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[320a] The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.

Despite their occasional longwindedness, Poe writes some of the most powerfully atmospheric short stories. The story of The Fall of the House of Usher is simple: the anonymous narrator arriving at the house of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, having received a letter from him in a distant part of the country complaining of an illness and asking for his comfort. From the beginning, the story gives the impression of totality (as opposed to synecdoche), where every element and detail is related and relevant.

The House of Usher, which doubly refers both to the actual structure and the family of “a peculiar sensibility of temperament”, plays a significant role in the story. The emotions of fear, anxiety, and doom center on Roderick Usher who suffers from an unnamed disease, more psychological than physical—an illness that causes his hyperactive senses. He is not sick, but he is sick, because he expects to be sick based on his family’s history of illness and is, therefore, essentially a hypochondriac.

Usher’s physical appearances bears much resemblance to the house in which he lives:

Yet the character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy…

The house itself is 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 does perish 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.

What makes a thriller so is that the story doesn’t call for a reason. We never understand what exactly the family evil is that causes a nervous affection in Roderick usher. The house is clung with some unknown curse for which Roderick despairs to find a remedy. If paranoia and madness are contagious, then the unnamed narrator must have fallen prey instantaneously since both he and his friend have become increasingly agitated for no apparent reason. Then there is the mysterious sister Madeline, who was buried alive. The story picks up its pace to a shocking climax in which the narrator relates the shield falling from off the wall and that a reverberation, metallic and hollow, can be heard.

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14 Responses

  1. I have yet to read a Poe story I didn’t love, and this one was no exception!

  2. It’s true that no one can create atmosphere like Poe. Is “The Fall of the House of Usher” a short story or a novel? I’ve read a bunch of short stories by him.

    • It’s a short story of about 17 pages. A representative of “totality” in which physical description of the decaying house is aligned to that of its inhabitants.

  3. I haven’t read anything by Poe for years, will have to re-visit his writings.

  4. I think I have this on my shelves….

  5. I love Poe’s short stories and really should read a few with Halloween coming this weekend!

  6. I am sad to say that I have not read Poe either – but have several of a collection of his works in my TBR pile. I am curious to read how he develops suspense in the short story format.

  7. This sounds like the perfect story for Halloween! I wish I did more (any at all) Halloween reading this year, but I just couldn’t find anything on my shelves that would work for me. I’ll keep this in mind for later.

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