‘The Fall of the House of Usher’: An Exploration of Exteriority, Interiority and Uncanny Possibilities

June 27, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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