The Fall Of The House Of Usher – Literary Analysis
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The Fall Of the House Of Usher is a short story written by Edgar Allen Poe in 1839. The short story is complexly written, with challenging themes such as identity and fear. Poe utilises many elements of the Gothic Tradition such as setting and supernatural elements to create a more mysterious story, and uses language to his advantage, employing adjective filled descriptions of literal elements that also serve as metaphors for other parts of the story.
In The Fall Of The House of Usher, Poe explores challenging themes, the most prominent of which is the theme of identity. Throughout the story, the narrator tells us of his experiences with what is left of the Usher family at their estate. The theme of identity is clearly stated right at the beginning of the short story. The narrator states that the people living in the area surrounding the house “so identified the two… “House of Usher” – an appellation which seemed to include… both the family and the family mansion”. This confusion of identity between the family and the house is continued throughout the story, and the reader is never quite sure of which the narrator is speaking at any given time. Just as the identity of the family and the house is confused, so are the individual identities of Madeline and Roderick Usher. Brother and sister, the narrator discovers late in the story that the two are twins.
Some academics have argued that The Fall Of the House Of Usher is not, in fact, the tale of a brother and sister, but one of a man with a split personality. In other words, many have argued that Madeline simply does not exist, and is merely another personality contained within Roderick Usher. In any case, be it that Madeline exists or not, the two characters of Roderick and Madeline are two halves of a whole. There are many examples of this throughout the story, the most obvious of which would be that Roderick suffered from “a mental disorder which oppressed him” and Madeline suffered from “frequent, although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character”. One suffered mentally, the other physically – two halves of a whole. If Madeline was indeed a figment of Roderick’s imagination, Poe is here exploring the difference between the mental and physical self, and the importance that the two are similar.
Another theme that Poe explores in The Fall Of The House Of Usher is fear. It is fear that drives the story, fear that traps the narrator, and eventually fear that kills Roderick Usher. Poe foreshadows the paradox of Roderick’s fear early in the story: “There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition…is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis.” Roderick Usher is quoted as saying “I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect–in terror.” This means that he is not afraid of death, but of fear itself. And it is this fear of fear that eventually leads to his death, when Madeline ‘returns from the dead’ and scares him to death.
To properly convey these complex themes, Poe employed the use of the Gothic Tradition. That is to say, he used elements such as the supernatural, and traditional gothic settings to create a mood in his story to help the reader become immersed in the story. The Fall Of The House Of Usher is told in the first person, with a nameless narrator who is never properly described. This helps the reader to feel part of the story, as it is as if they are listening to themselves describing the story. Poe has also set the story in a very claustrophobic way, including very little other than two rooms in the estate. Along with this, he uses traditional gothic setting to create an unwelcoming, uncomfortable feeling. When the narrator first enters Roderick Usher’s study, it is described thusly “Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light made their way through the trellised panes… Dark draperies hung upon the walls.
The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered.” Throughout the story, the reader can sense that the narrator is never quite comfortable in the estate, and eventually begins to mirror Roderick’s “superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted”. Superstitious elements are another popular part of gothic literature, and Poe clearly utilises the supernatural in The Fall Of The House Of Usher. An excellent example of this is the character of the Lady Madeline. The first time the narrator sees her, he is being told of her decease. “While he spoke, the lady Madeline… passed through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared.” The way that the narrator describes her is as if she is a ghost, suddenly appearing without care to notice her surroundings, and vanishing with no further movement. This may be foreshadowing to her ghastly appearance after being buried alive for days, as if newly raised from the dead. We do not see her alive again in the story until this event, thus increasing her likeness to a ghost. Adding to the mystery around Madeline, she is a medical anomaly. “The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physicians.” This adds another element of supernatural and mysterious, and gives the character of Madeline more depth than if she were merely a slightly ghostly half of Roderick Usher.
The literary techniques that Poe uses are an important element of what makes The Fall Of The House Of Usher such a successful short story. Metaphor and simile are heavily used not only to describe the physical appearance of the settings, but also to tie together further the estate and family, as described above. There are many references to “the House” that could either be referring to the estate itself, or the family. Such as, when describing the house the narrator states “In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air.” This is also a reference to the in-bred nature of the family, having “put forth no enduring branch”, the family lies in direct descent of one another. Another prominent metaphor for the Usher family occurs when the estate is destroyed in Madeline’s attack. “My brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder”. A slight fissure in the house, in the family (Roderick’s madness and Madeline’s illness) eventually destroyed both the literal and figurative “House of Usher”, leaving no living descendants.
The Fall Of The House of Usher by Edgar Allen Poe is a seminal piece of gothic literature. To explore themes such as identity and fear, Poe utilises many elements of the Gothic Tradition such as supernatural elements and traditional gothic setting. As well as this, his control of language throughout the story lends itself particularly well to telling both the literal and implied meanings of metaphors for the family of “The House Of Usher”. Overall The Fall Of The House Of Usher is a wonderfully enticing and exciting story, with a clear and unnerving message.