The unnamed narrator of the story is described as a childhood friend of Roderick Usher’s. However, the narrator notes that he does not know Roderick very well because Roderick’s “reserve had always been excessive and habitual.” The narrator visits the Usher family house after Roderick sends him an emotional letter begging him to come. While he seems skeptical of the supernatural and tries to find rational explanations for the disconcerting things happening around him, the narrator finds himself growing increasingly disturbed by the house and the Ushers. At the end of the story, when both Roderick and Madeline die, he flees and watches the house crumble and fall into a small lake. The narrator has been described as an objective witness to the events in the story, with some suggesting he represents rationality. Others, however, have concluded that he is unreliable and that he may, in fact, have helped Roderick Usher murder his sister, or that the ending of the story is merely his hallucination.
Madeline is the twin sister of Roderick Usher and, along with her brother, is one of the only two surviving members of the Usher family. She is terminally ill and suffers fits of catalepsy, meaning she appears rigid and does not move for long periods of time. The narrator of the story, who sees her only briefly before she dies, regards her with “an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread.” When Madeline dies, her brother and the narrator temporarily bury her in a vault on the first floor with “a faint blush upon the bosom and the face” and a ”suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip.” At the end of the story, she mysteriously emerges from her tomb, only to die with her brother. Madeline’s fleeting appearance in the story serves to heighten the horror and suspense of the situation. Some critics have suggested that Madeline’s illness is the result of a long history of incestual breeding in the Usher family; others believe that she possesses evil powers and is, in fact, a vampire.
Roderick Usher is the last surviving male of the Usher family. Like many of his ancestors, he has an artistic temperament, engaging in such activities as writing and playing music and painting. Described as extremely pale, with weblike hair and dark eyes, he is also a hypochondriac and is unable to tolerate such physical stimulation as bright light, the scent of flowers, and peculiar sounds. Believing that the Usher family estate is evil and that the Usher family is cursed, Roderick lives in a state of constant fear and agitation. When his twin sister Madeline dies, Roderick falls into even deeper despair and, according to the narrator, seems to be “laboring with some oppressive secret.” At the end of the story, Madeline emerges from her tomb, and they both die. Roderick’s anguished mental state and odd behavior have been interpreted in numerous ways. Some have speculated that he is agonizing over the Usher family secret of incest while others have suggested that Roderick represents the troubled artistic temperament. Finally, those who read “The Fall of the House of Usher” as purely a supernatural horror story state that Roderick represents evil.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edgar Allan Poe, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.