In the summer of 1838, Edgar Allan Poe left the city of New York, where he faced criticism and minimal recognition, and moved to Philadelphia, where he would soon gain profound success (Quinn 268). Just a year prior to this move, Poe married his cousin, Virginia Clemm, who accompanied him to Philadelphia (Wagenknecht 18). Little is known of Poe’s time in New York other than the fact that he faced severe poverty with total earnings amounting to under one hundred fifty dollars (Peeples 31). Therefore, since Philadelphia shared the prestige with New York as a publishing center, it offered Poe new publishing opportunities and opened the doors to success (Quinn 268). He found this success editing Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine from 1839-1840 and then Graham’s Magazine from 1841-1842 (Peeples 74). During this time, Poe delivered lectures on American poetry, published thirty-six tales including "William Wilson," "The Masque of the Red Death," and "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," and also released a collection of stories in 1840 entitled Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (Peoples 74). It was during this peak of Poe’s publishing career that he published "The Fall of the House of Usher." This tale relates to various aspects of Poe’s life including his occupation as an editor, his battle with alcohol and drugs, his psychological and emotional well-being, and the impact of death on his life and work.
Although Poe found success while working for Burton and Graham, he did not find contentment, for neither Burton’s magazine nor Graham’s met Poe’s expectations of his ideal publication. Poe was frustrated with his career and aspired to edit a magazine of his own, a magazine of a higher class than that of Burton’s or Graham’s (Peeples 75). He strove towards the publication of his own magazine, which he would call the Penn and later change to Stylus, but Poe soon discovered his endeavors would be in vain. He blamed his failure on George Rex Graham, Poe’s employer, who agreed to financially support the Penn, but then withdrew his backing. Although it was during this time that Poe was most successful in terms of publishing his work, he was not financially prosperous. According to Scott Peeples, author of Edgar Allan Poe Revisited, "[i]n 1841, his best earning year, he probably made about $1,100, just above poverty-level wages by the standard of the time" (75).
One aspect of Poe’s life that may have been very influential in "The Fall of the House of Usher" was his drinking habits (Wagenknecht 30). Like many dimensions of Poe’s lifestyle, the severity of his drinking problem is often debated (30). It has been said that a single glass of wine would get Poe drunk and although this may not be exactly accurate, it can be said that one drink would affect him visibly (30). Poe was raised in a drinking society and an inclination for alcohol also seems to have been prevalent in his family (31). Although Poe was certainly a drinker, he did not a revel in the bars or taverns (32). According to Edward Wagenknecht, author of Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind The Legend, Poe "had neither the virtues nor the vices which flourish in the tavern atmosphere" (32). The immediate effect of such drinking habits was the endangerment to Poe’s health, but it also "made him an easy target for his literary enemies throughout the 1840s" (Peeples 77). Thomas Dunn English, in his temperance novel, The Doom of the Drinker, portrays a dishonest drunk evidently based on Poe (77).
In addition to his drinking practices, Poe’s use of opium has also been an issue of suspicion. Much of this suspicion is directly connected to "The Fall of the House of Usher" when Poe likens Roderick’s voice to that of an "irreclaimable eater of opium." According to Wagenknecht, this is "[o]ne of the most widely believed legends about American writer's," but he asserts "the evidence is quite unconvincing" despite the arguments of other biographers to the contrary (41). Wagenknecht bases his position on the testimony of "friends and associates" and the fact that "no medically-trained person who ever saw Poe supports the hypothesis of drug addiction" (42). Arthur Quinn, author of Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, shares Wagenknecht’s position that "Poe was not a drug addict," and supports his argument with an account of an alleged suicide attempt by Poe in 1848 (Wagenknecht 43; Quinn 693). Poe is professed to have taken an ounce of a drug, which was rejected by his stomach. Quinn asserts that if Poe was a drug addict, he would have correctly calculated the proper lethal dosage (694). Quinn also notes the fact that opium was "frequently given in small doses for pain, and Poe may well have taken it in that form" (694).
Yet, another area of Poe’s life scrutinized by critics and readers was his psychological and emotional wellbeing, which also may have been influential in the writing of "The Fall of the House of Usher." Wagenknecht contends that "if [Poe] was mad, his whole generation was mad with him. Fascination with death was typical of the Romantic movement; so was the attraction of incest; so was the association of death with love" (57). Therefore, the historical context in which Poe published his work must be taken into consideration. Scott Peeples argues that Poe’s works were "written to appeal to popular tastes, and some elements that seem bizarre and grotesque to modern readers were in fact conventional" (77). They were written "for a mid-nineteenth-century American audience, whose frames of reference were in many respects different from those of late-twentieth-century readers" (77). Wagenknect then contends that in addition to the cultural understanding of Poe’s subject matter, an exploration of the methods by which Poe presents this material must also be considered (57). Poe’s material and subject matter may have often been aberrant, but his methods were not according to Wagenknect (57). "His heroes analyze their obsessions in a sane, perfectly logical way, and he presents the analysis in terms of a highly finished style" (57). Therefore, Poe’s work is less a reflection of his psychological state and more a reflection of his "immersion in his own place and time" (Peeples 77).
Finally, the theme of death in much of Poe’s work, including "The Fall of the House of Usher," may have been a direct reflection of Poe’s personal encounters with death. According to Peeples, "[e]ven the briefest biographies of Poe emphasize the impact that the deaths of loved ones – women especially – had on his work..." (46). His natural mother died when Poe was only two and his stepmother, France Allan, died in 1829 when Poe was twenty, but the most influential experience of death for Poe was that of his wife, Virginia in 1847 (Wagenknecht 19). Virginia contracted tuberculosis in 1842, which was followed by five years of "physical exhaustion and nervous collapse" for Poe (19). In addition, Peeples examines the cultural shift in general attitudes towards death during the nineteenth century from a focus on the finality and grimness of death to the hope of everlasting life (46). Nineteenth century America "emphasized the hope of keeping alive a person’s spirit and in some ways denied the physical fact of death" (46). Peeples contends that amid this shift, "Poe constructed allegories that explored the death experience" (46).
Poe’s work, including "The Fall of the House of Usher," was influenced
by many experiences throughout his life and also by the culture in which
he lived. His employment at Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine and Graham’s
Magazine in the early 1840’s proved to be one of the most prosperous
times of his publishing career, yet Poe faced many obstacles in his private
life during this time including poverty and alcohol abuse. Although his
alleged alcohol and drug addictions are issues yet to be settled, they
were clearly an influence in his life and work. In addition to his habits
regarding alcohol and drugs, his psychological stability has also been
called into question. The impact of death, which was prevalent throughout
his life, was tremendous. Regardless of the many struggles Poe encounter,
he has emerged as one the greatest Romantic writers in American history.
Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. New York: Coopers Square Publishers, 1969.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Edgar Allan Poe: The Man Behind the Legend.
New York: Oxford UP, 1963.
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When Edgar Allan Poe wrote “The Fall of the House of Usher,” two factors greatly influenced his writing. A first influence was John Locke’s idea of Empiricism, which was the idea that all knowledge was gained by experiences, exclusively through the senses. A second vital influence was Transcendentalism, which was a reaction to Empiricism. While John Locke believed that reality or truth was constituted by the material world and by the senses, Transcendentalists believed that reality and truth exist within the spiritual or ideal world. They believed that the external world was dependent solely on the conscious. Beverly Voloshin suggests that “Poe presents transcendental projects which threaten to proceed downward rather than upward” (19). Here it becomes obvious that there is a strong connection between John Locke’s Empiricism and the resulting ideas of Transcendence, and the powerful effect that they had on Poe and other emerging Romantic writers of that time. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe establishes a new type of literature, one that emphasizes aspects of Empiricism as well as the idea of Transcendence. Poe uses this unique literature to introduce the Usher mansion and its intriguing and very troubled inhabitants.
Locke wrote the “Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” which was published in 1690, and is credited with opening up the period of Enlightenment in Europe. Its strongest connection to Poe was that it had a “late popularity in New England”(Voloshin 18). With this popularity in New England, many of the writers of the time either voiced their approval of Empiricism, or took an opposite stance in their literature. Locke believed that the mind was a “Tabula Rasa,” or blank slate, and that man gained knowledge not by divine revelation or because he possessed innate ideas, but only because his senses allowed him to learn from the external world, which would then put him in touch with reality. The idea of the senses controlling all that we are able to learn and understand became the backbone for the Romantic writers of the 19th century. Certainly, Edgar Allan Poe was part of the intellectual elite who considered Locke’s theory of Empiricism and the idea of the senses controlling all knowledge when contemplating the creation of his own works.
Indeed, the introduction John Locke’s Empiricism changed the way in which man viewed himself, as well as the very ideas behind how knowledge was acquired. As Bevery Voloshin states, these beliefs were obvious, “especially in Locke’s denial of innate ideas and his conception that all knowledge is built up from atomistic sensations through the mind’s power of reflection” (18). Innate ideas were introduced by Descartes’ earlier in the 16th century, and Locke was quick to disagree with the Cartesian doctrine of innate ideas – “the doctrine that man is born with clear and undeniably true ideas” (Sahakian 21). Locke thought that only through reflection could knowledge be gained, and that human beings were not equipped with certain inborn knowledge. “Locke felt that for people to be receptive toward his empiricism, it was necessary to eliminate the stronghold of innate ideas” (Sahakian 36). Only through our experiences (which are driven by our senses) and then reflection could we understand the world around us. Locke considered reflection an internal sense that receives ideas from a source that is within a person (Sahakian 36).
For Locke, knowledge contained two types of ideas: simple ideas that
we experience each day, and more complex ideas, which are created by our
minds (Sahakian 20-21). In addition, he strongly believed that the mind
was passive as it received new ideas. The more complex ideas were
created while we analyzed and compared the simpler ideas. Therefore, our
sensations were the key to acquiring knowledge and information, and then
by using our reflective powers, humans would actually be able to make the
connection between simple ideas and more complex ideas. He considered
that “true knowledge discloses the relationships between ideas and reality”
(Sahakian 21). Therefore, true knowledge was gained solely through the
mind experiencing and then analyzing the situation. This was the point
where simple ideas mated with complex ideas, and lead to "knowing."
In addition, Locke remained a Christian as he was writing his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, although he was somewhat negative toward traditional ideas of Christianity. He maintained that our minds are not capable of comprehending reality, so in turn, we had to use faith where knowledge was not available. Still, while Locke backed a number of Christian doctrines, he also sought to find a meeting point between Christianity and deism. Deism was centered on the thought that God created the universe, but once he was done, he was no longer a part of the world. He then “allowed it to be governed by rationally determined natural law” (Sahakian 34). The idea of a transcendent God, who essentially stays out of this created universe, is based on nature, reason, and also on morality. Nature then has the ability to reveal God through human reason, and then man would be able to find out the will of God by using the intellect. This belief disagrees with miracles or supernatural powers, as it “implies the disruption of natural laws” (Sahakian 35).
Therefore, Locke’s Empiricist psychology basically halted any possibility of transcendence. The ideas behind Empiricism eventually led to the Transcendentalist philosophy, which emerged in the 19th century, as a reaction to the empiricism that Locke introduced. “It was precisely Locke’s theory, in its late vogue in American Intellectual life, against which the Transcendentalists revolted…” (Volshin 18). Transcendentalism began as result of the Unitarian break from Calvinism in the beginning of the 19th century. With the advent of Unitarianism, many began to believe that it was possible to have a closer, more personal relationship with God. On September 19, 1836 a group of Unitarian ministers led by Reverend George Ripley met in Boston (Koster 5). The men were dissatisfied with the Unitarian religion and its reliance on the bible. As a result of the meeting the Transcendentalist movement had begun. The Unitarians and Transcendentalists now had very different views. The Unitarians had a belief in total depravity and predestination, while the Transcendentalists believed that by connecting to the natural world one could become Christ-like or divine.
During this time the Unitarians and Transcendentalists became split
over their views on miracles and Lockean Empericism. The Unitarian
belief was that Christ’s miracles were supernatural. Quite the opposite
was the Transcendental belief that
Christ’s miracles were natural, but appeared supernatural because humans were detached from nature. The Transcendentalists also questioned the reliance on Lockean Empiricism, in which reality or truth is constituted by the material world. Transcendentalists suggest that reality or truth does not dwell in the physical world, but in the spiritual world. Beverly Voloshin states in her article “Transcendence Downward: An Essay on 'Usher' and 'Ligeia'” that "while Locke’s empiricism created a barrier to a transcendent reality, it also pointed the Romantics in a new direction, down into the realm of sensory experience” (19).
Transcendentalists emphasized the ability to become Christ-like or divine. Through a close connection with the natural world and the spiritual world a person could have a true connection with God. This connection would then lead to a personal connection to the oversoul, in which an ultimate truth or reality is achieved. Voloshin states that:
In Nature, Emerson bases his transcendentalism partly on a refurbished empiricism-that is, a purifying of the sensory apparatus…for Poe too sensation is virtually spiritualized, and sensation replaces spirit or reason as the privileged faculty, but for Poe the natural process which promises transcendence is preeminently-and paradoxically-that of decomposition or decay.Herein we see Poe using both theories as the basis for his story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” He takes us into the world of the Ushers, a world that revolves around sensory experiences (from Locke) but also includes transcendence (from Transcendentalism). Poe’s use of language included words which intimated strong sensations, such as “a pestilent and mystic vapour” which is “leaden-hued.” These sensory experiences enable the reader to transcend, although it is downward rather than upward. “The tales have a paradoxical structure in which transcendence is figured as an outward or downward movement, as the method for going beyond the universe of Lockean empiricism is to go through it” (Voloshin 19). Poe brings this out with the narrator’s “depression” and the “unredeemed dreariness of thought.” The language that is used in “The Fall of the House of Usher” presents a connection between the mental and the physical world, which then correlates with the debate between Transcendentalists and the empiricism presented nearly two centuries before.
Koster, Donald N. Transcendentalism in America. Boston: Twayne, 1975.
Sahakian, Mabel Lewis and William S. John Locke. Boston: Twayne, 1975.
Voloshin, Beverly. “Transcendence Downward: An Essay on 'Usher' and 'Ligeia.'” Modern Language Studies 18 (1988): 18-29.
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The beliefs of transcendentalists are continuously filled with bright colors and ideas, and heavenly-like tones. The character Roderick Usher suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses" which refers to his transcendental beliefs (Poe 1465). Usher finds his transcendental connection with the oversoul but instead of brightness he finds gloom with black, white and gray colors. Madeline Usher suffers from "a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character" (Poe 1465). This results from a loss of contact with the physical world, again a characteristic of a transcendentalist, yet negative instead of positive. According to Voloshin "Madeline matches her bother's pallor, but her special mark is red-a faint blush when she is interred and blood on her garments when she emerges" (22). Both characters differ from transcendentalists with their disintegration of the body and mind instead of a rebirth of the body and mind of a transcendentalist.
Because of his connection with the oversoul Roderick Usher finds it difficult to communicate with words, so instead he uses paintings and writings to describe his inner thoughts. Voloshin describes how in "The Haunted Palace," a writing by Usher, he explains his own " fall of order into chaos, reason into madness, innocence into experience" (20). Representing another downward and deathly transcendence is Madeline, who is painted in the "vault or tunnel" by Roderick. In the painting, Roderick portrays Madeline in a tomb, and gives her no chance to have her own beliefs by locking her in. By doing this, Roderick breaks the transcendental belief that says being locked into the past is wrong, and each person should break free to create beliefs of their own.
Just as the transcendence into decay is found in the characters of "The Fall of the House of Usher" it is also found in the actual house and the environment around it. The story begins in the autumn of the year with an extremely gloomy appearance and ends even more gloomy with the "full and blood-red moon" radiating down (Poe 1474). Voloshin compares an example from the environment to the idea of downward transcendence." The narrator's account begins with his feelings of 'depression,' which finds its parallel in the setting: the day is 'dull, dark and soundless,' without ordinary sensory stimulation, and similarly, the scene is oppressive and melancholic, without vitality" (19). Transcendentalists feel as though life and light is found when a complete connection with the oversoul is made, yet Poe displays opposite feelings with the gloomy environment he portrays. Usher's house fills with gloom as it reflects on Usher's illness, or his connection with the oversoul. The house resembles Usher with it's head shape, "bleak walls and vacant eye-like windows" (Poe 1461). The downward transcendence Poe uses to describe the environment and the decaying mind of Usher connect together to give the house it's gloomy outward appearance.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" represents a continuous opposition
to the transcendentalist views. The mockery of the transcendentalist views
are found through the characters, the environment, and the house; instead
of light and life, Poe displays a continuation of darkness and death. The
complete decay of Usher is found in the house as the narrator witnesses
"my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder" (Poe 1474).
Voloshin describes the end of Roderick, Madeline and the house as "falls
together, into the abyss, though in a paradox typical of Poe, Roderick's
destruction may also be that supreme moment of transcendence..." (23).
Poe views the transcendentalist thoughts as much too bright and unrealistic,
and the ultimate transcendence downward displays his opposite opinions.
The decaying mind of Usher, the gloomy environment, and the downward structure
of the house all work together to destroy the traditional bright transcendentalist
ideas, and to complete the final "Fall of the House of Usher."
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Fall of the House of Usher." The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter, et al. 3rd Edition. Vol.1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 1461-74.
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Nevertheless, in this mansion of gloom I now proposed to myself a sojourn of some weeks. Its proprietor, Roderick Usher, had been one of my boon companions in boyhood; but many years had elapsed since our last meeting. A letter, however, had lately reached me in a distant part of the country — a letter from him — which, in its wildly importunate nature, had admitted of no other than a personal reply. The MS. gave evidence of nervous agitation. The writer spoke of acute bodily illness — of a pitiable mental idiosyncrasy which oppressed him — and an earnest desire to see me, as his best, and indeed, his only personal friend, with a view of attempting, by the cheerfulness of my society, some alleviation of his malady. It was the manner in which all this, and much more, was said — it was the apparent heart that went with his request — which allowed me no room for hesitation — and I accordingly obeyed, what I still considered a very singular summons, forthwith.
Although, as boys, we had been even intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend. His reserve had been always excessive and habitual. I was aware, however, that his very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested, of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity, as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognisable beauties, of musical science. I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of 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. It was this deficiency, I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other — it was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the "House of Usher" — an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.
I have said that the sole effect of my somewhat childish experiment,
of looking down within the tarn, had been to deepen the first singular
impression. There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase
of my superstition — for why should I not so term it? — served mainly to
accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical
law of all sentiments having terror as a basis. And it might have been
for this reason only, that, when I again uplifted my eyes to the house
itself, from its image in the pool, there grew in my mind a strange fancy
— a fancy so ridiculous, indeed, that I but mention it to show the vivid
force of the sensations which oppressed me. I had so worked upon my imagination
as really to believe that around about the whole mansion and domain there
hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity
— an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which
had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent
tarn, in the form of an inelastic vapor or gas — dull, sluggish, faintly
discernible, and leadenhued. Shaking off from my spirit what must have
been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building.
Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The
discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole
exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this
was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry
had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still
perfect adaptation of parts, and the utterly porous, and evidently decayed
condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded
me of the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for long
years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the
external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric
gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer
might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from
the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zig-zag
direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.
Noticing these things, I rode over a short causeway to the house. A servant in waiting took my horse, and I entered the Gothic archway of the hall. A valet, of stealthy step, thence conducted me, in silence, through many dark and intricate passages in my progress to the studio of his master. Much that I encountered on the way contributed, I know not how,to heighten the vague sentiments of which I have already spoken. While the objects around me — while the carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode, were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy — while I hesitated not to knowledge how familiar was all this — I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up. On one of the staircases, I met the physician of the family. His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with trepidation and passed on. The valet now threw open a door and ushered me into the presence of his master.
The room in which I found myself was very large and excessively lofty. The windows were long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light made their way through the trelliced panes, and served to render sufficiently distinct the more prominent objects around; the eye, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the chamber, or the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.
Upon my entrance, Usher arose from a sofa upon which he had been lying at full length, and greeted me with a vivacious warmth which had much in it, I at first thought, of an overdone cordiality — of the constrained effort of the ennuyé man of the world. A glance, however, at his countenance convinced me of his perfect sincerity. We sat down; and for some moments, while he spoke not, I gazed upon him with a feeling half of pity, half of awe. Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood. Yet the character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten. And now in the mere exaggeration of the prevailing character of these features, and of the expression they were wont to convey, lay so much of change that I doubted to whom I spoke. The now ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now miraculous lustre of the eye, above all things startled and even awed me. The silken hair, too, had been suffered to grow all unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather than fell about the face, I could not, even with effort, connect its arabesque expression with any idea of simply humanity.
In the manner of my friend I 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 an habitual trepidancy, an excessive nervous
agitation. For something of this nature I had indeed been prepared, no
less by his letter, than by reminiscences of certain boyish traits, and
by conclusions deduced from his peculiar physical conformation and temperament.
His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly
from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in
abeyance) to that species of energetic concision — that abrupt, weighty,
unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation — that leaden, selfbalanced
and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the
moments of the intensest excitement of the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable
eater of opium.
It was thus that he spoke of the object of my visit, of his earnest desire to see me, and of the solace he expected me to afford him. He entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be 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 — a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass off. It displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations. Some of these, as he detailed them, interested and bewildered me — although, perhaps, the terms, and the general manner of the narration had their weight. He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; 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, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.
To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave. "I shall perish," said he, "I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect — in terror. In this unnerved — in this pitiable condition — I feel that I must inevitably abandon life and reason together in my struggles with some fatal demon of fear."
I learned, moreover, at intervals, and through broken and equivocal hints, another singular feature of his mental condition. He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and from which, for many years, he had never ventured forth — in regard to an influence whose supposititious force was conveyed in terms too shadowy here to be restated — an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion, had, by dint of long sufferance, he said, obtained over his spirit — an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence.
He admitted, however, although with hesitation, that much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced 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. "Her decease" he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, "would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers." As he spoke the lady Madeline (for so was she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared. I regarded her with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread. Her figure, her air, her features — all, in their very minutest development were those — were identically, (I can use no other sufficient term,) were identically those of the Roderick Usher who sat beside me. A feeling of stupor oppressed me, as my eyes followed her retreating steps. As a door, at length, closed upon her exit, my glance sought instinctively and eagerly the countenance of the brother — but he had buried his face in his hands, and I could only perceive that a far more than ordinary wanness had overspread the emaciated fingers through which trickled many passionate tears.
The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis. Hitherto she had steadily borne up against the pressure of her malady, and had not betaken herself finally to bed; but, on the closing in of the evening of my arrival at the house, she succumbed, as her brother told me at night with inexpressible agitation, to the prostrating power of the destroyer — and I learned that the glimpse I had obtained of her person would thus probably be the last I should obtain — that the lady, at least while living, would be seen by me no more.
For several days ensuing, her name was unmentioned by either Usher or
myself; and during this period, I was busied in earnest endeavors to alleviate
the melancholy of my friend. We painted and read together — or I listened,
as if in a dream, to the wild improvisations of his speaking guitar. And
thus, as a closer and still closer intimacy admitted me more unreservedly
into the recesses of his spirit, the more bitterly did I perceive the futility
of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness, as if an inherent
positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical
universe, in one unceasing radiation of gloom.
I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher. Yet I should fail in any attempt to convey an idea of the exact character of the studies, or of the occupations, in which he involved me, or led me the way. An excited and highly distempered ideality threw a sulphurous lustre over all. His long improvised dirges will ring forever in my ears. Among other things, I bear painfully in mind a certain singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber. From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vaguenesses at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why, from these paintings (vivid as their images now are before me) I would in vain endeavor to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words. By the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. For me at least — in the circumstances then surrounding me — there arose out of the pure abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvas, an intensity of intolerable awe, no shadow of which felt I ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli.
One of the phantasmagoric conceptions of my friend, partaking not so
rigidly of the spirit of abstraction, may be shadowed forth, although feebly,
in words. A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and
rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without
interruption or device. Certain accessory points of the design served well
to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below
the surface of the earth. No outlet was observed in any portion of its
vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible
— yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in
a ghastly and inappropriate splendor.
I have just spoken of that morbid condition of the auditory nerve which rendered all music intolerable to the sufferer, with the exception of certain effects of stringed instruments. It was, perhaps, the narrow limits to which he thus confined himself upon the guitar, which gave birth, in great measure, to the fantastic character of his performances. But the fervid facility of his impromptus could not be so accounted for. They must have been, and were, in the notes, as well as in the words of his wild fantasias, (for he not unfrequently accompanied himself with rhymed verbal improvisations,) the result of that intense mental collectedness and concentration to which I have previously alluded as observable only in particular moments of the highest artificial excitement. The words of one of these rhapsodies I have easily borne away in memory. I was, perhaps, the more forcibly impressed with it, as he gave it, because, in the under or mystic current of its meaning, I fancied that I perceived, and for the first time, a full consciousness on the part of Usher, of the tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne. The verses, which were entitled "The Haunted Palace," ran very nearly, if not accurately, thus:
In the greenest of our valleys,
By good angels tenanted,
Once a fair and stately palace —
Snow-white palace — reared its head.
In the monarch Thought's dominion —
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair.
Banners yellow, glorious, golden,
On its roof did float and flow;
(This — all this — was in the olden
Time long ago)
And every gentle air that dallied,
In that sweet day,
Along the ramparts plumed and pallid,
A winged odor went away. [page 89:]
Wanderers in that happy valley
Through two luminous windows saw
Spirits moving musically
To a lute's well-tuned law,
Round about a throne, where sitting
In state his glory well befitting,
The sovereign of the realm was seen.
And all with pearl and ruby glowing
Was the fair palace door,
Through which came flowing, flowing, flowing,
And sparkling evermore,
A troop of Echoes whose sweet duty
Was but to sing,
In voices of surpassing beauty,
The wit and wisdom of their king.
But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch's high estate;
(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)
And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed.
And travellers now within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows, see
Vast forms that move fantastically
To a discordant melody; [page 90:]
While, like a rapid ghastly river,
Through the pale door,
A hideous throng rush out forever,
And laugh — but smile no more.
I well remember that suggestions arising from this ballad led us into a train of thought wherein there became manifest an opinion of Usher's which I mention not so much on account of its novelty, (for other men have thought thus,) as on account of the pertinacity with which he maintained it. This opinion, in its general form, was that of the sentience of all vegetable things. But, in his disordered fancy, the idea had assumed a more daring character, and trespassed, under certain conditions, upon the kingdom of inorganization. I lack words to express the full extent, or the earnest abandon of his persuasion. The belief, however, was connected (as I have previously hinted) with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers. The conditions of the sentience had been here, he imagined, fulfilled in the method of collocation of these stones — in the order of their arrangement, as well as in that of the many fungi which overspread them, and of the decayed trees which stood around — above all, in the long undisturbed endurance of this arrangement, and in its reduplication in the still waters of the tarn. Its evidence — the evidence of the sentience — was to be seen, he said, (and I here started as he spoke,) in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls. The result was discoverable, he added, in that silent, yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him what I now saw him — what he was. Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none.
Our books — the 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. We pored together over such works as the Ververt et Chartreuse of Gresset; the Belphegor of Machiavelli; the Selenography of Brewster; the Heaven and Hell of Swedenborg; the Subterranean Voyage of Nicholas Klimm de Holberg; the Chiromancy of Robert Flud, of Jean d'Indaginé, and of De la Chambre; the Journey into the Blue Distance of Tieck; and the City of the Sun of Campanella. One favorite volume was a small octavo edition of the Directorium Inquisitorium, by the Dominican Eymeric de Gironne; and there were passages in Pomponius Mela, about the old African Satyrs and Ægipans, over which Usher would sit dreaming for hours. His chief delight, however, was found in the earnest and repeated perusal of an exceedingly rare and curious book in quarto Gothic — the manual of a forgotten church — the Vigilae Mortuorum secundum Chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae.
I could not help thinking of the wild ritual of this work, and of its probable influence upon the hypochondriac, when, one evening, having informed me abruptly that the lady Madeline was no more, he stated his intention of preserving her corpse for a fortnight, (previously to its final interment,) in one of the numerous vaults within the main walls of the building. The wordly reason, however, assigned for this singular proceeding, was one which I did not feel at liberty to dispute. The brother had been led to his resolution (so he told me) by considerations of the unusual character of the malady of the deceased, of certain obtrusive and eager inquiries on the part of her medical men, and of the remote and exposed situation of the burial-ground of the family. I will not deny that when I called to mind the sinister countenance of the person whom I met upon the staircase, on the day of my arrival at the house, I had no desire to oppose what I regarded as at best but a harmless, and not by any means an unnatural, precaution.
At the request of Usher, I personally aided him in the arrangements for the temporary entombment. The body having been encoffined, we two alone bore it to its rest. The vault in which we placed it (and which had been so long unopened that our torches, half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere, gave us little opportunity for investigation) was small, damp, and entirely without means of admission for light; lying, at great depth, immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment. It had been used, apparently, in remote feudal times, for the worst purposes of a donjon-keep, and, in later days, as a place of deposit for powder, or other highly combustible substance, as a portion of its floor, and the whole interior of a long archway through which we reached it, were carefully sheathed with copper. The door, of massive iron, had been, also, similarly protected. Its immense weight caused an unusually sharp grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges.
Having deposited our mournful burden upon tressels within this region of horror, we partially turned aside the yet unscrewed lid of the coffin, and looked upon the face of the tenant. The exact similitude between the brother and sister even here again startled and confounded me. Usher, divining, perhaps, my thoughts, murmured out some few words from which I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them. Our glances, however, rested not long upon the dead — for we could not regard her unawed. The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death. We replaced and screwed down the lid, and, having secured the door of iron, made our way, with toil, into the scarcely less gloomy apartments of the upper portion of the house.
And now, some days of bitter grief having elapsed, an observable change
came over the features of the mental disorder of my friend. His ordinary
manner had vanished. His ordinary occupations were neglected or forgotten.
He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless
step. The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly
hue — but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out. The once occasional
huskiness of his tone was heard no more; and a tremulous quaver, as if
of extreme terror, habitually characterized his utterance. — There were
times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring
with an oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary
courage. At times, again, I was obliged to resolve all into the mere inexplicable
vagaries of madness, as I beheld him gazing upon vacancy for long hours,
in an attitude of the profoundest attention, as if listening to some imaginary
sound. It was no wonder that his condition terrified — that it infected
me. I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences
of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.
It was, most especially, upon retiring to bed late in the night of the seventh or eighth day after the placing of the lady Madeline within the donjon, that I experienced the full power of such feelings. Sleep came not near my couch — while the hours waned and waned away. I struggled to reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me. I endeavoured to believe that much, if not all of what I felt, was due to the phantasmagoric influence of the gloomy furniture of the room — of the dark and tattered draperies, which, tortured into motion by the breath of a rising tempest, swayed fitfully to and fro upon the walls, and rustled uneasily about the decorations of the bed. But my efforts were fruitless. An irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm. Shaking this off with a gasp and a struggle, I uplifted myself upon the pillows, and, peering earnestly within the intense darkness of the chamber, harkened — I know not why, except that an instinctive spirit prompted me — to certain low and indefinite sounds which came, through the pauses of the storm, at long intervals, I knew not whence. Overpowered by an intense sentiment of horror, unaccountable yet unendurable, I threw on my clothes with haste, for I felt that I should sleep no more during the night, and endeavored to arouse myself from the pitiable condition into which I had fallen, by pacing rapidly to and fro through the apartment.
I had taken but few turns in this manner, when a light step on an adjoining staircase arrested my attention. I presently recognised it as that of Usher. In an instant afterwards he rapped, with a gentle touch, at my door, and entered, bearing a lamp. His countenance was, as usual, cadaverously wan — but there was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes — an evidently restrained hysteria in his whole demeanor. His air appalled me — but anything was preferable to the solitude which I had so long endured, and I even welcomed his presence as a relief.
"And you have not seen it?" he said abruptly, after having stared about
him for some moments in silence — "you have not then seen it? — but, stay!
you shall." Thus speaking, and having carefully shaded his lamp, he hurried
to one of the gigantic casements, and threw it freely open to the storm.
The impetuous fury of the entering gust nearly lifted us from our feet.
It was, indeed, a tempestuous yet sternly beautiful night, and one wildly
singular in its terror and its beauty. A whirlwind had apparently collected
its force in our vicinity; for there were frequent and violent alterations
in the direction of the wind; and the exceeding density of the clouds (which
hung so low as to press upon the turrets of the house) did not prevent
our perceiving the life-like velocity with which they flew careering from
all points against each other, without passing away into the distance.
I say that even their exceeding density did not prevent our perceiving
this — yet we had no glimpse of the moon or stars — nor was there any flashing
forth of the lightning. But the under surfaces of the huge masses of agitated
vapor, as well as all terrestrial objects immediately around us, were glowing
in the unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous
exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion.
"You must not — you shall not behold this!" said I, shudderingly, to Usher, as I led him, with a gentle violence, from the window to a seat. "These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon — or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn. Let us close this casement — the air is chilling and dangerous to your frame. Here is one of your favorite romances. I will read, and you shall listen — and so we will pass away this terrible night together. The antique volume which I had taken up was the "Mad Trist" of Sir Launcelot Canning — but I had called it a favorite of Usher's more in sad jest than in earnest; for, in truth, there is little in its uncouth and unimaginative prolixity which could have had interest for the lofty and spiritual ideality of my friend. It was, however, the only book immediately at hand; and I indulged a vague hope that the excitement which now agitated the hypochondriac might find relief (for the history of mental disorder is full of similar anomalies) even in the extremeness of the folly which I should read. Could I have judged, indeed by the wild overstrained air of vivacity with which he hearkened, or apparently hearkened, to the words of the tale, I might have well congratulated myself upon the success of my design.
I had arrived at that well-known portion of the story where Ethelred, the hero of the Trist, having sought in vain for peaceable admission into the dwelling of the hermit, proceeds to make good an entrance by force. Here, it will be remembered, the words of the narrative run thus: —
"And Ethelred, who was by nature of a doughty heart, and who was now mighty withal, on account of the powerfulness of the wine which he had drunken, waited no longer to hold parley with the hermit, who, in sooth, was of an obstinate and maliceful turn, but, feeling the rain upon his shoulders, and fearing the rising of the tempest, uplifted his mace outright, and, with blows, made quickly room in the plankings of the door for his gauntleted hand, and now pulling therewith sturdily, he so cracked, and ripped, and tore all asunder, that the noise of the dry and hollow-sounding wood alarummed and reverberated throughout the forest."
At the termination of this sentence I started, and for a moment, paused; for it appeared to me (although I at once concluded that my excited fancy had deceived me) — it appeared to me that, from some very remote portion of the mansion or of its vicinity, there came, indistinctly, to my ears, what might have been, in its exact similarity of character, the echo (but a stifled and dull one certainly) of the very cracking and ripping sound which Sir Launcelot had so particularly described. It was, beyond doubt, the coincidence alone which had arrested my attention; for, amid the rattling of the sashes of the casements, and the ordinary commingled noises of the still increasing storm, the sound, in itself, had nothing, surely, which should have interested or disturbed me. I continued the story.
"But the good champion Ethelred, now entering within the door, was sore enraged and amazed to perceive no signal of the maliceful hermit; but, in the stead thereof, a dragon of a scaly and prodigious demeanor, and of a fiery tongue, which sate in guard before a palace of gold, with a floor of silver; and upon the wall there hung a shield of shining brass with this legend enwritten —
Who entereth herein, a conqueror hath bin,
Who slayeth the dragon the shield he shall win.
And Ethelred uplifted his mace, and struck upon the head of the dragon, which fell before him, and gave up his pesty breath, with a shriek so horrid and harsh, and withal so piercing, that Ethelred had fain to close his ears with his hands against the dreadful noise of it, the like whereof was never before heard."
Here again I paused abruptly, and now with a feeling of wild amazement — for there could be no doubt whatever that, in this instance, I did actually hear (although from what direction it proceeded I found it impossible to say) a low and apparently distant, but harsh, protracted, and most unusual screaming or grating sound — the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up as the sound of the dragon's unnatural shriek as described by the romancer.
Oppressed, as I certainly was, upon the occurrence of this second and most extraordinary coincidence, by a thousand conflicting sensations, in which wonder and extreme terror were predominant, I still retained sufficient presence of mind to avoid exciting, by any observation, the sensitive nervousness of my companion. I was by no means certain that he had noticed the sounds in question; although, assuredly, a strange alteration had, during the last few minutes, taken place in his demeanor. From a position fronting my own, he had gradually brought round his chair, so as to sit with his face to the door of the chamber, and thus I could but partially perceive his features, although I saw that his lips trembled as if he were murmuring inaudibly. His head had dropped upon his breast — yet I knew that he was not asleep, from the wide and rigid opening of the eye as I caught a glance of it in profile. The motion of his body, too, was at variance with this idea — for he rocked from side to side with a gentle yet constant and uniform sway. Having rapidly taken notice of all this, I resumed the narrative of Sir Launcelot, which thus proceeded: —
"And now, the champion, having escaped from the terrible fury of the dragon, bethinking himself of the brazen shield, and of the breaking up of the enchantment which was upon it, removed the carcass from out of the way before him, and approached valorously over the silver pavement of the castle to where the shield was upon the wall; which in sooth tarried not for his full coming, but fell down at his feet upon the silver floor, with a mighty great and terrible ringing sound."
No sooner had these syllables passed my lips, than — as if a shield of brass had indeed, at the moment, fallen heavily upon a floor of silver — I became aware of a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation. Completely unnerved, I started convulsively to my feet; but the measured rocking movement of Usher was undisturbed. I rushed to the chair in which he sat. His eyes were bent fixedly before him, and throughout his whole countenance there reigned a more than stony rigidity. But, as I laid my hand upon his shoulder, there came a strong shudder over his frame; a sickly smile quivered about his lips; and I saw that he spoke in a low, hurried, and gibbering murmur, as if unconscious of my presence. Bending closely over his person, I at length drank in the hideous import of his words.
"Not hear it? — yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long — long — long
— many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it — yet I dared not
— oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am! — I dared not — I dared not
speak! We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were
acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow
coffin. I heard them — many, many days ago — yet I dared not — I dared
not speak! And now — to-night — Ethelred — ha! ha! — the breaking of the
hermit's door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangor of the
shield — say, rather, the rending of the coffin, and the grating of the
iron hinges, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault!
Oh whither shall I fly? Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying
to upbraid me for my haste? Have I not heard her footsteps on the stair?
Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart? Madman!"
— here he sprung violently to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables,
as if in the effort he were giving up his soul — "Madman! I tell you that
she now stands without the door!"
As if in the superhuman energy of his utterance there had been found the potency of a spell — the huge antique pannels to which the speaker pointed, threw slowly back, upon the instant, their ponderous and ebony jaws. It was the work of the rushing gust — but then without those doors there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold — then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her horrible and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had dreaded.
From that chamber, and from that mansion, I fled aghast. The storm was still abroad in all its wrath as I found myself crossing the old causeway. Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued — for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure, of which I have before spoken, as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened — there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind — the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight — my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder — there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters — and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the "House of Usher."
“Poe presents transcendental projects which threaten to proceed downward rather than upward” (Voloshin 19). This first paragraph, which describes the sense of decay permeating the House of Usher, is for Poe the promise that “transcendence is preeminently—and paradoxically—that of decomposition or decay” (Voloshin 19). “[t]he narrator's confession that he is ‘unnerved’ by the sight of the House of Usher,” where the nerves are the “connection between consciousness and physicality,” sets up a later connection to the narrator's “depression” which “recasts the experience of Coleridgean dejection or visionary dreariness of Romantic poetry for dejection is a psychological or spiritual state, but depression nicely blends notions of psychological and physical cause” (Voloshin 21). These references to the connection between body and mind strongly suggest the relationship and representation of Roderick as mind, Madeline as body, and their draw to become one, rather than remain apart. Return to text.“A valet, of stealthy step"
Riddel states that “The library…is a pure house of fiction, hermetic yet multi-centered. It represents the ‘madness’ of a will to truth, the obsessive search for the ‘same rare and remarkable volume’ which is at the same time a search for a maximum luxury and security, a doubling of death” (Johansen 1). Johansen in relation to the Haunted Palace and the Mad Tryst shows that “while the library should, ideally speaking, be a place of refuge to the characters, its potential dangers...are actually brought out into the open in Poe’s story. Where one text interferes with or 'crosses' another, that is, where the 'framed' and the 'framing' text come together in a kind of liaison dangereuse, the breakdown of continuity or narrative order is really on the agenda” (Qtd. in Johansen 1-2). Return to text.Roderick Usher
"Roderick himself is associated with the abstract, atemporal, and ideal. Roderick's world is one of abstract pattern in black, white, and gray…He himself is a man of ideality, as the narrator remarks, and as shown in phrenological terms by the expanse of his temples; that is, in the nineteenth-century contrast of ideal and real, Roderick is a person who seeks or perceives the truth beyond merely mundane phenomena" (Voloshin 21). Voloshin continues to state that "Roderick vibrates to all motion and change, the whole outward universe" and being so acutely sensitive creates an awareness in Roderick of all "matter and decay" (21). Return to text.“If ever mortal painted an idea”
Voloshin interprets Roderick’s paintings as an allegory of Roderick’s fate “which gesture towards a transcendence to be achieved through a movement downwards into pure sensation...” (22). Voloshin asserts that the narrator refers to “idea” here in the Lockean sense as being that which “is given in perception or what is present in consciousness, but there is simultaneously the sense of the ideal or mystic, that is, what lies behind appearance or phenomena...” (22). The painting itself while somewhat unrecognizable appears to be a “’vault or tunnel’ (that) presents the real, the tomb of Madeline…The painting in its ‘ghastly and inappropriate splendor’ suggests Roderick’s fear of Madeline. In the recesses of Roderick’s spirit is a fear of the recess which [sic for with] the womb and tomb of life. We might say that Roderick transcends his horror of Madeline and the real not by rising above it but by living through it” (Voloshin 22). Return to text.The Haunted Palace
This poem inserted into the narrative as suggested by Voloshin is a representation of the fall of thought: “It is a fall of order into chaos, reason into madness, innocence into experience” (20). Voloshin continues to explain that this ballad expresses Roderick’s belief in the “sentience of matter…(and) ‘the kingdom of inorganization’” (22) a doctrine, which Voloshin describes as “the organization and rise of thought” (22). More importantly to the finale and fall of the House of Usher, Voloshin points out that “[t]he evidence for the ordering of thought is Roderick’s experience of his own disintegration, as represented for example in his ballad, so that he is brought into relation or harmony with the whole by losing his original ordered and harmonious functions” (22). This explanation strongly supports the ending paradox of Roderick’s necessary demise, which is at the same time his transcendence. Return to text.“An irrepressible tremor”
Poe’s earlier mentioning of the artist Fuseli, accompanied with their mutual “preoccupation with the realm of the subconscious” (Shackelford 19) connect this scene with Fuseli’s famed work The Nightmare. This painting portrays “a beautiful woman, dressed in virginal white, lying prostate upon a bed; an incubus, or demon, crouched maliciously upon the woman’s breast; and a horse’s head with fiery eyes emerging from a shadowy background” (Shackelford 19). “Poe’s narrator assumes the exact position of Fuseli’s dreaming damsel” which, with the narrator’s similar reference to the presence of an incubus on his heart or more superficially his breast, “suggest(s) strongly that his final vision of Madeline and Roderick’s embrace of death is, in fact, a nightmare” (Shackelford 19). Return to text.The Reading of the Mad Trist
The demise of the House of Usher could be interpreted as a direct affect of the narrator’s reading of “The Mad Trist." The reading of the "Mad Trist" also presents itself as an instance of Tzvetan Todorov’s “pandeterminism” “a sort of ‘generalized causality’ that links any event in the universe to (virtually) any other event, making it impossible for anything to happen by sheer chance…reading aloud from a medieval or pseudo-medieval romance may cause events to happen in the real world (or represent a comment on such events)” (Johansen 3). Return to text.Madeline Usher
“As Roderick is aligned with the ideal, his twin Madeline is associated with the material and temporal—in other words, the real. Madeline matches her brother’s pallor, but her special mark is red--a faint blush when she is interred and blood on her garments when she emerges, this matched by the blood-red light of the emergent full moon at the moment of the destruction of the House of Usher” (Voloshin 22). Thus “Roderick’s destruction may also be that supreme moment of transcendence, of passing from the limited self to the unlimited whole, which Roderick has been seeking” (Voloshin 23). Return to text.Blood Red Moon
During the final destruction of the House of Usher, "the breakdown of order is present on a cosmic as well as individual level--the visual correlate of the all-encompassing madness being the final breakthrough of the (feminine) 'full, setting, and blood-red moon''' (Johansen 2). The moon Johansen continues is "the planet of madness" which represents the chaotic change from a masculine to feminine text (Johansen 2). It is in fact the feminine light of the "blood-red moon" that spills through the fissure of the house of Usher and seems responsible for it being torn asunder. Return to text.
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Quinn, Patrick F. “A Misreading of Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House
of Usher.’” Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and
Poe. Ed. G.R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke. West
Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue UP, 1981. 303-12.
In this article, Quinn challenges G.R. Thompson’s claim in his book Poe's Fiction:Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (1973) of the narrator’s unreliability. As an explanation for the narrator’s shortcomings Thompson offers the idea that perhaps Poe intended for us to view the narrator as unreliable. Furthermore, Thompson insists that the story itself is mainly an account of the narrator’s mental deterioration, a contention that Quinn cannot uphold without sufficient evidence, of which he claims there is none. Quinn attempts to prove here that it is perhaps the critic and not the narrator whose veracity should be in question. He claims that “Having long believed that Poe wanted his readers to give credence to, indeed to the [sic] identify with, the visitor to Usher’s house, and finding myself unpersuaded by the opposite proposals Thompson’s book, I should like to review the matter in some detail” (303-04). Not only does Quinn not concur that the narrator was acting in a “frenzy of terror,” or that he was “completely untrustworthy,” but he finds Thompson’s reading to be contradictory in regards to his own statement of theme. Quinn contends that only if the narrator’s mental faculties are fully functioning can there be any grain of truth to Thompson’s thematic theory and critical examination of the text.
Quinn then testifies against Thompson’s versions of the house’s appearance, the narrator’s own experiences, what happened to the house, and even Thompson’s take on the story’s theme. The crux of Quinn’s disagreement with Thompson’s reading ultimately lies in their very different takes on the narrator’s sanity. By dissecting Thompson’s critical analysis of the story, Quinn is setting up his final point in an effort to undermine what he sees as a flawed reading. Quinn relies on an assumption concerning Poe himself and claims that “Surely it was as obvious to Poe as it is to us that a deranged mind, mired in its own subjectivity, is unable successfully to perceive objective reality, much less cope with it. There would be no point, ironical or otherwise, in mocking such inability” (312). In this case, it would only make sense that Poe intended the narrator to be lucid and sane, and in order to substantiate Thompson's thematic claims the stability of the narrator is essential.
Quinn, Patrick F. “’Usher’ Again: Trust the Teller!” Ruined
Eden of the Present, Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe. Ed.
G.R. Thompson and Virgil L. Lokke. West Lafayette, Indiana:
Purdue UP, 1981. 341-52.
Quinn pits his reading of “The Fall of the House of Usher” against readings done by G.R. Thompson, who in turn claims to be indebted to an essay about “Usher” by Daniel Abel. He points out that while Thompson no doubt admires Abel’s reading, he does not, in fact, build on Abel’s proposals and ideas, but instead veers off into original territory and gives a reading that Quinn finds far less convincing than Abel’s. Quinn summarily attacks Thompson’s stance that the narrator (whom he sees as the story’s key figure) is unstable and therefore gives an unreliable account of his experiences throughout. Conversely, Abel feels that Usher himself is the most important figure in the tale, and that it is really a “contest between life and death for the possession of Roderick Usher”(qtd. in Quinn 342). This contradiction of theory makes Thompson’s reliance on Abel’s essay seem misguided.Shackelford, Lynne P. “Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’” Explicator (Fall 1986):18-19.
Point by point, Quinn deconstructs Thompson’s reading and questions his statements of Poe’s intentions. For instance, Thompson’s description of the house as a “death’s head” and a “skull-like face” do not sit well with Quinn, who hotly contends that Poe may have intended the reader to have this dark image of the house, but that he did not dwell endlessly on this image as Thompson suggests. Rather than the narrator allowing himself to succumb to his fears, Quinn feels that each source of terror on the final night of the tale provides the narrator with an opportunity to prove his level-headedness and to keep his wits about him. The narrator is confronted on three separate occasions with situations that could easily have driven him to distraction, and yet he remains sane and reasonably calm, making him a very reliable source for the reader.
Shackelford argues that Poe is continually urging his readers to see the narrator’s experiences as if they were merely a dream. She makes this argument through demonstrating the relation between what happens in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and a reference to a painting by Fuseli. The narrator’s final encounter with the Usher twins just before the destruction of the house is a terrifying situation akin to a nightmare. Shackelford proposes that the components of Fuseli’s (appropriately titled) painting The Nightmare are reassembled here and personified in the narrator’s terror. “The Nightmare is an unforgettable, to many viewers even shocking, canvas composed of three key elements: a beautiful woman, dressed in virginal white, lying prostrate upon a bed; an incubus, or demon, crouched maliciously upon the woman’s breast; and a horse’s head with fiery eyes emerging from a shadowy background” (19). According to Shackelford, Poe may have alluded specifically to Fuseli and compared his art to that of Usher because “Fuseli shared Poe’s preoccupation with the realm of the subconscious” (19).
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Bieganowski, Ronald. “ The Self-Consuming Narrator in Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ and ‘Usher.’” American Literature 60 (May 1988): 175-187.
This article discusses the importance of the narrator in two of Poe’s stories, “Ligeia” and “Usher.” Bieganowski suggests that “as the reader becomes an active mediator containing the psychological effects of the story’s utterance, so the narrator’s imagination records a series of psychological effects that constitute the action of Poe’s text. To an important extent, some of Poe’s most memorable stories record in vivid fashion the sequence of responses experienced by the narrator” (178). Poe’s narrators themselves are “engaged by the power of language. Among Poe’s stories, ‘Ligeia’ offers a clear, important instance of this strategy and becomes, in turn, particularly suggestive of a way of reading ‘Usher’” (178). The narrator’s behavior and the way that he perceives his surroundings changes once he comes into contact with a situation that makes it easy for his imagination to wonder into an unrealistic situation. In relation to “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Bieganowski argues that “the narrator, from the inciting incident on, has been led through the story’s events by Roderick’s imaginative creations: his letter, music, painting, poetry, his ‘fantastic yet impressive superstitions.’ When we trace what happens to the narrator, the story appears to be a series of utterances taking on palpable shape for the narrator, ultimately becoming the very House of Usher and its fall” (182). The narrator is led through the story by a not real power that causes him to make the real world look more horrible than what it really is, and guides the reader into a world of pictures that are more thrilling than the real world.Johansen, Ib. “The Madness of the Text: Deconstruction of Narrative Logic in ‘Usher,’ ‘Berenie,’ and ‘Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.’ ” Poe Studies 22 (June 1989): 1-9.
Bieganowski sketches out the journey describing how the narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is self consumed. First Bieganowski expresses that the narrator and the reader have been led by the imagination’s power to create images more horrible then what is actually there in the physical world. “While Roderick’s written word starts the narrator on his journey through a ‘soundless day,’ it is the reflected image of the house in the tarn that represents the narrator’s destination” (183). The narrator tries to relieve the gloom that he sees by attempting to impress the mind with a sense of power. “To counter the effect of ‘the hideous dropping off of the veil’ that facing natural objects requires, the narrator rearranges the particulars of the scene, so veiling nature with poetic sentiment” (183). Next Bieganowski notes that “the mere idea of teasing the physical appearance of the mansion into ‘aught of the sublime,’ the narrator childishly, as the text suggests (impishly), gazes at the reflected, watery appearance of the house. Hovering at the ‘precipitous brink’ of the tarn, the cloud of feeling assumes a form, a palpable shape, so much so that the narrator can announce that ‘in this mansion,’ into the image mirrored in the water, will he travel through fancy” (184). The collapse of the house is the story’s final action. Bieganowski concludes that “Only at the end does the narrative focus lengthen to reveal that for the duration of the story the narrator, still standing at the tarn’s edge, has been contemplating the image of the house reflected in the water” (184).
In this essay Johansen intends “to discuss briefly three texts by Poe in which the theme of madness plays a prominent part, not only on a thematic level, but also because this ‘madness’ seems to have left its impress or imprint on the very textuality of the text(s) and thus seems to disrupt the stability of the narrative system itself”. In particular, I shall concentrate on ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839), insofar as this text makes the most audacious use of inserted texts, quotations, learned references, mise en abyme effects, and so forth, leaving the overall impression of a texuality gone wild” (1). In Poe’s stories the narrator's make-believe thought grows as he reads from different books in the library.Voloshin, Beverly. “Transcendence Downward: An Essay on ‘Usher’ and ‘Ligeia.’” Modern Language Studies 18 (1988): 18-29.
In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Roderick Usher’s studio, and the books he and his visitor studies show the sadness of the character of the hero. The library therefore has an emblematic function. Johansen reports “Where one text interferes with or ‘crosses’ another, that is, where the ‘framed’ and the ‘framing’ text come together in a kind of liaison dangereuse, the breakdown of continuity or narrative order is really on the agenda” (2). Johansen first shows that “The Fall of the House of Usher” stresses the conversation of the narrator and of Usher. After the interaction with Usher in his studio the narrator is then called a madman. The characters then tend to become each other’s exact images. Finally Johansen expresses that at the end of the story “the breakdown of order is present on a cosmic as well as an individual level—the visual correlate of the all-encompassing madness being the final break through of the (feminine) ‘full, setting, and blood-red moon’” (2). The moon is the planet of madness, but at this point there is a weakening return to normal as the tarn swallows the House of Usher.
In this essay Voloshin describes how Poe reacts to two primary ideas: Locke’s empiricism and Emerson’s Transcendentalism. She explains that “the empiricist psychology of Locke, by leaving knowledge on the plane of sensation and reflection, seemed to block all avenues to a transcendent reality, conceived in either Christian or Platonic terms, and it was precisely Locke’s theory, in its late vogue in American intellectual life, against which the Transcendentalist revolted” (18). Transcendental beliefs, especially in Emerson, retained “the hierarchical meaning of transcendence in his model of higher uses of nature, but he also argues for the beauty and value of the common and for the inherent meanings of… devalued phenomena…” (19). “Poe presents transcendental projects which threaten to proceed downward rather than upward. The tales have a paradoxical structure in which transcendence is figured as an outward or downward movement, as the method for going beyond the universe of Lockean empiricism is to go through it” (19).
Voloshin illustrates the narrator’s feeling of depression is equal to the to dull, dark and quiet scene. The scene is cruel, sad, and without energy. Voloshin then shows how the narrator wants to believe in natural causes even with effort to connect with nature’s higher powers. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” Roderick is in a mindset from which darkness pours forth the moral and physical universe in one constant wave of darkness. Voloshin concludes that “Roderick’s destruction may also be that supreme moment of transcendence, of passing from limited self to the unlimited whole, which Roderick has been seeking. Thus the intractable materials of Roderick’s transcendental project, including Madeline, are absolutely necessary to its fulfillment” (23).
In this critical review Diane Hoeveler suggests Poe’s intention in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is to implore its readers to question each mysterious aspect of the House of Usher. Hoeveler claims that our human nature provides us with the motive to follow the lead of Poe and to try to discover “the heart of meaning that must exist somewhere within the confines of the text” (386). In the essay Hoeveler argues that “Poe suggests that both history and religion can only be understood primarily as discourse systems, dialogical constructs that sacrifice male strength and creativity to the female-embodied powers of life and death, in other words, the cyclical nature of generation” (388). Hoeveler posits that the Usher twins are a product of Poe’s wild imagination. Their abstractive existence is at the end of a “cultural cycle.” They are simultaneously hyperaware of the “fictional nature of both history and religion” (388). It is because of the knowledge that, “like their creator, they longer have the will or desire to sustain themselves. They only have the energy to self-destruct” (389). Poe’s tale becomes a conduit for the “extremely cryptic” expression of his “frustration and anger toward the female” domination in the battle between the physical and the cerebral (389). The self-created “fantasy of the purely masculine” universe that is Roderick’s utopian fantasy is, in the end subverted by his “self-projected fantasy of a female double”(389). Hoeveler suggests that Poe’s implication is that this self-defeating “compulsion…informs all institutionalized religions”(389).
Hoeveler demonstrates her thesis by deconstructing the religious symbolism employed in the tale; the first symbol Hoeveler deconstructs is Roderick Usher’s favorite “the Vigiliae Mortuorum” (386). She posits that the books' iconographic and ideological importance is the main reason for using this particular text. Her impetus is to prove that “there must be a hidden meaning implicit in the use of the book” (387). A second point of support is built upon the repressed misogynistic impulses continually evidenced by Roderick in the text. She points to common parallels between this type of repressed anger and the impetuses’ of “all institutionalized (and presumably patriarchal) religions as we have known them” (389). Hoeveler makes a third point regarding the implied unnatural relations between Roderick and his sister Madeline, a strange, unnatural “family that never put forth collateral branches” (390). Hoeveler explores the characteristics of Madeline as they relate to Roderick’s own physical traits. This leads to her next observation on the author’s textual commentary, a dialogical discourse on worship, which ultimately provides the individual with false sense of security. Religion, Hoeveler points out, functions primarily to “ institutionalize female power and status” (391). Roderick through his worshiping is ultimately motivated by a need for self-preservation-the preservation of the patriarchy.
The next point Hoeveler makes is her largest in regard to the readers' understanding of Roderick Usher as an abject hero. She argues that Poe employs the literary device of polyphony in the novel to set up of Roderick as the “abject hero.” This final point leads her to a transition into the second section of the essay where she explores the relationship of Roderick to Madeline. In this section Madeline is described as a created projection of the diseased mind of her brother. Hoeveler states that the house itself is like a self-created grave, wherein Roderick “ literally walls his abjected self/his ‘sister’ into”(394). All of this is related to Roderick’s narcissistic arrogance. She concludes the second major section with an explanation of the symbolism of Roderick’s reading as being on par with “ a purification rite” (394). Roderick is, according to Hoeveler operating from a position of fear. She supports this claim with critical support from a number of credible sources. Her final section focuses on Roderick and his validation of fear, and the purging of the unclean desire. In the end he inscribes his own madness. The obvious conclusion is that Poe has used the mind of the reader to allow such a creation to exist, if only for a while.
In her essay on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Louise Kaplan explores both the story’s “currents and undercurrents” as well as the authors’ impetuses for writing the classic horror story (47). She structures her Freudian argument under the context of sexual perversion. Kaplan posits, “[p] erversion is a complex strategy of mind”; this psychoanalytic finding is one Poe, knowingly and deliberately, employed in his own life and in several of his tales (46). She states in her thesis that the intention of the essay is to exhibit “Poe’s mastery of the perverse strategy, with its mystifications and concealments, its ambiguous relationship to the moral order, [and] its pretense of a fundamental antagonsim to representational reality” (47). Her argument is “guided by the principles of the perverse strategy,” and includes her own “interpretations of the moral and aesthetic plights of the artist protagonist, Roderick Usher...” (47).
She begins her argument suggesting that the strange “specters of incest and necrophilia [that] hover in the background” are representational of the “sexual aberration” of perversion (47). Poe, Kaplan claims, employs these images intentionally because they transgress the “laws of statics, symmetry, and proportion” (48). These intentionally created “illusions…are employed to preserve the borders of the moral order, even as they render a picture of moral disintegration”; this is Poe’s perverse strategy (48-9). She continues to build her argument focusing on the intentional undercurrents of the poetry and music created by Roderick Usher, which “enable…moral nihilism” (51). Kaplan next claims that Poe’s “perverse strategy is an unconscious method that regulates the life of Desire…”and does not undermine authority; rather, it "is an attempt to preserve the moral order" (52). Her argument is extended into a deep exploration of the characteristics of perversion. Kaplan continues to suggest “there must be an undercurrent beneath the current so easily and ingeniously detected by our reasonable narrator” (58). In the conclusion she reiterates the various points of her argument and supports them with popular and similar critical views. Overall, the essay is cogent and well developed. Kaplan makes a number of textual discoveries and brings in appropriate critical support where necessary.
In her essay on “The Fall of the House of Usher” Leila May focuses on the implications of the brother-sister relationship in 19th century America. May establishes a context by exploring the “complicated and contradictory conception of the [larger] family" in the early nineteenth century (388). May frames her argument by examining the environment of the typical post-industrial, nuclear family paying specific attention to the “typical” values and mores of the day. She highlights the many contradictions in the “hyperreal and hypersensitive organization” that comprised the family unit (388). May exposes the “demarcated and strictly disciplined” roles, which had to be maintained in order to reinforce the patriarchal standard. Specifically, May focuses on the role of the sister as the “sanctorum of moral virtue”(389). May argues that in “literature of the fantastic” such as Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher" "the principle of individuation itself collapses, taking along with it the very possibility of the family and the social system that it sustains, and prefiguring a release and discharge of feminine desire in new and revolutionary forms--hinting at the subversive forms of sisterhood that may have been precisely the ones that lay hidden and smoldering in the deepest fears of Victorian patriarchy itself ” (390). Madeline is symbolical of the Victorian sister; her body “is the very site upon which [the] ideology [of patriarchy] is enacted” (394). Her sonorous uprising in the end of story from her inscribed and literal entombment within the House of Usher causes complete chaos and total destruction of the family structure.
In her argument, May establishes an analogous connection between the structure of “the House of Usher” and the typical 19Th Century family. She points to several contemporary “Victorian” novels that place great emphasis on the role of the sister to uphold the strict social standards of the era. May next suggests that the image of Roderick Usher mirrors the House. She acknowledges how both of them are “in the same terms of degeneration” (392). Her argument crests with the declaration of what she sees as the reason why the story functions so well. May posits that the “unraveling (hierarchical) distinctions between male/female” is the reason the story is at once “simultaneously terrifying and…liberating”(393). May posits that Poe was aware of what he was doing when he wrote this story. This is evidenced in the emphasis placed on the “terrifying” aspects of the increasing character tension. May highlights another important theme in the story: the symbolic sibling relationship itself and what it seems to represent. She points to the “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature” that phenomenally occur between the Roderick twins (393). May makes her final supportive point regarding the nature of the “nineteenth-century bourgeois domestic ideology” that she sees being textually represented and physically embodied in the sister, Madeline. Madeline-the nineteenth century every-sister is the focal point for the “perpetration of patriarchy” (394). Through the textual act of burying her in the “foundation of the familial edifice” Madeline is momentarily silenced. The isolation, while temporary, ends and with it the so to does the House.
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The Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore
Inc. 21 March 2000 [http://www.eapoe.org/]
The thesis of this specific essay takes into account “[f] irst, Poe's theses regarding the creation of art, particularly the formulation of his own writing…[which is examined] in the light of Poe's own spirituality. Secondly, and appropriately, this essay…introduce[s] Poe's treatment of the doppleganger, the divided self… as revealed in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher...’” Grantz illustrates how “Poe …concentrates both character and plot by adhering to his literary credo.” In the story Poe, “describes…(his) own mind, the mind of God, and the mind of the tale's protagonist, Roderick Usher.” The argument is divided into six sections.
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