Themes and Characters

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.

Although Madeline Usher appears only three times-once as a phantomlike presence while the narrator and Roderick converse, later in her coffin, and lastly when she returns from the grave-she is a brooding presence throughout the story. Poe describes Madeline as Roderick’s identical twin (an oversight since identical twins cannot be different sexes). She is young, beautiful, but slowly dying from a mysterious malady that even baffles the family doctor: “a settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affectations of a partially cataleptical character.” Moreover, Madeline’s wasting away becomes a symptom of Roderick’s general malaise. Besides being an effective gothic device, Madeline’s return from the tomb relates to a recurring theme in Poe’s short stories-the fear of being buried alive.

The narrative events swirl phantasmagorically around the central character, Roderick Usher. A typical Poe character, Usher borders on melancholy and madness. He suffers from a “morbid acuteness of the senses” so that “the most insipid food was alone endurable”; he can wear only certain types of clothes; all flower fragrances are oppressive; and his eyes are tortured by “even a faint light.” Roderick’s altered state coincides with the plot’s details in that his voice ranges from “tremulous indecision” to “energetic concision” as his actions are alternately vivacious or sullen.

In addition, Roderick’s characterization reinforces the story’s major symbol, the Usher house. The house’s vacant, eye-like windows, the minute fungi hanging in “fine tangled web-work,” and its old woodwork “rotting for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of external air” have their counterparts in Roderick’s eyes, his silken hair with its “wild gossamer texture,” and his being shut up in the recesses of the house. Roderick, the house, and the Usher “race” become inextricably bound together, an idea developed in “The Haunted Palace,” one of Roderick’s favorite poems. The story’s conclusion simultaneously marks the fall of Roderick, Madeline, the Usher house and family

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