American writer, poet, editor, and literary critic, best known for his poetry and short stories.
The Fall of the House of Usher, first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1839
Available to read online here
This is the first of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Memoir, or Observer Narration. Here’s how their introduction starts: “The following technique imitates first-hand reporting. The authors of these stories have neither told them in the third person nor had the main character tell them; instead they have used an observer or subordinate character as narrator. Observing is itself sometimes a profound experience, and to want to tell someone else’s story is to be involved in it.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
The Fall of the House of Usher
Our unnamed narrator is heading for The House of Usher – home to his boyhood friend Roderick Usher, who has written to him, asking him to visit. Roderick is obviously suffering from physical and mental torment and wants his old friend to give him some companionship and improve his mood. But as the narrator approaches the house, it appears as a picture of gloom and darkness in the distance. His suspicions are confirmed as he is shown through dingy corridors to Roderick’s room.
Our narrator is shocked at how much Roderick has changed – he has become cadaverous and anxious, and overwhelmed by a sense of fear. But he finds solace in his pictures and his music, which the narrator encourages and helps. He briefly meets Roderick’s sister Madeline, his only other companion in the house. Madeline suffers from catalepsy and falls into trances, and is extremely ill.
Some time later, Roderick informs the narrator that Madeline has died, and together the two men carry her body into the House’s family tomb. Our narrator notices that Madeline still has a fresh colour to her skin, but that is a common feature after death. One night there is a fearful storm which wakes both men; Roderick is filled with terror, and the narrator tries to placate him by diverting his attention by reading to him from his much loved books. At the moment in the tale where the narrative describes the slaying of a dragon, who emits hideous death cries, similar noises are heard inside the house.
Usher confesses that he has buried Madeline whilst she was still alive. She has broken free from the tomb and falls through the bedroom door with a final agonised death cry, which in turn causes mortal terror for Roderick. The story ends with the narrator fleeing for his life, as he looks back on the House which crumbles under the force of the storm. The House of Usher has irredeemably fallen.
This story has a well-deserved reputation for being a master example of a Gothic horror tale. Many analyses have been written, pointing out the symbolism of the House as a decaying body – the fissure in the structure of the building is like a human scar, and the windows are likened to eyes. Themes of mental and physical illness permeate the story, and its apocalyptic ending is Biblical in proportion. The narrator, in his anonymity, remains an outsider in the tale, which fortunately allows him to escape uninjured, although whether he will ever get over the mental turmoil caused by his experience is debatable.
Poe’s writing is exceptionally formal, and with incredible attention to detail. Whilst there is very little in the way of genuine action in this story, he concentrates on the sense of fear generated by everything the narrator sees and hears. So, despite the lack of action, the reader’s attention is still gripped throughout – more than 180 years since it was first published. At the end, you realise there are a number of questions that remain unanswered, including the nature of Roderick’s illness, and the nature of Roderick and Madeline’s relationship. Has Madeline really been alive in the tomb all this time, or is this a visitation by her ghostly spirit to take revenge on Roderick?
The next story in the anthology is the second of four classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, the well-known Mademoiselle Pearl by Guy de Maupassant.