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?
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The fall of the house of usher - Mrs