“The Fall of the House of Usher,” told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, is the story of twin siblings Roderick and Madeline Usher, the last surviving members of the Usher family.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” addresses the nature and causes of evil. Poe creates an atmosphere of evil in the story through the unnamed narrator’s descriptions of the Usher family home, and of Roderick and Madeline. For example, the house is called a “mansion of gloom”; Roderick is described as having “a ghastly pallor of the skin” and hair of “wild gossamer texture”; and Madeline, who the narrator sees only briefly before she dies, stirs up feelings of dread. Although the narrator is unsettled, shocked, and taken aback by his surroundings from the very beginning of the story, it is not clear what is causing such trepidation. When Roderick attempts to explain the cause of his ‘ ‘nervous agitation,” he states that it is “a constitutional and family evil,” suggesting that he and Madeline are somehow cursed. Some have speculated that the evil behind this ‘ ‘curse” is a long history of incest or family inbreeding within the Usher line and that both Roderick and Madeline are suffering the physical and emotional consequences of behavior almost universally condemned as immoral. Others, however, have stated that the evil permeating the story is of purely supernatural origin and that Roderick’s hysteria is not imagined but is a justifiable reaction to otherworldly forces.
The atmosphere of terror in the story is heightened by the ambiguity of Madeline’s character— she can be viewed with sympathy, because of her illness, or with suspicion. Some critics have even suggested that she is a vampire attempting to sap the life force from Roderick. The narrator also heightens the aura of evil in ‘ “The Fall of the House of Usher” because while he tries to view the situation objectively and rationally, despite his increasing feelings of foreboding, he ultimately succumbs to the evil pervading the Usher home. Some critics have, in fact, stated that the narrator himself is evil and that he, along with Roderick, knowingly buried Madeline alive and that he is deliberately trying to deceive the reader about what happened.
Madness and Insanity
The themes of madness and insanity grow from Poe’s depiction of Roderick’s increasingly unstable mental and emotional breakdown. Roderick is afflicted with numerous mysterious maladies. He suffers, as the narrator states, from “a morbid acuteness of the senses,” and he is overwhelmed by feelings of fear and anxiety. Roderick’s agitated mental state is also due, in part, to Madeline’s fatal illness, which causes her to become cataleptic—a state of extreme muscle rigidity and apparent unconsciousness. As the story progresses, Roderick attempts to relate his fear to the narrator and engages in numerous activities—including playing the guitar, creating a disturbing painting, and composing a lyric entitled “The Haunted Palace”—in an attempt to calm himself. He also reads books on the supernatural and the occult. As Roderick becomes increasingly hysterical, both the narrator and the reader are left to speculate on the causes of such strange behavior. It remains unclear, however, if Roderick’s malady is a psychological reaction to an incestual relationship with his sister or if he is, indeed, being possessed by evil forces. Nevertheless, Poe’s portrayal of Roderick’s deterioration raises important questions about the causes, stages, and effects of insanity.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edgar Allan Poe, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.