At young age, I remember being fascinated by The Fall of the House of Usher because there were no ghosts in this tale, and yet the house is haunted. If there are no ghosts, what is haunting the house? Because this question was only vaguely answered in the movies and children’s books that I absorbed, my curiosity about this dreary tale by Edgar Allen Poe grew. A few weeks ago I finally read the original version. And I am still intrigued by the question.
I first encountered this story as part of a book series that adapted the classics into easy-to-read books for children. They were small books; the left page had the words and the right page contained the pencil-drawn picture. I remember the picture of the book’s main character, Roderick Usher, agonizing in his reading chair. He had buried his cataleptic sister Madeline in the family vault, but oh shit! She wasn’t dead and she had broken free from the tomb. He knew she was coming after for her him, so he gave into anguish and dread. I then remember the picture of Madeline struggling with him as their huge Gothic house came tumbling down.
Even though this version went easy on the wording, I still didn’t get it. What’s with the house coming down? What is causing “The Fall” of “The House” of “Usher?”
Exploring this issue further, I watched this made for TV movie (As a side note: I remember my older sister’s boyfriend being mad that the movie being shown was NOT the Vincent Price movie version. Looks as if this Vincent Price movie has an entirely different plot than Poe’s story. Nevertheless, I still want to see it.) As with Poe’s version, the story’s narrator comes to visit his ailing friend Roderick Usher at his gloomy house and offer his assistance. Unlike the original tale where the narrator’s job is to soothe Roderick’s spirit with companionship, the narrator is sought out so that he can make repairs to the house’s foundation. This structural renovation – it might add time to Roderick’s life. This is because – as the house ails, so does Roderick. When the house “dies”, Roderick’s life would end as well.
I went back and reread the story in my book and finally I figured out a few things. The House of Usher was both the physical house and the long lineage of the Usher family (Roderick and Madeline are the last in line). Also – the physical House of Usher, it is alive. It had a will of its own. It possesses consciousness. This “house with a conscious” concept probably impressed me the most. It was my first experience with such a theme. Later on, it would reoccur in such films as The Shining, but ask anyone, the first of anything always is the best! (well ,except heartbreaks over a first love. Those are the worst)
And yet, there seemed as if there was more to know. For instance, what was up with Madeline Usher, who roamed about the many halls of the Usher estate like a zombie? Why was her brother burying her alive? And how did all this tie into the “house with a consciousness” theme? Something else was lurking in the story; haunting the backgrounds of The Usher house.
Fast forward thirty three years. Arrive in the summer of 2015, right in the middle of my haunted house fiction project. It was the perfect occasion to get to the bottom of this Usher mystery. Finally I would read The Fall of the House of Usher in Poe’s words only.
And so I did.
What did I learn?
First of all, it’s much shorter than I expected. There is only 7000 + words.
Yet, “it is all there”, compacted tightly within the paragraph-long sentences that are inundated with gerund and absolute phrases. Such is the style of Poe – verbose and very challenging for the twenty first century reader (especially since he uses several words that were not to be found in my Kindle’s dictionary.) Struggling with this challenge, I combed through two websites (Poedecoder and Sparknotes ) hoping I would find information that would enlighten me.
From these sites, I have learned that every word of this story is crucial; every color described, every architectural component detailed, all moments of narrative and dialogue – all of this lays the groundwork for a plot that relies heavily on theme – themes I was oblivious to even after reading the original story a few weeks ago.
I’ll come back to these themes later. For now, I’ll present rundown of the plot.
Poor Roderick Usher is ill and has urgently requested that his friend come visit and comfort him. So the unnamed narrator arrives at the House of Usher. Before even entering the humongous abode, the sight of the house troubles him. Something about it fills his him with dread. . The house appears sturdy, but run down, with decaying stones. Upon further glance, he notices a zigzagging fissure from the rooftop down to the foundation. Vines and vegetation surrounding the house have corroded. Even the air surrounding the house is oppressive.
Once inside, he reunites with Roderick, who suffers from anxiety, hypochondria and a hypersensitivity to various stimuli, such as light. He sees Roderick’s sister Madeline as she walks in the background. Roderick informs him that she too is ill and suffers from catalepsy.
Right away, the friend gets to work at comforting his friend. He reads to him, he listens as Roderick plays the guitar. Roderick confides in him, telling he friend that their sickness is a family sickness that is tied to the house.
One evening, Roderick informs his companion that Madeline has passed away. Together they bury her in a vault within the house. A week or more passes. On a dark night, when the clouds are claustrophobically low, a storm front comes in. Both the narrator and Roderick are smitten with anxiety; neither man can sleep. The narrator tries reading to Roderick. But Roderick loses concentration. He mentions that he hears moaning. It is Madeline. For days, he has heard her escaping from the vault, prying open the coffin lid and then using subhuman strength to break through the stone door. He had buried her alive.
Finally, she bust into the room and kills Roderick. The narrator escapes the house. From a distance, he sees The House of Usher split in two and then crumble to the ground. This ends the story.
There is no way can I provide an analysis that bests all the literary analysts out there. I will not uncover any theme that a Poe expert has not yet found. There is a lot within this short piece and much of the depth goes over my head. All I had at the end of the reading is what I had started with: a house with a will of its own and a doomed brother and sister whose fate is tied to the house itself. But for me to travel down this one analytical thread that compares the rapturous destruction of the physical and self-conscious Usher house to the plunge into madness and death by the last siblings of the Usher family might be the equivalent to a restrictive tiptoe across the wet shoreline of a beckoning ocean.
More analysis was needed. Again, I consulted the experts.
For them, I learned of the theme of “doubling”
“Doubling spreads throughout the story. The tale highlights the Gothic feature of the doppelganger, or character double, and portrays doubling in inanimate structures and literary forms. The narrator, for example, first witnesses the mansion as a reflection in the tarn, or shallow pool, that abuts the front of the house. The mirror image in the tarn doubles the house, but upside down—an inversely symmetrical relationship that also characterizes the relationship between Roderick and Madeline.”
See that, when I first read this story, I missed the part of the narrator staring into the pool of water. By missing this great example of this “doubling”, I also failed to see how it symbolized the relationship between brother and sister.
Furthermore, the fact that brother and sister were two parts of an inseparable whole was lost on me as well
“During the course of the story, the intellect (Roderick) tries to detach itself from its more physically oriented twin (Madeline). This can be seen in Roderick’s aversion to his own senses as well as by his premature entombment of his twin sister. Living without Madeline (that is without the senses), Roderick’s condition deteriorates”
Wow! A lot of stuff in afoot! But at last, thanks to these websites, I am finally capable of adding some of my own insight. Based on my rudimentary knowledge of Freudian concepts, perhaps Madeline is Roderick’s ID – his inner impulses, his deepest and darkest desires (also – this tale hints at incest between brother and sister). If one tries to repress this side of the personality – bury it- it will only arise again stronger than ever before.
So – I have found the “ghosts” that haunt this tale, that haunt this house. Brother and sister are one. They cannot separate. One half cannot bury the other, just as a personality cannot split with bringing on madness and destruction. And so death and destruction are inevitable and when the Usher lineage comes to an end, so ends the House that has surrounded each generation for years and years. The house and lineage are one. Everything fits together like jagged pieces to a bizarre puzzle.
Still I am sure that there are more “ghosts” to be found. This story is maddening in that way. It’s mad, mad, mad…and brilliant. It has been haunting me ever since I was a child and it continues to do so. Like the narrator and companion of this tale, it pulls me into The House of Usher, but it does so over and over again. But I welcome this haunting. I welcome its invitation to keep coming back inside and look around. Because with each revisit, I never know what I might find!