The introductory paragraph of “Fall of the House of Usher” (90-91) is a sharp plunge into the deep, haunting tone of this story. The language of the narrative immediately brings the reader into the surreal and horrific world of the Ushers as the unnamed narrator describes his approach to the exterior of the House of Usher. The description is itself sensational, arousing feelings of apprehension and claustrophobia in the reader meant to both convey and support some of the story’s larger themes and express a unified aesthetic feeling. And, irrespective of its particular function in this story, the passage is an example of Poe’s working beliefs regarding the purpose and formation of literary art. The most immediately striking aspect of the introductory paragraph is its bleak, haunting tone expressed in a winding manner. The very first line has the narrator spit out dreary adjectives, establishing a “dull, dark, and soundless” cloudy autumn day and placing himself in this setting alone on horseback traveling through a “dreary tract of country” towards a “melancholy” house. The building arouses “insufferable gloom” in the narrator with its “sternest natural images of the desolate [and] terrible.” The narrator dives into an evaluation of the house’s exterior: it is “mere” and “bleak” with “vacant” windows, “rank” sedges, and “decayed,” “white” tree trunks. The narrator feels an “utter depression of soul,” comparable to an opiate’s addict’s “after-dream,” a “bitter lapse,” and “the hideous dropping off of the veil.” He feels “an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart,” “an unredeemed dreariness of thought” that could not be “tortured” into the “sublime.” The narrator must “grapple with shadowy fancies” and is “forced” to accept an “unsatisfactory conclusion” with respect to the “simple natural objects” with a “power” to affect him. He hypotheses that it’s possible to “annihilate” this “sorrowful impression” and goes to a “precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn,” the reflection in which causes him to “shudder” while gazing down upon images of “the grade sedge, and the ghastly tree-stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows.” All of these key words and phrases are thrust at the reader within the confines of the very first paragraph of the story. The existence of a frightening tone is unmistakable: at least a half dozen metaphors for some sense of the word “gloomy” appear, particularly “bleak,” “decayed,” “dull,” “dark,” “shadowy,” and “ghastly.” The narrator describes the House’s in purely dark terms; there is no redeeming quality to be spoken of about the mansion’s facade. He is almost hysterical in his description — how could one structure be quite so funereal? The extremity of this paragraph accomplishes the difficult job of fluidly establishing the irredeemably dismal setting and tone for the rest of the story. Much as the narrator is unable to see the House for anything other than a haunting apparition, there is no let up whatsoever in his tone throughout the entire piece, and his sheer, un-breaking pessimism reflects the later events of the story, in which there is no let up in the horrors of the House and its inhabitants. Poe thus crafts a morbid stage of unrelenting misery and bleakness, precisely the appropriate tone and backdrop for this piece. While the tone of the introduction is fittingly bleak, there is a noticeable over-the-top, nearly absurd aspect of the narrator’s description. Many of the descriptive adverbs and adjectives in the paragraph are used in an unusual, metaphoric fashion. The clouds hung “oppressively low,” implying an intentionally pernicious nature. The narrator also speaks in intense absolutes: the “dreariness of thought” he experiences is “unredeemed”; he approaches a “precipitous brink,” a phrase that expresses dire anticipation. The narrator goes as far as to personify the House. He notes that it has “eye-like windows.” The house is “melancholy” — this can be read as either causing a gloomy state, yet it is more often interpreted as the state of gloom itself. He considers the possibility of the House simply being a series of “simple natural objects” to be an “unsatisfactory conclusion”: it could thus be complex, unnatural, living, or a combination of the three. In essence, the narrator’s large amount of concern about the House introduces the mansion as a character in its own right.The sheer extremity of the narrator’s hyperbole serves at least three visible purposes in the narrative. First, it implies that the narrator’s emotional state is relatively weak at the outset of the novel. Second, it braces the reader for the fantastic nature of the events to follow by credulously and seriously setting a mood that’s already both bleak and strongly surreal. It anticipates the connections between symbols, themes, and characters in the rest of the story. Third, the ambiguity and strangeness of the narrator’s descriptions elicit an appealing and artistic feeling of dramatic tension within the story.The House so strongly affects narrator that his spirit is pervaded with a “sense of insufferable gloom”; he doesn’t know why the mansion is causing this feeling within him. He ponders whether a supernatural aspect could be causing his pain during his approach of the House and goes as far as to attempt to change his actual angle of view of it. The narrator makes several asides throughout the jerky rhythm of the passage, explaining when he reflects and pauses to think, as if the mansion’s exterior were a puzzle and he were describing his thought process while actively trying to solve it. These stylistic elements form a valid question in the reader’s mind about the narrator’s mental and emotional health.Being so internally troubled by a dreary exterior seems odd to the reader, and the first view one gets of the narrator is that of a paranoid neurotic. Yet there exists another ambiguity here: is the narrator over-reacting, or is the House of Usher truly haunted? Or are the two symbiotic in their strangeness? The narrator is incapable of describing the House without injecting his own fear — the House is described in the context of its effects on the narrator. Similarly, the House’s only strong effect in this paragraph seems to be on the narrator, and the reader only realizes the estate’s woebegone nature through a singular character’s apprehensive descriptions. This creates an almost symbiotic relationship between the House and the narrator, one that foreshadows the relationships between Roderick and Madeline Usher, degenerates who complement each other, and between the physical House of Usher and the Usher family line. On the latter relationship, the fact that the narrator is so clearly linked to the House by virtue of his explicit reaction to it eases the reader into considering the House to be mystical, symbolic, and deeply linked to Roderick Usher’s own emotional state. At last, the narrator’s apprehension to the House in the first paragraph sets up the final scene of the story, in which the narrator flees in justified terror. Two major motifs of circumscription of space and symmetry that help form the entire story are born in this paragraph. The action here takes place entirely outside the House. However, the exterior elements are burdensome: it is a “dull, dark, and soundless day” in Autumn, and the clouds are hanging “oppressively low.” The narrator is traveling towards a “ghastly” House whose exterior deeply and adversely affected him. Instead of leaving immediately, he instead continues — trapped by a commitment that would be revealed later in the opening paragraphs — and mentally fixates on his the misery the House causes. The exterior has, essentially, begun to threaten his mind. The steadiness of the rhythm and the depth of the diction in the opening paragraph itself represent a form of claustrophobia. The heavy, brooding language comes from the narrator’s feelings towards the House, and the depth of the language even causes the reader to feel as oppressed as the narrator. This sensation of claustrophobia sets up the more serious cramped nature of the home’s interior. It steadily lays the foundation for the deep effect the House has on its secluded inhabitants, while the complex language builds a barrier between the reader and Roderick Usher, further defining the depths of Usher’s hermitage. There is, in addition, an element of symmetry in the opening paragraph. The narrator tries to see the House differently by looking at its reflection in a small lake, yet ultimately cannot see the House as any less horrifying. Symmetry is a major building block of the story as a whole. The House suffers from a fissure which, when extended, is the means of its physical destruction. (93, 109) The characters of Roderick and Madeline Usher are reflexive twins with complementary deformities: Roderick, a sensitive aesthete, lacks a physical connection to the world; his sister, a physically strong cataleptic, lacks a mental connection to the world, as evinced by her lack of presence in the story in contrast with Roderick’s relative garrulousness. There is symmetry in the unfolding of the events of the story as well. The narrator begins with his apprehensive arrival to the House; he ends fleeing from it. The circumscription of space and symmetry extend past their need to enhance the themes of the story, and can be understood as elements that enhance the story’s structure and focus. On the matter of circumscription of space, Poe wrote in “Philosophy of Composition”:[I]t has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident- it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place. (438)Thus, Poe maintains the concentration and mood of the story by enclosing the narrator and other characters in such a restricted, dreary atmosphere. Poe also wrote of his meticulous planning of a work from beginning to end, arguing that “every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before anything be attempted with the pen” (430). The visible elements of symmetry in story as a whole nearly echo Poe’s mathematical and systematic approach to the craft of writing. The structured order of the piece, which emanates from its composition, through its very form enhances the significant overtones of symmetry. The haunting flipped image of the House of Usher in a dark lake — perhaps through calculation on the part of Poe — neatly fits in with this structure. Perhaps the most significant function of the opening paragraph in “Fall of the House of Usher” is its effort in creating a strong sensation in the reader. As stated above, the extremity and the heaviness of the paragraph’s language foster a powerfully dark mood at the story’s outset and helps set off a steady tone, characterization, and major themes. This mood also has a calculated effect on the reader’s emotions. The jarring, descriptive, and surreal nature of the tone along with the heavily personal, internal, and exact manner of the narration brings the reader deep inside the story’s haunting atmosphere. This was almost certainly Poe’s intention. In “The Poetic Principle,” Poe also wrote about purpose of literary art with respect to “elevating the soul”:I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement. But all excitements are, through a psychal necessity, transient. That degree of excitement, which would entitle a poem to be so called at all, cannot be sustained throughout a composition of any great length. (449)The desire to skillfully create a unique sensation or excitement rests at the heart of Poe’s aesthetic. While the mechanics of forming a layered, structured, and intelligent piece are spread out around the whole of “Fall of the House of Usher,” every single paragraph, including the initial one, is replete with the strong, effective language of a dreary, ominous mood. Evaluation of the sum of the story’s paragraphs is unnecessary to see the strength of this form in any one individual excerpt. It is overt in this paragraph, as in the specific Gothic language described above, which serves as more than a backdrop to the story’s events. It comprises the flesh of the story, the language that deeply affects readers as much as the plot, conflict, and characters, which are fully developed in subsequent paragraphs. Poe’s aesthetic incorporates the ideal of art for the sake of art. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” he wrote “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem” (433). He defined this Beauty as:excitement or pleasurable elevation of the soul. It by no means follows, from anything here said, that passion, or even truth, may not be introduced, and even profitably introduced, into a poem for they may serve in elucidation, or aid the general effect, as do discords in music, by contrast- but the true artist will always contrive, first, to tone them into proper subservience to the predominant aim, and, secondly, to unveil them, as far as possible, in that Beauty which is the atmosphere and the essence of the poem. (434)All of these aesthetic sensibilities are certainly evident in the opening paragraph. Here is a paragraph that sets an unmistakable mood, creates tension, offers characterization, echoes some of the overarching themes of the composition, and, at last, manages to create a beautiful and passionate sensation within the reader. The concept of sensation as evident here, and it is a key element of the Decadent aesthetic. Indeed, the narrator, almost impersonating the reader, describes the House of Usher in terms of his immediate perception of and emotional reaction to the exterior features: he “paused to think,” says that he knows “not what it was,” and bombards the reader with introspective rhetorical questions asking what “so unnerved” him about the House. The narrator is, perhaps, nearly a Decadent reader himself, and the meticulous “details of the picture” which Poe has painted into the House of Usher is nearly a work all by itself.
In his comprehensive introduction to Gothic Tales Baldick outlines the vital role that Edgar Alan Poe, and in particular his first Gothic tale ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, played in redefining the genre: ‘Poe ensured that whereas before him the keynote of Gothic fiction had been cruelty, after him it could be decadence’. Although Poe altered some conventions of the Gothic, he still maintained in his tales the important function that this genre had in literature: to subvert the dominant ideologies of a contemporary society, a function which it still performs today. The principle technique the Gothic employs to subvert the dominant is to displace the narrative to a past setting. This makes it less threatening to the dominant since it appears to be a description of ideologies that no longer exist. In ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, the house of the title performs the task of displacing the reader to a past time because of its heritage, despite the fact that the narrative actually appears to take place at the time that the text was written. It is through the house, what it represents, and the domains of possible worlds constructed within its narrative that Poe has managed to formulate a critique not solely targeted at the bourgeoisie but also at the aristocracy and at gender roles in society. Equally important in the construction of Poe’s critique are the roles the protagonists of the text (Roderick, Madeline and the narrator) enact within the different domains and textual worlds in the text.Secrets play a crucial part in the construction of the Gothic narrative and thus have become a convention of the textual Gothic world. The concealment of secrets creates an atmosphere of fear and approaching horror, which has become a characteristic of the genre. A distinguishingly Gothic world is one of anxiety, apprehension and terror of impending but unidentifiable doom or disaster. When the narrator in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ first approaches the mansion he is immediately struck by this all-pervading Gothic atmosphere: ‘with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable, for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment with which the mind usually received even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible’ (p. 85). Hence, within the first paragraph of the story Poe has already constructed in the reader a sense of apprehension and knowledge that something sinister or unnatural is surely to happen. Poe is providing the reader with a gateway into the Gothic world of the text; a world which is dominated not only by a desolate landscape but also populated by persecuted characters (usually female) situated within the claustrophobic boundaries of a historical castle or home. Although the Gothic home is somehow endless because of its tunnels and secret passages, it also offers no escape and therefore no sense of closure; the hero or heroine must find a way to escape its confines in order for the narrative to have closure.The house of the Ushers forms an integral part of the text, not just as the conventional site of the supernatural activity found in Gothic narratives but also as a symbolic version of the family which has inhabited that house for generations but is now coming to an end. To be able to demonstrate the power of the house and those who reside in it, the author has divided the house into two interlocking domains: the outside of the house, which represents the natural and rational world, and the inside of the house, where madness, irrationality and the supernatural rule. The narrator forms the threshold (for the readers) between the two domains. The narrator moves from the outside world to the world inside the house that is dying and is encroaching on the natural world surrounding it: ‘I looked upon the scene before me upon the mere house and the simple landscape features of the domain upon the bleak walls upon the vacant eye-like windows…upon a few white trunks of decayed trees.’ (p.85). The ‘decayed trees’ depict how the corruption and calamity within the house is affecting the world around it. Moving closer to the house, the narrator is further struck by the deterioration of the building, ‘ I scanned the scene more narrowly the real aspect of the building…minute fungi had overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves…yet…no portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be…the crumbling condition of individual stones’. In this example one could argue the individual decayed stones of the building represent the degeneration of the entire house. However, there also appears to be some inexplicable force that keeps the house erect when it presumably should have collapsed a long time ago. Inside the house is a perfect example of the dark, claustrophobic but somehow endless spaces celebrated in Gothic fictions: ‘the windows were long, narrow, and pointed…the general furniture was profuse, comfortless…I felt I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow’ (p.88). Still permeating within the recesses of the house is the feeling of impending doom which now must surely be linked to the house and therefore to the Usher family which resides in it. The creation of the house as a symbol for the corruption and decay that lives in the Ushers is a critique of the traditional system of inheritance of title and property by aristocratic families, usually left to the first-born son.The aristocracy had for generations maintained power and wealth through inheritance down family lines but the bourgeoisie overthrew that line of power by emerging as a ‘self-made’ class. Even if past generations had squandered all the family’s money, most aristocratic families still maintained their ancestral house or mansion, which therefore become a metonym for the power they still sustained over the public. It is possible that the current desolate state of the Usher family is a result of their attempts to maintain their title and wealth within family members and thereby committing the taboo of incest, ‘I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honoured as it was, had put forth at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in direct line of decent, and had always…'(p.86). It is well documented in historical texts that inbreeding was prevalent within European aristocracy in an attempt to retain power. Hence, Poe is subverting the preservation of titles within aristocratic families rather than the usurpation of titles. However, by the period that ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ was published (1839), the bourgeoisie had established itself as the ruling class. Hence, Poe’s critique must have also been directed towards them and not solely the aristocracy.With the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the economic structure which it formed, it become imperative that women remain in the private (that is, domestic) sphere in order to sustain that structure. This created both a binary between the private and the public spheres, and also gendered domains within the textual worlds. Although I will later argue that Roderick and his sister Madeline are essentially different versions of the same character, it is through their genders that they occupy different textual domains, the female and the male. Roderick immediately inhabits the male domain and hence the behaviours that are associated with being male in a patriarchal society, such as control of others. Although the text does not contain many instances in which Roderick asserts his patriarchal power, we know that ultimately he controls Madeline. The clearest example of this is when the narrator and Roderick place Madeline, whom they believe to be dead but who is in fact still alive, in a vault underneath the house. The vault itself signifies the underworld, since it is situated below the house and therefore beneath the ground level, like a grave. This scene is suggestive of how patriarchy imprisons women within the domestic realm because they pose a threat to its power; both Roderick and the male narrator entomb the unconscious female not only in the vault but also within the coffin: ‘We replaced and screwed down the lid, and, having secured the door of iron, made our way’ (p.95). The full horror of Madeline’s imprisonment is not realised until the reader is made aware that she has been, in fact, buried alive and that Roderick has been aware of that fact for some time but has done nothing to ratify their mistake: ‘We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them many, many nights ago…yet…I dared not speak’ (p. 100). Also, even while still ‘living’, Madeline was little more than a passing presence in the house, which, in some ways, represented the small amount of power that women held in those times and their submissiveness to male authority: ‘the lady Madeline (for so was she called) passed through a remote portion of the apartment, and without having noticed my presence, disappeared’ (p.90) and ‘the glimpse I had obtained of her person would probably be the last I should obtain that the lady, at least while living, would be seen by me no more’ (p.90-91). Although I do not dispute that Roderick controls Madeline in the same way that patriarchy controls women, I propose now to explore how these two characters are linked within the text.Apart from the fact they are twins, the main link between the two siblings is that they both occupy the threshold between the life and death domains. Neither is dead, but both are stricken with a mysterious illness and are anticipating death; their morbidity is almost fatalistic, in that they have both resigned themselves to the certainty of a premature death. Both characters are described in almost ghastly and unnatural terms: ‘A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison’ (p. 88). Both characters suffer from madness: Roderick’s madness is a certainty ‘his countenance, was, as usual, cadaverously wan but, moreover, there was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes an evident restrained hysteria in his whole demeanour’ (p.96). The reader has also made the assumption that Madeline is equally mad, the result of generations of inbreeding: ‘that silence yet importunate and terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family’ (p.94). Ultimately, even though they occupy the same threshold between life and death, it is Roderick’s presence in a different gender domain which brings about the eventual downfall of the Ushers. The burial alive of his sister and her return triggers the collapse of the house, thereby destroying not only them but the legacy of the Ushers: ‘[she] fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, and in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.’ And ‘my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushed asunder…and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the ‘House of Usher” (p.100-101). What Roderick did in imprisoning Madeline may be seen as the physical manifestation of what he was doing to himself in his psyche, the coffin in which he entombed Madeline being symbolic of the house in which he had become entombed. By imprisoning Madeline he was forcing the end on both of them. The narrator’s presence inside the house, and the destruction of it, as well as his ability to flee that destruction, symbolises how the natural world around the house in some way caused its collapsed.Despite ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ being scarcely 15 pages long, it has managed to occupy three different domains: the house, the gender domain and the living dead domain. It is through the characters’ movement between these worlds and domains, and the relationships with each other, that Poe has been able to create a subversive text. By creating two characters, who are essentially the same, Roderick and Madeline, but who occupy different gender domains, Poe has also been able to defamiliarise gender relations. When you have a house that conceals rather than reveals knowledge and is riddled with madness and unexplainable illnesses, and a doctor who is untrustworthy, you have formed a very powerful adversary to that privileged by the dominant.
It is, arguably, a fallacy to use the word ‘influence’ when considering how Poe developed the Gothic genre in his own literature in light of his predecessors. The overtones of ‘derivation’ in the word risk unfairly discrediting the influence that Poe himself had on the genre. It should not be forgotten that Poe is widely credited as being one of the earliest authors to consolidate the American Gothic into a more potent and tangible form. In considering the influence of his predecessors, it is therefore most conducive to examine how Poe built upon, and indeed improved, the legacy of European and American Gothic literature that went before him.At the risk of drawing arbitrary comparisons, the stylistic traits of Gothic fiction that Poe inherits are almost instantly obvious in both his works and those of his predecessors. In her book The Coherence of Gothic Conventions, Eve Sedgwick lists several “certain characteristic preoccupations” of Gothic fiction, amongst which she includes “doubles … unnatural echoes or silences, unintelligible writings, and the unspeakable … nocturnal landscapes” and the “story within a story”, all of which can be traced through Gothic heritage to Poe. Gothic landscapes are an instant example. The frequent pathetic fallacy in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, such as the “dreary night of November” when Victor Frankenstein’s creation is given life, the backdrop of castles and monasteries in Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and The Monk, and the “gnarled, and fantastic” tulip tree by which the main horrific action in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow takes place are all the natural ancestors of the memorable opening passage of The Fall of the House of Usher “the bleak walls … the vacant eye-like windows … a few rank sedges” and the subsequent storm that surrounds the story’s climax.The employment of layered narration in Gothic novels is also a clear inheritance. Poe’s preferred use of the first person narrator, even as a stylistic trait, can be seen to be taken directly from such novels as Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, narrated by Clara, and Frankenstein, which at one point reaches a most complex layer of narration when Shelley is telling the story of Walton recording the story of Frankenstein recalling the story told by his creation. The narration of the main theme through a life story in the manner of these novels is used by Poe in stories such as William Wilson (itself a variant on the Gothic theme of the double). Irving was likewise fond of using layers of narration through the device of the discovered manuscript another Gothic trademark for example, in the stories of his alter ego Diedrich Knickerbocker, collected and edited by his ‘other’ alter ego Geoffrey Crayon in The Sketch Book. The ‘discovered manuscript’ device is of course employed by Poe in M.S. Found in a Bottle, the fragmented diary format of which can be seen echoed in another Gothic novel, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.M.S. Found in a Bottle is also an excellent example of the other Gothic trait quoted from Sedgwick above, namely “the unspeakable”. Whilst the narrator’s story, and the voyage of the Discovery, are inexorably drawn towards “some exciting knowledge some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction”, the broken and interrupted format of the narration likewise creates a sense of omission to the piece, that curious details, despite the meticulous recording of the narrator, are being perforce excluded due to the bizarre situation in which he is trapped. The pervasion of “the unspeakable” in Gothic fiction can be traced as far back as the European novels. Frankenstein’s refusal to impart the secret of life that he discovered, because it will inevitably lead to “destruction and infallible misery”, is an early example. More outstanding is Walpole’s dramatic and schematic use of the technique in The Castle of Otranto. Passim, he narrates that “words cannot paint the horror” of the tale he records. Isabella “cannot speak” of Manfred’s evil plan of divorce and marriage, whilst Manfred himself eventually “cannot utter” the terrible crimes that he has committed as he tries to repent to Hippolita. As well as dramatically increasing the atmosphere of profane horror about the events unfolding, Walpole uses it to prevent vital plot points from being revealed and thus prolonging the tension. An excellent example is Isabella’s rescue by the mysterious figure who transpires to be Theodore, where they are constantly interrupted from discovering the other’s identity by each other and the action around them.On a closer level, we might examine specific instances of direct influence. In his introduction to The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings, David Galloway points out that we may “trace the growth of the detective story” in Poe’s work, to which he cites Arthur Conan Doyle as owing a debt of gratitude. This growth nominally refers to the investigations of Poe’s logician C. Dupin in such stories as The Murders in the Rue Morgue. The tone of this particular tale is arguably inspired, at least in part, by such passages in Gothic fiction as the account that Frankenstein gives of the murder of his friend, Henry Clarvel. The evidence is presented to the reader in the formal tones of a police report. The corpse is revealed asa handsome young man, about five and twenty years of age. He had apparently been strangled, for there was no sign of any violence except the black mark of fingers on his neck.There are distinct echoes of this tone and subject matter in the newspaper report that Poe offers of the Rue Morgue tragedy:The body was quite warm … Upon the face were many severe scratches, and, upon the throat, dark bruises, and deep indentations of finger nails, as if the deceased had been throttled to death.Even more striking is the inclusion of evidence in each story, in the form of reports taken down from witnesses. In Frankenstein these include “Daniel Nugent … a woman … another woman” and “several other men” whilst in The Murders in the Rue Morgue the witnesses have been broadened to a spectrum across different races and professions. In each text a new paragraph is laid out for each witness’s statement. We should also remember that the original murder of William by the creature in Frankenstein had an element of ‘detective story’ to it, as the reader’s suspicions are lead on and it is only in the creature’s narration that he admits himself the murderer and the mystery of the picture in Justine’s possession is explained. Although this is to a large extent speculation, and it must be acknowledged that Poe develops the idea into a much more curious and tense mystery, there is nonetheless a distinct influence in style and plot organisation from the former story to the latter.It is particularly this point of development of ideas that must be emphasised, however, in regarding Poe’s works in the light of his predecessors. This is especially true in considering the influence of the early Gothic conventions of Frankenstein. In many respects this novel quite naturally demonstrates vestiges of the Romantic tradition, in that it is concerned with the power of the imagination and the exploration of the self. Frankenstein himself describes passim how it was his “imagination” that sealed his destiny and made the awful events of the novel possible. Upon discovering the secret of life, he comments “my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex … as man”. It is that same imagination that conjures up the terrors should he succeed in making a partner for his creation, resolving him to abandon the work and thus seal the doom of his loved ones. Throughout these events, but particularly in his early life, Shelley is at pains to examine the moments such as the emotive speech on his first day at Ingolstadt that drive Frankenstein on, laying bare the character’s psychology.Yet in these vestiges of Romance we can see the Gothic conventions emerging, and it is upon these that Poe draws in a tale markedly parallel to Frankenstein William Wilson. Frankenstein is a classic paranoid hero in the Gothic tradition, and his paranoia over the actions of his creation is of course fuelled by his imaginative ramblings. A similar, even more irrational hatred is inspired in Wilson (whose undisclosed true name is another testimony to the Gothic “unspeakable”) towards his namesake, whose “affectionateness” he attributes to “a consummate self-conceit assuming the vulgar airs of patronage and protection” and devotes considerable energy to humiliating, hurting, and finally murdering his double. Frankenstein and his creation, who are “bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us”, become two parts of the same entity creator and created that Sedgwick calls a “mirrored monstrosity”, where all the most evil elements of Frankenstein and indeed mankind are displaced into his creation.The “mirrored monstrosity” germinating in Frankenstein is brought to fruition by Poe in William Wilson but with a darker, more complicated twist; the narrator himself transpires to be the evil incarnation of Wilson, whilst his eternal opponent is his conscience, thwarting his indulgences in luxury and deceit. Moreover it is realised in the classic Gothic convention of the doppelganger, as the antagonist is finally revealed “even in the most absolute identity” to be the narrator’s inexplicable twin (and it is notable that, in doing so, Wilson ambiguously thinks he is looking into a mirror). Even the narrator’s chosen pseudonym, “William Wilson”, contains the syllable ‘Wil’ reflected in each half of the name.Sedgwick also speaks of the conventional Gothic tableau of two men Frankenstein and his creation locked in pursuit at the beginning and end of the novel, but here again Poe excels in creating a spectacular tableau. The climax of the story after the exciting pursuit and sword fight sees the slain Wilson becoming the narrator’s own mirror image, bloodied and proclaiming “how utterly thou hast murdered thyself”. In doing so, Poe not only creates a more melodramatic image but also explores his own Gothic preoccupation of the Imp of the Perverse particularly with the ambiguity of the mirror image, the whole story may be construed as a psychological delusion in which William Wilson is struggling against, and eventually defeats, himself. The power of the imagination within one being is given an even greater and more lethal strength. Poe thus consolidates his issues, similar to those raised in Frankenstein, in a more palpably provocative and extreme manner, engaging more of what would become the Gothic mode.Similar examples of Poe’s development of Gothic fiction from his predecessors may be found in comparison between himself and Washington Irving. In his introduction to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories (a reprint of The Sketch Book), William Hedges points out that Irving is “generally credited with inventing the short story as a distinct genre”. Here Poe clearly owes a debt of gratitude for his constant preference of the ‘tale’ over the longer novel in his works, yet Poe may still be seen to be the superior Gothic writer. Undoubtedly, Poe gleaned Gothic stylistic traits from Irving’s work among others. The haunting echo of Rip Van Winkle’s own voice to emphasise his acute solitude resembles Poe’s own use of the technique in The Raven, whilst the cancerous effect of ill-fortune and guilt upon Roderick Usher is reminiscent of the anxiety of Geoffrey Crayon’s friend Leslie in The Wife.Nevertheless, Poe’s work is considerably more horrific than Irving’s. In her Coherence of Gothic Conventions, Sedgwick makes a poignant definition of Gothic fiction as being that which has an “aesthetic based on pleasurable fear”, and Irving’s stories frequently fail to live up to this watermark. In The Mutability of Literature, for example, the discovery of a talking book is initially greeted with nothing more terrible than “utter astonishment”, and within lines Irving and the reader feel comfortable enough to patronise this bizarre event by referring to the book as “an exceedingly fluent conversable little tome”. To be fair, Irving’s preoccupation in this tale is clearly the rapidity with which literature becomes obsolete rather than scaring his reader.Yet even in his more ‘frightening’ tales Irving is not as spectacular as Poe. The conclusion of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, for example, does not finish with the potentially terrifying attack of the Hessian upon Ichabod Crane, but rather with a slow winding down of the tension and an addendum by the ‘author’ Knickerbocker that the story may not be true. Poe is far more adept at creating horror in his narrative, and in fairness to Irving this is only a relevant criticism in the field of Gothic fiction. Comparing, for example, the two author’s treatment of the same subject in The Wife and The Fall of the House of Usher, Irving depicts his paranoid hero in the more restrained vein of “sickly and vapid attempts at cheerfulness”, whilst Poe takes great pains over the deathly apparition of Roderick Usher:Surely, man had never before so terribly altered … as Roderick Usher! … A cadaverousness of complexion; a large eye, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve …Equally, Irving’s story breaks the Gothic mould by allowing his hero and heroine to recover in complete happiness, as opposed to Poe’s melodramatic storm, the raising of the dead and the destruction of a family and house. In fairness to Irving the intent of his story is to consider how wonderful it is for a woman to be “the comforter and supporter of her husband under misfortune”, and he certainly redeems himself in The Broken Heart, yet this only proves how Poe develops and improves upon his influences to create more powerful Gothic fiction.Poe’s treatment of the paranoid hero is likewise a generally more empathic and horrifically effective portrayal than in his predecessors. The classic example is of course The Tell-Tale Heart, which benefits over more reserved portrayals of paranoids, such as Dudley in Ormond and Manfred in The Castle of Otranto, through Poe’s use of the first person narrative. The narrator’s madness is shown from his very first, bizarrely non-sequitur exclamation of “True!”, followed by his paranoid raving at the reader that he is “very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say I’m mad?” His attempts to assert his own rationality with the reader are thoroughly undermined, as his madness escalates, by his broken and delirious narrative:It grew louder louder louder! … Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! no, no! They heard! they suspected! they knew! … and now again! hark! louder! louder! louder!With an excess of brief, one-word exclamations, fragmented comments and hyphenated text, Poe communicates the paranoia and guilt consuming his Gothic hero far more effectively than a third person narrative ever could.It is evident that Poe has been influenced by the legacy of Gothic literature that was available to him. In subject matter and form, stylistic traits and even occasional uses of precise tone and motifs, Poe illustrates that his predecessors have had a profound effect on him. What is equally evident, however, is that Poe made the mode of Gothic fiction his own and, in considering his influences, it becomes more apparent how Poe was a critically creative impetus in shaping the American Gothic as we perceive it.
Gothic literature focuses on the darkest aspects of humanity. It was written in response to the change the authors faced in everyday life, as well as the challenges of world events. Gothic literature is a sub genre of the Romantic Movement, a movement focused on honor, integrity, and justice. Physical elements, for instance mysterious setting and atmosphere, along with supernatural elements create tones of high emotion and gloom in gothic literature. Authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allen Poe embodied the spirit of this movement through famous works such as The House of Usher and The Scarlet Letter. These writings helped make gothic literature the influential genre that it is now. Other aspects of gothic literature are the oppressed heroine and the women in distress. Both of these aspects deal with the same thing: female characters. Mary Ellen Snodgrass analyzes the importance of female characters in Jane Eyre. She writes from a unique feminist perspective: that the oppressed heroin in the story serves as an outlet to voice concerns about the repression of women in careers, marriage, and treatment. Ultimately, gothic literature is an extension of the romantic era that is merged with horrors tones in order for authors to commentate on current events and social situations like women in society. This can be shown through Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Edgar Allen Poe’s The House of Usher.
Snodgrass analyzes women’s feministic qualities in gothic literature. She mentions an innovative feminist criticism written by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Along with Snodgrass, they analyzed women and their role in gothic literature. Snodgrass, Gilbert, and Gubar focus on the characters of Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason Rochester, from the novel Jane Eyre. These characters are considered to be foils of each other. While they are opposites, their situations are similar. Their communities at school, home, and work ostracize both women. Because Bertha is a “deranged version of Jane” she can be used as a “means of venting outrage at a repressive society that suppressed the voices of career women”. This proves that because both characters are oppressed and ostracized, they symbolize the need for a positive change and creating equality.
Hawthorne’s character Hester Prynne serves to be a voice for all women while in the gothic boundaries of being an oppressed heroine. As the main character, Prynne gains sympathy from the readers. They see things from her perspective rather than the perspective of the persecuting townspeople. Although shunned by the townspeople, she is able to successfully raise a child and have a carrier. The idea of a single mother providing for her and family was a difficult idea to comprehend. This is a feminist message because, while she still falls under the oppressed heroine category, she is able to do accomplish tasks that were considered abnormal for women. The gothic novel, The Scarlet Letter, comments on a social issue in society.
Madeline Usher, from Poe’s The House of Usher, is another example of a strong feminist message. Though it may not seem like it, since Madeline is bed ridden for most of the story and does not speak a single word, she puts forward a very forward-minded message. This message being: if women do not speak out they will be buried alive. To clarify, Madeline suffers not only from mental disease but also from the inability to speak out and partake in the same activities that her brother can does. To put it simply, Madeline is an ordinary nineteenth century woman. Poe warns that by not attempting to be more than the label that society places on woman, women’s abilities, beliefs, and ideas will be forgotten or buried, just as Madeline was buried. However, the idea that Madeline ‘rose from the dead’ suggests that this is not a message consisting solely of gloom but of hope. This hope is that women will be able to rise above society’s expectations and create equality.
In closing, gothic, a subgenre of romantic literature, incorporates horror tones to show the darkest aspects of humanity and respond to social situations, specifically women’s position in society. Along with the critique by Mary Ellen Snodgrass, The Scarlet Letter and The House of Usher show the importance of women characters and how they send the necessary message of the importance of respect for women. Snodgrass’s analysis focuses on the novel Jane Eyre. A feminist message is highlighted through contrasting characters, known as Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason Rochester. Snodgrass specially notes the outrage that women express to denounce their oppressive society. Another piece of writing that exemplifies the gothic elements is The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne’s position in her community allows her to overcome the idea of women’s dependence on others through her carrier and ability to raise a child. Lastly, Edgar Allen Poe uses Madeline Usher as a metaphor for women’s ideas and beliefs. Usher symbolizes the idea that women are in control of their destiny and that they need to rise from society’s small expectations and fulfill their own great ones.
SAAR, LEZLEY. “Madwoman In The Attic: The Female Gothic In 19Th Century Literature.” Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire 14.2 (2014): 128-133. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 Jan. 2015.
Like many gothic stories, the link between the exterior and the interior in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ becomes an exploration of into the human psyche. Critic Sara Wasson recently claimed that gothic fiction anticipated psychoanalysis – the genre was already unpacking phenomenon of the human psyche almost a hundred years before Freud spilled ink over the same endeavor. As such Poe’s story becomes a fascinating study into how setting and characterization become mentally symbolic within the genre, and the collapse of the house becomes an almost literal embodiment of Freud’s collapse of the “heimlich” (homely/canny) into the “unheimlich” (unhomely/uncanny). Firstly, the mood at the beginning of the story is one of apprehension as the first person narrator travels towards the decaying mansion. This mood is evoked particularly through the use of pathetic fallacy as the “clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens”, evoking a sense of gothic claustrophobia. Moreover, the use of the word “heavens” connotes a relationship between nature and the divine. Yet in this instance the narrator is not stirred by the sublime and instead feels a sense of “insufferable gloom”. Indeed, arguably the narrator’s interior emotions project themselves onto the setting, particularly as he approaches the “melancholy House of Usher”. The Usher family are presented as eccentric and artistic, bound not to the science of enlightenment but instead to “musical science” and paintings. Their ancestry lies in a direct line of descent, with no branches, suggesting their family line is incestual. Roderick Usher self-describes the family as an “ancient race”: the family are presented as both archaic and “the other”; a deviation from the norm. Roderick Usher himself has a somewhat vampiric appearance that is simultaneously damaged by an unnamed illness, as expressed in his “pallid” complexion, yet also somewhat alluring with the nose of “a delicate Hebrew model” and lips with a “beautiful” curve. His illness, whether genuine or one of hypochondria, plagues him with a sort of hyper-sensory overload – he can’t stand certain types of food, music and even odors. His senses restrict him from anything with vitality such as the smell or flowers, light or the taste of good food. He is an embodiment of gothic qualities. We might wish to compare this to another of Poe’s works, the poem “The Haunted Palace”, which likewise depicts a palace once full of life, plagued with “evil things” that corrupt it, and leave it a shadow of its former self. Much like the House of Usher, there is the sense that the mansion is haunted by its own history, as the spirits that once moved “musically” in life, now move to a “discordant melody” in death: music becomes akin to a life-force. The descriptive details of the interior of the house suggest that the narrator has entered a realm that is quite different from the ordinary world – the interior of the house is one which lacks all sense of “vitality”, and the “atmosphere of sorrow” becomes physically tangible for the narrator, as he feels he is breathing it in. The appearance of both the interior and exterior of the house related to Usher’s appearance and to the condition of his mind. I would argue the house is an externalization of the Usher’s interior mind, and a reflection of his outward appearance. The house is decayed and old yet still just about held together as “no portion of the masonry had fallen”, thus much like Usher himself, the house is on brink of collapse. Moreover, the narrator uses body imagery for the house, referring repeatedly to its eye-like windows. This is paralleled in his descriptions of Usher throughout the story, as the narrator continuously refers to his eyes as evidence of his mental deterioration. The use of twins also epitomizes this play between the interior and exterior – the siblings have both a connection in physical appearance but also a psychic and emotional connection. Historically this connection between twins is scientifically true, but it is also surrounded in myths that go back throughout history, reinforcing the link between the exterior, supernatural and the psychological. Some critics have gone as far as to argue that Madeline and Roderick are actually physical and mental components of the same being. I would concur with this analysis: it is suggested throughout that both characters are linked, for example the curved lips of Madeline’s supposed corpse are reflected in the lips of Roderick when she remerges. As Madeline physically declines it appears that Roderick mentally declines: arguably he buries Madeline alive to speed up the process, yet this leaves him in a state of delirium. Both characters die together, Madeline dies of physical causes and Roderick dies of mental causes (terror). Perhaps their doubling anticipated Freud’s later analysis of the double, as he states in his seminal essay on the uncanny: “the “double” was originally an insurance against destruction to the ego, an “energetic denial of the power of death,” as Rank says; and probably the “immortal” soul was the first “double” of the body”. As the double in intertwined with self-protection of the ego, the twins become part of a self-sustained, co-dependent psychic whole. They appear to be dependent on one another for their continued survival, ultimately suggested through their simultaneous death at the climax of the novel which coincides with the collapse of the house – the exterior and interior are invariably intertwined. Ultimately then, Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ is particularly compelling – like many other gothic texts – in how it anticipates psychological studies that were not to be explored until decades after its publication. The settings are not only environmental but become exploration of the interior landscape of the characters: an exploration that is uncanny in its linking of a homely environment on the brink of collapse, with characters who share a doubled identity. Inevitably both end in destruction – Poe’s gothic story fasciliates a psychological study under a fictional guise.
The mind-body divide, or mind-body dualism, was a philosophical theory that gained popularity in the seventeenth century and flourished thereafter. In this theory, the mind and body are separate entities, and in literature, this meant that men were normally representative of the mind and women were normally representative of the body. One example of this can be seen in Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Through analyzing Descartes’ idea of substance mind-body dualism and the subsequent idea of interactionism, it becomes apparent that the characters of Roderick and Madeline Usher are representative of the mind and body respectively and influence one anther accordingly.
Classically, the idea of mind-body dualism originated with the ideas of Plato and Aristotle; however, the more modern versions of dualism, known as substance dualism, are more firmly grounded in René Descartes’ Meditations. In this work, he argues that there are “two kinds of substance: matter, of which the essential property is that it is spatially extended; and mind, of which the essential property is that it thinks” (Robinson). In simpler terms, Descartes believed that humans possess a physical, material body and a contemplative mind, both of which are separated form one another. Similarly, because matter and mind are two separate forms of substance, they can function independently of one another. Descartes believed, “Bodies are machines that work according to their own laws. Except where there are minds interfering with it, matter proceeds deterministically, in its own right” (Robison). Basically, Descartes argued that the body and the mind can function independently: the mind can think without the help of the body, and the body can operate without thought. Descartes’ theory of substance dualism eventually morphed into the theory of interactionism. Interactionism has the same general principles of substance dualism but additionally posits, “mind and body—or mental events and physical events—causally influence each other” (Robinson). With interactionism, the mind and body are separate entities; however, they can also interfere, and therefore influence, one another when need be.
If, as Descartes argues, the mind and body are two separate substances, the characters of Roderick and Madeline Usher represent these two features respectively. In Roderick’s letter to the narrator, he states that he has a “mental disorder which oppressed him” (Poe 104). On arriving at the house, the narrator learns that, Roderick has “a mere nervous affliction” and that “He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses,” meaning that all of his senses are heightened, causing him to have adverse reactions to particular scents, sights, sounds, textures, and tastes (Poe 107). One’s senses are registered in the brain and made sense of by the mind. If all of Roderick’s senses are heightened, there is cause to believe this is a mental, or at least a neurological, issue. Additionally, Roderick is not only plagued with a vulnerability of the senses but also an ever-growing terror. He explains to the narrator, “I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of the soul…I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon all life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR” (Poe 107). Roderick is increasingly paranoid and is fully aware that he may soon lose his mind. This paranoia stems from mental distress and culminates in fear, only causing Roderick more distress. Both his paranoia and his “acuteness of senses,” are unable to be seen or experienced by anyone other than himself, implying that his illness is entirely mental. Because his disease inhabits his mind as opposed to his body, Roderick is able to become the physical representation of the mind.
Alternately, Madeline’s illness is entirely physical. The narrator states, “The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skill of her physician. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character, were the unusual diagnosis,” (Poe 108) and that Madeline has a “malady of a strictly cataleptical character” (Poe 112). In order to determine the exact nature of her illness, one must look further into the term “cataleptical.” According to Peter Wolf, “Epilepsy and catalepsy were not clearly separated in the minds of people in the early 19th century, and catalepsy may have been used as a diagnostic euphemism for epilepsy” (288). From this definition of the term, one can infer that Madeline was suffering from frequent seizures. The most notable element of seizures is convulsions, which cause the sufferer to shake or jerk uncontrollably. These convulsions are undoubtedly a bodily symptom, as they can be seen and experienced by others. Both Madeline’s “gradual wasting away of the person” and tendencies toward seizures lend themselves to the idea that Madeline’s illness is entirely in the body, allowing her to represent the body as Roderick represents the mind.
Roderick and Madeline represent the mind and the body respectively, asserting themselves as an example of substance dualism; however, Roderick’s state after Madeline is entombed introduces the idea of interactionism. Almost immediately after Madeline is laid to rest, Roderick begins to change drastically: And now, some days of bitter grief having elapsed, an observable change came over the features of the mental disorder of my friend. His ordinary manner had vanished. His ordinary occupations were neglected or forgotten. He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step. The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue – but the luminousity of his eye had utterly gone out. The once occasional huskiness of his tone was heard no more; and a tremulous quaver, as if of extreme terror, habitually characterized his utterance. (Poe 112) Whether it is because he does not know how to function without his twin or he possibly suspects she is not dead, Roderick begins to literally go mad. With the body trapped and decaying in a tomb, the mind is influenced to act accordingly. His “nervous affliction” continues to grow worse and is reflected in both his actions and his appearance. As time goes on, Roderick’s mental state begins to decline even more so. In the final pages of the story, both the narrator and Roderick begin to hear screaming, grating noises, and the narrator states, “I saw that his lips trembled as if he were murmuring inaudibly. His head had dropped upon his breast – yet I knew that he was not asleep, from the wide and rigid opening of the eye as I caught a glance of it in profile. The motion of his body, too, was at variance with this idea – for he rocked from side to side with a gentle yet constant and uniform sway” (Poe 115). At this point, the narrator and the reader can infer that Roderick has completely lost sight of reality. Both the body and mind are slowly dying, and each one is influencing the other. Roderick’s paranoid state caused him to entomb Madeline in the first place, an example of the mind influencing the body, and, because of this, Madeline is fighting in her grave causing Roderick to go mad, an example of the body influencing the mind.
With the theories of substance dualism and interactionism in mind, one can draw parallels between the characters of Roderick and Madeline Usher and the mind and body respectively and more easily determine how they influence one another. The mind and body are independent of one another, but, when they deem it necessary, they interact and influence each other. This is the case with Roderick and Madeline and their chilling final moments. In the end, both the mind and the body are destroyed due to this power-struggle, ultimately causing the fall of the house and the Usher name.
As the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” thinks to himself when he is unnerved by the sight of the story’s titular house, “while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth” (Poe 200). While his story’s narrator is unable to describe what about the house specifically bothers him so, Poe himself does not seem to believe that such considerations are truly “beyond our depth,” and even wrote a humorous essay titled “The Philosophy of Furniture” to describe the effects of different interior arrangements. Though the essay was written to make fun of the tone of contemporary philosophy essays, its claims seem to be reflected in some of Poe’s stories such as “Ligeia” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Comparison of the interior spaces in those stories to Poe’s concept of an “ideal room” in his essay can illuminate Poe’s process and explain why he made specific choices in his detailed descriptions of rooms and furniture.
One of the most noticeable things about the mansion the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher” visits is its pervading darkness and gloom. The narrator speaks of the “ebon blackness of the floors” he walks over on the way to his old friend’s room, and there, he finds a “black oaken floor” (202). Without the context of the essay, this description already begins to create a feeling that there is something sinister or depressing about the house. There may, however, be more to Poe’s choice to include a dark wooden floor in the house. In his essay, when discussing the use of carpets, he says “A carpet is the soul of the apartment,” and the floor seen by the narrator so far has no carpeting. If, according to Poe, the carpet is an apartment’s soul, then not only does the House of Usher seem to be without a soul, but there is a deep darkness in the empty place where the soul should be, a suggestion that may also have implications about the nature of the characters. Previously in the story, the narrator says the “House of Usher” is an “appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion” (201). If the physical House of Usher is without a soul, this may imply that the House of Usher as a lineage is also soulless. Though it is difficult to determine how serious Poe meant “The Philosophy of Furniture” to be, and if something apparently insignificant like the lack of a carpet is truly meant to imply something so grave as the lack of a soul, this grim implication would not be out of line with the House’s decline throughout the story.
Aside from the just the carpet, the interior of the rooms of the House of Usher differ from Poe’s ideal room in various ways. Poe says that in the ideal room, “Two large sofas of rosewood and crimson silk… form the only seats, with the exception of two light conversation chairs.” In Roderick Usher’s room, the “general furniture” is described only as being “profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered” (202), making it safe to assume that the amount of furniture in the room far exceeds the amount Poe deems ideal. Poe also describes the owner of the ideal room as being “asleep on a sofa,” which should imply that the sofas in the room are comfortable enough for the owner to choose to sleep on instead of a bed, which is also not the case in Roderick’s room. A profusion of uncomfortable furniture seems wasteful, while Poe’s ideal room appears to be more efficient. The windows also clash with Poe’s ideal vision. He states that in this ideal room there are “but two windows” which are “large, reaching down to the floor,” whose panes are “of a crimson tinted-glass.” The windows in Roderick’s room are “long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within” (202). While they do allow “feeble gleams of encrimsoned light” to enter the room, they are the wrong size and in the wrong position, so high that for maintenance purposes they may seem impractical. While none of these other discrepancies between Roderick’s room and the “ideal room” seem to have any implications so grave as the carpet, each difference seems to be another way for Poe to suggest that there is something wrong with the room, the house, and the characters for allowing themselves to live in such a place.
In his essay, Poe emphasizes the superiority of architecture and decoration in England. “In the internal decoration,” he says, “the English are supreme.” Interestingly, the bridal chamber in the English abbey the narrator of “Ligeia” buys is much more bizarre and outlandish than the house described in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The narrator, in fact, commits the error Poe most often ascribes to his fellow Americans which he believes significantly flaws their sense of interior decoration. “In America,” he says, “dollars being the supreme insignia of aristocracy, their display may be said, in general terms, to be the sole means of the aristocratic distinction; and the populace, looking up for models, are insensibly led to confound the two entirely separate ideas of magnificence and beauty.” The narrator himself seems to be conscious of this flaw, saying he “gave way, with a child-like perversity… to a display of more than regal magnificence within” the abbey (166). He refers to the “gorgeous and fantastic draperies… the solemn carvings of Egypt,” and “the Bedlam patterns of the carpets of tufted gold” as “follies.” Poe, in his essay, goes as far as saying that people who decorate their homes with carpets of “huge, sprawling, and radiating devices” are “children of Baal and worshippers of Mammon,” once again seeming to use a character’s carpets to suggest something sinister about him; this time, that he is a worshipper of demons, reflected by the “Bedlam” patterns. While this line in his essay was likely an exaggeration meant for humorous purposes, what it suggests does not seem too far off from the tone of his story.
It is the story’s bridal chamber, though, that deviates from Poe’s ideals the most dramatically. Firstly, the narrator describes the room as “pentagonal in shape, and of capacious size” (167). Poe states that his ideal room “is oblong — some thirty feet in length and twenty-five in breadth — a shape affording the best (ordinary) opportunities for the adjustment of furniture.” There is no question that the room has only four sides. He does not feel the need to clarify explicitly that this is the best shape for a room. The shape of the bridal chamber, then, is otherworldly, dramatically different than anything he describes in his essay, not allowed any of the “best (ordinary)” furniture arrangements due to the different angles. For each of the ideal room’s corners, Poe ascribes “large and gorgeous Sevres vases, in which bloom a profusion of sweet and vivid flowers.” However, in the bridal chamber, each corner is instead occupied by “a gigantic sarcophagus of black granite, from the tombs of the kinds over against Luxor” (168). Without the context of the essay, the presence of ancient and ornate coffins used as decoration already does much to evoke a sense of something sinister. The sense is heightened by the contrast between the two rooms. The corners of the bridal chamber are decorated with death when they should ideally be decorated with life and vibrancy, and the increased number of corners in the room allows for even more death than there is for life in the ideal room.
The drapery of the room seems partially in line with Poe’s ideal, having the “arabesque” designs he recommends. However, the narrator says “these figures partook of the true character of the arabesque only when regarded from a single point of view,” but as one moves about the room, “he [sees] himself surrounded by an endless succession of the ghastly forms which belong to the superstition of the Norman, or arise in the guilty slumbers of the monk” (168). Poe’s essay emphasizes that decorative patterns on carpets or tapestry should be “of no meaning,” and while the drapery initially seems to follow this rule, the narrator ascribes meaning to it when he perceives the patterns to change shape. This also fits with the story’s consistent emphasis of the narrator’s abuse of opium which possibly causes him to go mad.
The room’s lighting is also in opposition to Poe’s ideal, and the clash between the two light sources can be seen as a parallel to the story’s plot. In terms of lighting, Poe praises the “tempered and uniform moonlight rays” of plain ground-glass shades and scorns the “harsh and unsteady light” of gas lamps, and the “unequal, broken and painful” light of cut-glass shades which disenchants female beauty “beneath its evil eye.” In the bridal chamber, however, light enters from the sole window, “tinted of a leaden hue,” occupying the entirety of one of the walls, falling with a “ghastly lustre” (167). Hanging from the ceiling is a “huge censer” with “many perforations so contrived that there writhed in and out of them, as if endued with a serpent vitality, a continual succession of particolored fires” (167-8). Neither light source is in line with Poe’s ideal. The light from the censer, emitting from various perforations, probably resembles the “broken” light of cut-glass shades he criticizes. Like the shape of the room, the possibility of two different kinds of light sources is not something Poe brought up in his essay, suggesting again that there is something wrong with the room and its inhabitants. He may have wanted to suggest that the relationship between the light sources was a parallel with the relationship between the story’s two women, Ligeia and Lady Rowena Trevanion. Rowena, who grows ill and dies, would resemble the “ghastly” light that is being taken over by the stronger light of the flames hanging over it, representing Ligeia and her apparent possession of Rowena’s corpse. The unequal light, similar to that of the cut-glass shades, is not necessarily “disenchanting” female beauty “beneath its evil eye,” but is definitely corrupting it.
Poe frequently uses detailed description of character’s faces using the principles of phrenology, “a popular pseudo-science of the time” (161, footnote) in order to suggest things about the characters. His detailed descriptions of the interior settings of his stories also suggest many things, and the rules with which to read these descriptions to see what they may really be hinting seem to be held in his essay “The Philosophy of Furniture.” The contrasts between his ideal room and the sinister rooms of his stories suggest that, while the essay was written for satirical purposes, it contains his true, if exaggerated, beliefs on interior decorating which he used to characterize the spaces in his stories.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: Norton, 2004. 199-216. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligeia.” The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: Norton, 2004. 159-173. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Furniture.” The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. Web. 23 July 2015
Matthew Lewis’ The Monk, published in 1796, built on the Gothic tradition established by the earliest authors in the genre, including Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe. Although it was not the first Gothic novel, it was one of the earliest and certainly the most scandalous of its period, and had lasting effects on the genre, from soon after it was published through the present. The Monk’s influences on the Gothic genre are evident in Edgar Allen Poe’s 1839 short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” This novel and story share themes of dark and eerie settings, the supernatural, and familial relationships. Lewis’ The Monk takes place in its contemporary setting of late eighteenth century Madrid (which the author provides thinly veiled political commentary about, particularly regarding the Spanish Inquisition) and intertwines multiple narratives. These include the love story of Antonia and Don Lorenzo, his nun sister’s pregnancy and her punishment, her lover’s adventures and quest to reunite with her, the pious monk Ambrosio’s discovery that his most trusted mentee is a woman, who seduces him, and Ambrosio’s violation of Antonia and literal fall from grace. The multitude of storylines culminates at the conclusion, when Matilda, the false monk, promises Ambrosio that he can escape execution by Inquisition officials if he agrees to sell his soul to the devil. The devil rescues the monk, but he reveals that Matilda was a demon sent to torture him and that Elvira was his mother, making Antonia his sister. He finally feeds the monk to eagles, which tear his body apart and drop him to his death on sharp rocks.
Lewis’ approach to setting is particularly interesting because there are many settings throughout the novel that defy traditional Gothic stereotypes. Several of the side plots, including those detailing Antonia’s family or Don Raymond, take place in typical houses or outdoors in temperate weather. However, Lewis writes Ambrosio almost exclusively in typical Gothic settings, including his small monastery chambers outdoors at night. As the plot lines converge, these settings become more dominant in the narrative, culminating in the cavern beneath the convent. The reader is made to feel wary as soon as Lorenzo enters from the line, “They at length were bewildered by the labyrinth of passages” (Lewis 309). In this scene, Agnes is found trapped in a hidden tomb in the sepulchre by Lorenzo and his companions, clutching her infant’s corpse and barely clinging to life, while Ambrosio rapes Antonia nearby and stabs her in the chest just before he is found by the Inquisitors. One of the best examples of setting comes from Lewis’ use of light and darkness to describe the terrifying atmosphere of the tomb in which Agnes is concealed. Lewis writes, “The horrors of a narrow gloomy dungeon formed in one side of the cavern…Coldly played the light upon the damp walls, whose dew-stained surface gave back a feeble reflection. A thick and pestilential fog clouded the height of the vaulted dungeon” (316). This use of a creepy, religious setting is extremely important to consider when discussing Lewis’ use of the supernatural.
The Monk is rife with supernatural elements throughout, and each one has a religious aspect to it, which contributes to the book being largely about religion itself. The first instance of the supernatural is manifested in Lorenzo’s dream, which perhaps stemmed from his guilt about his impure thoughts regarding Antonia. This theme of guilt and the religious supernatural is carried through the novel, which is most evident when Elvira appears as a ghost to Ambrosio and at the end when he sells his soul to the devil. As Peter Brooks argues in his article, “The Monk: Virtue and Terror,” “The problem of the Sacred in The Monk comes to crisis in its ethical relation, in the problem of guilt and its definition” (251). The initial skepticism of some of the characters toward these forces supposed to be beyond their control leads to their pain and punishment. Brooks uses the example of Raymond and Agnes’ decision to imitate the Bleeding Nun to facilitate Agnes’ escape from her convent to show how mocking the spirit world can have dire consequences. He posits that “the forces which we deny, mock, put down, are precisely those that assert their reality and smite us…It is in fact possible to specify within this episode the point of intersection of the natural world and the supernatural, the moment at which the natural yields, cedes, gives way to the imperative solicitations of the supernatural” (254-255). Some of the most powerful examples of supernatural elements in this novel are told through the lens of family.
The initial scene in The Monk sets a precedent for the rest of the novel, as it is centered around the young Antonia and her aunt, Leonella, who go to the church to hear Ambrosio preach. The Gothic theme of familial relationships is present in some form in nearly every occurrence in the novel, from Elvira’s protectiveness over Antonia to Lorenzo’s reunion with his sister and her deceased child. The most notable and disturbing relationship in The Monk is, of course, that between Ambrosio and Antonia. Elvira’s supernatural premonition that “Antonia [was] on the verge of a precipice…[shrieking] ‘Save me, mother! Save me!’” saved her daughter from Ambrosio’s first attempt at sexual assault (Lewis 261). When he is caught by Elvira, who threatens to expose his sins to the entire town, he strangles her to death. Brooks explains why this is a turning point of the novel when he writes that, “A notable moment is the murder of Elvira…a moment of frenetic passion which culminates: ‘Ambrosio beheld before him that once noble and majestic form, now become a corse, cold, senseless, and disgusting’…and the object which he sought to gain by the murder, Antonia’s possession, now equally appears to him an object of disgust” (259). Another reason for this disgust could be Ambrosio’s supernatural sense that Antonia was connected to him, as it is later revealed that he was the young son who Elvira believed had died in Cuba. These themes are also prevalent in the later Gothic publication, Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
“The Fall of the House of Usher” follows an unnamed narrator’s visit to his physically and mentally ailing friend, Roderick Usher, at his dilapidating family mansion. The narrator soon learns that Usher is suffering from a sensory overload and a sense of impending doom as he fears that his sister, Madeline, will soon die, leaving him alone to face the end of the Usher family line. When Madeline dies, Roderick elects to keep her in a vault in the house for two weeks before she is buried. On a stormy night, Madeline, who is revealed to be Roderick’s twin, appears at the door, emaciated from escaping her tomb. She falls onto her brother, and as they both meet their ends, the house cleaves along a fissure which divides it into halves and falls as the narrator barely escapes.
One of the most common and easily notable aspects that weaves its way through Gothic literature is a dark and gloomy setting. Although this idea does not appear to require as much examination, these settings often come alive (sometimes literally) and contribute substantially to deeper themes in the story, and the titular House of Usher is no exception. According to the article “Elements of the Early Gothic in E.A. Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’” by Stefan P. Pajovic, “the unnamed author rides on “a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year” (Poe 1961: 83). It is the very first sentence that introduces the atmosphere of a horror story” (188). Unlike many of its predecessors, this story’s home is not a castle, rather the narrator describes looking upon “a mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain— upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows— upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees” (3). However, this lack of grandeur contributes to the haunting effect and the narrator’s feelings of foreboding. The brief mention of “a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction” sounds as if it may be merely another undesirable detail of the dingy residence until the final paragraph of the story reveals a frightening twist of events and the entire house divides at this crack and falls (6, 25). Here the importance of the setting becomes overwhelmingly clear, as the fissure is a physical manifestation of the Usher siblings’ relationship. This scene is not only important when discussing the setting of the story, but the fissure is also one of its most important supernatural elements.
Although they are not as numerous, nor as explicitly stated as in The Monk, there are many supernatural themes throughout “The Fall of the House of Usher.” As the narrator reads Sir Launcelot Canning’s “Mad Trist” to Roderick, he begins to hear strange noises, but assumes that he is paranoid and imagining things, influenced by his companion. However, his suspicions are concerned when Poe writes, “…there could be no doubt whatever that, in this instance, I did actually hear…a low and apparently distant, but harsh, protracted, and most unusual screaming or grating sound—the exact counterpart of what my fancy had already conjured up for the dragon’s unnatural shriek as described by the romancer” (23). Pajovic discusses Poe’s use of the supernatural in this manner. He writes, “in Gothic literature, the function of the supernatural is mainly to turn the reader’s attention to the fact that something is not quite right with the world they live in and that the subsequent gruesome outcome is the direct result of the ill-doings that had taken place. Poe’s supernatural in the story in question is as outright as in any other work of the Gothic, as he is being mysterious about the mysterious” (Pajovic 197). Poe also subtly suggests to the reader that Lady Madeline is not fully human, as it would be natural to assume given that she had been ill. However, when “the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady” appears like a specter in the doorway, it becomes clear that she possesses supernatural abilities, even though Poe never writes this directly (25). Pajovic explains how the author accomplishes this with a set of minute grammatical cues, writing, “Every single adjective that the writer uses to explain how Roderick’s sister was secured in her final resting place brings the audience one step closer to the realization that no mortal entity could free itself from such bondage” (197). The presence of the supernatural in this short story is also closely intertwined with its sibling relationship.
Like The Monk, “The Fall of the House of Usher” also discusses family and contains an unhealthy and dangerous sibling relationship, although it is only implied that this may have been an incestuous one like Ambrosio’s and Antonia’s. The narrator is aware that “The entire [Usher] family lay in the direct line of descent,” which is peculiar on its own, especially given the time period. Roderick and Matilda’s coexisting illnesses and their status as twins, which is not revealed until late in the plot when the latter dies, establishes them as a strongly emotionally connected pair, a concept that can seem supernatural in its own right. Pajovic addresses this concept as well, writing, “A strong bond, sometimes referred to as “the sixth sense”, between siblings gets amplified as Poe’s characters share such similar features, both physical and mental, that the reader gets the impression that they are one entity” (190). This oneness becomes even more literal when Madeline throws herself onto her brother and they collapse together, conjoined in a mutual death. As mentioned in the discussion of the setting, their relationship is symbolized by the home, which began to crack as they became unstable and fell immediately upon their demise.
Since the inception of the genre, Gothic literature has tended toward the dramatic in ways that has kept readers intrigued for centuries. These works have historically shared certain elements, including those mentioned: creepy and often miserable settings, the supernatural (and often its relation to religion), and twisted familial relationships, among others. The significant impact of the genre’s early works, particularly The Monk, on the literature of the next several hundred years is clear.
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” details the end of a southern aristocratic family line in a gothic manner which is to be expected of Poe. While Poe’s writing most prominently focuses on gothic quality, it is important to note the southern nature of his writing as well. Poe may have been born in Boston, but he was raised in the South. Although a sense of southern quality is not at the forefront of his works, there is a southern influence to Poe’s gothic writing style which deserves examination for its depiction of the antebellum South. Ellen Glasgow, a postbellum southern author that demonstrates the birth of the critical spirit in Southern Literature, uses the same underlying gothic principles and themes that are established by Poe in “The Fall of the House of Usher” in her short story “Jordan’s End” in order to parallel the end of a southern family line with the end of the old southern way of life.
On the surface, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Jordan’s End” both appear to be near-identical in style and story. Both stories center on the mental decline of the last of a family line, develop a gothic atmosphere, and explore the theme of isolation. However, when comparing the two stories, it becomes apparent that Poe and Glasgow have different authorial intentions in their writings. Poe’s writing demonstrates cohesion among the gothic elements of the story which suggests his sole intentions were to create a standalone work of horror, and it is mere coincidence that the setting of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is in Virginia. Authors of The Companion to Southern Literature: Themes, Genres, Places, People, Movements, and Motifs state that “Poe records little that is obviously Virginian. Emphasis falls on a sublime gothic beauty/terror” (Flora, MacKethan, and Todd 942). Nonetheless, there is a sense of eloquence in Poe’s writing that can only be attained by a southern gentleman. In opposition to this, Glasgow uses the elements of gothic literature to criticize the Old Southern way of life instead of fixating only on the beauty and terror of gothic stylization. Poe writes gothic works for the sake of creating something eloquent and otherworldly; Glasgow uses gothic style to support a critical examination of the fall of the Old South and the people of that time period. Glasgow establishes a very southern quality in her work through the use of local color, mentioning of the Civil War, and the character Father Peterkin. Father Peterkin allows Glasgow to more freely include aspects of southern literature without disturbing the unity of the story, and his dialect reveals a very southern quality. The narrator of “Jordan’s End” reflects on Father Peterkin’s dialect after learning the correct Virginian pronunciation of the family name “Jordan”: “The name was invariably called Jurdin by all classes; but I had already discovered that names are rarely pronounced as they are spelled in Virginia” (359). Glasgow helps to establish the southern element of the story in the distinction of Father Peterkin’s dialect.
Poe establishes a theme of isolation in “The Fall of the House of Usher” which is retained in Glasgow’s “Jordan’s End.” Geographical isolation is an important factor to consider in southern literature because living in the rural Old South means being isolated from the rest of the nation and other local people. The isolation affected the way in which southern people lived their lives in the Old South. People that lived in the rural Old South like Roderick Usher and Alan Jordan were confined by geographical boundaries such as mountains and rivers. Neighbors and cities were great distances away which made socialization outside of the family hard to attain. Poe describes the isolation of Roderick Usher: I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain. (104) Poe means to say that the Usher family has always been small. There has never been deviation from a direct line of descent among the Ushers, and this essentially means that the Usher gene pool is slim-pickings. Very similarly, Glasgow describes the Jordan family as being so entirely isolated that they have practiced intermarriage and inbreeding. The inbreeding in the Jordan family leads to the development of mental disease in the men of the Jordan family, and, like the Ushers, they have never expanded their family beyond an immediate line of descent which is ultimately the cause of the end of their family lines. As described by Father Peterkin, a character in “Jordan’s End,” the Jordan family “jest run to seed” (Glasgow 359). Glasgow suggests that the grotesqueness of inbreeding is a product of both isolation and ways of thinking in the Old South. A literary critic delineates on the subject: It was narrow-mindedness born of pride, ethnocentrism born of ignorance, that led families such as the Jordans to the kind of inbreeding that produced insanity in generation after generation. The way of life, the way of thinking, and the refusal to admit that things had changed — all were causes for the decline of southern aristocracy. (Ross) Glasgow follows Poe in the use of southern aristocratic characters, but she does so in order to discuss the decline of those types of people in the Old South. Glasgow wishes to offers reader an understanding of the decay of an old way of life, and she does so through using the Jordan family as a symbol for the end of an era in the South.
Both Poe and Glasgow use symbolism in their short stories to aid in their desired effects. Poe uses symbolism in “The Fall of the House of Usher” in his description of the house of the Usher family. Poe writes about the house in a manner that is conducive to his careful gothic structure: The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. (105) Poe writes about the inconsistency of how the Usher’s house seems to be falling apart and defying time at the simultaneously because the same inconsistency exists in his character Roderick Usher. Poe uses the house as a symbol for Roderick Usher’s character. Poe describes Roderick Usher: “I gazed upon him with a feeling half of pity, half of awe” (106). Poe uses this symbolization as a way to create a more cohesive short story in which all parts are interwoven. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe states that “critics have long noted, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is carefully structured” (Hayes 179). The main goal of Poe’s writing is to create a unified piece of literature. Both stories use symbolism in their names. “The Fall of the House of Usher” has a double meaning because it tells the story of the fall of Usher family line, and the house mimics the Usher family and declines throughout the expanse of the short story until it ultimately falls as well. Poe creates a connection between the actual house of the Usher family and the Ushers themselves, and he does so very literally. It is as though the house and the Usher family are one of the same. Poe writes that Roderick Usher fell to the floor dead, and he also writes that the walls of the house “came rushing asunder” (116). Again, the symbolization Poe uses in this work is done so in a manner that unifies each individual aspect of his writing. “Jordan’s End” also offers a double meaning in its name symbolism: “It is the name of the crumbling southern mansion which is the main setting of the story, and it is also a reference to the decaying state of the Jordan family” (DelFattore and Cassidy). The connection that Poe establishes between the Usher family and the Usher house is retained in “Jordan’s End,” and the connection can be seen through the similar depictions of the appearance of Alan Jordan and the Jordan House. Glasgow describes the Jordan family home: Forlorn as it appeared at this first approach, I surmised that Jordan’s End must have possessed once a charm as well as distinction. The proportions of the Georgian front were impressive, and there was a beauty of design in the quaint doorway, and in the steps of rounded stone which were brocaded now with a pattern of emerald moss. But the whole place was badly in need of repair. (360) Alan Jordan is described in a similar manner: “His head was sunk forward his eyes were staring fixedly at some image we could not see; his fingers moving restlessly were plaiting and unplaiting the fringe of a plaid shawl. Distraught as he was, he still possessed the dignity of mere physical perfection” (364).
The similarities between the way in which Poe and Glasgow connected the family and the family home demonstrates a clear coherence to both texts. Glasgow, however, uses symbolism a bit more abstractly in her story than Poe. The decline of the Jordan family is symbolic of the decline of the old southern way of life after the civil war. Some critics concur with the assertion that Glasgow is discussing the fall of the old southern way of life in her work: “the condition of the physical place wherein resides the latest in the line of Jordans mirrors the condition of that line, and by extension, the decline of a way of life” (Ross). There are many parallels that can be seen in the end of the Jordan family line and the end of the Old Southern way of life. Glasgow speaks directly to the parallel between the Jordan Family and the South pre and post-Civil War through Father Peterkin. Father Peterkin says, “I kin recollect away back yonder when old Mr. Timothy Jur’dn was the proudest man any whar aroun’ in these parts; but arter the War things sorter begun to go down hill with him” (359). Glasgow uses Father Peterkin as a means to create a direct connection between the Jordan family and the southern way of life for in her writing. She creates this direct connection so that readers may more easily see the parallel between the fall of the old south and the fall of the Usher family. Glasgow suggests that the Jordans and the Old South seemed to be functioning properly before the war. After the war, however, there is a collapse of a way of life. What once had been prosperous has met its downfall, and the turning point was the Civil War. More abstractly, the end of Glasgow’s short story is left ambiguous, and it can be examined as another parallel between the Jordan family line and the Old South. The doctor left Alan Jordan a bottle of full bottle of pain medication, but, when he returned to see Jordan the next day, the bottle was empty and Jordan was dead. The ambiguousness of his death is in the idea that someone may have killed him with the pain medication left by the doctor, but Glasgow does not explicitly state the manner in which Jordan died. A parallel can be made between Jordan’s ambiguous death and the fall of the South through viewing the doctor as an external force in the lives of the Jordan family such as the North was an external force in the Old South. This implication can suggest that the doctor killed Jordan, and it was an external force that brought on the fall of the South. Alternatively, it can be argued that someone in the Jordan household used the pain medication to kill Alan Jordan, and this explanation would imply that the Old South fell apart because of internal forces such as inbreeding and isolation.
Glasgow uses the same stylistic prowess that Poe establishes in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” but she does so in order to create a parallel between the end of a southern aristocratic family and the end of the antebellum era in the America South. “Jordan’s End” contains many elements that make it more southern in nature than “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and Glasgow includes the overt southern essence so that her audience may more easily see the connections she wishes to make between the Jordan family and the Old South. Glasgow demonstrates the birth of a critical spirit in her short story through the parallels she creates between the Jordan family and the fall of the South in comparison to Poe’s work. “The Fall of the House of Usher” does not seem to reflect very much of a southern quality, but it does display a sense of unity in its gothic style which is to be expected of Poe. Perhaps the southern quality is not at the forefront of Poe’s works because his writings are from the time before the birth of the critical spirit in the South. Glasgow uses Poe’s style as a means to convey her depiction of the fall of the south as exemplified by one aristocratic family.
Cited DelFattore, Joan, and Mary LeDonne Cassidy. “Ellen Glasgow.” Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition (2001): 1-5. Literary Reference Center. Web. 23 Nov. 2015. Flora, Joseph M., Lucinda Hardwick MacKethan, and Todd W. Taylor. The Companion to Southern Literature: Themes, Genres, Places, People, Movements, and Motifs. LSU Press, 2002. Glasgow, Ellen. “Jordan’s End.” A Norton Anthology: The Literature of the American South. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. 357-68. Print. Hayes, Kevin J. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” A Norton Anthology: The Literature of the American South. Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. 103-16. Print. Ross, Dale H. “Jordan’s End.” Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition (2004): 1-2. Literary Reference Center. Web. 23 Nov. 2015.
Edgar Allan Poe, who was born in the early nineteenth century, had an undeniable impact on American literature. Influenced by the era’s trend, the Romanticism, he had written plenty of short stories, tales and poems spiced with gothic features and grotesque humour. His widely known works are The Pit and the Pendulum, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Black Cat, The Raven and The Fall of the House of Usher. In this essay I will discuss the lattermost, exploring the strange connections between the protagonist and his house and the supernatural events that had befallen them.
Poe uses personification to describe the Usher mansion, we could say, it is considered the fourth character. Entering the scene, the narrator found himself in a gloomy, dreadful condition, which he failed to explain rationally. The house with its „vacant eye-like windows” (Works, III. 273), the atmosphere „which had reeked up from the decayed trees” (Works, III. 276) all had their terrible influence on both Usher and the narrator. The friend from boyhood, Roderick Usher summons the narrator to his mansion, claiming he is suffering from a mysterious mental illness; therefore he has not much time left and asking the narrator to spend few days with him. His sickness, a „constitutional and a family evil” (Works, III. 280), the curse and the fate of the Usher race, „an effect, which the physique of the gray walls and turrets … brought about upon the morale of his existence” (Works, III. 280-281) had poisoned him. It is Usher who suggests that „the house is alive and has a malignant influence on his mind” (Thompson, p. 18).
According to Barton Levi (quoted in Jonas 55), “the idea of ’dwelling’ has two aspects: a temporary state … it can be abandoned and even allowed to go to ruin; on the other hand, it implies the dependence of life on its surrounding … a decisive difference to the dweller and determines his whole condition” (3). In our case, it is the second alternative; everything surrounding the house and inside as well are contaminated and contagious. The books, the arts and its people are infectious; hence even the narrator wonders if he has lost his sanity as reading their books, and acts as a listening audience to Roderick’s music and art.
The personification of the family mansion reaches its peak when the narrator notices that Usher’s face resembles the house. It is not just the mansion that had decayed, but Roderick also had its destructive impact on him; „his large and luminous eyes … the ’web-like, silken hair’ … merges the face-like structure of the house with Usher’s face” (Thompson, p. 20). This indicates that the mansion is more than mere personification.
The cursed house of the Usher race is not only a personification, but also represents Roderick’s sickened mind. The entering scene implies that the house is in fact Roderick’s brain condition; “there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts and the crumbling condition of individual stones” (Works, III. 276), which indicates that Usher’s mind is still one, working engine, but many areas are damaged and demoralized. The “barely perceptible fissure, which extending from the roof … made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction” (Works, III. 276) also shows the broken, ill mind of his. When the narrator is ushered by the valet to the “master”, at that point he realizes how many “dark and intricate passages” (Works, III. 276) he has to go through to find Roderick in the studio. This scene implies that in our mind, we have hidden rooms full of thoughts and dark passages with secrets too, those we may have never showed to anyone else, and therefore it is the brain of Usher.
Rashkin argues that “The Haunted Palace” poem is “an allegorical description of the head of Roderick Usher, whose eyes, blonde hair, teeth and lips are deemed to correspond to the palace’s windows, yellow banners, and pearl and ruby door” (124), which, again tells us the face-like appearance of the house that also resembles Roderick. She also notes that the Usher house is “a reflective of the Usher race” (131). It is not only the mysterious illness or curse that is inherited by all the members from their family, but the house too.
Moreover, we can assert that the house and Usher’s mind are one. The work of Butler indicates that just as the house has a ruined physique, Roderick has a “deteriorating physiognomy” as well, and the discussion “of the dwelling’s oppressive affords parallels to the melancholic qualities of his own mind” (192-193). In fact, the Usher’s doomed fate is twisted with the house.Indeed, “the house, the atmosphere, its inhabitants and the art they produce or consume” (Roche, p. 28) are tied together. These ties are so inseparable from each other, that “Roderick, his house, his twin have become virtually the same organism, a single diseased consciousness and constitution”, as Butler points out (193). They are all related to each other, could be seen as one.
Furthermore, in the end of the novel, when Madeline shows her unbelievable, supernatural strength and returns from her tomb back bloodstained to take revenge on her brother for burying her alive, all, including the house with the exception of the narrator, who manages to flee, meet their demise. The mansion collapses into the dim tarn, starting from the earlier mentioned zigzag fissure. Having met their gloomy fate, the Ushers leave no relatives alive.
In brief, the house is in fact alive, a character with its own atmosphere and face-like features, and in the same time, a reflection of the diseased mind and thoughts of Roderick. The vivified, living, embodied house from Gothic tales, the artistic, but mad soul Usher from the era of Romanticism, all the same contaminated organism and mind. As they had been living together for years, thus they had to perish together also.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe. Vol. III: Tales – part 02, edited by J. A. Harrison, 1902, pp. 273-297.
Roche, David. „The Unhealthy in The Fall of the House of Usher: Poe’s Aesthetics of Contamination.” The Edgar Allan Poe Review, published by Penn State University Press, Vol. 10, No. 1 (SPRING 2009), pp. 20-35.
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