House of Mirrors: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"

Article excerpt

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is among those few stories that seem to elicit nearly as many critical interpretations as it has readers. More recent critical appraisals of the story have largely followed two directions: a reappraisal of the genre of the story as a Gothic romance (1) and a close attention to Madeline Usher as a type of Poe's other female characters. (2) But the tale presents the reader a multiplicity of problems that set it aside from Poe's other stories. Madeline is as enigmatic as a new language and as difficult to construe. While debates about Lady Ligeia have filled the pages of many journals, it is not hard to understand why. (3) Her contrarian social role, her purely gothic resurrection, and her defiant antithesis in character to Rowena sharpen her person from the start. But Madeline? This sylph-like creature, so attenuated and frail, seems to slip through the story like vapor, all the more mysterious for that and for her incredible power displayed in the conclusion.

Similarly, while the story is certainly Gothic in nature, here, too, we find exceptions and qualifications. In the majority of Poe's Gothic tales the narrative point of view is first person, and, significantly, the reader is also placed inside the mind of this leading character-narrator who is only a step away from insanity. In "Usher" we also have a creeping horror and the mental disintegration of the principal persona, but the story is in fact narrated by an outside visitor (also representing the reader) who wants to find a way out of the horror. The only problem with this narrator is that, even having been given ample signs and warnings (as happens to Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado"), he is too inept to put the clues together. Poe has designed this deliberately, of course, for the reader is far more deductive than the narrator but has to wait for him to reach the extreme limit of safety before fleeing. However dull the narrator's mental processing, it is altogether better than being trapped in insanity.

One of the more penetrating of these studies of Gothic traits is G. R. Thompson's analysis of "The Fall of the House of Usher" in his Poe's Fiction. Thompson addresses the variations Poe creates with the Gothic tale by structuring a conflict between reason and irrationality. Particularly successful is his analysis of the decayed House mirroring Usher's mind so that "The sinking of the house into the reflecting pool dramatizes the sinking of the rational part of the mind, which has unsuccessfully attempted to maintain some contact with a stable structure of reality outside the self, into the nothingness within" (90). The analysis provides a lucid discussion of the process of that disintegration, of the dream-like qualities of Madeline as the devolution of the subconscious, and of the narrator's final infection by "Usher's hysteria." What Thompson does not explore, however, is an accounting for the loss of reason and what conclusion the reader may infer by the storm-struck house crumbling into the murky tarn.

To explore such issues, one must investigate beyond the confines of the tale proper, even beyond its generic home as a Gothic romance. The tale yields its full meaning as we turn to areas much overlooked in the study of this work; first, the influence of Poe's cosmology as set forth in other works but nonetheless pertinent, by his own telling, to his art; and, second, the historical context of his time when the effects of Enlightenment thinking of the prior century had not yet fully yielded (for Poe, at least) to the new spirit of Romanticism. The latter point in particular is crucial for an historicist appraisal of the story and of Poe, for it becomes evident that Poe did not reject Enlightenment thinking, that he was in fact suspicious of the newer Romanticism, and that at best he hoped for a tenuous harmony between the two. Keeping in mind such premises, we can observe the theory for unity, symmetry, and harmony emerging from Eureka, the aesthetic principles of the theory in his essays, and the application of those principles in a study of the conflict between Romanticism and Enlightenment in "The Fall of the House of Usher. …