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Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” is

clearly one of his most well known short stories. Well over a

hundred years after this story was written the basic elements of

fear are being used today in cinematic and written works. In

essence there are two elements that need to be understood to

understand this story; the plot of the story, and the critical

interpretations of tone and style to Poe’s story.

To understand any of the basic ideas of an story the reader

must understand the plot of a story. On a “dull , dark, and

soundless day in the autumn of the year” the narrator travels to

visit his boyhood companion, Roderick Usher. The House of

Usher looks out upon a “black and lurid tarn” and is surrounded by

decaying vegetation. The narrator is depressed and unnerved by

his melancholy surroundings. As he peers at the image of the

house in the water, he fancies there is an atmosphere peculiar to

the whole area, “a pestilent and mystic vapor, dull, sluggish, faintly

discernible, and leaden-hued.” Before he enters the mansion he

notices that its entire front is covered by minute fungi. A valet

conducts him through intricate passages to the rooms of Roderick

Usher, whom he finds greatly changed. His complexion is

cadaverous, his eyes unusually bright, and he is suffering from “

excessive nervous agitation.” The morbid acuteness of his senses

makes him shun food, light and sound, except in their mildest

forms. His condition is complicated by the wasting away of his

sister Madeline who is slowly dying of an unknown disease. The

narrator attempts to relieve the melancholy of his friend. They

read and paint together, and Usher sometimes plays the guitar.

The narrator realizes that he can’t cheer his friend who has

obviously entered on purpose a world of strange spiritual reality.

He and Madeline ar the last of his and the evil genius of the family

seems to demand that they investigate modes of being that are

unknown to other men. He accompanies his wild impromptus on

the guitar with rhymed lyrics. One of his poems, titled “ The

Haunted Palace,” speaks of evil things which overthrow a kingdom

of wisdom and light. The Lady Madeline dies, and at Usher’s

request his friend helps him to enter the coffin temporarily in

a vault in the basement of the mansion. They open the coffin for a

last look at the deceased and notice “a faint blush upon the bosom

and the face,” a charactreistic, the narrator tells us, of deaths sue to

catalepsies. In the days following the interment of his sister.

Roderick ignores his ordinary occupations and wanders through

the hose aimlessly. At times he appears to be listening in profound

attention to some sound that only he can hear. One stormy night

the narrator is unable to sleep to a window, and upon looking out

his friend perceives that “a faintly luminous and distinctly visible

gaseous exhalation” hangs about the mansion. In an effort to calm

the hypersensitive Roderick his friend reads to him, but is

interrupted by a knock at the door. Usher cries out that it is his

sister at the door, whom he knows they had put living in the tomb.

The Lady Madeline enters, bloody, and falls upon her brother who

dies of fright as they collapse to the floor. The narrator rushes

from the mansion, and as he is riding away there is a sound “like

the voice of a thousand waters,” and the House of Usher sinks

below the tarn.

The critical interpretations of how this story is told are

Important to give the reader a better understanding of the written

material. As we have seen, many critics have interpreted Poe’s

tales as projections of his own situation and character, and there is

undoubtedly some truth in this. Hervey Allen believes that the

description of Roderick Usher might be labeled “ Self Portrait of

the Artist at the Age of Thirty.” Critics who agree with this

approach see in Usher’s constitutional weakness a projection of

Poe’s indecisiveness and insecurity. They see in the strange curse

that has fallen upon Usher a projection of Poe’s feeling that he was

an outcast and damned by forces beyond his control. They see

repeated in Usher’s unusual bond of sympathy with his sister,

Poe’s desire to have a woman as a perfect friend and companion

with whom he could share his fears and enthusiasms.

There is , however a limit to such an interpretation. The story

stands as an independent work of art without any reference to the

life of the author. The story has always been considered one of

Poe’s classics, and bears the characteristic marks of his

craftsmanship. The House of Usher itself, with its arches and dark

passageways. However, if Poe often used many of the standard

effects and props of the traditional horror story, he also added

many of his own. The sentient fungi and gaseous exhalation are

his own. Finally, it is the manner in which he handles his materials

that makes Poe’s tale so highly original. Everything is arranged so

that the final horror will be both believable and overwhelming.

Like any good showman, Poe knew how to keep his reader in

suspense. The Lady Madeline’s flushed cheek is the first

preparation for her eventual appearance at the door. Three times as

the narrator is reading to Usher a distant noise is heard, coming

closer each time, before the door is finally flung open upon the

final horror. A gradual unfolding of plot is the very best of Poe’s

art.
Now with a better understanding of the writer’s view of the

story the reader can more closely relate to the characters thoughts

and actions. As through the plot, and the critical analysis towards

Edgar Allen Poe’s “ The Fall of the House of Usher.”
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