"The Fall of the House of Usher" begins with one of Poe's most famous descriptions: "During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year . . . " The Narrator is describing his arrival on horseback at Roderick Usher's isolated abode one dreary evening. Immediately he feels an irrational fear upon viewing the huge, decrepit house. Among the mansion's singular features are windows which resemble eyes and a fissure in the stone zig-zagging its way through the faÃ§ade.
We learn that the Narrator and Usher were childhood friends. Recently, the Narrator received a letter from Usher. In the letter, Roderick described a certain "mental disorder" that was plaguing him, and he communicated a desperate desire to see his old companion. Due to the urgent tone of the letter, the Narrator never thought twice; without hesitation he obeyed this "very singular summons."
Usher, the Narrator informs us, was always excessively reserved and was somewhat mysterious. He belongs to an ancient family that has never put forth "an enduring branch." There are hints of incest over the years, but more important is the fact that Usher is now the only male descendant of the line. Tellingly, he lives not with a wife but with his sister, Madeline.
Musing on the Ushers' "peculiar sensibility of temperament"--this is, after all, a family which has over the ages served as patron to the arts, charity to the poor, and lover of music--the Narrator surveys the house. He notes how old it appears. He sees that individual stones seem on the verge of crumbling while the edifice as a whole appears remarkably stable (despite the fissure). He rides down a causeway to the entrance, over a "tarn" (a small mountain lake) that borders the construction. A servant takes his horse, and a valet escorts him into the house.
He goes through a Gothic archway, then up a staircase, where he meets the sinister-looking family doctor. Finally, he enters his old friend's studio, a dark and cavernous room. Usher arises from a sofa on which he has been lying and welcomes the Narrator with "overdone cordiality." Meanwhile, the Narrator notes that all of Usher's usual facial features--pale skin, thin lips, large and liquid eyes, web-like hair--have become exaggerated. The skin is now "ghastly" in hue, and the hair floats wildly over his forehead. Moreover, Usher seems incoherent and excessively nervous, bouncing back and forth between vivacity and depression.
He tells the Narrator of his illness, a "nervous affection" which has resulted in a few bizarre symptoms. For one, Usher's senses seem now incredibly acute. He cannot bear most food. He can only wear certain types of fabric. The smell of flowers makes him sick. His eyes cannot stand light. And almost all sounds save those of certain stringed instruments--like the guitar he sometimes plays--"inspire him with horror." All in all, the man seems overwhelmed by his malady, obsessed with the idea of fear. He calls the source of his fear a "grim phantasm."
The causes for this affliction are mysterious. One possible factor Usher mentions is the failing health of his beloved sister. The Narrator himself catches a glimpse of Madeline passing through a hall. She is bound to die, we learn, and the notion of being "the last of the ancient race of the Ushers" fills Roderick with dread and sorrow.
Still, the two boyhood friends do try to make the days pass decently. The primary reason the Narrator is even at the House is to provide some company if not also some cheer. He watches while Roderick paints. One of the paintings depicts the interior of a long vault or tunnel, clearly well below the earth, with no source of artificial light, yet bathed in "a flood of intense rays." Another pastime of Usher's is playing guitar. Due to his excitement and nervousness, he seems to excel at playing it. He revels in strange improvisations, and he often sings along.
One of these sets of verses, called "The Haunted Palace," tells of a beautiful castle in a green valley, inhabited by "the monarch Thought." Spirits move, and troops of "Echoes" sing the wisdom of their king. It is a kind of paradise. But "evil things" invade, reducing the palace to a place of "discordant melody."
Roderick also spends time in intellectual pursuit. He has become fixated on the idea of the sentience of all "vegetable," as well as even inanimate, things. He pores over books in his vast library, speaks of a living "atmosphere" about the waters and walls of the house.
When Madeline finally dies, he decides to preserve her corpse for a fortnight in one of the building's vaults. It seems a reasonable precaution, given how far away the family burial grounds are, so the Narrator accepts the idea.
In the process of this "temporary entombment," the Narrator gets his first good look at the face of the deceased. He is struck by how similar in appearance she and Roderick are. He learns that they were twins and that there had always existed some kind of intangible bond between them.
In the days that follow, the Narrator notes the increasing madness of Usher: his skin grows whiter, his ordinary occupations are forgotten, and he roams through the house or stares into space for hours and hours. What frightens the Narrator even more is that he too is beginning to feel "infected" by Usher's condition. The Narrator fears that he too may be going mad.
One night, when a storm rages outside and the Narrator is too terrified to sleep, he and Usher sit together in a bedroom and read from the "Mad Trist" by Sir Launcelot Canning. It is a ridiculous old romance about a knight's battle with a dragon. In it, Ethelred, the hero, breaks down the door of a hermit's abode, making quite a noise. But when the Narrator reads aloud the account of this act, he thinks he hears the same kind of noise described in the book--"the very cracking and ripping sound Sir Launcelot had so particularly described."
Trying to calm himself down, the Narrator continues reading to his friend, arriving at the spot in the story when Ethelred finds a dragon inside instead of the hermit and then promptly slays it. The dragon lets out a horrible shriek, and as the Narrator reads the description he hears a "most unusual screaming" sound. Terrified, he looks to Usher, who has now positioned his chair to face the door of the room and rocks from side to side while murmuring to himself.
The Narrator returns to the book, in which Ethelred removes the dragon's corpse and tries to grasp the shield on the wall (apparently the object he has been seeking). The shield, however, falls at his feet, making a "terrible ringing sound." Yet again, the Narrator hears with his own ears the same kind of noise. Finally Usher addresses him: "We have put her living in the tomb!"
Horrified about receiving retribution for "his haste" in the burial, leaping from his chair, Usher shrieks: "Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!" As if on command, the doors to the chamber spring open--due to the storm, the Narrator explains--and there stands Madeline, her white robes stained with blood. With a "low, moaning cry" she attacks her brother, instantly killing him, while the Narrator flees into the storm.
The last image the Narrator describes seeing is that of the House of Usher splitting apart along the previously noted zig-zag fissure. The walls are bursting and the fragments are swiftly disappearing into the "deep and dank tarn."
As he does with so many of his short stories, Poe prefaces "The Fall of the House of Usher" with a relevant quoted passage: "Son coeur est un luth suspendu; Sitot qu'on le touche il resonne." From a poem by French lyric poet Pierre Jean de Beranger, the verse translates roughly as: "His heart is a hanging lute [an ancient stringed instrument]; Whenever one touches it, it resounds." Aside from the importance of stringed instruments in the tale--Roderick Usher can stand the sound of no other noises--the passage touches on one of the story's most important themes, mortality.
That the heart in the poem is related to a musical instrument, which requires the touch of a hand to function, underlines its very fragility. Suspended in air, it cannot operate on its own, but it instead demands to be "played." The very definition of animate objects is that they move on their own initiative; indeed, movement is one of the features most commonly associated with animal life. The ability to produce sound is a feature of more advanced animals.
Yet, Roderick Usher is convinced that the inanimate universe is full of "sentience," that seemingly dead objects or matter, such as the "atmosphere" he describes encircling his home, are endowed with senses and perhaps even life of their own. When Poe introduces this concept, it seems almost a digression. The principal arc of the narrative has been Usher's madness, his fear of what he regards as his own inevitable doom. Rather than a window into his tortured psyche, as provided by the bizarre painting of the vault or the improvised song of the "Haunted Palace," the intellectual pursuit of "sentience" seems a projection into the outer world, as though Usher is trying to occupy his mind with something other than himself.
Then Madeline dies, and everything changes. Even when the Narrator and Usher bury her in the vault, the Narrator notes "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." It is almost as if Madeline were already mocking death (or is in some way still alive), and as though she is already mocking her brother and his friend. It would be possible to say that she does have the last laugh, breaking free from the vault and killing the raving Roderick--if this irony were not so harrowing and tragic.
What is particularly intriguing about this grotesque resurrection is that Poe finally attributes lifelike characteristics to Madeline: "There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame." Compare this sentence to the first description of the diseased woman as seen by the Narrator: "The lady Madeline ... passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared." Poe's narrative choices are worth analysis, and it is telling that he writes "disappeared" without suggesting any additional movement. She was introduced with a sudden vanishing like a ghost, and she is never seen "alive" until she reappears after her burial--unless she is now a real, embodied ghost.
Tracing the progress of Madeline through the story, one quickly notes that in life she is akin to a floating waif, already a kind of apparition, while once escaped from the grave she lets out "a low, moaning cry" and falls "heavily inward" upon her brother, killing him instantly. Death gives her a strength that life did not. Likewise, the noises that continually accompany the Narrator's reading of the "Mad Trist" are essentially the first sounds Madeline ever makes in the narrative--suggesting that she has had to struggle mightily to get out of the vault. It is as if, imbued with the force of motion and the ability to produce sound, Madeline becomes "alive" only after she was buried in the vault.
This curious development may help explain Roderick's strange decision to temporarily bury his sister in the vault. Throughout the story, Usher is overwhelmed with a sense of his own impending demise: "I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive," he tells the Narrator, "when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR." By entombing Madeline, he creates that very "grim phantasm" with which he will struggle to the death--his prophecy becomes self-fulfilling. Thus, just as the Narrator's reading of the "Mad Trist" seems to summon or conjure the strange noises from below, so does Usher essentially craft his own death. The vault in which he buries Madeline echoes the one he paints, another instance of otherworldly foresight; but if one considers the vault as less a grave than a place of birth, less a tomb than a womb, then Roderick puts Madeline inside in order to finally give her a new life. If he understood what he was doing, it would be a gesture of filial love. Madeline has become one of the "vegetable things" that Usher is convinced possess sentience. Or, perhaps, he unwittingly grants the power of sentience to her, like a would-be Frankenstein resurrecting his lost loved one.
Returning to the painting of the vault, it is important to note the strange light the Narrator describes: "No outlet was observed in any portion of [the vault's] vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible; yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout." From where does this light originate? While death is associated with darkness, life is linked to light, and thus this painted vault may hold hints of life-giving conception--a new beginning rather than merely an end.
The concepts of the vault and of premature burial are crucial to Poe's oeuvre. "The Cask of Amontillado" tells the story of a man who wreaks revenge on another by locking him in a cellar and building a wall over him. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the Narrator discovers (or madly believes) that the heart of the old man he murdered and buried under his floorboards is still beating. "The Pit and the Pendulum" culminates inside a windowless chamber, the walls of which slowly contract before nearly crushing the protagonist. Other tales involving corpses in vaults and walls or the fear of being buried alive include "The Black Cat" and the aptly titled "The Premature Burial." It was perhaps less a case of claustrophobia than a fascination with the fine line between life and death that inspired these flights of fancy. Roderick Usher, then, may serve as Poe's alter ego, a surrogate for the author's own morbid obsession with "sentience" and "the grim phantasm."
Other interpretations of "The Fall of the House of Usher" have focused on the Narrator himself, who seems slowly to slip into madness, perhaps through the very process of narrating Usher's own mental breakdown. Key moments include the opening passage, in which the Narrator seems terrified of the sight of the house itself; the inability to sleep toward the end of the story; and the last, final, nearly apocalyptic but certainly symbolic image of the house breaking apart. Rarely has Poe's writing veered into fantasy more explicitly than in the closing lines of his most famous tale: "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 and 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.'"
The loudest of noises to the deepest of silences, a vast construction collapsing as if it were made of sticks, the whole enterprise sinking to what might be interpreted as hell: this imagery is over the top, to say the least. But it is deliberate language which does more than express the Narrator's experience and possibly his mental state. It also recalls the Narrator's descriptions of Usher's paintings earlier in the story, in which he notes "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." In a certain sense, the Narrator has become an Usher by the story's close, adopting Roderick's eye and seeing his world. This is a friendship that has joined the Narrator to the madman rather than provided much sanity for him. Poe's tale may thus be read as an allegory of identification: the two halves of a split consciousness reuniting, the rational and the irrational becoming one and the same--with the irrational overtaking the rational.
Nevertheless, there is always a naturalistic explanation for the possibly supernatural events. Perhaps Madeline is a dangerous ghost, or maybe she really did fight her way out of the vault. The house falls apart, after all, in the most likely way, following the existing fissure. The coincidences of the loud sounds may merely be coincidences.
Similarly, and just as Poe dwells on the blurred boundary between the living and the dead, the line between sanity and madness figures prominently. Shortly after Madeline's entombment, the Narrator writes of the "contagious nature" (Burduck, 74) of fear and madness: "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." "Infected" and "impressive" present a somewhat rhymed pair that makes of this passage a sort of poem. While Usher's malady may be a contagious disease, the Narrator seems almost willfully to succumb to it, impressed as he is by its nature. Just as the house's scale and stability inspire him with awe as well as fear, so does Usher's madness inspire as well as terrify him.
That give-and-take, the dialectic between the beautiful and the horrifying, between amazement and dread, informs not just "The Fall of the House of Usher" but Poe's work in general. There is indeed a poetic quality to his writing, whether it be the use of the "Haunted Palace" as a metaphor for the mind--invaded by "evil things, in robes of sorrow"--or the description of the House of Usher as if it were a human face, with its "vacant eye-like windows." The Narrator describes, early in the story, "an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime." Yet, that is precisely what Poe's imagination did: it took the dreary, the dark, the dreadful--and found within it the sublime.