The Fall of the House of Usher Summary

Edgar Allan Poe

The Fall of the House of Usher

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The Fall of the House of Usher Summary

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, published anonymously in 1818, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which first appeared in 1897, are likely the best-known examples in novel form of gothic horror fiction. Appearing between them in 1839 was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” one of the short story exemplars of the genre. Gothic fiction’s goal is to elicit fear in its readers. The focus is on mystery, isolation, and the horrific side of life. Often gothic fiction takes the form of ghost stories and its settings include dilapidated homes with hidden passageways and other trappings of the supernatural. Mood is emphasized over specific geographical location. “The Fall of the House of Usher” could take place anywhere; no specific location is identified. A character is placed in an isolated location away from his familiar surroundings. Eerie and threatening are the key components.

As Poe’s story opens, the anonymous narrator has arrived at the home of an old friend, Roderick Usher. He has been summoned from afar by a letter requesting his assistance in a time of illness. The narrator notices a crack running down from the top of the house in a subtle bit of foreshadowing. Roderick is hypersensitive to sensory stimulation, such as light and sound, and suffers from anxiety as well. Further adding to the foreboding atmosphere is the presence of Roderick’s twin sister, Madeline, who lapses into coma-like trances. The narrator reads to Roderick, admires his paintings, and listens to him play his guitar. Upon singing “The Haunted Palace,” Roderick shares his belief that his home, due to its physical construction and plant life around it, is alive.

Shortly, Roderick tells his guest that his sister has died and before the burial, they should place her body in the family tomb within the house for a period of two weeks. They do so, a storm starts up, and a nearby lake appears to glow even though there is no lightening. This echoes the look of Roderick’s paintings. The narrator tries to calm Roderick by reading him a story of a knight who enters a hermit’s home with the hope of finding shelter during a storm, and who encounters a golden palace with a dragon. As the story of the knight entering the house continues, sounds of ripping and cracking are heard in Roderick’s house. Roderick quickly begins to lose control, saying he believes his sister who was alive when they entombed her, which Roderick feels he was aware of, is making the noises.

Madeline then appears as the bedroom door blows open. She falls onto Roderick and they both hit the floor, dead. Witnessing this, the narrator flees in terror, but pauses and looks back to find the moonlight illuminating the house. He sees that the crack he noticed upon his arrival is beginning to widen, quickly leading the house to split in half and sink into the lake.

Throughout the story, Poe’s use of literary devices furthers the eerie mood and somber tone. His use of personification supports Roderick’s belief that the house is alive. It has a soul, living vegetation around it, and Poe includes the classic use of eyes as a symbol. Upon closer examination, it is apparent that he also uses descriptive words to make the personified items seem evil or dark. The trees are decaying, the soul depressed, and the eyes, not bright, but vacant. All of this implies that the dwelling is close to its demise. The house is used as a metaphor for the Ushers and their inevitable demise. There are no members of the Usher family who live outside of the house, and the physical gloominess within mirrors the depressed nature of the humans, including to an extent, the narrator who, while not family, feels its effects nonetheless.

Poe uses symbolism to great effect, with the story taking place in the fall when all is withering. Roderick and Madeline are physically decaying like everything around them. His paintings are mostly devoid of light, and the lake, or tarn, is dark except when it emits an unnatural glow near the end of the story. Poe makes use of the traditional Gothic device of threatening, dangerous weather moving in when the mental status of the characters crumbles, much like the house will in short order. The narrator, due to nothing more than being present in the house, experiences psychological anguish as well, even being called a madman by Roderick. The narrator, however, is not joined to the house as are the siblings and is able to escape, presumably with his mind and body both still intact.