Edgar Allan Poe
“The Fall of the House of Usher”
Elements of theGothic
Gothic literature takes its themes of terror,darkness fromGothicarchitecture.Gothicarchitecture is a style of building that was popular in the Middle Ages, from about the twelfth to the fifteenth century.Mostgothic buildings are religious buildings: abbeys, cathedrals, monasteries.Pointedarches, intricate stonework and sculptures (like gargoyles), tall spires, high vaulted ceilings, and stained-glass windows are characteristics of Gothic architecture.TheCathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France, is a famous example of a Gothic-style building.
Gothic writers often associated medieval buildings with what they saw as a dark and terrifying period, characterized by harsh laws enforced by torture, and with mysterious, fantastic, andsuperstitiousrituals.
The term was used pejoratively, intended to demean the architecture as crude and barbaric, like the Goths (a Germanic tribe known for attacking Rome).Atthe same time, thewordGothwas a stereotype for rude and primitive.For gothic writers, Gothic architecture symbolizedtheunknown, forgotten, and disregarded past.RuinedGothic buildings, with their intricate architecture, hidden passageways, and unexplored rooms, embodied for both writers and readers a desire to confront the unknown and the unknowable oftheindividual's psychology.
Gothic novels attempt to create for their readers "pleasing terror" by considering elements of human psychology and social acts that were often suppressed in the polite culture of the eighteenth century.Theseelements are the supernatural, the past, and the exotic.Most gothic novels contain elements ofthe supernatural—ghosts,dreams, mysterious storms, bumps in the night,hauntings, premonitions—and other unexplainable events.Gothicliterature's desire to explore the unknown is also a response to the eighteenth century's emphasis on scientific rationalism.
The Enlightenment emphasized polite culture, rational conversation and literature, and scientific investigation into everything from the laws of nature to human relationships and emotions.Gothicwriters' interest in the unexplained, the unknown, and the terrifying can be seen then as a reaction to the Enlightenment's emphasis on the rational and knowable.Rejectionof the clarity and rationalism of theneoclassicalstyle oftheEnlightenedEstablishment.
What makes a work Gothic is a combination of at least some of these elements:a castle, ruined or intact, haunted or not,ruined buildings which are sinister or which arouse a pleasing melancholy,dungeons, underground passages, crypts, and catacombs which, in modern houses, become spooky basements or attics,labyrinths, dark corridors, and winding stairs,shadows, a beam of moonlight in the blackness, a flickering candle, or the only source of light failing (a candle blown out or an electric failure),extreme landscapes, like rugged mountains, thick forests, or icy wastes, and extreme weather,omens and ancestral curses,
magic, supernatural manifestations, or the suggestion of the supernatural,a passion-driven, wilful villain-hero or villain,a curious heroine with a tendency to faint and a need to be rescued–frequently,a hero whose true identity is revealed by the end of the novel,horrifying (or terrifying) events or the threat of such happenings.Death, Decay,Madness, Secrets, Hereditary cursesThe Gothic creates feelings of gloom, mystery, and suspense and tends to the dramatic and the sensational, like incest, diabolism, and nameless terrors.
On a dark and gloomy autumndaynarrator approaches the House ofUsher.The first five paragraphs of the story are devoted to creating a gothicmood.Theancient decaying castle is eerie and moldy and the surrounding moat seems stagnant.Sightofthe house rendersthe day even gloomier than before.He looks at the House of Usher, and "a sense of insufferable gloom" pervades his spirit.Henotes the house’s “eye-like windows” and feels a “depression of soul”.The narrator approaches the tarn(lake) that lies near the house, and gazes down into it so as to examine the inverted reflection of thehouse.It’sstill creepy-looking.Heagain notes the “eye-like windows”.
He’splanning on spending a few weeks here.Theowner of the house, Roderick Usher, is a boyhood friend ofhis.Recently, the narrator received a letter from Usher revealing Usher’s illness, “a mental disorder that oppressed him.”Usherbegged his friend to come to the house and try to figure out what was wrong with him.Although they were friends in childhood, the narrator actually knows very little about Usher, as he was always excessively and habitually reserved.Veryancientfamily.
Usher family has nobranches.Thename of the estate, “The House of Usher,” has come to refer both to the house itself and the family who owns it.Therealso seem to be similarities between the character of the house and the supposed characters of the Ushers.House isvery old, but it seems to be in great shape – except for a very tiny crack that runs from the roof down the front of the house.
The narrator rides his horse to the house and is greeted by a servant.Heis taken by a valet to see Usher, and on the way determines that all the objects inside the house – carvings, tapestries, trophies – give him much the same feeling that the outside of the house did.Alltraditional elements in all gothic horror stories.When the narrator enters his room, Usher stands and greets his friend.Thenarrator is shocked at how much Usher has changed since they last saw each other.Hisskin is very pale, his eyes seem to glow, and his hair seems to float above hishead.
Usher discusses hisillness.This, he says, is a familyillness.Lighthurts his eyes, he can only eat bland foods and only wear certain clothes, and most sounds make him miserable.Hefeels he will die from it, and quite soon.He isalso very superstitious.Usherhasn’t left his house in severalyears.He’sunder the impression that his family’s mansion has obtained an influence over his spirit, that it’s the house’s fault he feels so gloomy.
Healso feels gloomy because his sister, Madeline, his last living relative and his only companion for the last several years, has been ill for a long time and will soon be dead.AsUsher is speaking, Madeline walks slowly in a distant part of the house andthenarrator catches sight of her, though she does not notice him.No one has been able to figure out why Madeline is so sick.Thedoctors think that she is just gradually wasting away and that she is partiallycataleptic.
For the next several days the narrator tries to help Usher out of his melancholy.Theypaint, or read, or he listens to Usher play the guitar.He painted intense, abstract, mood-driven pieces.Along corridor below the earth, bathed in eerie light though there was no light source to be found.“The Haunted Palace,” and tells the story of a glorious, beautiful palace destroyed by “evil things”.Thetwo men spend a lot of time reading the books in Usher’s library.
One night, Usher informs the narrator that Madeline is dead.He’safraid that her doctors will want to autopsy or otherwise experiment on her, since her illness was so bizarre.Usherwishes to entomb her underneath the mansion, in one of its many vaults, for two weeks, until her proper burial.Thenarrator agrees to help Usher move the body.The two men together carry Madeline to the vault.Thenarrator notes that the underground chamber lies directly underneath his own room in the mansion.
As they place Madeline into the coffin, the narrator notes, for the first time, how similar she looks to Usher.Usherresponds that they were in fact twins, and that they shared a connection which could hardly be understood by an outsider.The narrator also notes that Madeline’s cheeks are flushed and her lips pink. Then they screw the coffin closed.The narrator also finds that he himself is subject to Usher’s superstitions.Thenarrator feels nervous and scared and can’t get to sleep.Thereis a storm raging,hecan hear eerie sounds coming from themansion.
Narrator seesUsher in the hallway. The man lookscrazy.Usherthrowsopen the windows to the raging storm outside, and huge, powerful gusts of wind begin raging through the room.Outside, the narrator can see an eerie, glowing, gaseous cloud surrounding the mansion.He tries to assure Usher that it is simply an electrical phenomenon, perfectly explainable through science.Hethen sits his friend down and begins to read aloud to him in order to pass the night away.
Thenarrator and Usher can hear the sounds of a door being smashed through.Usher revealsto the narrator that they buried Madeline alive.Thesesounds they have heard are the sounds of Madeline breaking out of her coffin and making her way out of the underground vault.Agust of wind blows the doors to the bedchamber open, and indeed there stands Madeline, bloodied and bruised.Sherushes forward and falls upon her brother, who collapses to the ground, dead.
Thenarrator runsterrified from the mansion.Hesees a bright light on the path before him and turns around to the house to see where it is coming from.Themoon, it seems, is shining through that tiny crack in the house that he noticed at his first arrival.Ashe looks back at the house, the fissurewidens.Theentire house splits in two and then falls, sinking into the tarn (lake) below.
Story has allthe expected Gothicelementsof haunted house, family curse, the death of a beautiful woman, mystery, terror, the supernatural, and unnatural types of death.Many commentators point out the implication of incest between brother and sister indicated by the family history and the unusual closeness and empathy the two siblings experience.Roderick and Madeleine are the last of the Usher family, a man and woman, and if the family is to continue without outside help, they perhaps were tempted to mate, following a family curse.
Another mystery is why Roderick buries his sister alive.Is he afraid she will reveal their family secret?Roderick’s own thesis that the house itself is a sinister intelligence bringing them all to ruin.Partof the terror of this story is its vagueness.Usher and his house mirror each other.The physical similarities are the clearest; they suggest that both man and house are livingcorpses.
Each appears on the verge of collapse.Usher seems to feel imprisoned in his body and in his house; as his body has come to resemble his house, so he fears a peculiar advance of mortality as his failing spirit comes to resemble his decaying body.The root of Usher's problem, as he states it, is the fear that he will be transformed, that he will go mad. His body has come to mirror his cadaverous house and he believes his soul is being forced into a similar shape.