Poe's Fall of The House of Usher - The House and its Inhabitants

Poe's Fall of The House of Usher - The House and its Inhabitants

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The House and its Inhabitants

In the story “The Fall of the House of Usher”, Poe presents the history of the end of an illustrious family.  As with many of Poe’s stories, setting and mood contribute greatly to the overall tale.  Poe’s descriptions of the house itself as well as the inhabitants thereof invoke in the reader a feeling of gloom and terror.  This can best be seen first by considering Poe’s description of the house and then comparing it to his description of its inhabitants, Roderick and Madeline Usher.

Poe uses several descriptive words in his portrayal of the house.  The reader’s first impression of the house comes from a direct observation from the narrator.  This unnamed narrator states, “… with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.”  As the narrator continues to describe the house he uses several similarly dismal adjectives.    The gloom experienced by the narrator is not limited to merely the house itself.  The vegetation, which surrounds the area, is described as “a few rank sedges and … a few white trunks of decayed trees.”  He emphasizes these facets of the house and its environs by restating the descriptions reflected in a “black and lurid tarn.”  The narrator points out that the house seems to be in a dilapidated condition.  While he claims that the house appears structurally sound, he takes time to comment upon “the crumbling condition of the individual stones.”  He also emphasizes the long history of the house by stating that its features recall an “excessive antiquity.”

To of the most striking descriptions used to portray the house are those of the windows and the fissure.  He describes the windows as “vacant [and] eye-like.”  With this description the narrator effectively anthropomorphizes the house.  Thus he almost gives the status of character to the house.  The other outstanding description is that of the fissure.  It is described as “a barely perceptible fissure, which [extends] from the roof of the building in front, [making] its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it [becomes] lost in the sullen waters of the tarn.”   It is interesting to note that the narrator spends so much time describing a feature that he describes as barely perceptible.

The first of the two Ushers to be introduced to the reader is Roderick.  He is first seen lying upon a couch.

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  While he greets the narrator with a sincere and evident joy, the narrator is appalled by Roderick’s appearance.  Among the many descriptive phrases used to describe Roderick are these: “[A] cadaverousness of complexion,” “lips somewhat thin and very pallid,” and “an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison.”   The narrator states that these are drastic changes in the appearance of Roderick, indicating that Roderick once exhibited more healthful characteristics.

While the narrator describes the physical characteristics of Roderick at length, he gives sparse detail of the appearance of Madeline.  He focuses, instead, on her medical condition and the feelings her singular evokes in him.  When she moves through Roderick’s apartment, the narrator regards her with “astonishment not unmingled with dread.”  He continues the description of Madeline by giving the reader a report of her condition, which includes a gradual wasting away of the lady.  He speculates that in her present condition he will see very little of Madeline Usher.  The narrator does not realize the truth of his statement, having no way of knowing that Madeline will soon die.

A careful reading of the story will show the similarities between the building itself and the family that live therein.  Poe first draws a comparison between the two by emphasizing the length of both.  The house is described as an “excessive antiquity.”  Similarly, Poe notes that the Usher family is a “time-honored” one, which implies a long heritage.  After making this initial comparison, Poe drives the point home with several examples.  His description of the windows as eye-like mirror his description of Roderick’s eye.  The decayed white trees reflect Roderick’s ashen countenance.  Even the dilapidation and wasting away of the individual stones in the masonry are portents of Madeline’s eventual destruction.  These are but a few of the many comparisons Poe draws between the house and his occupants. 

Perhaps the most striking similarity between the house and the Ushers can be seen in the denouement of the tale.  At the climax of the story, the presumed dead Madeline reappears in her final death throes.  Her appearance so unnerves her brother that he dies from the terror.  The narrator flees in horror, but as he leaves he takes the time to look at the house behind him.  The “once barely discernable fissure” has widened.  This effectively splits the house asunder.  This is the final comparison drawn between the house and the family.  Just as the familial lineage of the Usher’s has ended with the deaths of Roderick and Madeline, so has the fissure’s widening destroyed the ancestral home of the Ushers.  In a beautifully appropriate double entendre Poe’s last descriptive phrase mentions “the fragments of the House of Usher.”  While the narrator obviously is referring to the building, he is also unwittingly referring to the family itself.

It is obvious therefore that Poe means for the building and the family to reflect one another.  His use of parallel descriptions of the house and family, the mood that both convey and the intertwined fate of both lead the reader to the inescapable conclusion that the house and the Ushers are one.
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