The story begins with an unnamed narrator approaching a large and dreary-looking estate. As he approaches on horseback, he muses on the images before him, the darkness of the house, the oppressiveness of the clouds above, the eye-like windows, the ragged fissure in the side of the house, the fungi on the walls, and the reflection of it all in a nearby lake. He notes that some parts of the house are crumbling and other parts are not.
He sits astride his horse, thinking about the letter he received that initiated his trip and feeling uneasy about the upcoming visit. He remembers happier times he has had with his friend, Roderick, but now, in the face of the present gloomy surroundings, these seem a distant past. Looking at the house, he makes the connection between the family mansion and the family line, both called The House of Usher (a pun on the word “house” having two different meanings). Roderick and his twin sister, Madeline, are the last members of the family line.
The narrator feels as though he is dreaming, as though these visions were “the after-dream of a reveller upon opium.” This foreshadows Roderick’s behavior later, when the two men meet. He is puzzled by questions about the impending visit that have no answer.”What was it—I paused to think— what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluable.”
He enters the house and a valet shows him to Roderick’s reading room. Roderick is lying on a sofa, but arises to greet him. He looks pale and cadaverous. They exchange greetings, but Roderick’s voice is unsteady and feeble. His demeanor seems more that of one suffering from drunkenness or from the use of opium. Roderick wants his friend to comfort him and share his last days with him. He says he has “suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses.” Only the most gentle stimulus could be endured, no hard food, loud music, strong odors, or bright lights. Only “peculiar sounds, and those from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror” are tolerable. Roderick says he will perish from “this deplorable folly.”
During this conversation Madeline is seen as she passes through a nearby corridor. She takes no notice of them. Roderick explains that she suffers from a malady even more baffling than his own. The physicians have said she would die of “a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affectation of a partially cataleptical character.”
After this sighting, her name is not mentioned and she is not seen alive again. The men talk together and engage in artistic endeavors, painting and writing poetry. Roderick composes some ballads, some of which he sings as he accompanies himself on the guitar. One titled “The Haunted Palace,” which Poe published apart from this story, offers a poetic rendition of the life and times of the House of Usher, including a foreshadowing of Roderick’s own death. They pass some additional time together reading fantastic novels and discussing topics of a wild and horrifying nature. One such topic is Roderick’s notion that the stones in his house are alive.
After a week, Roderick announces that Madeline is dead and that he needs assistance in burying her. The narrator agrees to help and they take her body, in a coffin, into a tomb that lies beneath the room in which the narrator has been sleeping. They view Madeline’s body, noting the slight smile on her face and the blush on her cheeks,”Usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character.” They screw the lid tightly onto the coffin and close and seal a large iron door to the tomb.
During the next several days, Roderick’s demeanor changes. He becomes more restless and his visage becomes more pallid. His voice grows more tremulous and he seems to be hiding some deep secret by his peculiar speech.
About the eighth day, the narrator experiences an intense fear and dread. He rationalizes it away by believing that it is just a consequence of staying in drab and dreary surroundings. He cannot sleep, so he dresses and paces about in his apartment. He notices a light under the door and soon Roderick knocks on the door. He enters looking “cadaverously wan” and possessed of “an evidently restrained hysteria in his whole demeanor.” Roderick opens a window to a storm, letting the wind blow violently into the room.
In an attempt to calm Roderick, the narrator takes up a copy of Mad Trist and begins to read. At this point, the narrator hears noises coming from below, in the tomb, but he continues to read. Each of the passages from the novel foreshadows the events of that evening. As the noises get louder, Roderick says, “we have put her living in the tomb.” He springs to his feet and shrieks,”Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!”
The passageway in the room comes open from a strong gust of wind, and Madeline appears, bloodied and trembling. She lunges forward onto her brother, and they both fall to the floor, dead.
At this, the narrator flees quickly. As he passes over the bridge leading from the house there is a flash, the fissure in the face of the house widens, and the house crumbles “and the deep dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly over the fragments of the House of Usher.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edgar Allan Poe, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.