The Fall of the House of Usher Themes and characters Poe’s craft… • “Poe’s narrators are often deranged murderers or crazy men…like Roderick Usher.” • Why do you think he chose to have a nameless, sane (?) narrator tell the story, rather than Usher himself? • Poe prefaces the story with a relevant quoted passage: – "Son coeur est un luth suspendu; Sitot qu'on le touche il resonne." From a poem by French lyric poet Pierre Jean de Beranger, the verse translates roughly as: "His heart is a hanging lute [an ancient stringed instrument]; Whenever one touches it, it resounds." • Aside from the importance of stringed instruments in the tale--Roderick Usher can stand the sound of no other noises--the passage touches on one of the story's most important themes, mortality. • Usher is convinced that the inanimate universe is full of differing levels of awareness. He believes that objects and ‘things’ have senses and their own conscious lives. This is perhaps why he is so filled with fear. Could this be a symptom of his illness? • “I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.” (Roderick) • Oddly, this quote tells us exactly what it is that Poe hoped to achieve- a story that is burdened with a foreboding, deeply dark atmosphere, a frail, hopelessly over-sensitive central character and the appearance of a living corpse all for the purpose of creating a sense of fear (through the narrator’s obvious terror) in the reader. Similarities… • Consider The Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell-tale Heart what similarities are there? • There are no gothic stories or ghost stories which take place in daylight or at high noon; these types of stories must occur in either darkness or in semi-darkness, and thus the narrator arrives at this dark and cryptic manor just as darkness is about to enshroud it. • The house, the barren landscape, the bleak walls, the rank sedges in the moat — all these create a "sickening of the heart — an unredeemed dreariness." This is a tone which will become the mood throughout the entire story. Start and end… • The story begins with a description of the House of Usher as the narrator approaches the manor. The narrator notes the reflection of the house in the tarn that surrounds it- the reflection, of course, is upside down. • The story concludes with the narrator glancing back at the manor in time to see it collapse into the very tarn he had previously seen its double in. • The manor itself, and its demise, foreshadows, predicts and parallels that of the inhabitants. Madness… • Is Roderick really ill? Is the environment, and the descriptions we are given of it, a manifestation of his illness? Or… • Is the environment alive with malicious intent? Is it causing his illness? • What evidence do we have that the house is haunted? Do we see any supernatural things occur? • Could Roderick’s over stimulation of the senses be a result of the overuse of opium? • Consider: What is the nature of Roderick’s illness? Of Madeline’s? Does one affect the other? Are they truly two separate people or two halves of a whole? A topic for debate… what do you think? • Madeline is just a manifestation of Roderick’s fear. • Roderick's acute sensitivity to light, sound, and touch result from his psychological illnesshe is not physically ill but his perceptions are altered by mental illness. What is real and what is fantasy? • Ambiguity after ambiguity pile up to deliberately confuse us- as you progress do you feel any empathy of the obviously overwhelmed Roderick? • Poe creates a sensation of claustrophobia in this story. – The narrator is mysteriously trapped by the lure of Roderick’s attraction, and he cannot escape until the house of Usher collapses completely. – Characters cannot move and act freely in the house because of its structure, so it assumes a monstrous character of its own. – Poe, creates confusion between the living things and inanimate objects by doubling the physical house of Usher with the genetic family line of the Usher family, which he refers to as the house of Usher. – Poe employs the word “house” metaphorically, but he also describes a real house. Not only does the narrator get trapped inside the mansion, but we learn also that this confinement describes the biological fate of the Usher family. Doubles… Lenses of Reality Self vs alter ego • “An alter ego can be translated to mean “the other I”. It is a second self, which is thought to be distinct from a person’s normal personality. • The term was coined in the nineteenth century when the first cases of dissociative identity disorder were described by psychologists. • A person with an alter ego is said to live a double life. • A distinct meaning for alter ego can be found in literary analysis- it describes characters whose behaviour, speech or thoughts intentionally represent those of the author.” (Wikipedia definition) Roderick and Madeline? • So, we know that this pair are brother and sister AND it is implied that they are twins. • It is also implied that they are the result of a long line of incestuous relationships and that the expectation is that they would continue the line in the same way. • BUT is Madeline real? OR is she a part of Roderick? • If she is a part of Roderick then the vault can only be metaphorical- a prison in his mind. – Does that make the narrator more than a boyhood friend? Does he come because he is a clinician? • In the opening scene of the story the narrator notes a crack in the wall of the manor. If the manor is symbolic of the twins then what does the crack mean? – Could the crack inform us of a widening divide between the twins as Madeline moves closer to death? • At the end of the story, Lady Madeline falls upon Roderick in an almost vampire-like sucking position and the two of them are unified in death (and reunited in the light of the full moon- the same moon by which the narrator is able to see the tumultuous Fall of the House of Usher). • Supposing that they are two separate people do we have evidence to support the theory that Madeline is dead? • Could her death be the reason the narrator is summoned? • In reality the memory of our loved ones is what keeps them alive to us- Here, Poe literally brings the loved one back to life, employing memory as the trigger that reawakens the dead . • Consider the first meeting between Usher and the narrator. The narrator describes Usher in terms that suggest he ‘looks like death’. • His first description of Madeline has her in a cataleptical state- unable to respond to outside stimuli- described in ghostly terms. What is in a name? • Consider the name “Usher” and what it means. • Usher means doorkeeper, and as they had previously ushered Lady Madeline prematurely into her tomb, at the end of the story Lady Madeline stands outside the door waiting to be ushered in; failing that, she ushers herself in and falls upon her brother. Vampires? • Well is the supernatural aspect to the story, the references to red, the inability of characters to function in light, the rising from the dead- rising from a coffin- blood soaked garments and superhuman strength. • Roderick Usher's weakness, his inability to function in light, and his necessity to live constantly in the world of semi-darkness and muted sounds and colours is that the Lady Madeline is a vampire who has been sucking blood from him for years. • This would account for his paleness and would fit this story in a category with the stories of Count Dracula that were so popular in Europe at the time. • In this interpretation, Roderick Usher buries his sister so to protect himself. Vampires had to be dealt with harshly; this accounts for the difficulty Lady Madeline encounters in escaping from her entombment. • In this view, the final embrace must be seen in terms of the Lady Madeline, a vampire, falling upon her brother's throat and sucking the last drop of blood from him. • So, what is our modern day reading? – Two parts of one person? – Vampires? – Something else?