The Fall Of The House Of Usher

I finally read my first e-book! Well, it was not a long one (the e-book contained about 25 pages), thus I really liked this experience. I sat on a comfortable chair, ate some delicious strawberries and read a Gothic short story. Most of you have probably read The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, but I haven’t (I know, I am really ashamed to admit it). We briefly talked about it in one of our lectures (American Gothic) at my university, but I haven’t read it at that time. Well, now I have and I am so glad I did! It’s such a great Gothic story and I loved everything about it – the created atmosphere, the plot and the beautiful language!

Here’s my summary of this wonderful story:

In a letter, Roderick Usher urges a nameless narrator to come and visit him because he has an illness and thus seeks his comfort. As soon as the narrator arrives at the House of Usher, he describes it as “a mystery all insoluble”, as a “melancholy” house with “dark and intricate passages”, and as a mansion of “insufferable gloom”. He just has an uneasy feeling about his friend’s house and thinks that the atmosphere of the house has “no affinity with the air of heaven”. To him, the atmosphere of his friend’s house appears to be an atmosphere of “sorrow”. Everything seems to be dark and sombre: the walls, the floors, the draperies; even the air is gloomy. Moreover, the house seems to be in need of some renovations, since it has a crumbling and decayed appearance.

When the narrator meets his friend, Roderick Usher, whom he has known since they were boys, he is surprised to see how much he has changed and he notices that his friend has “an excessive nervous agitation”. Roderick then tells the narrator about his illness and states that his ancestors also suffered from the same illness. He describes that he can only wear specific clothes and that he can only eat certain foods. He is also very sensitive to light and sensitive to certain smells and sounds. Roderick fears that he will soon die because of his illness. Thus, the reader can conclude that the narrator’s friend suffers from hyperesthesia and hypochondria. The narrator also reveals that Roderick’s beloved twin sister Madeline has a “severe” and “long-continued” illness. Lady Madeline’s illness is described as “a gradual wasting away of the person”. It is said that she falls into death – like trances and that the doctors cannot do anything for her. Therefore, the narrator does not expect to see her during his stay.

In the meantime, he tries to cheer Roderick by painting with him and reading to him. Even though Roderick is very sensitive to sounds, he can tolerate the sound of stringed instruments and thus he likes to play guitar. After he sings, Roderick tells the narrator that he believes the mansion he lives in to be sentience (sentience = the ability to feel or perceive subjectively). The reason why he believes his house to be sentience is due to the arrangement of the masonry and the vegetation surrounding it.

Later, Roderick informs his friend that his sister has died and that he intends to preserve her body for a fortnight in one of the vaults within the main walls of the building, before they permanently bury her. Over the next week, the narrator observes a change in his friend’s behaviour and notices that Roderick’s “ordinary manner” has vanished. The narrator becomes more and more agitated and doesn’t know why. One night, as a storm begins, Roderick comes to his friend’s room and shows him how outside, the tarn surrounding the mansion seems to glow in the dark, even though there is no lightning. In order to calm his friend, the narrator decides to read Roderick a story, The Mad Trist, which is a novel about a knight who finds a palace of gold guarded by a dragon. As the narrator reads this story, strange noises and cracking sounds are heard in the house. When a shrieking is heard, Roderick becomes very irritable and hysterical and states that these screaming sounds are made by his sister, who is in fact not dead. He claims that Madeline was alive when she was entombed and that his twin sister has come to take revenge on him. At that very moment, Madeline appears and “falls violently in death upon her brother”, who then dies of his own horror. After witnessing this terror, the narrator flees and notices how lighting destroys the House of Usher.

Edgar Allan Poe does a wonderful job creating a dark and gloomy atmosphere throughout the story (even the day the narrator arrives at his friend’s house is described as “dull, dark and soundless”) by effectively using various Gothic elements and thus building up suspense.

The author only allows us to see the thoughts and feelings of the nameless narrator, since we are dealing with a first-person narrator. Therefore, the narrator becomes unreliable and we have to ask ourselves how much we can trust him and how we should interpret the story. The unreliability of the narrator can be due to his psychological instability or his lack of knowledge.

The Fall of the House of Usher does not only refer to the actual structure of the Usher house, but also to the Usher family itself. Thus, is has a double function and stands both for the decay of the house and the family. The author humanizes the house and uses adjectives such as “eye-like” (referring to its windows) to describe it. The house is the first “character” that is introduced to us by the narrator and it plays a significant role throughout the story. At the end, the Usher house “dies” along with the Usher family. The House of Usher is depicted as a ruinous and crumbling mansion, whose sings of degradation perfectly reflect Roderick’s deteriorating mental state. The decay of the Usher house and the Usher family is often seen as a symbol for the psychological destruction of the narrator.

The Fall of the House of Usher is a great short story and I recommend it to everyone who loves Gothic stories as this is truly a masterpiece of American Gothic Literature!