‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is an 1839 short story by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49), a pioneer of the short story and a writer who arguably unleashed the full psychological potential of the Gothic horror genre. The story concerns the narrator’s visit to a strange mansion owned by his childhood friend, who is behaving increasingly oddly as he and his twin sister dwell within the ‘melancholy’ atmosphere of the house.
‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ has inspired a range of interpretations: it has been analysed as proto-Freudian and proto-Kafkaesque, among many other things. The best way to approach the story is perhaps to consider its plot alongside the accumulation of detail Poe provides. Before we come to an analysis, however, here’s a brief summary of the plot of the story.
‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a childhood friend of Roderick Usher, the owner of the Usher mansion. This friend is riding to the house, having been summoned by Roderick Usher, having complained in his letter that he is suffering from some illness and expressing a hope that seeing his old friend will lift his spirits.
When he arrives, the narrator finds a gloomy and vaguely menacing atmosphere, and his friend, Usher, is much changed since he last saw him: overly sensitive to every sound and sight, and prone to dramatic mood swings. Meanwhile, Roderick’s twin sister Madeline is afflicted with a disease which, Roderick tells the narrator, means she will soon die. These twins are the last in the family line, the last descendants of the ‘house of Usher’.
Roderick Usher is a gifted poet and artist, whose talents the narrator praises before sharing a poem Usher wrote, titled ‘The Haunted Palace’. The ballad concerns a royal palace which was once filled with joy and song, until ‘evil things’ attacked the king’s palace and made it a desolate shadow of what it once was.
Several days later, Roderick tells the narrator that Madeline has died, and they lay her to rest in a vault. In the days that follow, the narrator starts to feel more uneasy in the house, and attributes his nervousness to the gloomy furniture in the room where he sleeps. The narrator begins to suspect that Roderick is harbouring some dark secret. Roderick grows more erratic in his behaviour, and the narrator reads to his friend to try to soothe him. The plot of the romance (a fictional title invented by Poe himself, called ‘Mad Trist’) concerns a hero named Ethelred who enters the house of a hermit and slays a dragon.
In a shocking development, Madeline breaks out of her coffin and enters the room, and Roderick confesses that he buried her alive. Madeline attacks her brother and kills both him and herself in the struggle, and the narrator flees the house. It is a stormy night, and as he leaves he sees the house fall down, collapsing into the lake which reflects the house’s image.
‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: analysis
‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is probably Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous story, and in many ways it is a quintessential Gothic horror story. We have a mysterious secret afflicting the house and eating away at its owner, the Gothic ‘castle’ (here, refigured as a mansion), premature burial (about which Poe wrote a whole other story), the mad owner of the house, and numerous other trappings of the Gothic novel. Poe condenses these into a short story and plays around with them, locating new psychological depths within these features.
How does he play around with them? First, Poe renders them ambiguous rather than clear-cut. Indeed, there are no overtly supernatural elements in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: just a general sense of something not being quite right. Many things in the story are, to use a term later popularised by Sigmund Freud, ‘uncanny’: simultaneously familiar yet unfamiliar; another key element of the uncanny is the secret which ‘out to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light’.
The secret that is buried and then comes to light (represented by Madeline) is never revealed. The symbol which represents the secret – Madeline herself – is hidden away by Roderick, but that symbol returns, coming to light at the end of the story and (in good Gothic fashion) destroying the family for good.
But Madeline is, if you like, a signifier without a signified: that is, she is a symbol with no code. She represents a secret, but what that secret is (an unseemly relationship between her and her brother, or some dark secret from the family’s past?) does remain hidden. The secret, as it were, remains a secret even when it is ‘revealed’.
Doubling is another aspect of the ‘uncanny’, because seeing our double is both a familiar and a strange experience. This person both is and is not me; this reflection of the house in the lake or ‘tarn’ looks exactly like the house and yet clearly is but an image of the house. And doubling is very important in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, as it is in other Poe stories: witness his tale ‘William Wilson’, which plays around with this idea of the doppelganger or mysterious double.
And virtually everything seems doubled in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: the title itself has a double meaning (where the ‘house’, or family of Usher falls, but the literal bricks-and-mortar structure also collapses), the house is reflected or doubled in the lake, Roderick and Madeline are twins or ‘doubles’ of a sort, and the plot of the ‘Mad Trist’ mirrors or doubles Roderick’s own situation.
‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ can also be analysed as a deeply telling autobiographical portrait, in which Roderick Usher represents, or reflects, Poe himself. After all, Roderick Usher is a poet and artist, well-read (witness the assortment of books which he and the narrator read together), sensitive and indeed overly sensitive (to every sound, taste, sight, touch, and so on). Many critics have interpreted the story as, in part, an autobiographical portrait of Poe himself, although we should be wary, perhaps, of speculating too much about any parallels.
For instance, it has sometimes been suggested that Roderick’s relationship with Madeline echoes Poe’s own relationship with his young wife (who was also his cousin), Virginia, who fell ill, as Madeline has. But Virginia did not fall ill until after Poe had written ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.
An interpretation which has more potential, then, is the idea that the ‘house of Usher’ is a symbol of the mind, and it is this analysis which has probably found the most favour with critics. Sigmund Freud would, over half a century after Poe was writing, do more than anyone else to delineate the structure of the conscious and unconscious mind, but he was not the first to suggest that our conscious minds might hide, or even repress, unconscious feelings, fears, neuroses, and desires.
Indeed, it was the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling (1775-1854) who distinguished between the conscious and unconscious mind in his early work System of Transcendental Idealism (1800), labelling the latter Unbewusste (i.e. ‘unconscious’). The term ‘unconscious’ was then introduced into English by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). The notion that we might have both a ‘conscious’ and an ‘unconscious’ mind, then, was already in circulation when Poe was writing ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.
Might we then interpret Roderick as a symbol of the conscious mind – struggling to conceal some dark ‘secret’ and make himself presentable to his friend, the narrator – and Madeline as a symbol of the unconscious? Note how Madeline is barely seen for much of the story, and the second time she appears she is literally buried (repressed?) within the vault.
However, Roderick cannot keep her hidden for long, and she bursts out again in a frenzy – much as Freud would later argue our unconscious drives and desires cannot be wholly repressed and will find some way of making themselves known to us (such as through dreams).
Note that such an analysis of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ complements the uncanny elements in the story: the secret which ought to have remain hidden but has come to light is something deep within the unconscious which has broken out. But when our unconscious breaks out and communicates with us, it usually does so in ways which are coded: ways which reveal, without revealing, the precise nature of our desires and fears. (As the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once quipped, ‘a neurosis is a secret that you don’t know you are keeping’.) Dreams, for instance, are the way our unconscious mind communicates with our conscious mind, but in such a way which shrouds or veils their message in ambiguous symbolism and messages.
If the unconscious did communicate with us clearly and openly, it would overwhelm and destroy us. Perhaps that is what happens at the end of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: Roderick comes face-to-face with his darkest unconscious, and it destroys him. And this explains why both Madeline and Roderick are destroyed: the mind, both conscious and unconscious, is killed at once. The house (the body which houses the mind?) cannot function without the mind, so it must also be destroyed.