Exploring characters, their relationships and a new interpretation on The Fall of the House of Usher
As the father of modern short story, detective story, and psychoanalytic criticism, Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most famous American writers. He created many popular works, and The Fall of the House of Usher is one of the most famous short stories he has produced. This study aims to clarify the connotation of each character, discuss the correlation between different characters and give a new interpretation of the story from an anti-racist perspective. The results showed that the connotation of each character is very rich and the correlation between characters is complicated, both of which are significant if we try to interpret the story from certain angle. These results also supported that the story is a metaphor for the inevitable collapse of slavery in America in nineteenth century. Based on these findings, I hope to find out more meaningful details which may help me revise my points of view and try to use some new and effective theoretical frameworks to do deeper analysis on the novel.
Keywords: The Fall of the House of Usher; characters; connotation; correlation; anti-racist perspective
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most famous American writers and The Fall of the House of Usher is one of the most well-known short stories among Poe’s works. John H. Timmerman points out that “The Fall of the House of Usher is among those few stories that seem to elicit nearly as many critical interpretations as it has readers.” (Timmerman, 2003) Gothic style and strong tension throughout the plot provide the story great charm, which makes it one of the most representative horror fictions.
The novel mainly tells us a story about the house of Usher. The narrator came to the house of Usher upon the invitation of a childhood friend named Roderick Usher, the owner of the house of Usher. Usher family, where only remains Roderick and his twin sister Madeline, lived in this spooky ancient house. Both the brother and sister suffer from severe mental depression, which, sadly, didn’t relieve a little bit during the narrator’s company and convalescent time. As the depression continues to escalate, Roderick buried his sister alive in the cellar and lied to the narrator that Madeline had died. Several days later, on a stormy night, Madeline came out of the coffin and perished with her brother. In the end, the house of Usher finally collapsed and the narrator fled away.
As one of Poe’s most well-known short stories, The Fall of the House of Usher has been studied by many scholars. The study of original literary text is the most fundamental and important as well. Many critics have pointed out the narrative features of The Fall of the House of Usher: Poe pushes readers to focus on imagery and description by deemphasizing incidents in the novel. Evans points out that “the incidents Poe does employ seem practically lost in the descriptive passages” and “incident and arrangement of incident…are remarkably deemphasized, almost perfunctorily developed, in The Fall of the House of Usher” (Evans, 1977). Abel also notes that “the action of the story is comparatively slight” and “the energetic symbolism…accomplishes more” (Abel, 1949).
Poe loves poems and he employs one poem in The Fall of the House of Usher to describe Roderick’s art and to reveal one of the novel’s main ideas. While some theorists and historians of the short stories refuse to identify Poe as the first American writer to use lyric structure in the short story (Baldeshwiler, 1969), Anastasaki points out that “the peculiar poetical nature in Poe’s tales” is “a general characteristic permeating his works” (Anastasaki, 2013) and Evans also believe that “Poe demonstrably composed the body of the story of elements central to the lyric method” (Evans, 1977).
Apart from the text, many scholars are trying to find the metaphor hidden in the novel and to interpret the story from different angles. Voloshin points out that “Everything at the House of Usher expresses or reflects everything else” and he thinks that “the final solution to the puzzle of appearances is to destroy the appearances” (Voloshin, 1986). Timmerman thinks that “Poe…constructs his architecture of mirrors to prop the movement of the story” and Poe uses the merge and split between Roderick and Madeline to make the point that “Aesthetically and ideally they ought to be mirrors to each other, working in a complementary fashion to serve art” (Timmerman, 2003). Zhang and Cui employs Freud’s theory of personality structure to analyze “the rationality and irrationality of the three characters in the novel” and they point out that “Roderick represents irrationality” and “id”, “Madeline represents rationality” and “ego”, and “the Narrator is the fusion of rationality and irrationality” and “is the superego” (Zhang, & Cui, 2018).
Some scholars analyze the novel from the perspective of aesthetics. Nadal Blasco analyze the novel from the point of view of gothic aesthetics and discuss some features such as “suggestive but elusive symbols, deliberate vagueness, intentional or unintentional ludicrous effects, and recourse to ultimately illegible signifiers” (Nadal Blasco, 2009). Roche wants to “show how Poe’s aesthetics of contamination greatly participate in the tale’s ‘constructiveness’ in terms of its diegesis, lyric structure and representation of aesthetic effect” and he analyzes the features, uses and roles of the aesthetics of contamination in the novel (Roche, 2009).
However, some limitations exist in previous research. First of all, although many researches have discussed a lot about the characters in The Fall of the House of Usher and some scholars use psychological and sociological frameworks to analyze the relationship between the characters, few scholars totally focused on the original text to do the analysis. Also, little effort has been done on interpreting the story from an anti-racist perspective, which is also a very important topic.
The aim of this paper is to shed light on topics as follows:
(1) connotation of each character and ways in which Poe portrayed the characters,
(2) correlation between different characters, and
(3) new interpretation of The Fall of the House of Usher from an anti-racist perspective.
The original text has always been the most important part in the study of literature. After reading many papers and many theories employed to analyze the novel, I decide to return to the text itself, try to analyze the connotation of each character and clarify the relationships between different characters. Apart from analysis on characters, I also try to interpret The Fall of the House of Usher from an anti-racist perspective by connecting the story with American society at that time.
Throughout the novel, Poe creates three characters—Roderick, Madeline and the narrator—in the novel. These characters have their own personalities and, at the same time, affects each other to some content, which effectively pushes the promotion of the plot and the expression of the theme. Roderick Usher, the owner of the house of the Usher, is a relatively complicated character. He is a pale and sick man with “A cadaverousness of complexion” (Poe, 1839, p. 8), “the emaciated fingers” (Poe, 1839, p. 11) and “the peculiar gloom” (Poe, 1839, p. 10). Poe intentionally uses the appearance of the house of Usher to indicate both Roderick’s appearance and mind, which is indicated in the story: “an influence which some peculiarities in the mere form and substance of his family mansion had…obtained over his spirit” (Poe, 1839, p. 10). On appearance, several similarities can be found between the house and Roderick himself: “the vacant eye-like windows” (Poe, 1839, p. 3) matches Roderick’s “large, liquid, and luminous” (Poe, 1839, p. 8) eyes; “Minute fungi…in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves” (Poe, 1839, p. 6) matches Roderick’s “hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity” (Poe, 1839, p. 8); “the bleak walls” (Poe, 1839, p. 3) matches Roderick’s “ghastly pallor of the skin” (Poe, 1839, p. 8); etc. Such matchup also extends into the description of Roderick’s inner world: “an air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom” (Poe, 1839, p. 7) in the room indicates “an anomalous species of terror” (Poe, 1839, p. 10) that Roderick is suffering from; “a barely perceptible fissure…extending from the roof of the building…made its way down the wall…until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn” (Poe, 1839, p. 6) indicates Roderick’s mental breakdown in the end; etc. All the analysis above depends on the description of the house at the beginning and the description of Roderick when the narrator first met him, which shows how Poe successfully portrays Roderick and reveals his destiny at the beginning of the story. By exploring more about the unity of Roderick and the house of Usher, we can find more similarities between the house or the environment and Roderick himself.
Although Madeline, Roderick’s sister, only appears three times in the story, she is also a very important character. Analysis upon Madeline is inevitably connected with Roderick, for the relationship between the twins is a very important and nonnegligible part, which is also indicated in the story when Roderick has buried Madeline in the cellar: “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them” (Poe, 1839, p. 18). Madeline is Roderick’s only relative in the world and her death “would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers” (Poe, 1839, p. 10), which indicates that the twins own a strong relationship with each other. But, the relationship between Madeline and Roderick is not only brother and sister relationship; they are actually two different sides of one single character. If we turn back to compare the differences between Madeline and Roderick, it’s safe to conclude that Madeline has been suffering from physical sickness for a long time while Roderick is experiencing mental depression and buried himself in art all day. As a result, Madeline can be seen as a symbol of physical or instinctive side of human beings, for she has always been fighting with physical diseases and never participate in her brother’s elegant art in the story. Roderick, on the contrary, is a symbol of intellectual or spiritual side of human beings. Roderick owns “an excited and highly distempered ideality” (Poe, 1839, p. 11) and is talented in various art. Based on analysis above, we may find it easier to understand the story. Roderick buried Madeline alive because he didn’t want to see that diseases finally conquered Madeline, or the physical part of himself, so he kept his sister in the cellar. However, physical and intellectual part can never be teared apart, so it’s doomed that Madeline resurged on a rainy night and perished with her brother.
The narrator also plays an important role in the story. Different from omniscient perspective, limited perspective can not only narrate the story but also enhance readers’ sense of immersion. However, in The Fall of the House of Usher, the narrator is not designed only to narrate the story. The narrator actually experiences a transition from rationality to irrationality. In order to reveal such transition, Poe focuses on describing the narrator’s inner thoughts. At the beginning, the narrator admitted that “with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit” (Poe, 1839, p. 3); After they put the body of Madeline in the cellar, the narrator “felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions” (Poe, 1839, p. 18); when they were experiencing the scary rainy night, the narrator tried to explain the supernatural phenomenon to Roderick as “merely electrical phenomena not uncommon” with the narrator himself “shuddering” (Poe, 1839, p. 20), which indicates that the narrator is actually not confident in his own explanation and his rationality continued collapsing; when the narrator read “Mad Trist” for Roderick, although he repeatedly “concluded that my excited fancy had deceived me” (Poe, 1839, p. 21), the narrator was gradually losing his rationality in the face of horrible scenes; at last, the narrator “fled aghast” (Poe, 1839, p. 25), which stands for the final and total collapse of the narrator’s rationality. In fact, when readers are reading about the narrator’s “scientific” explanation towards several supernatural phenomenon, they won’t actually fall for such explanation; on the contrary, they will start worrying about the narrator’s mental state, which helps creates an atmosphere of terror and makes readers more convinced in the story.
We can conclude the analysis on characters above to find some angles to interpret the story. Firstly, there is a relationship between Roderick and the house of Usher, which successfully portrays both Roderick’s appearance and spiritual world. Such relationship also indicates that surrounding environment has significant influences on people inside. Secondly, Roderick and Madeline are actually two sides of one character, while Madeline stands for physical or instinctive side while Roderick stands for intellectual or spiritual side. In the story, Poe stressed the importance of putting these two sides together by describing the physical and mental pain that the twins were suffering. I think such plot indicates that idealized spiritual pursuit cannot exists alone; material and mundane should not be abandoned due to any noble reasons. Thirdly, the narrator shows how rationality transfers into irrationality, which may indicate that rationality is not as stable as we might assume.
Apart from all the analysis above, I think we can interpret the story from another angle if we try to connect the story with American society at that time. In the nineteenth century, many Americans believed that the success of America lies in their blood rather than institution, which is so-called racism. In such case, Americans were afraid of hybrids or tainted blood because they thought that these things may lead to the degradation of the country. In the world in which nationalist ideologies were consolidated, such opinions were designed to naturalize white colonialism and imperialism. As a result, although American bourgeoisie was born in a democracy country, they were doing just the same thing as European aristocracy was doing: European aristocracy tries to protect their family blood, while Americans try to protect their Saxon blood.
In The Fall of the House of Usher, family Usher is actually a symbol of American white supremacists and Roderick stands for slavery in the American south at that time. We can find many clues in the novel to support this idea. In the narrator’s introduction of family Usher (Poe, 1839, p. 5), status and class, which includes social standing (“the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch”) and wealth (“collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son” and “he patrimony with the name”), are evidently emphasized. We can conclude two points from the description: family Usher kept a single lineage for a long time and they were not willing to cooperate with other families to deal with “collateral issue” and make new money. It’s easy to see Roderick’s firm belief in the lineage and his unwillingness to build relationship with people who didn’t belong to family Usher. He even told us that such belief “was connected (as I have previously hinted) with the gray stones of the home of his forefathers” (Poe, 1839, p. 15) and “The result was discoverable, he added, in that silent yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him what I now saw him—what he was.” (Poe, 1839, p. 16) This is similar to some American racists’ opinions: the success of America lies in their blood which makes them who they are. As a result, we can conclude that family Usher and the house of usher stands for slavery in America at that time and Roderick is actually a symbol of American white supremacists. Consequently, when Roderick told the narrator that he was suffering from “a family evil” (Poe, 1839, p. 9), he was actually experiencing the widespread fear of contamination of Saxon ancestry at that time.
The narrator’s description of family Usher also includes a poem called “The Haunted Palace”. The poem reveals the rise and fall of a family. But if we dig into the poem, we can uncover many hidden meanings. The poem has six parts, and part 1-4 of the poem explicitly describes “a fair and stately palace” ——we will soon find out what the “palace” refers to. Part 5 describes a riot which was caused by “evil things in robes of sorrow” and which destroyed “the monarch’s high estate” (Poe, 1839, p. 14) It’s natural to connect “high estate” with pure blood and “evil things”, in the contrast, is connected with tainted blood. Part 6 describes the palace after the riot: only “vast forms” stayed in the palace and people “laugh—but smile no more” (Poe, 1839, p. 15). The meaning of “vast forms”, in my opinion, is similar to shadow, which may be a metaphor for negro slaves in America due to the same skin color. If those analysis on the poem is correct, we can say that the “fair and stately palace” in part 1 is southern slavocracy in America. Consequently, the poem is about the rise and fall of slavery in the south: part 1-4 describes the past glories of slavery, part 5 refers to the experience of violent slave rebellion and part 6 suggests the destruction of slavery in America.
In conclusion, The Fall of the House of Usher is also a metaphor for the fateful death of slavery system in the south of America and the final death of Roderick stands for the inevitable demise of slavery in America, which certainly represents Poe’s points of view.
All the analysis above suggests that (1) the connotation of each character is very rich because Poe employs many efficient and distinctive ways to shape the characters, (2) correlation between different characters is complicated but significant if we try to interpret the story from certain angle, and (3) the family Usher in the novel represents the slavery in America at nineteenth century and finally collapsed in the novel, which is the new interpretation of The Fall of the House of Usher.
I have to admit that I have my limits. First of all, although I have tried my best reading the novel, it’s obvious that there are still a lot of unmentioned details in the story that may support or challenge my opinions in this paper. Also, due to the lack of time, I didn’t use some accurate historical events or data to verify my analysis on the perspective of anti-racism, which may undermine the credibility of my argument.
In our future studies, I want to dig further into the original text to verify my opinions. Also, I want to find some new and effective theoretical frameworks to do deeper analysis on the story. I want to find out ways to try my best to achieve further understandings on The Fall of the House of Usher in my future studies.
- Poe, E. (1839). The Fall of the House of Usher [PDF file]. Available from http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/
- Timmerman, J. (2003). House of Mirrors: Edgar Allan Poe’ s The Fall of the House of Usher. Papers on Language and Literature, 39(3), 227-244.
- Abel, D. (1949). A Key to the House of Usher. University Of Toronto Quarterly, 18(2), 176-185. doi: 10.3138/utq.18.2.176
- Evans, W. (1977). “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Poe’s Theory of the Tale. Studies In Short Fiction, 14(2), 137-144.
- Baldeshwiler, E. (1969). The Lyric Short Story: The Sketch of a History. Studies N Short Fiction, 6(1969), 443-454.
- Anastasaki, E. (2013). Embedded and Embodied Poetry in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Connotations, 23.2(2013/2014), 207-229.
- Voloshin, B. (1986). Explanation in “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Studies In Short Fiction, 23(4), 419-428.
- Zhang, Y., & Cui, L. (2018). The Study of Edgar Allan Poe’s Personality Structure in His Novel The Fall of the House of Usher. JOURNAL OF SHAOXING UNIVERSITY, 38(3), 95-100. doi: 10.16169/j.issn.1008-293x.s.2018.03.013
- Nadal Blasco, M. (2009). “The fall of the house of Usher” : a master text for (Poe’s) American Gothic. Journal Of English Studies, 7, 55. doi: 10.18172/jes.141
- Roche, D. (2009). The “Unhealthy” in “The Fall of the House of Usher”: Poe’s Aesthetics of Contamination. Edgar Allan Poe Review, 10(1), 20-35.