The (un)Master of Suspense
Before we get into an interpretation or possible themes in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” let’s start with a summary. This basic summary may prove beneficial before or after reading the actual story. Keep in mind as you read this summary that Edgar Allan Poe is the master of suspense and I’m not.
The narrator receives an odd letter from an old friend, Roderick Usher, requesting his presence. The contents of the letter reveal that Usher is suffering from numerous illnesses, both mental and physical.
Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline are the last two Ushers in a long line of Ushers whose family tree has never branched. The phrase “House of Usher” refers to both the house and the family. Roderick excitedly welcomes the narrator. They talk. The narrator learns that Roderick’s sister is near death. The narrator spends several days attempting to cheer up Roderick, but is unable. Roderick suggests it’s the house that’s making him sick, something which the narrator already suspected.
Madeline dies. Roderick puts her in a temporary tomb underneath the house, not wanting doctors to examine his dead sister. Over the next few days, Roderick’s agitation grows. Unable to sleep, he approaches the narrator’s room late at night. The narrator tries to calm Roderick by reading to him. As he reads, the narrator hears sounds that correspond to the story he is reading. Roderick claims to have heard those noises since Madeline’s burial, who is standing at the door, bloodied after struggling out of her tomb.
Roderick dies from fear. The narrator escapes. The house crumbles into the tarn.
Interpretations of the Story
Keep in mind that this interpretation of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is just one interpretation. There are others.
Interpretation #1 – Roderick attempts to murder his sister and sends for the narrator to strengthen him in the days leading up to it. Here’s my evidence:
- Roderick is nuts. Crazy people do things like kill their twin sister.
- There is evidence of incest, something which Roderick may regret. Killing a twin may be symbolic (to crazy Roderick) of killing his evil side. Roderick probably notices the deteriorating condition of the Usher line and wishes it to end.
- Madeline has an illness that makes her appear dead for long periods of time. Roderick knows she has this illness and may be waiting for the perfect time to accomplish his task.
- Roderick notifies nobody about Madeline’s apparent death. He gives the flimsy “I don’t want scientists conducting experiments on her body when she dies” excuse.
- Madeline’s cheeks are rosy, a sign that she is still alive, especially considering the nature of her illness.
- Roderick hears Madeline, yet does nothing to release her from the coffin.
Interpretation #2 – The narrator is insane. Here’s the evidence:
- Did you read the story? There’s nothing in this tale that’s believable.
- The narrator admits to being nervous as he stays in the house.
- He is preoccupied with the gloomy setting.
- He claims the house crumbles and sinks into the tarn. Sure it did.
Interpretation #3 – The decay surrounding the house has poisoned the air, causing bodily illness to all who wander near its environs (this may be a plausible explanation for the narrator’s possible madness). Here’s the evidence:
- The narrator states that there are “rank sedges” and “decayed trees.” I’m not a botanist, but I would guess a large amount of rank sedges and decaying trees would undergo a chemical reaction and let off unhealthy emissions. If only Al Gore were a friend to Usher, all this could have been avoided.
- The narrator mentions a “black and lurid tarn.” I’m not a hydrologist, but I’m guessing black and lurid tarns emit unhealthy vapors. In case you were wondering, a tarn is a mountain lake formed by glaciers and lurid means gruesome, horrible, or revolting. Put the two together and you have a gruesome, horrible, revolting lake formed by mountain glaciers.
- The narrator describes the atmosphere as “an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn–a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued.” Does this sound like the air you want to breathe? Notice the leaden-hued vapors. There’s a reason lead paint is no longer available. It causes disease. Did Poe know this a century before it was discovered by the public at large? Probably not.
- The narrator also mentions fungi on the walls. Fungi on the walls is bad. Don’t believe me? Try selling a house with mold on the walls or in the attic.
Interpretation #4 – Everything happens just like the narrator tells us.
Explore these possible themes as you read or review the story.
- Evil – Evil has haunted Roderick and the Usher family for generations. The root of the evil is not spelled out specifically, although incest between Roderick and his “tenderly beloved sister” is suggested. Throw in the family tree never putting forth an “enduring branch” and that the “entire family lay in a direct line of descent” and incest is obvious. The debilitating physical and mental faculties of Roderick Usher are most likely the result of such relationships.
- Madness – Roderick and Madeline demonstrate tell-tale signs of madness–anxiety, nervousness, depression. Madeline suffers from catalepsy, a symptom of nervous disorders such as schizophrenia, hysteria, alcoholism, and brain tumors, that causes long periods of unconsciousness. The narrator also demonstrates signs of madness as catalogued above. Roderick and Madeline’s isolation contributes to their madness.
This post is part of the series: Short Story Study Guides, Part III
- Interpretation and Themes in "The Fall of the House of Usher"
- "The Fall of the House of Usher" Analysis