Saturday, September 1, 2012

"The Fall of the House of Usher" Published 1839

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in September 1839 in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine. It was slightly revised in 1840 for the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. It contains within it the poem "The Haunted Palace," which had earlier been published separately in the April 1839 issue of the Baltimore Museum magazine.


The tale opens with the unnamed narrator arriving at the house of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, having received a letter from him in a distant part of the country complaining of an illness and asking for his help. Although Poe wrote this short story before the invention of modern psychological science, Roderick's symptoms can be described according to its terminology. They include hyperesthesia (hypersensitivity to light, sounds, smells, and tastes), hypochondria (an excessive preoccupation or worry about having a serious illness), and acute anxiety. It is revealed that Roderick's twin sister, Madeline, is also ill and falls into cataleptic, death-like trances. The narrator is impressed with Roderick's paintings, and attempts to cheer him by reading with him and listening to his improvised musical compositions on the guitar. Roderick sings "The Haunted Palace," then tells the narrator that he believes the house he lives in to be sentient, and that this sentience arises from the arrangement of the masonry and vegetation surrounding it.

Roderick later informs the narrator that his sister has died and insists that she be entombed for two weeks in a vault (family tomb) in the house before being permanently buried. The narrator helps Roderick put the body in the tomb, and he notes that Madeline has rosy cheeks, as some do after death. They inter her, but over the next week both Roderick and the narrator find themselves becoming increasingly agitated for no apparent reason. A storm begins. Roderick comes to the narrator's bedroom, which is situated directly above the vault, and throws open his window to the storm. He notices that the tarn surrounding the house seems to glow in the dark, as it glowed in Roderick Usher's paintings, although there is no lightning.

The narrator attempts to calm Roderick by reading aloud The Mad Trist, a novel involving a knight named Ethelred who breaks into a hermit's dwelling in an attempt to escape an approaching storm, only to find a palace of gold guarded by a dragon. He also finds hanging on the wall a shield of shining brass of which is written a legend: that the one who slays the dragon wins the shield. With a stroke of his mace, Ethelred kills the dragon, who dies with a piercing shriek, and proceeds to take the shield, which falls to the floor with an unnerving clatter.

As the narrator reads of the knight's forcible entry into the dwelling, cracking and ripping sounds are heard somewhere in the house. When the dragon is described as shrieking as it dies, a shriek is heard, again within the house. As he relates the shield falling from off the wall, a reverberation, metallic and hollow, can be heard. Roderick becomes increasingly hysterical, and eventually exclaims that these sounds are being made by his sister, who was in fact alive when she was entombed and that Roderick knew that she was alive. The bedroom door is then blown open to reveal Madeline standing there. She falls on her brother, and both land on the floor as corpses. The narrator then flees the house, and, as he does so, notices a flash of light causing him to look back upon the House of Usher, in time to watch it break in two, the fragments sinking into the tarn.


"The Fall of the House of Usher" was published widely in the September 1839 issue of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine."The Fall of the House of Usher" is considered the best example of Poe's "totality," where every element and detail is related and relevant.[1]

The theme of the crumbling, haunted castle is a key feature of Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, a late 18th Century novel which largely contributed in defining the Gothic genre.

The article written by Walter Evans "'The Fall of the House of Usher' and Poe's Theory of the Tale," reprinted in Short Story Criticism, says the house and the setting are really a reflection of Roderick Usher. As described in "The Fall of the House of Usher," could symbolize the "'bleak' cheeks, huge eyes ... 'rank' and slightly bushy mustache, and perhaps even 'white trunks of decayed' teeth" of Usher.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" shows Poe's ability to create an emotional tone in his work, specifically feelings of fear, doom, and guilt.[2] These emotions center on Roderick Usher who, like many Poe characters, suffers from an unnamed disease. Like the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart", his disease causes his hyperactive senses. The illness manifests physically but is based in Roderick's mental or even moral state. He is sick, it is suggested, because he expects to be sick based on his family's history of illness and is, therefore, essentially a hypochondriac.[3] Similarly, he buries his sister alive because he expects to bury her alive, creating his own self-fulfilling prophecy.

The House of Usher, itself doubly referring both to the actual structure and the family, plays a significant role in the story. It is the first "character" that the narrator introduces to the reader, presented with a humanized description: its windows are described as "eye-like" twice in the first paragraph. The fissure that develops in its side is symbolic of the decay of the Usher family and the house "dies" along with the two Usher siblings. This connection was emphasized in Roderick's poem "The Haunted Palace" which seems to be a direct reference to the house that foreshadows doom.[4]

L. Sprague de Camp, in his Lovecraft: A Biography [p. 246f], wrote that "[a]ccording to the late [Poe expert] Thomas O. Mabbott, [H. P.] Lovecraft, in "Supernatural Horror", solved a problem in the interpretation of Poe" by arguing that "Roderick Usher, his sister Madeline, and the house all shared one common soul". The explicit psychological dimension of this tale has prompted many critics to analyze it as a description of the human psyche, comparing, for instance, the House to the unconscious, and its central crack to the personality split which is called dissociative identity disorder. Mental disorder is also evoked through the themes of melancholy, possible incest, and vampirism. An incestuous relationship between Roderick and Madeline is not explicitly stated, but seems implied by the strange attachment between the two.[5]

Major themes

The doppelgänger theme, prominent in such works of Poe as "William Wilson," appears as well in "The Fall of the House of Usher." The reflection of the house in the tarn is described in the opening paragraph, and "a striking similitude between the brother and sister" is mentioned when Madeline "dies." Poe uses the theme of the death and resurrection of a woman here as well as in "Ligeia" and "Morella." The theme of mental illness is explored in this work, as it is in numerous other tales such as "Berenice." Interment while alive is also explored in "The Premature Burial," "Berenice" and "The Cask of Amontillado." There are also various Gothic elements, such as the decrepit castle and tarn, whose signs of decay reflect the mental condition of Usher, which is rapidly deteriorating.

Allusions and references

The opening epigraph quotes "Le Refus" (1831) by the French songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780–1857), translated to English as "his heart is a suspended lute, as soon as it is touched, it resounds". Béranger's original text reads "Mon cœur" (my heart) and not "Son cœur" (his/her heart). The narrator describes one of Usher's musical compositions as "a ... singular perversion and amplification of the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber". Poe here refers to a popular piano work of his time — which, though going by the title "Weber's Last Waltz" was actually composed by Carl Gottlieb Reissiger (1798–1859).[6] A manuscript copy of the music was found among Weber's papers upon his death in 1826 and the work was mistakenly attributed to him.

Usher's painting reminds the narrator of the Swiss-born British painter Henry Fuseli (1741–1825).

Roderick Usher's library

Though Poe does not always render the titles correctly, all of the books mentioned in the story are real works except for The Mad Trist. No book like the Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae exists exactly as Poe described it, though there is a real (and very rare) book by that title, which means "The Office of the Dead as sung by the choir of the Church of Mainz." Aside from these, the books are:

Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset (1709–1777): Vert-Vert (1734), La Chartreuse
Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527): Novella di Belfagor Arcidiavolo (1545)
Emanuel Swedenborg né Swedberg (1688–1772): De Coelo et Ejus Mirabilibus, et de Inferno, et Auditis et Visis (1758)
Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754): Niels Klims underjordiske Rejse (1741)
Robert Fludd/Robertus de Fluctibus (1574–1637):
Utriusque Macrocosmi at Microcosmi Historia (published between 1617 and 1619)
Integrum Morborum Mysterium: Medicinae Catholicae (1631)
Joannes Indagine (1467–1537): Die Kunst der Chiromantzey (c.1523)
Marinus Cureau de la Chambre (1594–1669): Discours sur les Principes de la Chiromancie (1653)
Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773–1853): Das alte Buch und die Reise ins Blaue hinein. Eine Mährchen-Novelle (1835)
Tommaso Campanella né Giovanni Domenico Campanella (1568–1639): Civitas Solis (1623)
Nicolau Aymerich (c. 1320–1399): Directorium Inquisitorum (1376)
Pomponius Mela: De situ orbis (c.43 CE)


Fludd wrote two works which had sections on chiromancy (palmistry). Both have been given above. The relevant sections are entitled, respectively, De Scientia Animae Naturalis cum vitali seu astrologia chiromantica and De Signis sine praesagis chiromanticis. Campanella originally wrote City of the Sun in Italian in 1602 as La città del Sole before rewriting it in Latin between 1613 and 1623, and its subsequent publication in Latin as Civitas Solis in Frankfurt in 1623. De la Chambre later published Discours sur les Principes de la Chiromancie as part of L'Art de Connaitre Les Hommes in 1662.

Literary significance and criticism

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is considered Poe's most famous work of prose.[7] This highly unsettling macabre work is considered to be the masterpiece of American Gothic literature. Indeed, as in many of his tales, Poe borrows much from the Gothic tradition. Still, as G. R. Thomson writes in his Introduction to Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe [p 36], "the tale has long been hailed as a masterpiece of Gothic horror; it is also a masterpiece of dramatic irony and structural symbolism."

In fact, "The Fall of the House of Usher" has been criticized for being too formulaic. Poe was criticized for following his own patterns established in works like "Morella" and "Ligeia" using stock characters in stock scenes and stock situations. Repetitive themes like an unidentifiable disease, madness, and resurrection are also criticized.[8]

Poe's inspiration for the story may be based upon events of the Usher House, located on Boston's Lewis Wharf. As that story goes, a sailor and the young wife of the older owner were caught and entombed in their trysting spot by her husband. When the Usher House was torn down in 1800, two bodies were found embraced in a cavity in the cellar.[9]

Scholars speculate that Poe, who was an influence on Herman Melville, inspired the character of Ahab in Melville's novel Moby-Dick. John McAleer maintained that the idea for "objectifying Ahab's flawed character" came from the "evocative force" of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." In both Ahab and the house of Usher, the appearance of fundamental soundness is visibly flawed — by Ahab's livid scar, and by the fissure in the masonry of Usher.[10]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

In the low-budget Roger Corman film from 1960, known in the United States as House of Usher, the narrator falls in love with the sickly Madeline, much to Roderick's horror. As Roderick reveals, the Usher family has a history of evil and cruelty so great that he and Madeline pledged in their youth never to have children and to allow their family to die with them. When Madeline falls into a deathlike catalepsy, her brother (who knows that she is still alive) rushes to have her placed in the family crypt. When she wakes up, Madeline goes insane from being buried alive and breaks free with insanity-induced strength. She confronts her brother and begins throttling him to death. Suddenly the house, already aflame due to a fallen lit candle, begins to collapse and the narrator flees as Roderick is killed by Madeline and both she and the Usher's sole servant are consumed by the falling house. The film was Corman's first in a series of eight films inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

In 1980 the Czech surrealist film maker Jan Švankmajer adapted the story as a short film relying entirely on imagery and inanimate objects in place of actors.

In the 2008 David DeCoteau film, it is implied that the house is a living being, dependent on the human souls that Roderick and Madeline provide it with. The central character is called Victor Reynolds, a reference to the name allegedly called out by Poe the night before his death.

William Beckett announced on July 12, 2010 that his friend Nathan Wrann will be making a "short film adaptation" of the story to begin filming in December that he will be starring in (that post has since been deleted and replaced with an update post)[11][12][13][14]

List of films

La Chute de la maison Usher (France, 1928) by Jean Epstein
The Fall of the House of Usher (US, 1928) by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber
The Fall of the House of Usher (UK, 1949) directed by Ivan Barnett
House of Usher (a.k.a. Fall of the House of Usher and The Mysterious House of Usher) (1960) by Roger Corman with Vincent Price
The Fall of the House of Usher Starred Denholm Elliott and Susannah York in the UK ITV series Mystery and Imagination (1966) (TV)
'"Zánik domu Usheru" (The Fall of the House of Usher) (1980) (animated version by Jan Švankmajer)
"Histoires extraordinaires: La chute de la maison Usher" (1981) (TV) with Mathieu Carrière
Revenge in the House of Usher (1982)
The Fall of the House of Usher (1982) (TV) with Martin Landau and Ray Walston
"El hundimiento de la Casa de Usher'" (1983) by Jesús Franco with Howard Vernon
The House of Usher (1988) with Oliver Reed
The House of Usher (2006)
House of Usher (2008) by David DeCoteau
The Fall of the House of Usher (short film) (2011) by Nathan Wrann


The Fall of the House of Usher (1974) adaptation by Steven Berkoff
The Fall of the House of Usher (2009) musical adaptation written by Brent Cirves and composed by Mike Johnson for the 2009 Capital Fringe Festival and the New York International Fringe Festival[15]


Between 1908 and 1917, French composer Claude Debussy worked on an opera called La chute de la maison Usher. The libretto was his own, based on Poe, and the work was to be a companion piece to another short opera (Le diable dans le beffroi) based on Poe's "The Devil in the Belfry." At Debussy's death the work was unfinished, however. In recent years completions have been attempted by two different musicologists.

Lady Eleanor, a song first released in 1970 by the British folk-rock band Lindisfarne is based on this story.

The Alan Parsons Project's first release (1976's Tales of Mystery and Imagination) features a long instrumental named after this story. The track has five parts: "Prelude," "Arrival," "Intermezzo," "Pavane," and "Fall" and its style showcases 20th century classical music and progressive rock. The music incorporates fragments of Debussy's unfinished opera.

Another operatic version, composed by Philip Glass in 1987 with a libretto by Arthur Yorinks, was presented by the Nashville Opera in 2009.[16]

Peter Hammill composed an opera based on the story between 1973 and 1991 and released it in 1991. In this work, the house itself becomes a vocal part, to be sung by the same performer who sings the role of Roderick Usher. The libretto by Chris Judge Smith adopts the subplot of a romantic attraction between Madeline Usher and the narrator, who is given the name Montresor. This recording still had drums in it though and thus was not a real opera. Hammill released a totally overhauled version in 1999, without drums but with an added violin and layers of electric guitar that created an orchestral sound. He also resang all of his own vocals.

This story is also the inspiration for the classical guitarist Nikita Koshkin's "Usher-Waltz," a piece for solo guitar.

Further, the story served as inspiration to the American composer Ian Krouse's "Roderick Usher’s ‘Phantasmion’ (Grand Sonata ‘Quasi una fantasia’) Op. 25, 1836," which was composed for - and premiered by - classical guitarist Scott Tennant.


1.^ Beebe, Maurice. "The Universe of Roderick Usher" as collected in Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, Robert Regan, ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1967. p. 123.
2.^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York City: Cooper Square Press, 1992. ISBN 0815410287 p. 111
3.^ Butler, David. "Usher's Hypochondriasis: Mental Alienation and Romantic Idealism in Poe's Gothic Tales" as collected in On Poe: The Best from "American Literature". Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-8223-1311-1 p. 189–90.
4.^ Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. New York City: Cooper Square Press, 1992. ISBN 0815410287 p. 111.
5.^ Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. ISBN 0-8071-2321-8 p. 297.
6.^ E. A. Poe Society of Baltimore — A Few Minor Poe Topics
7.^ Kennedy, J. Gerald. "Introduction: Poe in Our Time" collected in A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-19-512150-3 p. 9
8.^ Krutch, Joseph Wood. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. p. 77
9.^ A.I.A. Guide to Boston. Susan and Michael Southworth p. 59
10.^ McAleer, John J. "Poe and Gothic Elements in Moby-Dick", Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 27 (II Quarter 1962): 34.
11.^ The William Beckett Blog update post
12.^ Alternative Press news story
13.^ Nathan's blog answering questions and introducing the project
14.^ Nathan's blog update post
16.^ Waleson, Heidi. "Two by Philip Glass." Wall Street Journal. year = 2009.

Further reading

Evans, Walter. "'The Fall of the House of Usher' and Poe's Theory of the Tale." Studies in Short Fiction. 14.2 (1977): 137–44. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris and Sheila Fitzgerald. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 1988. 403–5.

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