veil.'
Notice first that Poe does give the house some human and living qualities. It has eyes and a soul. It has some plants and trees around it. This personifies the house, making it seem alive. But when we look at those words again with the adjectives he uses to describe them, the atmosphere changes from living to death and fear. 'Vacant eyes,' 'rank sedges,' 'decayed trees,' 'depression of the soul.' This house is deteriorating. And the last line of the description, 'dropping off of the veil,' is a metaphor, or a comparison, for death, foreshadowing the demise for both the house and its inhabitants. There is even the fact that Madeline and Roderick are doppelgangers, or a seemingly supernatural double of a living person. They are twins, with similar features, but even more sinister is that they seem to share ailments. For most people, these macabre descriptions begin to evoke fear, which is the first of many Dark Romantic themes.
Analysis: Dark Romanticism
The Dark Romantic writers were known to use creepy symbols, horrific themes, and to explore the effects of guilt and sin. In 'The Fall of the House of Usher,' Poe most certainly reflects the horrific themes found in traditional Dark Romantic writing; however, Poe's writing is often characterized as Gothic fiction because unlike Dark Romantic writers, he uses macabre images to create those horrific themes.
'The Fall of the House of Usher' is Gothic more in content rather than in form. Poe's use of supernatural elements - such as horror, despair, the grotesque, and even the dark Gothic architecture of the house - force the reader's mind into the imaginary and away from logic. Isolation and madness are two horrific themes that come as a result of these Gothic elements, but the overwhelming fear that eventually overwhelms Roderick Usher is the most dominant of the themes and the one that fuels the story.
Of course, none of the characters really is able to escape the fear. As I mentioned before, even the narrator feels the fear as he looks at the house for the first time, but he is not yet ready to say he's scared.
'What was it - I paused to think - what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?'
What is it? Well, it's probably the fact that the house is decayed, crumbling, bleak, rank, and all of those other menacing words Poe is using. So, it should be no surprise that the house itself is a symbol, or something that represents something else, that mirrors that theme of fear.
Again, Dark Romantic writing is known for its creepy symbols, and the House of Usher is a perfect, yet disturbing, example. From the beginning, the narrator tells us that there is a small fissure, or crack, in the house from the get go, foreshadowing the house's eventual collapse. We know there is something wrong, but it's not just the house that is falling apart. Roderick and his sister are falling apart too, both mentally and physically. We learn right away that they are the last of the Usher bloodline and the end of the aristocratic family. This is directly reflected in the mansion that was clearly once beautiful but now in decay. And as the house collapses and Roderick and Madeline die, we can see that this is a supernatural occurrence.
Poe's most famous short story, 'The Fall of the House of Usher,' is a macabre piece about premature burial, death, and sorrow. Through a Gothic plot and Dark Romantic symbols, Poe creates a supernatural house with almost human-like qualities that both impact and reflect the frail state of the twins, Roderick and Madeline, who live inside. To do this, Poe uses horrifying diction and a first-person limited narrator who can give us very narrow insight to what is going on in the story beyond his own experience. This controlled view creates tension and terror as we watch the House of Usher fall onto the last of the Usher bloodline.
Completing this lesson should enable you to:
- Summarize the plot and style of Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher'
- Explain the Gothic and Dark Romantic elements of the story