I wrote this essay for my American Literature class this summer semester and could not resist sharing it with everyone. The analysis was about the short story written by Edgar Allan Poe “The fall of the House of Usher”. I was a bit horrified that the meaning behind the story was as I claim, but I could not interpret it any other way. There are however multiple meanings that it could take on, the one I discovered I believe too much evidence supports. I have in text citations but have not included the works cited page in this post, hence the references to the books that were used to support my claims.
I am posting this for those that enjoy essays and speculation only. I wrote this entire essay in one sitting within the span of 12 hours the day before it was due, reading the story that same morning. Enjoy!
AN ANALYSIS INTO THE MEANING BEHIND EDGAR ALLAN POE’S
THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER
Let the reader of this essay be enticed to journey for a short time into the mind of the infamous Edgar Allan Poe, specifically regarding his masterpiece: The Fall of the House of Usher. This tale, published by Poe in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in 1839, is the account of a narrator who is beckoned by his childhood friend by the name of Roderick Usher. In a letter to the narrator, Roderick is very pressing and persuasive that he sojourn at once concerning a grave and pressing matter. We discover that Roderick’s sister Madeline is deathly ill and will soon pass away, all while we are taken deeper into the dark madness of her brother Roderick Usher, the last of his ancient family. I present the case before the reader, that according to the text, we can clearly and unequivocally conclude that the deeper meaning behind this story is a case of dreadful and unspeakable familiar incest. This dark family secret is a ghastly demon, whose hand has reached far into the history of the once proud House of Usher. We will together analyze the script of this text in detail giving rightful meaning to its intention, and at length agree that this interpretation is correct.
In an early intersession, we are briefly transported to another time and place where we see a dark figure oppressively leaning over a grave maker in a plot of earth. Upon this headstone is the name of a woman dear to this man’s heart, and the loss has further fueled a regression into solitude and lunacy. His trembling voice breaths the name “Virginia”, his 13 year old cousin. This man is none other than Edgar Allen Poe himself, and among the troubles in his life, the death of his wife and close family member Virginia Clemm is especially cumbersome. This agony could be credited as to have possibly influenced Poe to write the tale that is our topic now. The low hanging and dreary clouds let fall the sad precipitation of rain drops mixed with desperation. Desperation that those closest to Poe would not abandon him either by choice or by death. His thoughts slither to his not so distant past where he recalls how his father had abandoned him and his mother died shortly after. Going to live with his uncle, Poe still was never fully indoctrinated into the stable and loving foundation that is known as a family. Falling in love with his young cousin perhaps was a way to ease this pain, however this remedy proves fatal for to his incestuous young cousin who succumbed to the disease tuberculosis. The grey and abysmal Poe walks away in solemn resolve from the grave, and we back into the present to continue our case.
The fist subject to consider is Poe’s presupposition to weave incest into his stories. He has surly let run in his labyrinth that is called his mind the idea of this amplified, and its possible long term effects over generations such as we see in the tale The Fall of the House of Usher. I
believe Poe reasoned within himself that even though this practice was somewhat normal but frowned upon, did he marry his cousin because no other alternatives were present? The shame of failing in the realm of courtship due to his excessive drinking and gambling limited true love to come only from within his family whom had the strength and fortitude to see past these vices. To put it another way, only being able to be accepted by his cousin made Poe justify this peculiar situation to the point of defending it across all of humanity. He played ‘what if’ and spun a tale to give flesh to this idea as his paint brush was wrought from the aged woods of liquid death, opium, and the occult.
In the opening paragraphs of the story, Poe sets the stage for the reader by introducing a literary landscape that was in the end of its age and fading away. I will reference word choice somewhat frequently to give insight to these claims. For instance Poe writes the narrator to convey the idea of the house and land in which is dwells as “…dull, dark, and soundless…in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low…” and “…the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” (654) This language suggests that the house and family were in the autumn of their span and fading away into oblivion in a dark and dreary way. Next, the adjectival phrases mere house, simple landscape, and bleak walls lead us to view the physical items to be plain while permitting an undertone of hidden things happening in the metaphysical or spirit realm. Poe further draws us into this shadow plain by describing the impression left on the narrator’s heart as he could not help but feel the “depression of soul…” as one senses “the hideous dropping off of the veil.” (654). The narrator gazed into understandable real life objects, but could not deny the impact of spirit they brought to their beholder. And so this is the setting moving forward.
The next point of reference, is the information that is divulged upon the verge and entrance of the subject of the Narrator. We meet a character for whom this house and story greatly gravitate by the name of Roderick Usher. We gain some valuable insight that further points us to determine the existence of a dying household due entirely to repeated incest. Roderick’s best and only friend is that of the Narrator, who himself hasn’t seen Roderick in many years. The narrator even admits that he “…knew little of my friend.” (Poe 655) To consider such a distant friend close makes us see that the family kept to itself and its own affairs offering little light to the public. Why would the Ushers feel the need to be so isolated if it were not due to shame? The narrator notes that “…the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain.” (Poe 655) Surely this is reference to a lack of genetic variation.
Word choice again is on stage as the Poe uses the word ‘tarn’ at least 4 times, and talks about dead or decaying trees. A tarn is a small lake usually in the mountains. The tarn was described as bog like and hazy situated at the foot of the mansion. I believe repetition of certain words demands the reader to look deeper at their meaning. The Tarn is a euphemism Poe uses to
explain a gene pool that was shallow and dead. He even says that the front of the mansion is old but sound with all of its various fungus and plant life growing on the side of its walls, and even further describes where the structure meets the water and becomes lost in the tarn. This close proximity makes one see a possible relationship between the House of Usher and its shallow gene pool. Take also in hand one more characteristic of the tarn, namely that the “…silent tarn, in the form of an inelastic vapor or gas-dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.” (Poe 654), also denotes the depth of genetic variance to be at this point inelastic and vapor like, and dull of variety as one would expect from normal procreation. The very choice of words beckons our minds to apply these symbols to reality, Poe through the Narrator is screaming to us.
Continuing further, take upon the stage of evidence the fact that the family physician walked passed the Narrator and it was noted that the expression on his face was that of perplexity and trepidation. The definition of trepidation is the feeling or fear of something that may happen. Obviously The Physician was aware of the inbreeding that plagued the family and knew that the verdict would be death for one of its members as we shall discuss very soon. How could a trained medical doctor have not an answer for the cause of one’s ailment? The answer is that he has seen it before and knows of its fate. It is well known of the existence of widespread inbreeding amongst the royalty in Europe of old. Look at Queen Elizabeth of England, and the Russian Emperor Nicholas the Second’s son Alexei prior to the Bolshevik period. Both were born with hemophilia due to long term inbreeding. This is also the very reason specifically hemophilia was so common among royalty.
Shortly thereafter, Poe makes an attempt to draw the reader even deeper into the metaphysical realm in order to open the mind to both greater levels of horror and the taboo. The Usher family is said to have been given to higher things such as books, art, and music. An emphasis is scarcely eluded that above all their devotion to “perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognizable beauties, of musical science.” (Poe 654). Poe is very knowledgeable of the Holy Scriptures, and as such he would be well aware that before the fall of the treacherous Lucifer, he was in charge of the music and worship in heaven. Subtlety Poe is suggesting that the devil or some evil spirit has infiltrated the family at one point enticing through the pursuit of knowledge speaking by symbolic way of musical notes played against a spiritual backdrop. By abandoning the natural, just as Adam was persuaded by higher knowledge to be like God, so the Ushers deceived to their putrid end. To the books, art, and music Roderick is seen turning to sooth his mind and answer his questions. I see this more as a person who has been lied to asking the liar to give them more confidence in the lie. They all will leave him desolate in the end as the poison has run its course centuries later. Why all this darkness and reference to the spirit world? Simply it gives this tale another degree of terror for which we know Poe can deliver eloquently. Only second to the claim of incest, is the claim of its origin here in this story which is by way of the Devil himself. Poe is truly dark. These two notions must be unified from here on out to appreciate fully the meaning of The Fall of the House of Usher.
Roderick Usher himself is described as cadaverous with large eyes but also beautiful. This tall and slender beautiful corpse draws our logic as to resolve that these are the features of a man running thin of genetic variety. Albeit, we learn as readers from how the Narrator exclaims there is inconsistency found in Roderick. “…my friend was at once struck with an incoherence-an inconsistency…and I soon found this to arise from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome a habitual trepidancy, an excessive nervous agitation.” (Poe 657). Can we really believe anything that pours out of the mouth of this madman? Poe has done well to discredit one of only three pillars of this story, namely the Narrator, Roderick, and his sister Madeline. Now our information comes through a frightened acquaintance as the Narrator admitted that he did not truly know his boyhood friend with such a lapse in years. Poe has cast the oars out of the boat atop whitewater. Who will we trust now save the evidence for the true source of sorrow that is unfolding? The facts.
At length, a conversation took place between Roderick and his friend the Narrator about “…the nature of his malady. It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy…” (Poe 657). A family evil? Constitutional? This means an accepted practice or way of life that had been thrust upon the feeble offspring, such as the practice of inbreeding. This would certainly cause the Ushers to become reclusive daring not to venture outside of their prison’s walls, not only that of the house but the family itself! Habitual evil was to them a vicious cycle that drew its victims further down a road that led to hell. Even Roderick confessed himself in sorts of the just judgement that would be rendered one day when he said “To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave. ‘I shall perish,’ said he, ‘I MUST perish in this deplorable folly.’” (Poe 657). What stronger elude to hidden guilt could one find, Roderick admits he deserves judgement for his (his families’) folly. The end of the family line himself is willing to drop the blade of the executioner for the crimes they have committed against the natural. In addition, Poe teases us more with his word choice. He makes his Narrator say the word “anomalous” in describing Roderick’s dark family secret. The definition of that word is that which deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected. Deviating of course from your own family members. An oral sleight of hand for those of perception Poe intended I’m sure.
Finally enter Roderick’s sister Madeline. She is described as a ghost like figure that floats across the room, and the narrator says he only sees her but once until the end of the story when she comes back in a gruesome manner. Roderick tells the Narrator that the precipice of his anguish is the impending and expected death of his beloved sister Madeline. She is also said to be her brother’s only companion for many years alone in the house. And what would cause a bachelor up to the age of Roderick we assume to be somewhat young to not take wife and continue his family name. But instead only now says that his lineage will end in association with the death of his pale sister. Where was his wife in all of this if the fear on cessation truly existed? Was it not his very sister he took as wife but failed due to chromosomal deficiency to secure offspring, and now the door was shut with her passing? Roderick traced his sadness to “…a more
natural and far more palpable origin-to the severe and long-continued illness-indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution-of a tenderly beloved sister; his sole companion for long years- his last and only relative on earth.” (Poe 658) Could one argue against this plain and almost unshrouded revelation betwixt him and his lover sister? Not unless on purpose. She was dying of genetic mutation and even settled into that knowledge in apathy.
Bringing to life the notion of word choice once again is fact that the house itself is personified by the attribute of sight through the eye like windows. The first reference was a physical appearance, but another reference shortly after the first one in the story gives the house life. It is aware and watching perhaps as the demon tormenting the family, driving them to stay within, or it is the collective spirit of the family looking upon the living heirs to see if they conform to the law of the Usher. In a poem in the story, the windows are said to harbor spirits moving around whimsically to a lutes well “tuned law” (Poe lines 17-20). Latter in the poem the ”evil things, in robes of sorrow, assailed the monarch’s high estate…(Poe lines 33-34) This is obviously a reference to the family at one time being great and noble, possibly even royalty which would further support the presence of incest. The evil things in robes of sorrow, where either the angels of light resuming their true form as tormentors, or maybe the family members themselves as they fully embraced this twisted way of life crossing into the space of unexplainable madness.
While reading this elusive tale, there comes to us a paragraph that many might step over as unimportant, but upon investigation, sheds possibly the most light into the reality of what is happening in The Fall of the House of Usher. A list of literary works, not all fictitious as Poe delighted in referencing sometimes obscure and distant writings of a grim nature, is presented for our opening into meaning. This list of “books which, for years, had formed no small portion of the mental existence of the invalid-were, as might be supposed, in strict keeping with this character of phantasm.” (Poe 661) These were the books chosen and believed upon by the character Roderick and possibly his sister Madeline as well and were read in the story between the Narrator and Roderick at one point. These then are quite vital functioning as a torch alighting the catacombs of meaning in Poe’s world.
First there are the writings of Ververt et Chartreuse of Gresset, a Frenchmen brought up by Jesuit priests and was groomed in academia. He wrote sometimes comical pieces that broke the monotony of the religious atmosphere. I believe this was the key that made light the maters of good and bad, heaven and hell; opening Roderick and his sister up to alternate beliefs based in want rather than reality.
More importantly is the Belphegor of Machiavelli. This is especially important to consider. In this tale, men in hell blamed their wives for them ending up in the flames, and the demon Belfagor goes to earth to investigate and eventually weds a human woman. He discovers that she spends all of his wealth among other things. The demon itself however outside Machiavelli’s story is known as a demon who helps people into sin by way of ingenuity, namely
discoveries. It entices people to stray by helping them invent wonders and get rich from them. It is also known for inciting perverse sex acts including orgies. This is a mountain sized piece of evidence in agreeance with a demonic influenced inbreeding that the House of Usher participated in. This means it is indeed likely that the House of Usher was in danger of crumbling financially through one of its female heiresses in the distant past, and help was sought after by making a deal with the devil. In exchange for riches, the Ushers were now subject to the whims of their counterfeit savior, one of which included sexual relations only being permitted amongst close family members. This was an act of gloating on part of the demon as the suffering of these victims would be greatly prolonged as it does when gene pools grow too weary and thin. Payment was now being demanded in full.
Thirdly, the Heaven and Hell of Swedenborg. This is an interesting projection of meaning as in this work, the man Swedenborg writes a work concerning the true nature of heaven and hell. To summarize, God was never angry with anyone and everyone went to heaven eventually. It also gave information about what it was like on the other side of physical reality describing things like time and marriage in heaven. Swedenborg claimed that all of this information came as a result of direct revelation from God. In reality these claims are inconsistent with the Bible where it is taught that God hates sin and must punish it, but has taken our punishment upon Himself because we could not bear it. Also the claim that angels are married in heaven contradicts the passage in the Bible when the wise men asked Jesus whose wife would a woman be if all of her husbands died before they could grant offspring all the way down to seven brothers which were the husbands being described. Jesus replied that in heaven we will be as the angels are and none will be given in marriage. From a birds eye view, this book that is read between the Narrator and Roderick suggests that it is meant to comfort Roderick because of the great sin he and his family have participated in. And in fact, since there would be no condemnation for him, this led him further to meddle in the occult by believing works outside the Bible concerning the way things are in hell. This is akin to divination and necromancy. Also perhaps Roderick wishes to know for certain the fate of his sister and it can be inferred that he fully expected his sister to return to him after death no doubt due to these writings.
Following, the Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm de Holberg. This is a fantastic story about a man who falls into the earth through a cave and discovers an inner world within the planet. He meets strange creatures that have strange ways including different views of religion and sexuality. The beginning the book is full of its author swearing that its account is most accurate and true. Altogether the traveler spends about 12 years in the inner world and even learns their language and graduates to a kind of dictator which eventually leads to his exile back to the surface of the earth. This story to someone who was searching desperately for insight into the underworld would in fact believe the affirming words of worthiness in account for the story. It is obviously false, but not to Roderick who sees this piece as possibly an alternate to hell. A place bad people go is inside the earth, however inside the earth is not full of fire but just a strange land with strange inhabitants. Roderick wanted to see that his and his sisters destination
was not a place of torment, but just a different location where time moved ever forward much as it did now for him although in the present it was full of dread per the unknown.
Then there is the Chiromancy of Robert Flud. This man is synonymous with the dark arts of none other than witchcraft. He was an advocate of palm reading, secret societies, and inventions. As mentioned above, the Belphegor was a demon of ingenuity which can be applied to Flud as well. Was Flud also under the spell of this hell spawn? After all it was Robert Flud that attempted to invent a perpetual motion machine. A machine that would never work in the physical world due to the second law of thermodynamics. It was a farce that a machine could both create and use energy at the same magnitude at the same instance. This would however be fitting of a lie fed to Flud and also Roderick of the House of Usher. A more blatant piece, Robert Flud abandoned the accepted Christian theology of his day and exchanged them for hidden wisdom that was not perceived by mere men. This would certainly hurl Roderick without restraint to call upon dark forces in times of desperation. And this is precisely what I predict happened to his family years in the past.
Jean d’Indagine and De La Chambre too were occult writers that beckoned their readers into the dark side by summoning spirits in which to gain knowledge or visions. Much of their focus was of chiromancing, or palm reading. In the Christian belief system, to consult with the fallen angels of darkness is one of the most detestable of all sins and is rendered dangerous to its users. Deveining is the act of channeling spirits who trick their counterpart humans into believing they are for their good are in fact for their destruction. They will lie and say whatever is necessary to gain the trust of their gullible humans. This danger is in full effect to the fictitious character of Roderick Usher, sister Madeline Usher, and the House of Usher past days.
These works and even more not noted here grant possibly the best photo paper in which the image the intention of Poe might be developed with. These altogether symbolize a turning away from the orthodox and suggest that the Usher family has placed their trust into the world of darkness. With that being said I believe Roderick was both fearful of the end but at the same time desperately trying to confirm the election of the correct choice he and his kin have purchased with their lives.
Soon we reach a point in The Fall of the House of Usher where Roderick informs the Narrator that his sister Madeline has died. Grief stricken Roderick prepares for the temporary entombment of his sister giving weak reasons for doing so instead of taking her straight away into the ground. At the side of Roderick, the Narrator gazes into the lifeless body of the recent Madeline and more deeply drinks in the notion of the similitude between brother and sister. Roderick perceiving this notes that they were twins. Why would he need to preemptively state this in such an awkward way? As if rehearsed he had an answer ready for all those that wondered at the sameness to the point that it was said of them by Roderick to be due to the nature of twinship. I do not think this is so based on the manner in which Roderick answers for the discrepancy. It would certainly not be farfetched to believe Madeline was Roderick’s twin sister,
but amidst the elements of the true nature of their relationship as laid out her already, this is no coincidence. Instead it is because of the closeness of the two sibling’s branches of their same family tree which now has settled decaying in the front of the mansion next to the boggy pool of water. The resemblance of family had grown so close that it further warranted the family members to become as hermits among the world’s people as it could not be hidden so well any more the dark family secret that now spoke in image and not word. Madeline lay entombed in the belly of the mansion behind a gate of iron.
An inter fiction made up story about a dragon and a night follows these things by way of a book that the Narrator picks up to read to his sorely troubled friend Roderick. This was done in an attempt to sooth his grieving heart. While the tale was being read aloud, the happenings in the story were being heard in real life as there was a breaking down of a door, to which they both heard the sound of wood breaking and splintering. Next there was a screech when the dragon was slain, where a screech also was heard. And finally, a metallic thud of a heavy shield falling to the floor that was mirrored by the same sound perceived by the two of them. I think that Poe took a turn from his intended plot in the name of horror at this point. This scene in inconsistent with the idea of hidden demons and incest, and is instead implying that Roderick’s sister Madeline was entombed alive and the noises were that of her freeing herself from her bonds. During this time period in which The Fall of the House of Usher was published, it was not uncommon to hear news of someone being mistaken for dead and essentially buried alive in the ground. So prevalent was this that it was not unusual for the newly buried to be rigged with an alarm bell attached to a string to alert the land of the living that they had laid one of their own under the earth. This was because the medical profession had a difficult time determining sometimes if someone was in a comma or dead. This subject was the nightmare of many and the subject of some of Poe’s other writings as well. Returning to the point of this section, this turn of events where Madeline returns alive and appears outside the door of the chamber the two friends were in full of blood, then falling upon her brother bringing him to the ground causing the death which he had feared all along. This was a tragic decision made by Poe as the line of reasoning thus far had been sound. This causes one to consider the fact that the end of the story was at hand, and the poor Poe needed to finish strong with an ending that would incite confusion and horror as was his trademark.
I interpreted that Madeline returned to fight against the dragon which was the demon that terrorized her family for so many generation, just as the story about the night and the dragon spoke about. This was more fitting and fell in line with the whole of the story. This is why the two were studying the afterlife and how things would be like in the spirit world. This however is difficult to accept being that this would mean that Roderick would have sent his sister to face unmentionable horror battling against a hell furry in the shadow realm. But if she was destined to pass into that world prior to him, this also could have been an additional source of nervous agitation as well. Above all this view is more desirable than that of a completely different variety wherein all the reference to magic and the dark shadowy realm was for naught, and this was
simply a case of incest where Madeline appears to have died but really was in some sort of comma, and would later fight her way out of her entombment just to fall dead with her brother upon her arrival into the room he was in. This just is too plain and expected. It does not in any way conform to the path that Poe has been leading us down this entire time where he has presented to us corpse like siblings who have dipped their hands and feet into metaphysical unknown. It is somewhat of an inconsistent let down and an anomaly. But playing devil’s advocate, this closing scene also leaves open an alternate interpretation.
At the end of all things, the Narrator describes the formation of a terrifying whirlwind wrought from the increasing torrent that had formed the night Madeline came back from the dead. In fact, after fleeing the House of Usher upon the death of Roderick, the Narrator turns back just in time to see the house consumed and broken by the tornado. This is another name for whirlwind commonly used in this and past times. The Narrator watches as the house falls down and is taken into the tarn of water not to be seen again. After the special judgement of the last of the Ushers, a whirlwind is sent to take care of the rest of that families mark being the mansion that held them all these years. It was like nature correcting what had been twisted and warped all along. What would call for such a dramatic and extensive reckoning if it were not due to the incestuous, and spirit meddling done by the Ushers. It would be understood that this kind of systematic destruction would only rightly be justified if the crimes did match the events that ended the lives of Roderick and Madeline Usher, and swallowed their house up under the water.
To conclude, the evidence found in abundance throughout the text fully supports this essays claim that the real meaning behind The Fall of the House of Usher was the dark secret of inbreeding. We even see a lapse in the concentrated focus of Edgar Allen Poe as he for a moment abandons his train of thought to increase the suspense of the story with the scene with the dragon, making it the anomaly of the tale. Piece by piece, a somewhat exhaustive undertaking has been done to isolate each instance of proof to be presented to the reader for their consideration. Without the facts overwhelmingly pointing in any other direction than this, it is with assurance that, the claim stated afore, is in fact and undeniably true.