The Fall of the House of Usher Humor in "The Fall of the House of Usher"

Humor in "The Fall of the House of Usher"

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There have been numerous interpretations of Poe's most famous story. Some involve the theme of madness, while others view the tale as an allegory of the writer's own subconscious. But what about the possibility that Poe is satirizing the genre of the horror story?

Roughly half of Poe's literary output in short fiction was comic or satirical. He never intended to be considered solely a master of the macabre; the horror tales were to represent just a fraction of what he was capable of. Literary criticism, theory, and poetry were likewise important to him, but at times he seemed to aspire to the hard-edged wit and whimsy of the other great antebellum writers of the South, most of whom were humorists: Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, George Washington Harris, Henry Claw Lewis, Joseph Glover Baldwin, and Johnson Jones Hooper. Stories like "Lionizing," "King Pest," "The Devil in the Belfry," and "Why the Little Frenchman Wears His Hand in a Sling" are all works of humor, and it is worth noting that more than half of the entries in Poe's first published collection of stories, Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840), were comic or satiric.

More important, the comic often seems to intrude on the serious in Poe's writing. So elaborate is his language, so over-the-top his imagery, that G.R. Thompson argues, "Almost everything that Poe wrote is qualified by, indeed controlled by, a prevailing irony in which the artist presents us with slyly insinuated mockery of both ourselves as readers and himself as writer" (p. 7) .

In "The Fall of the House of Usher," Poe introduces the absurd "Mad Trist" at the moment of greatest tension--while a storm rages outside, the Narrator cannot sleep, and Roderick seems on the brink of hysteria. When the Narrator concedes that "there is little in [the book's] uncouth and unimaginative prolixity which could have had interest for the lofty and spiritual ideality of my friend," Poe is mocking three things at once: the book, the Narrator, and himself. What "lofty and spiritual ideality" does Usher, almost raving mad by this point, possess? The use of the word "uncouth" reflects some contemporary criticisms of Poe's own work; the Narrator is thus revealed as a prudish, conservative, boring man, for who else would use such a label as derogatory? At the same time, Poe is clearly contemptuous of the kind of writing the "Mad Trist" represents, and he skewers that style just as he trashed others in his literary reviews. Lines like "Ethelred, who was by nature of a doughty heart," and "Ethelred uplifted his mace, and struck upon the head the dragon, which fell before him, and gave up his pesty breath," are clearly intended as comic; the "Mad Trist" is a spoof of overblown romances. How can one take "pesty breath" seriously?

What is most intriguing, however, is that Poe's tale essentially becomes a version of the ridiculous "Mad Trist." Gone is the subtlety and slow development of the story's first half. Instead, strange noises, seemingly echoing the "Mad Trist" itself, build up to a grotesque climax, in which Madeline--adopting Ethelred's role and bursting through a door--immediately dispatches Usher, while the entire House inexplicably crumbles into the tarn. It as if the very reading of the "uncouth and unimaginative" book plunges the characters into that world.

By the time Poe began writing, Romanticism in Europe was in full swing, noted (and sometimes criticized) for the flamboyant imagery, intense emotions, and melodramatic tendencies of its fiction. These qualities were best displayed in the Gothic literature that arose in England with the likes of Wuthering Heights and that proceeded across the Atlantic. Poe certainly adopted Gothic tropes and stylistic effects, weaving them into his own writing, but the extent to which those choices were in earnest is uncertain. In other words, it is clear that Poe often used the most over-the-top aspects of the Gothic style in order to criticize it, to spoof the very tradition to which he belonged. The finale of "Usher," along with the use of repetition and redundancy in the story (one might compare Joseph Conrad), might constitute a similar self-mockery. Yet, audiences continue to eat this material up as straight horror.

Thompson argues that "Poe's career is the history of his simultaneous exploration of the fearful and the ridiculous" (45). Given the hysterical laughter of Fortunato as he is walled up by his enemy, or the demonic grin of the jester in "Hop-Frog," comedy and horror are never too far apart in Poe's oeuvre.