"The Fall of the House of Usher" is considered the best example of Poe's "totality", where every element and detail is related and relevant.
The theme of the crumbling, haunted castle is a key feature of Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1764), which largely contributed in defining the Gothic genre. The presence of a capacious, disintegrating house symbolizing the destruction of the human body is a characteristic element in Poe's later work.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" shows Poe's ability to create an emotional tone in his work, specifically feelings of fear, doom, and guilt. These emotions center on Roderick Usher who, like many Poe characters, suffers from an unnamed disease. Like the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart", his disease inflames his hyperactive senses. The illness manifests physically but is based in Roderick's mental or even moral state. He is sick, it is suggested, because he expects to be sick based on his family's history of illness and is, therefore, essentially a hypochondriac. Similarly, he buries his sister alive because he expects to bury her alive, creating his own self-fulfilling prophecy.
The House of Usher, itself doubly referring both to the actual structure and the family, plays a significant role in the story. It is the first "character" that the narrator introduces to the reader, presented with a humanized description: its windows are described as "eye-like" twice in the first paragraph. The fissure that develops in its side is symbolic of the decay of the Usher family and the house "dies" along with the two Usher siblings. This connection was emphasized in Roderick's poem "The Haunted Palace" which seems to be a direct reference to the house that foreshadows doom.
L. Sprague de Camp, in his Lovecraft: A Biography [p. 246f], wrote that "[a]ccording to the late [Poe expert] Thomas O. Mabbott, [H. P.] Lovecraft, in "Supernatural Horror", solved a problem in the interpretation of Poe" by arguing that "Roderick Usher, his sister Madeline, and the house all shared one common soul". The explicit psychological dimension of this tale has prompted many critics to analyze it as a description of the human psyche, comparing, for instance, the House to the unconscious, and its central crack to a split personality. Mental disorder is also evoked through the themes of melancholy, possible incest, and vampirism. An incestuous relationship between Roderick and Madeline is never explicitly stated, but seems implied by the strange attachment between the two.
Opium, which Poe mentions several times in both his prose and poems, is mentioned twice in the tale. The gloomy sensation occasioned by the dreary landscape around the Usher mansion is compared by the narrator to the sickness caused by the withdrawal symptoms of an opiate-addict. The narrator also describes Roderick Usher's appearance as that of an "irreclaimable eater of opium".
Allusions and references
- The opening epigraph quotes "Le Refus" (1831) by the French songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780–1857), translated to English as "his heart is a suspended lute, as soon as it is touched, it resounds". Béranger's original text reads "Mon cœur" (my heart) and not "Son cœur" (his/her heart).
- The narrator describes one of Usher's musical compositions as "a ... singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber". Poe here refers to a popular piano work of his time — which, though going by the title "Weber's Last Waltz" was actually composed by Carl Gottlieb Reissiger (1798–1859). A manuscript copy of the music was found among Weber's papers upon his death in 1826 and the work was mistakenly attributed to him.
- Usher's painting reminds the narrator of the Swiss-born British painter Henry Fuseli (1741–1825).
- German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, who was a role model and inspiration for Poe, published the story "Das Majorat" in 1819. There are many similarities between the two stories, like the breaking in two of a house, eerie sounds in the night, the story within a story and the house owner being called "Roderich". As Poe was familiar with Hoffmann's works he certainly knew the story and cleverly drew from it using the element for his own purposes.
- Another German author, Heinrich Clauren's, 1812 story "The Robber's Castle", as translated into English by John Hardman and published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1828 as "The Robber's Tower", may have served as an inspiration according to Arno Schmidt and Thomas Hansen. As well as common elements, such as a young woman with a fear of premature burial interred in a sepulchre directly beneath the protagonist's chamber, stringed instruments and the living twin of the buried girl, Diane Hoeveler identifies textual evidence of Poe's use of the story, and concludes that the inclusion of Virgil's Mortuorum is drawn from the use of a similarly obscure book in "The Robber's Tower".