Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on January 19, 1809, the second son of David Poe, an actor, and his actress wife, Elizabeth Arnold Hopkins. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to New York City, where both parents pursued sporadic acting jobs. Eventually David Poe abandoned his wife, Edgar, and a daughter Rosalie, born in 1810. Edgar’s older brother, William Henry, was living with the Poe grandparents in Baltimore. To support her children, Elizabeth accepted acting parts in Norfolk, Charleston, and eventually in Richmond, where her health rapidly declined. She died of tuberculosis in December 1811. Edgar and Rosalie were taken in by separate affluent Richmond families, Rosalie by the William McKenzies, and Edgar by the John Allans. Poe was never officially adopted into the family but took Allan as his middle name. Critics and biographers generally agree that the traumatic events of Poe’s early life influenced his personality and his writing.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is one of Poe’s most popular short stories. Moreover, analyzing this story provides a basis for understanding Poe’s gothicism and his literary theories. As in all of Poe’s short stories, “The Fall of the House of Usher” concentrates on a “single effect”-in this case, the degeneration and decay of the Usher house and family. In the story’s opening, for example, the narrator comments upon the “insufferable gloom” that pervades his being as he notices the “few rank sedges,” the “white trunks of decayed trees,” the unruffled luster of the “black and lurid tarn,” and the house’s vacant “eye-like windows.” Once inside, the details increase: the “antique and tattered” furniture and the other furnishings that “failed to give any vitality to the scene.”
With the exception of “The Gold Bug” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” Poe’s settings are usually remote in time and space, enhancing the story’s mystery and other-worldliness. “The Fall of the House of Usher” has no definite setting except for the “singularly dreary tract of country” through which the narrator must travel to reach the House of Usher. Suits of armor and subterranean dungeons tend to suggest a European rather than an American locale, but these details were established trappings of the gothic genre. Typical gothic elements in the story include the Usher house, described as “this mansion of gloom” with its dark hallways and draperies, ebony black floors, “feeble gleams of encrimsoned light,” and its eerie burial vault. Complementing these elements are Madeline Usher’s mysterious malady, death, and burial, and her return from the grave, the latter heightened by the thunder and lightning of a violent storm, a gothic technique often adopted by modern films and stories dealing with the supernatural.
Except for a servant, a valet, and a family physician, who appear in the opening scenes and are never mentioned again, the characters of the tale are the unnamed narrator, Roderick Usher, and his twin-sister Madeline, who are the last surviving descendants of the Usher line. Roderick suffers from an oppressive mental disorder and has summoned the narrator to his side in the hope of alleviating his sickness. The narrator arrives at Usher’s house but immediately finds himself overcome by an “insufferable gloom.” Unable to explain away this feeling, the narrator concludes that while “there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.” These observations and conclusions establish the story’s tone and the mystery that will unfold. At the same time, the narrator’s description of the house and its grounds, Roderick’s vastly altered state, and Madeline’s disease not only relate to the story’s themes of decay and death, but also constitute the major elements of the plot. As a survivor of the terrifying fall of the Usher house, the unnamed narrator, somewhat like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, lives to relate the strange and terrifying events he has witnessed.
Poe’s literary skill is readily apparent in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and one of his most vivid techniques is the story’s tone. Poe chooses details that highlight the terror of near madness, premature burial, and death and destruction. Foremost is his description of the gloomy Usher house, and the fissure that seems to extend from the house’s roof to the “sullen waters of the tarn.” Equally important in setting the tone is the violent storm on a night that is “singular in its terror and beauty.” The thunder crashes, the lightning bolts flash, and the wind howls as Madeline makes her way from the tomb to the door of Roderick’s study. Roderick’s and Madeline’s deaths are further heightened as the narrator notes that the “blood-red moon…now shone vividly through the once barely discernible fissure.”
Poe’s literary theory repeatedly stressed art for art’s sake, an idea somewhat removed from the era’s general literary belief that literature should teach or preach a moral lesson. Furthermore, Poe advocated the “single effect” theory in his literary criticism and practiced it within his own poems and stories. It would be difficult to deduce any messages on Poe’s part in his tales of horror and terror. He sought to frighten his readers or to intellectually entertain them, and thus introduces a full range of elements that straddled the line between science and the supernatural.
1. Poe precedes his stories with prefatory quotations that relate to theme and plot. Explain how de Beranger’s quotation applies to “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
1. After explaining Poe’s “single effect” theory, apply it to one or two of Poe’s other stories by narrowing the focus and concentrating on one or two plot details-for example, the story’s opening and closing techniques; the symbols if any; the characters.
For a more comprehensive understanding of Poe’s literary philosophy, one should read his “Philosophy of Composition,” in which he discusses how he composed “The Raven” according to setting, theme, and its single effect. Complementing the “Philosophy of Composition” is his perceptive review of Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales in which he praises Hawthorne while discussing his own philosophy of the short story.