A Not-so-Singular View of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”

The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings : Poems, Tales, Essays, and Reviews (Penguin Classics)The Fall of the House of Usher is considered by most to be Poe’s greatest work. Although some works are more famous, such as the Cask of Amontillado and The Raven, the Fall of the House of Usher is wrought with interpretive possibilities. However, before discussing these, a brief summary of the story must be given.

Like many Poe stories, the cast of characters is extremely limited. Poe instead spends much of his time developing a smaller cast of characters, often taking up much of the story just in development. Events are often limited as they are in Usher. There are three characters in Usher: the Narrator, whose name is not given, Roderick Usher, and his twin sister, the Lady Madeline.

In the course of the story, the Narrator, upon receiving an urgent request, goes to visit his old boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, because he has fallen ill and feels such a visit may lift his spirits. Upon arriving to a dreadful home that had once been a place of honor, but now had fallen into disarray and disuse, the Narrator is taken aback to catch a glimpse of Usher’s twin sister, who quickly disappears. Some days later, the Lady Madeline dies, or so we are told by Usher, and he pressures his friend to help him prepare the body for burial. In the final scene, strange noises and events that have been building for a few days culminate when the Lady Madeline arises for revenge on her brother and kills him as the Narrator flees the house as it sinks into the ground.

One possible interpretation of the story is that there is a distinct possibility that Poe wrote the story as nothing more than a bone-chilling tale. It must be considered so. It takes a familiar line: the innocent caught in a web of complex horror that reveals itself ever so slowly, all while maintaining an air of familiarity and normalcy, but with slight twists. In that, readers can relate most quickly. For there is nothing more terrible than suspecting the bizarre and horrible, but, in an effort at self-preservation, to continually suppress those suspicions, only to discover at the last moment, and in the worst possible way, that every little warning sign ignored was indeed not as unclear as we wanted to believe. Such is the makeup of most major crimes that can be read about in the daily news: a family discovers their father is a serial killer by his sudden arrest, or a charity discovers that its founder has been skimming millions of dollars from its donors.

However, Poe, as usual, adds more elements of subtlety than would likely be present in real life. The house that Usher lives in is given several pages of descriptive merit by the Narrator upon his approach. Usher’s physical condition evidences the destructive torment of his own soul. The Lady Madeline’s appearance also foreshadows her own death by her ghostly, pale appearance. In all this, and more, the narrator toys with his own “insufferable gloom” (Poe, 244).

These additional descriptions, foreshadows, and subtleties have convinced many critics of literature that Usher is an interpretive work, beyond the scope of simply a horror tale. It may be something of a common truth to say that nearly any work, in the hands of a critic, can be interpreted to be something that it is not. However, it is worth examining several critics to see what ideas they have on Poe’s work, and if they be of any merit.

One critic in particular, Daniel Hoffman declares that the entire Usher story is nothing more than an allegory, in which he submits that Usher “is a fable of the soul: the soul acting independently, insofar as it can, as it must, of mind, and struggling, as best it can, to be free, or, in the end, to become free, of the body” (170). Where some allegory might exist, Hoffman leaves no room for short measures. While he continues on some of the more obvious allegories already noted, he draws into a more spiritual plane concluding in the end that Usher “is both a testament to the autonomy of the unconscious, by whose inexorable powers are revealed the deepest truths of the soul” (175).

Unless the reader is also a literary critic, they will have a more than difficult time finding agreement with such statements. In fact, if such a piece were read prior to the actual story, it would be questionable as to whether anyone would ever read Usher at all! Hoffman misses what seems to be primary in all of Poe’s works: that beyond allegory and horror, Poe writes to entertain, first and foremost, and that his entertainment is not so complexly wound around themes that only a chosen few could decipher. Poe has always been a populist; his works were published in common magazines of the day, not underground readers or hyper-scholarly journals.

However, the theme of an allegory nature should not be entirely dismissed. Allegory is common to many of Poe’s writings, and Usher is no exception. One critic points out that Poe often uses Decay to symbolize larger themes noting that “decay in Poe is a symbol of visionary remoteness from the physical, a sign that the state of mind represented is one of almost pure spirituality” (Wilbur, 112). Does this not seem true, even in modern movies? When we see such decay in a graveyard, or a ship, or a building, do we not sense something more spiritual, whether or not it is directly implied? This same critic, in commenting about the physical condition about Usher’s house relates that “the extreme decay of the House of Usher - a decay so extreme as to approach the atmospheric - is quite simply a sign that the narrator, in reaching the state of mind which he calls Roderick Usher, has very nearly dreamed himself free of his physical body, and of the material world with which that body connects him.” How interesting indeed such an observation is! Can Poe be actually developing these themes with the same regularity and intent that his critics suggest? If so, than more than a great storyteller and poet, more than a master of suspense and horror, he may be one of the greatest minds that have ever written.

His life and lifestyle might suggest otherwise. Poe led one of the more tragic lives among writers. Full of lost loves, idyllic passions, and a rage for alcohol, it would seem that Poe might have better analyzed his own personal directions and missteps if he were as insightful as many of his critics suggest. It may be possible that he used such symbolism and allegory as those that influenced him in his own readings, which were vast.

As evidence of the extremity to which some critics may travel, Allan Tate goes so far as to suggest that Lady Madeline, is in fact, a vampire. He stops short of suggesting that Poe was even aware of this in his writing but points out several salient areas in the story that suggest that she maintains all the characteristics known of vampires, although he admits she does not exactly resemble “a vampire according to Bram Stoker’s specifications” (30).

It would be wonderful to know what Poe himself believed of his works. However, Poe does not leave us the luxury of such. Poe only left us a small number of works on his own literary theories, the readings of which should be mandatory for every student of literature, and that especially of writers and those who wish to become such. In his famous “The Philosophy of Composition”, which was originally written for Graham’s Magazine in 1846, Poe writes at length that writing is a purposeful, intentional act that, although creative, is not as spontaneous as some might believe. It is necessary here to quote at length.

I have often thought how interesting a magazine paper might be written by any author who would - that is to say who could - detail, step by step, the processes by which any one of his compositions attained its ultimate point of completion. Why such a paper has never been given to the world, I am much at a loss to say - but, perhaps, the autorial vanity has had more to do with the omission than any one other cause. Most writers - poets in especial - prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy - an ecstatic intuition - and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought - at the true purposes seized only at the last moment - at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view - at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable - at the cautious selections and rejections - at the painful erasures and interpolations - in a word, at the wheels and pinions - the tackle for scene-shifting - the step-ladders and demon-traps - the cock’s feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio (551).

Perelandra (Space Trilogy (Paperback))It can be surmised from this that while some of the allegory envisioned by Poe’s literary critics is perhaps their own machinations, there is still some allegory that Poe intentionally placed in his works, but more likely for the purposes of embellishing and enhancing the central theme and storyline. Hidden allegories, only to be seen by a few, are hardly allegories at all, since the very idea of an allegory is that it points out to the reader a relation between an event, character, or object in the story to that of one in real life. A true allegory is that of John Bunyan’s “A Pilgrim’s Progress”, or C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra Series.

Perhaps a more balanced view can be achieved by the interpretation of literary critic Darrell Abel who concentrates less on allegory and more on symbolism. “Roderick Usher is himself a symbol of isolation, and a concentration of vitality so introverted that it utterly destroys itself” (26). And later, carrying the same theme, Able points out how Poe never uses mention of the five senses in any life-giving way, but always to show how those very things are inwardly destroying Usher, and with him, his family legacy:

It is noteworthy that the only willing use [Usher] makes of his senses is a morbid one - not to sustain and positively experience life, but to project his ‘distempered ideality’ on canvas and in music. This morbid use of facilities which ought to sustain and express life shows that, as Life progressively loses hold on Roderick Usher, Death as steadily asserts its empery over him. The central action and symbolism of the tale dramatize this contest between Life and Death for the possession of Roderick Usher” (28).

In conclusion, the only agreement among critics seems to be that there is something more than the simple story itself being told by Poe. What that something is causes some matter of debate. Like any story, whether it is a short story, novel, movie, or opera, the interpretation of it becomes a matter of the heart for the reader / listener / watcher. How they are drawn into the story and just how deep, is what gives the story its popularity, its folklore, and like the ancient myths, its eventual legendary status. One thing is for certain: there are likely more possible interpretations of a story than the original author ever intended. That is not to say they are inaccurate, just unintentional. George Lucas, the writer of the Star Wars movies, once commented that he was always amazed at some of the analogies and allegories that people drew from his movies, and while denying that he intended them, openly wished that he had been smart enough to take credit for them. Edgar Allan Poe, were he alive to see the continual popularity of his writings, and his critics views of them, would likely have made a similar remark by now.

The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (Penguin Classics)Abel, Darrell. “A Key to the House of Usher” 1949. Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999. 26-28.
Hoffman, Daniel. “The Fall of the House of Usher: An Allegory of the Artist.” 1972. Readings on Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. David Bender et al. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 169-179.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Portable Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Phillip Van Doren Stern. New York: Viking Press, 1945.
Tate, Allan. “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe” 1949. Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers: Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999. 28-30.
Wilbur, Richard. “Poe’s Use of Allegory” 1959. Readings on Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. David Bender et al. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1998. 110-119.

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