In his short story "The Fall of the House of Usher", Edgar Allen Poe presents his reader with an intricately suspenseful plot filled with a foreboding sense of destruction. Poe uses several literary devices, among the most prevalent, however are his morbid imagery and eerie parallelism. Hidden in the malady of the main character are several different themes, which are all slightly connected yet inherently different.
Poe begins the story by placing the narrator in front of the decrepit, decaying mansion of Roderick Usher. Usher summoned his childhood friend, the narrator, to his home by sending a letter detailing only a minor illness. After the narrator arrives and sees the condition of the house he becomes increasingly superstitious. When the narrator first sees his host he describes his morbid appearance and it arouses his superstition even more. Over a period of time the narrator begins to understand his friends' infliction, insanity.
He tries in vane to comfort his friend and provide solace, however to no avail. When Roderick's only remaining kin, his sister Madeline dies, Rodericks insanity seems to have gone to a heightened level. Shortly after his sister's death, Roderick's friend is reading him a story. As things happen in the story, simultaneously the same description of the noises come from within the house. As Usher tries to persuade the narrator that it is his sister coming for him, and his friend believing Roderick has gone stark raving mad, Madeline comes bursting in through the door and kills her brother. The narrator flees from the house, and no sooner does he get away than he turns around and sees a fissure in the houses masonry envelop the house and then watch the ground swallow up the remains.
In "The Fall of the House of Usher" Poe introduces the reader to three characters; Lady Madeline, Roderick Usher, and the narrator, whose name is never given. Lady Madelin, the twin sister of Roderick Usher, does not speak one word throughout the story. In fact she is absent from most of the story, and she and the narrator do not stay together in the same room. After the narrators arrival she takes to her bed and falls into a catatonic state. He helps to bury her and put her away in a vault, but when she reappears he flees. Before she was buried she roamed around the house quietly not noticing anything, completely overcome by her mental disorder.
Roderick Usher appears to be an educated man. He comes from a wealthy family and owns a huge library. According to the narrator, he had once been an attractive man and "the character of his face had been at all times remarkable" (Poe, 126). However , his appearance had deteriorated over time. Roderick's altered appearance probably was caused by his insanity. The narrator notes various symptoms of insanity from Roderick's behavior. Roderick's state worsens throughout the story as he becomes increasingly restless and unstable, especially after the burial of his sister. He find himself unable to sleep and also finds that he hears noises. All in all he is a severely unbalanced man trying to maintain an equilibrium in his life.
In contrast to Roderick, the narrator appears to be a man of common sense. He seems to have a good heart in that he comes to help a friend from his childhood. He, like, Roderick also appears to be very educated and very analytical. In his observations of Usher he concludes that his friend suffers from an acute mental disorder. He looks for natural explanations for the odd things that Roderick senses. Criticizing Usher for his outrageous fantasies, the narrator claims that Roderick is "enchained by certain superstitious impressions, in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted"(Poe,125). The narrator's tone suggests that he cannot understand Usher. However he himself is superstitious.
The three characters are unique people with different characteristics, but they all eventually suffer from the same mental disorder. All of them suffer from insanity, yet each responds differently. Madeline seems to accept the fact that she is insane and continues through life with that knowledge. Roderick seems to realize his mental state and makes every effort to hold on his sanity. And the narrator who is slowly but surely contracting the disease, wants to deny what he sees, hears, and senses. In the end he regains his senses but only because he flees from the house.
Poes writings are known for their macabre subject matter. In "The Fall of the House of Usher", Poe uses the life-like characteristics of an otherwise decaying house as a device for giving the house a supernatural atmosphere. From the beginning of the story the narrator claims to have sensed something unusual and supernatural about the house. After he sees the inside of the house the narrator has a heightened superstition, though he tries to view everything he sees rationally. He observes the home and sees fungi growing all over it and the decaying masonry "there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts and the utterly porous and evidently decayed condition of stones" (Poe,125)as if to say something supernatural was holding the house up, otherwise it might have fallen apart a long time before. By giving objects almost lifelike characteristics, Poe gives the house a supernatural quality which serves to make the story more interesting and suspenseful in his treatment of the houses effect on its inhabitants.
There are sections in the story where different forms of art; a painting and a poem, are introduced. Both of them tell a story within a story. These stories , in their own way are somehow parallel to the story in "The Fall of the House of Usher".
The painting was a painting done by Henry Fuesli. "Fuesli was noted for his interest in the supernatural."(Poe, 127). "A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption...and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendor." (Poe, 127). This description can be interpreted as a place of sorrow, where the atmosphere is morbid and cold. Most people have art in their homes for reasons of cheering up the place. All this painting did was add morbidity and coldness to the house.
The poem entitled "The Haunted Palace" makes a connection between the house and its inhabitants. The poem seems to parallel to the plot of "The Fall of the House of Usher". "Once a fair and stately palace--snow white palace--reared its head"(Poe, 127). This describes the past of the Usher home. It was once a stately mansion, but as time went by the house deteriorated along with the conditions of the people occupying it. We get to the present in both the story and this excerpt "but evil things in rokes of sorrow, assailed the monarchs high estate"(Poe, 126). This is what is happening to the Usher house now. The house along with its inhabitants are full of sorrow.
Poe uses differing themes of fear, death, and freedom throughout the story to set a suspenseful mood. Roderick is overcome by the fear that he is experiencing and it affects every aspect of his life. It is the constant presence of fear that has caused his illness. He doesn't know how or is unwilling to overcome these fears. The narrator suggests Roderick's fears may be directly linked to the house "he is enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he is tenanted, and from which for many years he never ventured forth"(Poe, 125), implying that his condition might be relieved if he left the house and faced his fears. Because of fear, however he is restrained from leaving and doesn't attempt to overcome them. The recurring concept of fear in the story shows it power and impact on humanity. Fear can be beneficial by restraining us from actions that can lead to harm or danger. Poe, however, takes this to the extreme by showing the negative influences of fear. Fear can restrain us from actions that could be beneficial, and excessive fear can lead to insanity. He also shows that fear can be passed on to others, ultimately showing that we must recognize our fears to be able to overcome them.
Death is Roderick Usher's main fear. He is from a "time honored" and prestigious family. And he and his sister are the last of a long line of descendants. Poe uses the concept of death and Roderick's deteriorating mental condition in order to give a sense of foreboding and mystery to the story. It is this premonition of something dreadful to come which surround the characters of Roderick and Madeline as the story progresses. From the time the narrator sees Roderick his comments compare Roderick to death itself, saying that his appearance indicates death. It is also as if Roderick foresees his forthcoming death and wishes to pass the time away with his friend so he would not go crazy. This theme of death seems to intertwine with the theme of freedom. It seemed to Roderick Usher that death could be his only freedom. Because he was constrained to the confines of his house and it turned him into a prisoner. Even in the narrators words he viewed him as a "slave" of the house. All Roderick wanted was to be free from the "Daemon of Death", and only death would free him from his insanity and the confines of his house.
Poe's graphic portrayal of imagery enhance every aspect of the story, from the suspense of the story itself, to the wild personalities of the characters and the similarly morbid themes inherently present.