COMMENTARY ON ‘‘THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER’’ –EDGAR ALLAN POE.
Author’s Background and Writing
Author’s Background and Writing
Edgar Allan Poe (born Edgar Poe, January 19, 1809 – October 7, 1849) was an American author, poet, editor and literary critic. He is considered part of the earliest devotees of the American Movement. He is best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre. He was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre. He is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction.
He was born as Edgar Poe in Boston, Massachusetts; he was orphaned young when his mother died shortly after his father abandoned the family. Poe was taken in by John and Frances Allan, of Richmond, Virginia, but they never formally adopted him. He attended the University for one semester, but left due to lack of money. After enlisting in the Army and later failing as an officer’s cadet at West Point, Poe parted ways with the Allans. His publishing career began humbly, with an anonymous collection of poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems (1827), credited only to “a Bostonian”.
Several years later, Poe switched his focus to prose and spent the next several years working for literary journals and periodicals, becoming known for his own style of literary criticism. His work forced him to move among several cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. In Baltimore in 1835, he married Virginia Clemm, his 13-year-old cousin. In January 1845, Poe published his poem, “The Raven“, to instant success. His wife died of tuberculosis two years after its publication. He began planning to produce his own journal. Though he died before it could be produced.
Poe and his works influenced literature in the United States and around the world, as well as in specialized fields, such as cosmology and cryptography. Poe and his works appear throughout popular culture in literature, music, films, and of his homes are dedicated museums today.
Poe wrote much of his work using themes specifically catered for mass market reading audience. To achieve the desired effects, his fiction often included elements of popular pseudo-sciences such as phrenology and physiognomy. Beyond horror, Poe also wrote satires, humor tales, and hoaxes. For comic effect, he used irony and ludicrous extravagance, often in an attempt to liberate the reader from cultural conformity.
The narrator has been invited by his old friend, Mr. Roderick Usher through a letter which spoke of ‘’acute bodily illness-of mental disorder which oppress him’’.It is the hope of Mr. Usher that the company of his friend would cheer him up and cure him of what he calls a malady .
The story opens with a vivid description of the depressing image of where Mr. Usher resides. Roderick describes some tendencies which had been known about Usher and his family. They are imbued with a peculiar sensibility which is often expressed and exhibited through creative works and excessive charity. There is however a morbid fear of the Usher lineage getting extinct .The name, House of Usher and the remaining descendants are often synonymous in the minds of the peasantry.
The Impression created in the mind of the narrator as he approaches the mansion especially its reflection in the symbolic tarn, that is front of the house is that of something gothic, which he ascribes to his innate superstitious impressions even before he arrives here.
The description of the house itself is riddled with a lot of contradictions from ‘discoloration of age, extraordinary dilapidation’ to a building that looks perfect to the eyes, to crumbling condition of individual stones. One other thing that only scrutinizing eyes would be able to notice is a crack that runs from the top of the building ending in the tarn.
Now gaining entrance into the most gothic passages lined by morbid looking decorations, eventually, the narrator is led by the valet into the studio of his friend. Before now, he runs into the family physician, whose countenance sends more fear than assurance and comfort.
On entering the room, he is welcomed by a dreary feeling and as the furniture, books and other decorations lay carelessly around. This creates a feeling of sorrow and gloom. He now meets Mr. Usher who welcomes him with unbelievable and genuine warmth. One observation is how altered his host has been, looking worn-out –‘’the silken hair too had been suffered to grow all unheeded’’. Mr. Usher now goes into the reason for the invitation of his friend, which is what he calls, nature of his malady: a ‘’morbid acuteness of the senses’’. These are all expressed through how all his senses react morbidly to his environment .It is under the phobia of all these psychological ailments that Mr. Usher suffers. He also traces his problem to a kind of haunting that pervades his mansion and the fear of the impending death of his only sick sister, Lady Madeline- ‘‘his sole companion for many years’’. This would leave him, the only survivor of his ancient family and eventually lead to the extinction of his family lineage.
The narrator thereafter attempts to ameliorate the suffering of his friend by engaging in reading, painting, singing dirges and even listening to him play the guitar. However, he feels that all his efforts to cheer him up are fruitless. One song that remains indelible in the mind of the narrator is the dirge entitled, ‘The Haunted Palace’. This ballad captures the story of House of Usher itself moving from a glorious past to the present state of decay and gloom. The books that occupy the two friends are works from the occult to gothic literature.
Mr. Usher later announces the death of his sister, Madeline and his intention of preserving her corpse for a fortnight in our one of the vaults within the house. His reason for this is the exposure of the burial place of the family, which makes him exercise fear of the corpse probably being stolen and subjected to autopsy to decipher the cause of death. The two friends move the corpse to this vault which looks like a place formally used to keep combustible materials. This gives the room an impenetrable atmosphere. The face of the corpse (that of Madeline) bears such an uncanny resemblance to that of Mr. Usher and it is revealed that they are actually twins. After this period, a discernible change comes upon Usher, becoming more mentally and psychologically disturbed and deranged.
A week after this time, the narrator too begins to experience so much horror that he finds it difficult to sleep at night. On one of such nights, he rises from his bed. He runs into Usher who has definitely made it a habit to keep vigil. He asks the narrator, ‘And you have not seen it? Referring to the ghost of Madeline. He moves to open one of the windows as if to allow a spirit to gain entrance. A strong gale rushes with so much power. The narrator also witnesses a strange looking vapour which he tries to protect his friend from seeing, believing it would aggravate his psychological condition.
To distract him, he accidentally picks a book, entitled, Mad Trist by Sir Launcelot Canning. Ironically, this book mirrors the present situation at hand. It is the story of how Etherel, the hero attempts to forcefully gain entrance into the abode of the hermit. As he reads the story, the narrator has the feeling that the same harsh sound of forcefulness is being made somewhere in the mansion .As the story describes how Etherel gains entrance and slays the dragon, inside the house, the same roar of agony of the dragon is simultaneously replayed to the horror of the narrator.
This coincidence with what he is reading makes the narrator to stand up and move close to Usher who is now rocking his chair, knowingly about things around him. He seems to be aware that Madeline has been locked inside the coffin before she had died and that explains her reason to escape the coffin .Shortly after, a strong wind blows forcing the door open, revealing the enshrouded body of Madeline with stains of blood on her robe, an indication of her struggle to escape from her confinement. She grabs her brother and brings him down to his death.
This is the last incident witnessed by the narrator, as he escapes from the scene. As he escapes, the entire house cracks along the break in the frame and crumbles to the ground leading to the extinction of any trace of House of Usher.
For all its easily identifiable Gothic elements, however, part of the terror of The Fall of the House of Usher is its vagueness. We cannot say for sure where in the world or exactly when the story takes place. The narrator appears to have come from a far place, probably a city as he moves to the country side to visit his friend.
All the descriptions of the House of Usher in all its entirety are borne out of gothic features from the outside of the mansion, which appears whole, but with individual stones falling, to the inside of the mansion which is haunted. This also reflects the character of the inhabitants. Colours too are not exempted, as they take on the mould of something dark, fiery and dull.
Even the furnishings share in this foreboding characteristic .The rooms are large, but with dilapidated furniture. The climax is the encasing of the corpse of Madeline in a vault within the house. This vault is described as a kind of confinement or prison-like. Therefore, one is not surprised that she struggles to get out of it by the end of the story.
By the end of the story, which ends on the outside with the collapse of the haunted house, the extinction already envisaged takes place.
Friendship-It is the long standing friendship of the unnamed narrator in the story that motivates him to want to go visit his troubled friend, Mr.Usher.His sacrifice of travelling long distance could however not be related to friendship alone, but also out of curiousity.However, the sacrifice of the narrator should be commended, staying throughout the horror of a haunted mansion and even striving to ensure that he helps his friend through his difficult time. His role becomes more potent as Usher does not have any living relation.
Soul-Tie- The concern of soul-tie, could be looked at from two perspectives; the attachment of the inhabitants to the mansion and tie of Mr. Usher to his only sister, Madeline .The relationship of the two is later revealed after her death. One of the roots of Usher’s malady is the fear of losing his soul-mate. The deterioration of Madeline is so uncanny that it begins to reflect on Usher himself-The narrator attests to this. The irony in the story however is the reason for the haste with which Usher wants to inter the corpse of Madeline. His step of however interning the body in a vault within the mansion is a pointer to his attempt to keep a line of communication with her, rather than ascribing it to protecting the corpse from inquisitive medical personnel. Despite the death of Madeline, the trouble and agony of Usher begin to rise up to the point where he is aware of her attempt to break out of the coffin which is eventually the case. The question would be, how come Usher is aware of everything Madeline is going through even when locked in the vault? In a tragic culmination to the story, the two are united in an embrace of death as the bloodied body of Madeline consumes that of her brother, Usher.
Another level of soul-tie in the story is the case of incest suggested by the relationship between Usher and Madeline. Being the only survivors of the Usher lineage, their goal has been to produce the next generation of Ushers which eventually ends in failure. That is the tragedy and the root of Usher’s melancholy.
Death/ Fear of extinction-One pervading atmosphere in the story, around the vicinity of the House of Usher and even within it is that of death and decay. This is reflected on not only the living things,but also non living .Usher’s call for help to his friend, is borne out of his fear of death as evidenced in his decaying sensibilities and sensitivity . The fear even becomes more potent with the impending death of his only sister, which he is aware would eventually trigger his own death and the culmination of this, is the extinction of every trace of the House of Usher. Usher’s attempt to entomb Madeline’s corpse within the house is his attempt to defeat death. By the end of the story, the physical entity of the House of Usher is not only consumed, but also the remaining survivors.
Confinement- Poe creates a sensation of claustrophobia in this story. The narrator is mysteriously trapped by the lure of Roderick’s attraction, and he cannot escape until the house of Usher collapses completely. That is why it is difficult to answer the question of the real motive of the narrator visiting his friend. Is it because he cares or out of curiosity? One thing is clear, once he enters the house, there is no attempt by him to leave it.
The structure of the House of Usher itself by design is that of confinement. For the narrator, it is as if there is something within the mansion that holds everybody bound. If not at the point of survival and death at the end of the story, he might find it difficult to extricate himself from the web of the house. The same theme is applicable to the life of Madeline even in death, when she has to be locked up in a vault within the house due to the fear of what may happen to the corpse in the family burial ground. Even this supposed safe haven is like a dungeon for Madeline. She has to forcefully find her way having been buried before her eventual death. Her only freedom is the one she has always known, beside her brother, Usher, whom she seems to have a soul-tie relationship with.
Even the story of Etherel entails some level of confinement and freedom. He has to break through the door, to reach where the hermit is supposed to be, but finds the dragon instead.
The tarn-the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay unruffled luster by the dwelling, and gazed down-The tarn is the pool before the House of Usher. It is the first sight that sends an eerie feeling down the spine of the narrator, as he tries to enter the house. The reflection of the house also sends a fearful feeling. The symbolism of this tarn lies in creating duality/ reflection of some concerns in the story: Usher and Madeline; Etherel and hermit.
Fissure- Is a crack that runs from the roof of the house and ends in the tarn below. It is the first mark of the impending death in the house. What this does is to create a sense of duality, which would pervade the story. The duality of Usher and Madeline, the dividing mark of the fissure, which divides the house into two. By the end of the story, the fissure breaks the House of Usher asunder into destruction.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is a quintessential gothic story with its attendant features of a haunted house, dreary landscape, mysterious sickness, and doubled personality.
Instead of standard narrative markers of place and time, Poe uses traditional Gothic elements such as inclement weather and barren landscape. This vagueness adds an element of mystery to the story, such that the reader is able to have a feeling of loneliness or having been dropped in the midst of no-where. This effect is further accentuated as the narrator gropes round to find his way in the visit. He learns more from his groping than is told.
The story begins without complete explanation of the narrator’s zmotives for arriving at the house of Usher, and this ambiguity sets the tone for a plot that continually blurs the real and the fantasy. What this helps to achieve is akin to the point of vagueness earlier stressed, but it goes further to present the story as a quintessential gothic one. The story opens on this mysterious note and ends with the same effect, leaving many questions unanswered. Was Madeline actually buried without being dead? Why did she come back to embrace Usher to death? What is the symbolism of the collapse of the House of Usher? All these are mysterious questions are left to be answered.
The story features numerous allusions to other works of literature, including the poems “The Haunted Palace” and “Mad Trist” by Sir Launcelot Canning. These works which are mostly picked from quaint, ecclesiastical and gothic literature help to set appropriate setting and tone for the story. They are aligned with the story in different ways .They reflect the personality and mood of the character especially, Mr. Usher at every point in time. The error of the narrator In picking what he considers an inappropriate work in Mad Tristeventually tallies with the impending sounds and movements occasioned by the breaking forth of Madeline from the vault .Ethelred in the story being read by the narrator represents Madeline as she tries to vanquish the obstacle of gaining entrance into the mansion, just as he vanquishes the dragon.
We are alone with the narrator in this haunted space, and neither we nor the -narrator knows why. Although he is Roderick’s most intimate boyhood friend, the narrator apparently does not know much about him—like the basic fact that Roderick has a twin sister. Poe asks us to question the reasons both for Roderick’s decision to contact the narrator in this time of need and the bizarre tenacity of narrator’s response.
The first person narrative technique of the story is achieved through Mr. Usher’s friend, from whose perspective we see a lot of things. In not being privy to all the details about the history of Usher, the reader is taken on a step by step exploration of this mysterious story and there lies the effect of the story. Prior to this, the reader is only privy given a little hint of what to expect.
The narrator however attempts to create a vivid and observer’s picture of all that he experiences from the outside of the house, to the quaint furniture and the inmates.
The Narrator: It is from his perspective that we see all the happenings in the story. He comes from a far distance and at the instance of his friend’s letter to see how he could alleviate his suffering. He could be called a man who comes out of his sense of curiosity rather than his concern for his friend, Mr.Usher.
Through him, we see a description occupied by fear and horror as he goes through the haunted house. He is a highly sensitive character and at a point, he himself thinks trying to rationalize that entire he is witnessing, would help his friend, but he gets to a point where he runs for his dear life.
His sense of concern for his friend is however undisputable.Mr.Usher is an introvert and for him to single the narrator out for help shows the amount of trust he reposes in him. Though there is scanty narration of their childhood together, it is evident in the story that they definitely share a lot of interests in the liberal arts. Being a well -read man himself, he is able to suggest the kind of reading interest that will distract his friend.
Mr. Usher-He is the protagonist of the story and he is the reason for the narrator’s visit. His ailments ranging from psychological to physical problems are so palpable that anybody would pity him. His physical deterioration is such that the narrator notices it. His nervousness is such that he is consumed by acute phobia. It is not surprising that he buries himself in liberal arts such as music and reading to forget his maladies.
The major cause of his problem is the illness of his only surviving sister and the impending extinction which may happen to the family with her death. Though he invites his friend, he appears to be so used to his reclusive lifestyle that he tries to hide some things from him. It is later that he tells his friend that Madeline is his twin sister. Even with the burial of Madeline in a vault within the house, he is not that open about it. He seems to have the instinctive knowledge that Madeline is buried prematurely before her death and that the possibility of her forcing her way out is ever present , thus his vigil and restlessness in listening to the strange sound outside.
However in a tragic culmination, he is reunited with Madeline when she embraces him in an embrace of death towards the end of the story. And with the eventual collapse of the mansion, the extinction which is long feared happens.
Madeline-She is the only surviving sister of Mr.Usher.Her first appearance is a dramatic passing which is described as her last before her death. Her own ailment which is the cause of Mr. Usher’s sorrow is described thus:
The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her
physician .A settled apathy, a a gradual wasting away of the person, and
frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character,
were the unusual diagnosis.
Moreso, Usher’s relationship with his sister is because of its soul-tie relationship and the fear of family extinction.
When she finally dies, Usher devises another gothic solution which is to bury her within the family vault in the house. According to him, he fears the doctors may desecrate the corpse in the name of post-mortem.
Madeline’s superior power is rather elemental, both within and outside the house. She is imbued in the vapour that surrounds the house and also the gale that wants to force her way into the house. The same scene of forcefully gaining entrance is reenacted when she forces her way out of her vault and with her blood stained body to reconnect with Usher in a final embrace of death.