Stories of Edgar Allan Poe The Fall of the House of Usher
An epigraph opens the tale, with words quoted from the French poet Jean Pierre de Beranger: "Son coeur est un luth suspendu;/Sitot qu'on le touche il resonne." Once translated, this means "His heart is a tightened lute; as soon as one touches it, it echoes." The narrator describes how he embarked on a long journey to visit a boyhood friend named Roderick Usher, whom he has not seen in many years. However, a strange letter that the narrator has received from Roderick declares that he is in terrible need of companionship and assistance, because both his body and his mind have become very sick. Wishing to come to the rescue, the man thus sets off at once to reach Roderick's isolated family estate located deep in the forest of some unknown country. As he arrives, a certain fear infects his entire body, and he recalls that this place is called the "House of Usher" because it has always been inhabited by the Usher family, and also the phrase refers to the family itself as one single house. The reason for this is that only one direct line of descent has survived from its earliest founder, with no siblings having survived to start new families of their own.
Additionally, the narrator suddenly recalls how little he really knows of Roderick; even though they were the best of friends as schoolchildren and played together, he knew little of this man's past and his family history. The appearance of the house itself mirrors this same air of mystery that shrouds the man who inhabits its walls, "The discoloration of the ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled webwork from the eaves...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" Poe, pg. 24. The man goes on to describe how the building appeared to have a thin crack running from the roof down the building's length and into the ground, and overall "In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old woodwork which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of the external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability" Poe, pg. 24. The narrator feels as if he is peering into a vault, because everything is so tranquil, but it is still slowly rotting nevertheless.
Upon arriving, a servant takes his horse, and the man enters the "Gothic archway of the hall," where he is then led through a labyrinth of corridors to Roderick Usher's room, where he is seen lying upon a couch. Usher rises quickly at the narrator's entrance, pleased to see his old friend again, and the two men sit down together. After an awkward silence during which the narrator marvels at how much Usher's appearance has transformed as "The now ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now miraculous lustre [sic] of the eye, above all things startled and even awed me. The silken hair, too, had been suffered to grow all unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather than fell about the face, I could not...connect its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity" Poe, pg. 25-6. Roderick is very disheveled, his skin is pale, and the very expression upon his face is inhuman. His voice is like that of a "lost drunkard" or an opium addict, as he hurriedly tries to explain that he has inherited some sort of Usher family curse, and this is the cause of his sickness. The narrator is doubtful, secretly considering him to be a hypochondriac when Roderick states dramatically "I must perish," and how he will die after losing his "struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR [sic]."
Usher adds that the grim, decaying surroundings of the family mansion are partly to blame for his depression, as well as the gradual decline of his sister Madeline, who will soon be dead because of her illness, which no doctor has been able to identify or treat effectively. When Madeline's name is mentioned, she wanders through the room as if on cue, and then slowly disappears once again, causing Roderick to start crying violently, burying his face into his hands. The fact that Roderick will be the last remaining member of the Usher family after his sister is dead compounds the problem even more, and it is this loneliness that has caused him to seek comfort in this old friend. Understanding the situation well, the narrator encourages Roderick to engage in various activities to cheer him up, which include reading, painting, and playing music. The pictures that Roderick creates are abstract and colorful, mirroring the complexity of his mind, as on one occasion when the man he paints an image of a long white hallway with light pouring down it, emanating from an unknown source.
The man's music is just as exotic. One mournful song he plays upon his guitar and sings aloud, called "The Haunted Palace," tells the tale of a beautiful palace that was once respected for its wealth, beauty, and respect for those who lived therein, as "In state his glory well befitting,/The ruler of the realm was seen." The song ends on a sad note, however, as the glory eventually becomes a mere memory "Of the old time entombed." The palace becomes a feared and decaying place, much like the House of Usher, "And travelers now within that valley,/Through the red-litten [sic] windows see/Vast forms that move fantastically/To a discordant melody;/While, like a rapid ghastly river,/Through the pale door;/A hideous throng rush out forever,/And laugh -- but smile no more" Poe, pg. 31. The once grand palace becomes haunted by ghosts and lives in the shadow of its former triumphs, until the last people depart the palace forever and there is no one left. Similarly, Roderick lives alone in the House of Usher with his sister Madeline, soon to be dead, surrounded by the remnants of his family's long and proud legacy. Usher also knows that this family legacy shall die with him because he is the last Usher.
Impressed by this song, the narrator converses with Roderick about its meaning, and he rambles for awhile about how he believes the moss and fungi growing on the rocks of his mansion, as well as other inanimate objects, are really sentient, thinking beings, much like humans are, and that the very House of Usher itself is causing his sickness. The narrator humors him and listens patiently, finding little cause to believe this as fact. Wishing to distract him from this mania, the narrator reads many books with Roderick, which works for awhile in focusing the poor man until Madeline abruptly dies. Usher is not overly distraught, for he already knew this to be inevitable, yet he insists on delaying her burial for two weeks. Instead, her body will be placed in a coffin in a room of the house, and the narrator helps to move her body into a dark vault once used perhaps "in remote feudal times" to store gunpowder, laying Madeline's coffin within. Then they unscrew the lid and admire the woman's face, which still shows a reddish hue, suggesting that she has died before her time, lacking the pale emptiness that many dead faces typically tend to carry. The narrator notes now much she resembles Usher, and the man declares that she was his twin sister, and they had always had a special connection between them. The lid is replaced, and the men leave the vault.
As the days go by, Roderick's behavior changes radically. His paranoia increases, and all of the progress the narrator has made during the past weeks in assisting his old friend is lost, and Roderick's fear starts to rub off on him! About a week afterwards, the narrator is trying to sleep in his room and cannot. Deciding to walk around his room for a bit until he is sleepy, the narrator is interrupted by Roderick Usher knocking on his door. When the man enters, he acts very strange, asking "And you have not seen it?" as the wind outside gets louder and fiercer. The narrator notices that the clouds outside are moving very quickly and shine with an unearthly light as well, which begins to surround the House of Usher. Suppressing his fear, he consoles Roderick by assuring him that the odd lighting is just "electrical phenomena," insisting instead that he will read a book to him that lies nearby, called Mad Trist by Sir Launcelot Canning to distract Roderick from his paranoia. However, upon reaching a point in the story where a character named Ethelred hears the cracking of wood as he breaks down a hermit's door, a similar sound of cracking wood seems to echo within the House of Usher.
Ignoring this, the narrator reads on to Roderick, reaching a point in the story where Ethelred kills a dragon, which releases a shriek in death. At this moment, a horrible shriek fills the House of Usher. Petrified but resistant, the narrator continues to read, even as Roderick has moved his chair to face the door of that room, as if waiting for someone to enter. His face is buried in his hands, but he is neither sleeping nor crying, and his body rocks from side to side rhythmically. The narrator reads a section about how Ethelred approaches a shield hanging on the wall and falls crashing to the floor as he approaches. A loud metal clanging echoes throughout the mansion, and the narrator at last gives up his reading, standing quickly. Roderick explains mournfully that the sounds are all from his sister -- the opening of her coffin and the release of the door in her vault, and that she is in fact still alive! Consumed with fear, Roderick screams out that he can hear the beating heart of his twin sister as she approaches, declaring that she will punish him for entombing her so soon.
He shouts out abruptly, "Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door," and at this the door opens and a dark figure stands there, although the narrator insists that the wind has caused the door to open. Entering the room, the narrator saw that "There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold -- then, with a low moaning cry, 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" Poe, pg. 40. Witnessing his childhood friend murdered before his very eyes, the narrator quickly flees from the scene in horror and shock, making it just outside of the mansion before turning around to observe the House of Usher. The storm grows fiercer, and the "blood-red moon" shines brilliantly over the house, as a large crack on the side of the house increasingly widens, causing the building to split apart and fall to the ground in pieces. The wind bears down upon the building as well, until suddenly after the "shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters," there is an abrupt silence. The House of Usher is no more, swallowed up by the earth upon which it had once stood.