Commentary Notes from Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

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Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary

"The Fall of the House of Usher" was first published in September of 1839 by Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in Philadelphia, where Poe was also working as the magazine's assistant editor. This complex and horrific story was a tremendous success, and it is for this ghastly tale that Poe is probably best known and admired. It is important to note that Roderick Usher's family name comes from the real-life couple, Noble Luke Usher and Harriet L'Estrange Usher, who had worked onstage with Edgar's parents David and Eliza Poe, clearly suggesting the importance of personal experience in providing an impetus for Poe to write. The phenomenon of being buried alive was also a frequent phenomenon in Poe's day, so it is no wonder that he would choose this as a central theme, mirroring a later story entitled "The Premature Burial," to be published in July of 1844 that addresses this same topic. In addition to this idea of Madeline being erroneously lain to rest while she is still alive, there are some other important details to be discussed.

First, there is the stubborn resistance of the narrator to accept that he is experiencing any sort of supernatural phenomenon. He is very skeptical throughout the story to the very end, as he attempts to explain away every occurrence by some logical scientific reasoning. When Roderick complains of so many ailments, the narrator considers him to be a simple hypochondriac; when Roderick lectures him about the sentient qualities of moss and fungi, the narrator is doubtful, but he listens patronizingly. When Roderick sees odd lights beginning to surround his house and the clouds rushing by outside, the narrator turns him away from the window, dismissing this as a mere storm and the light as "electrical phenomena," choosing instead to escape into a book, which he reads aloud. When the narrator reads and hears frightful sounds, he ignores them and continues reading; and as Madeline opens the door to the room, the narrator says this is because of the wind. Only after witnessing the murder of Roderick does he flee for his life, and after observing the House of Usher swallowed entirely by the earth finally offers no explanation for this event.

Thus, the story may be seen as an ongoing struggle of the logical, rational human mind, and the primitive fears and worries that lurk deeper within, of which Roderick becomes a victim. The very thing which he had most feared, that he would be slain by the House, comes true in the form of his very sister Madeline. The narrator struggles to resist this frame of thinking, although eventually it "infects" him as well, so much that he cannot sleep at night. Poe thus sends a message that no matter how much we may rationalize and suppress our fears in light of logic, the fear is still there within all of us, however hidden, and any traumatic event such as what befell the narrator, may cause it to emerge at any given time, and consume us, as it had done to Roderick. One may wonder what the mental state of the narrator may have become after observing the House of Usher pulled into the ground; perhaps he, too, is as maniacal and as much of a hypochondriac as Roderick had been. At the same time, one may wonder whether the narrator would have even escaped from the house had he not maintained some hold on logic, for Roderick did not even attempt to escape death. Instead, he waited for it expectantly, going so far as to turn his chair to face the door, since his sister would soon enter the room.

Indeed, the fact that Roderick cannot seem to survive without Madeline points out another quality of the story's author. Throughout Edgar Allan Poe's life, he was forever searching for a female counterpart with whom he could share his thoughts, much like Roderick's close attachment to his twin sister Madeline. Poe had been lacking such a bond for much of his life, with the premature death of his mother Eliza and the loss of two other maternal figures in his life, Jane Stannard and Fanny Allan. He desperately sought female companionship and married his cousin Virginia in 1837, who would later die from the same illness that had taken his mother: tuberculosis. This craving for female companionship is evident throughout "The Fall of the House of Usher." The narrator's companionship is inadequate for the Roderick's needs, and after Madeline's death Roderick becomes sullen and depressed. Like Poe, Roderick himself is very artistic, singing a poetic song about "The Haunted Palace," and his love of other arts such as painting and literature is to be noted as well. Like Poe, Roderick is perceived by the "rational" mind, embodied in the presence of the narrator, as delusional and eccentric. Yet it is this man who in the end proves his point as the house crumbles as soon as he dies alongside Madeline. With Roderick's inability to function without his sister, the House of Usher thus comes to a magnificent end.

The destruction of the house mirrors the deceased Roderick, who had felt so much that the structure itself was a living creature. What the narrator had assumed to be baseless madness is revealed as truth. Also of note is the epithet that begins the tale from the poet de Beranger, meaning again "His heart is a tightened lute; as soon as one touches it, it echoes." Oddly, the original text from de Beranger's "Le Refus" read "Mon coeur," so Poe had changed this from "My heart" to "His heart," leaving one to wonder why this was done. Again, since the first person narrator is clearly not the artist of the story and "Mon" would hardly be appropriate, the reference is made to, again, Roderick Usher, whose heart craves the female companionship of his twin sister Madeline. Roderick mentioned the presence of a deep spiritual connection between the two, which would no doubt be broken once Madeline died. Roderick shouts out at one point "Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart?" revealing this close connection as his inner heartbeat and that of Madeline seem to become one and the same, a technique Poe also uses in "The Tell-Tale Heart." The only resolution is that Roderick die with her, since they are as much a part of each other as the House of Usher is a part of them.

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