Whether one reads this story as metaphysical speculation on the identity of matter and spirit, or as a psychological study of the powerful influence a deranged mind may have on a sane one, or even simply as a Gothic horror chiller, it remains a genuine masterwork of American fiction.
The narrator of the story tells of an autumn visit to the House of Usher, the family home of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher. He finds the house to be old and decaying, with a minute fissure zigzagging down from the roof to the waters of a stagnant tarn at its foundation. The gloomy landscape, the forbidding house, and the miasmic fog that hangs over the tarn depress the narrator and weaken his resistance to the mental atmosphere of the Usher family.
Roderick and his sister Madeline have been living relatively isolated in the house and have grown unnaturally close as she weakens with a terminal illness. After her death and burial in a sealed vault beneath the house, the sensitive and artistic Roderick becomes increasingly the victim of his fear and horror at his sister’s death. As a storm roars around the house, he convinces himself that Madeline was buried alive and that she has forced her way out of the tomb and is coming to confront him.
The force of his conviction in mad harmony with the raging storm causes the narrator to share Roderick’s hallucination, and he actually sees Madeline enter the room and die clutching the body of her fatally terrified brother. He rushes out into the storm as the house itself splits and falls into the tarn.
The interplay of solidly realistic detail and rich symbolic ambiguity gives the story an artistic texture of great intellectual as well as emotional force.
Beebe, Maurice. “The Universe of Roderick Usher.” In Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays. Edited by Robert Regan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. Discusses the cosmological theory that underlies “Fall of the House of Usher.” Claims that an understanding of Poe’s Eureka helps the reader understand the story as symbolic drama.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. A personal study of the mind of Poe, containing an extensive discussion of doubling and desire in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Argues that the story is a catalog of all Poe’s obsessional themes.
May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A study of Poe’s development of the short story as a genre; discusses “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an esthetic, self-reflexive fable of the basic dilemma of the artist. Also includes an essay with a reader-response approach to the story by Ronald Bieganowski.
Robinson, E. Arthur. “Order and Sentience in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’ ” PMLA 76 (1961): 68-81. One of the most extensive studies of the story; focuses on its underlying pattern of thought and thematic structure.
Thompson, G. R., and Virgil L. Lokke, eds. Ruined Eden of the Present. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1981. Contains a debate between G. R. Thompson and Patrick F. Quinn about the psychic state of the narrator in the story.
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1. How does “The Fall of the House of Usher” reflect the Gothic style of storytelling?
Gothic fiction takes its name from the Gothic architecture of the medieval period with its dark castles and inevitable ghosts and violent histories. The eighteenth-century English author, Horace Walpole, wrote a novel called The Castle of Otranto (1764) with the formulas that were followed in subsequent Gothic horror stories. Such thrilling fiction became popular in the Romantic period (1750-1850) with tales of mysterious hauntings, family curses, imprisonment, and lost treasures. The setting was usually dreary and frightening, and terror and horror were the immediate emotions the author sought to evoke in the reader. There were often supernatural elements that could not be explained away, such as the raising of the dead from the grave, or unnatural lights, as seen in the tarn of the Usher mansion. A beautiful young woman like Madeleine was a victim of violence or threatened with it.
Other classic Gothic fiction Poe would have known include The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe (1794) and Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk, a tale of black magic (1796). These were bestsellers that set the trend for future Gothic archetypes of spooky houses and unexplained deaths.
These stories were a counterbalance to the overly rational mood of the Enlightenment writers, such as Alexander Pope, Benjamin Franklin, and Voltaire. The Gothic authors wanted to show there was something beyond the rational and that human nature was full of dark corners. The Gothic was often the literary mode that explored unbalanced states of mind before the science of psychology existed to explain such mental phenomena as Roderick’s “hypochondria” (depression) or his empathy with his twin sister.
Poe builds on the Gothic tradition by exploring psychic phenomena and the relationship of rational and irrational human urges. His use of vague suggestion to create terror is a technique still used by writers and filmmakers today. Poe knew the monster is in us and resides as the dark secret of the human soul. The Gothic writer likes to shock by challenging the assumption that goodness is the normal foundation of life. Most of Poe’s popular short stories such as “The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Black Cat” are in the Gothic style.
2. Why is Poe called the inventor of modern detective fiction?
Crime fiction is associated with the city and the rise of industrial life in the 1800s. Gothic fiction was full of murder and crime, and detective work became a natural part of the plot. Such great writers as Mary Shelley (Frankenstein, 1818), Honore de Balzac (Pere Goriot, 1833), Charles Dickens (Great Expectations, 1861), and Victor Hugo (Les Miserables, 1862) include crime scenes and detectives who track the criminals. Poe knew these authors, and between 1840 and 1845 formalized the elements of the modern detective story in his short stories. “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1842), and “The Purloined Letter” (1844), feature his eccentric hardboiled detective, C. Auguste Dupin. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories owe their traits of the brilliant detective to Poe’s Dupin. Poe used several plot devices that became popular, such as the wrongly suspected man, the crime in a locked room, psychological insight into criminal motivation, the encrypted treasure map, false clues, the admiring Dr. Watson-type of narrator, and the unexpected solution that is presented and then logically explained. The detective uses rational deduction and close observation to outdo the police in solving difficult puzzles. The air of realism is maintained through newspaper articles and testimony in court. Other Poe detective stories include “Thou Art the Man” (1844) and “The Gold Bug” (1843), for which Poe won a prize.
In his critical writings, Poe explains how the mystery writer should proceed. The mystery has to be preserved until the end of the tale. Every detail must converge on the denouement or unraveling of the mystery. The writer is also forbidden from using tricks to conceal the solution. It should be like a puzzle in which the answer is always possible to derive and logical but not easily guessed. The popularity of these stories led to a new kind of American literary hero, a detective who had his roots in the character of Dupin, upholding the right but outside the legal system.
3. What is remarkable about Poe’s scientific theories?
Poe is generally thought of as a Romantic poet and writer who favored the imagination over reason. In his work, however, he is equally fascinated by what is mysterious and what is rational. He was interested in science and scientific phenomena, sometimes called the first science fiction writer in The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym (1838), containing the Hollow Earth theory that influenced Jules Verne.
Poe’s prose essay, “Eureka: An Essay on the Spiritual and Material Universe” was written in 1848. It was his attempt to bring together the scientific knowledge available in his time into one unified theory of how spirit and matter are related. His speculations were not respected then or now by the scientific community, since they came from a creative writer who was not basing his ideas on experiment or scientific proof. Even Poe’s friend, Evert A. Duyckinck said the theory was absurd. Poe acknowledges this fact in his essay, saying that he cannot prove what he is saying but would convince the reader through imagination. It is a view of the universe that seems intuitively correct and convincing to him and throws light on his understanding of how the physical and spiritual realms interact in a dynamic manner.
In his “survey of the universe,” he speculates that creation is a cycle that stems from unity, spreads to multiplicity, and returns to unity. Erasmus Darwin had described a universe that expanded and contracted in a cyclic manner in 1791.
Poe presents a similar vision in “Eureka,” using metaphysical principles and contemporary understanding of astronomical phenomena. Thus, the first state of matter is a single “Primordial Particle.” Through “Divine Volition” this Particle manifests itself as a repulsive force, fragmenting itself into atoms. Atoms spread evenly throughout space until the repulsive force stops. Then attraction appears as a reaction and matter begins to form by atoms clinging together to make stars. The whole material universe is produced and then drawn back together by gravity, eventually collapsing into the Primordial Particle once more. Poe describes a Newtonian universe that evolves, thus foreshadowing modern relativistic models of cosmology. His insistence on the principle of unity in nature, describing both matter and energy as different phases of one creative force, anticipates the unified field theories of today.
4. What are Poe’s contributions to literary criticism?
Poe is often considered the first professional American author and literary critic who published essays on how literature produces its effects. “The Philosophy of Composition,” for instance, appearing in April 1846, in Graham’s Magazine, explains good writing as short enough to have a “unity of effect or impression” on the reader because it can be read in one sitting. He uses his own poem, “The Raven” as an example. This would suggest that poetry and the short story are more powerful than novels, and this idea did much to make the short story a respectable genre in American literature. Poe stresses technique, tone, style, and logical construction of all elements leading to the desired effect. He asserted the power of novelty or invention of ideas and vividness of impression. His insistence on deliberate design counters the Romantic idea that composition is a spontaneous product of the imagination. Nothing should be out of the author’s control, he insists.
Poe uses the sound of words as music to create atmosphere in both poetry and short story. He explains how he chose the vowel sounds of “Lenore” and “Nevermore” in “The Raven” as part of the overall effect of sorrow. Symbolism helps to create atmosphere as well. The raven is a symbol of never-ending mourning that creates its own depressing darkness, just as the House of Usher falling into the tarn creates the experience of decay and self-destruction.
Poe asserts in this essay: “the death . . . of a beautiful woman” is “the most poetical topic in the world.” Many of his poems and stories contain the death of a young woman and the mad grief of the lover (“Annabel Lee,” “The Raven,” “Ulalume,” “Ligeia,” “The House of Usher”). Poe has been criticized for the death of the woman motif in his writing, but it was part of his own personal grief with the loss of his wife, and it did create a sensational focus for his Gothic style.
Poe’s essay, “The Poetic Principle” was published posthumously in the Home Journal, 1850, and denounced popular concepts in poetry such as the long or epic poem and the didactic or moral poem. He defined poetry as “The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty.” The short lyric poem extolling Beauty and written for no purpose but its own sake is the ideal. Truth is not the goal of literature, but rather, only Beauty can lift the soul, and for this reason, the great poems resemble music in rhythm, sound, and rhyme. He gives examples from Byron and Tennyson.
5. What was Poe’s influence on world literature?
Poe’s pronouncements that literature should be for its own sake rather than to teach a moral lesson became popular with Aesthetic movements at the end of the nineteenth century, especially in England and France. “L’art pour l’art” or art for art’s sake was the slogan of French Impressionism and English Aestheticism. Both visual artists and writers were influenced by Poe’s ideas. His work was amply translated and illustrated on the Continent, having more influence on art abroad than in his own country.
French Symbolist poets, such as Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), were directly influenced by Poe’s ideas. Baudelaire translated Poe into French from 1852-1865, borrowing his dark moods, style, and imagery for works such as Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857). He liked the visionary essence of Poe’s work and could relate to his poverty, depression, and drug addiction. Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) and Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) drew their aesthetic manifestoes of art for its own sake in the 1860s and 1870s based on their study of Poe. They admired Poe’s emphasis on technique and the process of writing, because it was a contrast to traditional formal French verse.
By the 1880s, French Symbolisme was a popular movement that countered the realism in fiction, with its spiritual imagery favoring dreams, imagination, and the ideal. The Symbolists took Poe’s suggestive themes of the forbidden (sex, drugs, madness) and made lyric poetry of it. Other French poets who wrote in this style are Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) and Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), who popularized the motto, “art for art’s sake.” Like Poe, they preferred the suggestive sound or image or symbol that would indirectly clothe the beautiful and ideal perception of the poet. They evoked emotions rather than described things. Verlaine called the Symbolistes “poètes maudits” or accursed poets, like Poe, living tragic and misunderstood lives in the pursuit of beauty.
Poe also influenced Aesthetic writers in England like John Ruskin, Walter Pater, William Morris, Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne, who rebelled against Victorian morality, claiming the spirituality of art was in its pursuit of beauty and design.