The Fall of the House of Usher
Analysis: What’s Up with the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
Son coeur est un luth suspendu;
Sitot qu'on le touche il resonne.
– De Beranger
"His/her heart is a poised lute;
as soon as it is touched, it resounds".
These lines are a quote from Le Refus, a song by French songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger, a (roughly speaking) contemporary of Poe’s. Beranger’s lyrics actually read "Mon cœur" (my heart), but Poe changed them to read "Son cœur" (his/her heart).
The first question to ask is, who wrote this epigraph? Typically, an epigraph is the author’s opportunity to give a hint to his reader as to how to interpret the work. But as we’ve seen in this text (check out Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory), the real and the fictional are often intertwined. One possibility, then, is that the epigraph is the work of the narrator.
If this is the case, we then have to ask to whom the lyrics refer. “Son” is the possessive article in French, and it could mean “his” or “her” depending on the subject. In this case, our subject is gender-ambiguous. Is the narrator referring to Roderick? Or to Madeline? If you believe the argument (as discussed in “Character Analysis”) that the twins share some sort of other-worldly connection, or that they are two halves of the same person, then the gender-ambiguity is appropriate, as the epigraph can refer to both Madeline and Roderick together.
Another interesting, if slightly harder-to-swallow interpretation is that Usher wrote the epigraph – because Usher wrote the story. What are we given throughout the entire story except example after example of Roderick’s eerie artistic creations? Together, he and the narrator listen to music, read books, and pore over artwork. Accordingly, we see one of Usher’s songs, and one of his paintings, but we don’t see a piece of his writing. Unless, that is, “The House of Usher” is that very fictional work we’re missing.
Anyway, what does the epigraph actually mean? These lines describe a heart so alone that it is poised and ready for touch, and so sensitive that it will resound the moment it is. Recall the story’s theme of isolation as well as Roderick’s “acuteness of the senses” and try running with that.