Analysis of the House in E. A. Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”
Edgar Allan Poe’s renowned short story, entitled “The Fall of the House of Usher,” is a story with typical characteristics of the Gothic genre, depicting an ancient, crumbling mansion, whose inhabitants haunt its hallways and rooms, and where the protagonist enters the scene, in an effort to save the damsel in distress, Madeline, from an early entombment done by her ill brother. However, in an effort to buttress this idea of claustrophobia and an unspoken, unmentionable terror, Poe depicts the Usher house as an indivisible part of the inhabitants themselves. The house is not only their dwelling place, it is a symbol of the Usher family itself, and this mirroring of images is done to such an extent that even the crack in the house, right in the middle of it, denotes the crack between Roderick and Madeline, and the inability of separate existence of the body and the mind.
Right from the very start of the story, the house appears to be a character just like all the others. Its “vacant, eye-like windows” make the narrator feel a sense of claustrophobia, of being watched, of feelings of gloominess and an “utter depression of soul,” which he cannot explain or find the source of (Poe 177). The house itself dwells on the edges of a deep and dark tarn, and these surroundings further evoke images that terrify the narrator even more. He gazes down into the “black and lurid tarn,” and what he sees there gives him a “shudder even more thrilling than before” (Poe 178). This inverted image of the house that he perceives in the blackness of the tarn serves as a symbolic portrayal of the inversion that resides within the house itself. In the tarn, the house, as well as the surrounding trees and nature appear even darker than they are, more ominous, and are placed upside down. Thus, the conclusion that is immediately drawn, from the very first moment the narrator approaches the house, is that there is something terribly wrong taking place inside of this gloomy dwelling.
Simultaneously, the narrator identifies as well as explains the connection between the house and the family line. The Usher family has been renowned for centuries for “munificent yet unobtrusive charity,” as well as for a “peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself in many works of exalted art” (Poe 178). However, there exists a deeper, darker secret to the family line, the fact that “the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain” (Poe 178). Consequently, it comes as no surprise that a family, with such a practice as incest, would have deranged offspring, such as Roderick and Madeline. At the same time, the peasantry came to identify “the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of ‘House of Usher’ – an appellation which seemed to include both the family and the family mansion” Poe (178). Thus, even before the birth of the strangely divided Roderick and Madeline, the villagers perceive the house as an undeniable part of the family. Both the house and the family are portrayed as having deep, dark secrets, and as it is the case in any Gothic novel, the dwelling place always has a powerful effect on its inhabitants. As a result, it comes as no surprise that the family is revered, though feared by the villagers, equally as the house, which appears as if it is arising out of the very depths of hell, waiting to swallow the cursed family.
In addition, the physical appearance of the house reflects the antiquity of the family line: “its principal feature seemed to be that of antiquity” (Poe 179). The narrator continues that “there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of individual stones” (Poe 179). Thus, this statement connotes the idea of a structure that is still sturdy, still defying the test of time and dilapidation, but simultaneously, its individual stones are unable to resist this. This reflects on the notion that the Usher family itself, as perceived by the outside world, such as the peasantry, is revered and solid, and seems as if nothing can take away its power. However, even though a certain structure may appear unyielding on the outside, it is actually all those individual stones put together that are creating this illusion of stability. This is exactly what is presented in the story. The family name is as powerful as ever, but the last two remaining offspring of the family are far from what would be considered quality material for prolonging the family line.
The narrator arrives to this dreadful house as the result of him being summoned by his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, to ease his pain in the time of need. What Roderick suffers from, interestingly enough, is what he refers to as “a morbid acuteness of the senses,” where “the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds which did not inspire him with horror” (Poe 181). Thus, Roderick suffers acute bodily ailments, of a mysterious nature, and as such, is forced to seek refuge from the loud, bright and odorous world inside the walls of his sinister family mansion. His sister, on the other hand, appears to have completely different ailments. What she suffers, the physicians have no name for, but merely refer to it as “a settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character” (Poe 182).
Thus, what the brother and sister represent is the inability of a unity functioning with only one part of the equation. Roderick represents the mind and Madeline represents the body, which is noticeable in the fact that while Roderick inhabits the upper part of the house, Madeline is hidden in her room and finally is entombed in the cellar. This also refers to the idea that the mind without the body and vice versa means nothing without each other and would be forced to a slow and painful wasting away. In this sense, they are also the inverted doppelgangers of each other, representing a mirror image, yet with a crucial difference. Roderick represents the mind, as his physical body is deteriorating, while Madeline’s illness is in her mind, throwing her in cataleptic states where she is believed to be dead.
This dichotomy between the body and the mind is also perceivable in the house’s exterior, as the narrator mentions that there exists a “barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn” (Poe 179). Just like the inhabitants are divided into the image of the mind and the body, the house itself boasts a crack that goes throughout its entire front surface, urging the reading to acknowledge the idea that only a unity of things can make a full content properly functional. It is exactly because Roderick and Madeline are cursed to be psychophysically separated and forced to endure this blight, the house must follow in suit and become divided itself, finally crumbling down once the truth is revealed.
Consequently, the House of Usher is the same as the family: flawed and waiting to crumble down, in a climactic moment of a death tryst between the brother and sister, the last remnants of an ancient family line. The house swallows its inhabitants and finally, they all become one, merged together in the deep, dark tarn.