Thirty-Two Stories

By Edgar Allan Poe; Stuart Levine et al. | Go to book overview

THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is a philosophical story in that Poe stresses what mystics call "equivalences." Roderick and Madeline are twins who sense one another feelings as twins are supposed to in folklore; the tarn reflects the house and its gloomy surroundings; the events at the close of the tale reflect the words of the book which the narrator reads to Usher; the house represents the family. Note that the narrator senses "equivalences" right at the outset. Usher, in his hereditary illness, his drugged state, and his fear, senses the unity of all things. The narrator, by the close of the tale, has come to sense it, too.

This is, then, a tale about perception, and though to perceive here is to fear, we note that, as usual in Poe, the "perceiver" envisions transcendent beauty. Roderick paints and improvises fantastic music (see note 8). Poe hints that the inspiration involved in the creative process is akin to that which will enable Usher to know that his sister is alive in her coffin.

This is also a story about death, terror, and burial alive. But before concluding that Poe is as much in the grips of fear as are Usher and the narrator, readers should examine the whimsical tale "The Premature Burial," in which Poe makes healthy fun of morbidness. They should keep in mind also Poe's obvious artistic control: "The Fall of the House of Usher" is no tale written by a madman; it is much too carefully crafted. It is philosophically consistent with related tales by Poe--see, for instance, our headnote for "Ligeia"; what is said there applies here as well. "Usher" will, indeed, "take" specialized philosophical readings, such as a careful Gnostic interpretation (St. Armand). Poe even provides a "rational" explanation for what happens: the narrator, as frightened as Usher, may be inventing details. Outer reality and states of mind are associated right at the opening of the tale, to give the reader a "margin of credibility." Poe is saying, in effect, that what "happens" and what his narrator feels may be so closely related that the reader who is unwilling to believe given parts of the action may view them as reflections of the processes of his narrator's mind. Poe allows us the possibility that this is a psychological study of the contagion of fear.


PUBLICATIONS IN POE'S TIME
Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, September 1839
Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, 1840
Bentley's Miscellany, London, August 1840
Bentley's Miscellany, American edition, 1840

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