Downward Transcendence in The Fall of the House of Usher
According to Beverly Voloshin in "Transcendence Downward: An Essay on 'Usher' and 'Ligeia,'" Poe presents transcendental projects which threaten to proceed downward rather than upward" in his story "The Fall of the House of Usher" (19). Poe mocks the transcendental beliefs, by allowing the characters Roderick Usher
, Madeline Usher, the house and the atmosphere to travel in a downward motion into decay and death, rather than the upward transcendence
into life and rebirth that the transcendentalists depict. The transcendence of the mind begins with Roderick Usher and is reflected in the characters and environment around him.
The beliefs of transcendentalists are continuously filled with bright colors and ideas, and heavenly-like tones. The character Roderick Usher suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses" which refers to his transcendental beliefs (Poe 1465). Usher finds his transcendental connection with the oversoul but instead of brightness he finds gloom with black, white and gray colors. Madeline Usher suffers from "a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character" (Poe 1465). This results from a loss of contact with the physical world, again a characteristic of a transcendentalist
, yet negative instead of positive. According to Voloshin "Madeline matches her bother's pallor, but her special mark is red-a faint blush when she is interred and blood on her garments when she emerges" (22). Both characters differ from transcendentalists with their disintegration of the body and mind instead of a rebirth of the body and mind of a transcendentalist.
Because of his connection with the oversoul Roderick Usher finds it difficult to communicate with words, so instead he uses paintings and writings to describe his inner thoughts. Voloshin describes how in "The Haunted Palace," a writing by Usher, he explains his own " fall of order into chaos, reason into madness, innocence into experience" (20). Representing another downward and deathly transcendence is Madeline, who is painted in the "vault or tunnel" by Roderick. In the painting, Roderick portrays Madeline in a tomb, and gives her no chance to have her own beliefs by locking her in. By doing this, Roderick breaks the transcendental belief that says being locked into the past is wrong, and each person should break free to create beliefs of their own.
Just as the transcendence into decay is found in the characters of "The Fall of the House of Usher" it is also found in the actual house and the environment around it. The story begins in the autumn of the year with an extremely gloomy appearance and ends even more gloomy with the "full and blood-red moon" radiating down (Poe 1474). Voloshin compares an example from the environment to the idea of downward transcendence." The narrator's account begins with his feelings of 'depression,' which finds its parallel in the setting: the day is 'dull, dark and soundless,' without ordinary sensory stimulation, and similarly, the scene is oppressive and melancholic, without vitality" (19). Transcendentalists feel as though life and light is found when a complete connection with the oversoul is made, yet Poe displays opposite feelings with the gloomy environment he portrays. Usher's house fills with gloom as it reflects on Usher's illness, or his connection with the oversoul. The house resembles Usher with it's head shape, "bleak walls and vacant eye-like windows" (Poe 1461). The downward transcendence Poe uses to describe the environment and the decaying mind of Usher connect together to give the house it's gloomy outward appearance.
"The Fall of the House of Usher" represents a continuous opposition to the transcendentalist views. The mockery of the transcendentalist views are found through the characters, the environment, and the house; instead of light and life, Poe displays a continuation of darkness and death. The complete decay of Usher is found in the house as the narrator witnesses "my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder" (Poe 1474). Voloshin describes the end of Roderick, Madeline and the house as "falls together, into the abyss, though in a paradox typical of Poe, Roderick's destruction may also be that supreme moment of transcendence..." (23). Poe views the transcendentalist thoughts as much too bright and unrealistic, and the ultimate transcendence downward displays his opposite opinions. The decaying mind of Usher, the gloomy environment, and the downward structure of the house all work together to destroy the traditional bright transcendentalist ideas, and to complete the final "Fall of the House of Usher."
Voloshin, Beverly. "Transcendence Downward: An Essay on 'Usher' and 'Ligeia.''' Modern Language Studies 18 (1988): 18-29.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Fall of the House of Usher." The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lauter, et al. 3rd Edition. Vol.1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 1461-74.