Roderick and Madeline: The Fall of a House Divided
Edgar Allan Poe composed “The Fall of the House of Usher” some two decades before Abraham Lincoln warned those living both above and below the Mason-Dixon about the dangers of trying to live comfortably inside a house divided against itself. Lincoln’s admonition against trusting the structural foundation of such a domicile can be applied with equal metaphorical application to Poe’s story. The story that is told in this example of Gothic literature is lean enough on details and broad enough on allegorical mysteries that surely one of the reasons for its staying power is the capacity to read into it an exceeding large number of interpretations—which are all capable of ringing true to one extent or another. The extent to which an interpretation of the details Poe provides in “The Fall of the House of Usher” rings true is ultimately dependent on how far astray from its allegorical foundation one gets. When interpreted as a literal example of how a house divided cannot stand, the allegorical component paradoxically becomes even stronger. The first step in reaching this interpretation begins with jettisoning one of the most pervasive and damaging literal explanations behind one of those lean details applied with broad strokes of Poe’s pen.
Lincoln’s warning echoes back across time to that dark and stormy night (or so a typical reader might wish) when Poe picked up his pen and put down to paper the phrase which is perhaps the key to unlocking the mysterious meaning of the story: “A striking similitude between the brother and sister now first arrested my attention; and Usher, divining, perhaps, my thoughts, murmured out some few words from which I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them”. For almost two centuries, readers and critics have interpreted this striking and almost unintelligible connection between Roderick and Madeline to be a literal allusion to incest. This interpretation clearly makes sense in light of the fact that Roderick believes that his sister’s death “would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers.” If Roderick’s belief is true, only two possible conclusions exist; either the Ushers are a family whose lineage is extended by generational incest or Roderick is simply impotent. The problem is that either interpretation is clearly too unambiguous to fit comfortably within a story that raises far more questions than it provides answers. The Gothic nature of “The Fall of House of Usher” indicates that Poe was suggesting something far more profound and preternatural at work in the relationship between the Ushers.
The narrator describes the House of Usher as “an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.” A common enough utilization of metonym, but perhaps too limited in scope when conjoined with “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 the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain.” All it takes is the courage to sustain a single viewing of an episode of The X-Files focusing on the Peacock family—another lineage with no enduring branches—to realize that if this description were intended to be taken literally and limited only to the Usher family, both Roderick and Madeline would be in far more horrifying physical and psychological states than the narrator describes. As an example of Gothic allegory, “The Fall of the House of Usher” would be a pale example of Gothic allegory, indeed, if Poe had meant for the House of Usher to describe only the family or even only the family and its stately manse. A lineage with only one single line of descent must certainly be intended to represent not any one single family in particular, but all of the human species.
And yet—although it certainly hasn’t produced the monstrous sub-humans that constitute the Peacock family—this line of “very trifling and very temporary variation” has resulted within the House of Usher in the physical manifestation of “an utter depression of soul.” Roderick has been cursed with a “morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odours of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light.” The course of the narrative makes clear that previous to this depression of his soul, Roderick was a man with a zest for intellectual pursuits; a voracious reader with a love for music and the arts who has lost all capacity for sensory enjoyment of those intellectual pursuits since losing his sister to her illness.
That illness of Roderick’s sibling is concretely realized within an allegorical frame of reference—the metaphor of continued expansion of what was previously a “barely-discernible fissure.” The symbolic dimension of that fissure is in turn expanded upon as a representative objectification of the gradual disappearance from the House of Usher of the capacity for sensual enjoyment. When the senses are removed from the element of humanity, all that is left is a sort of bloodless intellectual appreciation. What “The Fall of the House of Usher” really seems to be suggesting is that a house in which intellect and emotion are pitted against each other cannot stand. As many years separate the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as separate Poe’s story from Lincoln’s warning about divided houses, yet all three literary expressions exist within a continuum; for his part, Poe seems to be lamenting the displacement of the emotions stirred through the forces of the poetic by the logic mandated by the forces of scientific progress. That lament ends with the dire warning, foretold by the fall of the Usher mansion, that if such a partitioning is allowed to continue unabated, the result will be a fissure separating humans into creatures that are either excessively cerebral or hazardously emotional, incapable of the balance that ensures any sort of progress.
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