The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839

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by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839

To his artistic successors Edgar Allan Poe seemed a man ahead of his time. This was one reason Baudelaire and Mallarme translated him into French, D. H. Lawrence gave him a laudatory chapter in his Studies in Classic American Literature, and Allen Tate wrote his essay "Our Cousin, Mr. Poe." To judge from Poe's most celebrated short story, "The Fall of the House of Usher," the main question is how far ahead of his time he was. Translated to film—as in Jean Epstein's French version in 1929 and Roger Corman's American version in 1960—this gothic tale of "struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR" evokes a Poe who was at least the Alfred Hitchcock of his time, a master of mood superbly weaving his spell for the sake of entertainment. To Allen Tate, Poe was more likely the Schopenhauer or Kafka of his time, a protomodern nihilist going against the transcendentalist grain of his time by creating in Roderick Usher "a mind from which darkness … poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe in one unceasing radiation of gloom." Lawrence, seeing "spiritual vampirism" in Usher's total domination of his sister Madeline, was most interested in the theme of psychological perversity—Poe as a Freudian precursor. In this view Usher's wicked work in the underground crypt—not only sealing Madeline up alive but also screwing shut her coffin lid for good measure—made Poe an explorer in the "horrible underground passages of the human soul." Even T. S. Eliot claimed Poe as an ancestor in his essay "From Poe to Valery," probably because a portrayal like Usher's suits well the ambience of Eliot's hollow men living in a spiritual and moral wasteland.

In addition to these highly credible responses, scholars have also noted various resemblances between Usher and his creator. Usher's physical appearance, featuring "a cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous … lips somewhat thin and very pallid … [and] an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple," could pass as a portrait of the author. Depending on which biographer one consults, Usher's characterization also recalls other similarities with Poe. (Poe's executor, Rufus Griswold, willfully defamed his subject, probably as Poe had wanted.) There is, for example, Usher's manic-depressive temperament, "alternately vivacious and sullen," suggestive of "the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium." Like Poe, Usher is also an artist, a poet whose morbid sensibility brings forth "The Haunted Palace." This poem in turn illuminates a theme that Poe often dramatized in his verse and fiction, the precarious struggle against oncoming madness. And the essential motive for Usher's madness, the imminent death of his neurasthenic sister, evokes the two traumas that Poe suffered at the opposite ends of his life—his mother's untimely death in his early childhood, after his father had abandoned the family, and the invalid weakness that portended the early death of his child bride, Virginia Clemm. Little wonder that in Usher's library his "chief delight … was found in the perusal of… the Vigiliae Mortuorum " (Services for the Dead) in an ancient church manual. One could easily see this story, like many others, as effecting the psychotherapy of art for the grief-haunted, anxiety-ridden writer.

Apart from these levels of meaning, Poe's technical virtuosity has made the work a classic short story. Despite Poe's contempt for allegory, expressed most potently in his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, he unmistakably depicts the gloomy mansion as representing the house of the psyche. With its "vacant eye-like windows" and "a barely perceptible fissure" crossing its wall, the edifice resembles Usher's precarious psychic condition, which is further allegorized in the master metaphor of "The Haunted Palace." Here "the monarch Thought's dominion" is initially "a fair and stately palace" with yellow banners on its roof (Usher's hair), a door "with pearl and ruby glowing" (his teeth and lips), a "troop of Echoes" singing (his voice), and "two luminous windows" revealing "Spirits moving musically/To a lute's well-tuned law." This healthy, happy image gives way, however, to the assault of "evil things, in robes of sorrow," bringing on the displacements of madness—"red-litten windows" for eyes, "discordant melody" for a voice, and "a hideous throng" supplanting the echoes. All that remains is for Usher to enact his madness by premature burial of his cataleptic sibling. In Lawrence's reading this misogynistic action brings on the revenge of the female, as Madeline returns from the crypt just long enough to bring her errant brother and the house itself to their rightful end.

Because of this multiplicity of meanings, ranging from high entertainment to powerful psychological insight, "The Fall of the House of Usher" can satisfy an unusually wide spectrum of responses. This fact, together with Poe's technical mastery of the short story medium, helps explain why "The Fall of the House of Usher" has attained classic status, more so than any other of Poe's fiction.

—Victor Strandberg

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The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe, 1839

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