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.
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
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
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
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.