Study Guide

The Fall of the House of Usher "The Fall of the House of Usher"

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"The Fall of the House of Usher"

  • On a dark and gloomy autumn day, our narrator approaches the House of Usher, the sight of which renders the day even gloomier than before. He notes the house’s “eye-like windows” and feels a “depression of soul” that is comparable only to the way an opium addict feels when he comes back to reality (1).
  • He can’t decide exactly why he feels so miserable, so he concludes that there are just some weird things in life you can’t explain.
  • The narrator approaches the tarn (read: lake) that lies near the house, and gazes down into it so as to examine the inverted reflection of the house rather than the house itself. But it’s still creepy-looking. He again notes the “eye-like windows” which would suggest this is an important detail (1).
  • He reveals that he’s planning on spending a few weeks here. The owner of the house, Roderick Usher, is a boyhood friend of his. Recently, the narrator received a letter from Usher revealing Usher’s illness, “a mental disorder that oppressed him.” Usher begged his friend to come to the house and try to figure out what was wrong with him. So the narrator agreed.
  • Although they were friends in childhood, the narrator actually knows very little about Usher, as he was always excessively and habitually reserved. His “very ancient family” is famous for its devotion to the arts – music and paintings – and has given a fair amount of money in support of these activities. (3).
  • The narrator has also heard that the Usher family has no branches; that is, there is only a direct blood line from their ancestors. For this reason, the name of the estate, “The House of Usher,” has come to refer both to the house itself and the family who owns it. There also seem to be similarities between the character of the house and the supposed characters of the Ushers.
  • Looking up at the house, the narrator feels as though “about the whole mansion and domain there hung […] an atmosphere […], a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued” (4).
  • More on the house: it’s very old, but it seems to be in great shape – except for a very tiny crack that runs from the roof down the front of the house.
  • But enough of that. The narrator rides his horse to the house and is greeted by a servant. He is taken by a valet to see Usher, and on the way determines that all the objects inside the house – carvings, tapestries, trophies – give him much the same feeling that the outside of the house did.
  • When the narrator enters his room, Usher stands and greets his friend. The narrator is shocked at how much Usher has changed since they last saw each other. His skin is very pale, his eyes seem to glow, and his hair seems to float above his head (8).
  • Usher has a nervous agitation that renders him largely incoherent. He launches in to a discussion of his illness. This, he says, is a family illness. It heightens all of his senses so that light hurts his eyes, he can only eat bland foods and only wear certain clothes, and most sounds make him miserable.
  • Usher is a slave to terror, notes the narrator. He feels he will die from it, and quite soon. It’s not even the illness itself that’s so bad but the fear of all the events which may cause him pain. According to Usher, this fear is what will be the death of him.
  • He is also, it turns out, a very superstitious fellow. Usher hasn’t left his house in several years, and he’s under the impression that his family’s mansion has obtained an influence over his spirit, that it’s the house’s fault he feels so gloomy.
  • On the other hand, he also feels gloomy because his sister, Madeline, his last living relative and his only companion for the last several years, has been ill for a long time and will soon be dead. As Usher is speaking, Madeline walks slowly in a distant part of the house and the narrator catches sight of her, though she does not notice him. Usher buries his head in his hands and cries with "many passionate tears."
  • No one has been able to figure out why Madeline is so sick. The doctors think that she is just gradually wasting away and that she is partially cataleptical. The night the narrator arrived she took to bed.
  • For the next several days the narrator tries to help Usher out of his melancholy. They paint, or read, or he listens to Usher play the guitar. But the closer they get, the more the narrator thinks his efforts are futile.
  • The narrator was often awed by the artistic productions of Usher, which he can’t really describe for his readers in words. He painted intense, abstract, mood-driven pieces. One painting in particular the narrator remembers vividly: a long corridor below the earth, bathed in eerie light though there was no light source to be found.
  • Similarly, one of Usher’s ballads stayed in the narrator’s mind. He recounts the song stanza by stanza for his readers. It is called, perhaps unsurprisingly, “The Haunted Palace,” and tells the story of a glorious, beautiful palace destroyed by “evil things” (19).
  • This reminds the narrator: Usher firmly believes that his house is sentient, or capable of perceiving things. The evidence for his claim lies, he believes, in “the condensation of an atmosphere” which lies about the mansion (20).
  • In addition to music and art, the two men spend a lot of time reading the books in Usher’s library.
  • One night, Usher informs the narrator that Madeline is dead. He’s afraid that her doctors will want to autopsy or otherwise experiment on her, since her illness was so bizarre. So Usher wishes to entomb her underneath the mansion, in one of its many vaults, for two weeks, until her proper burial. The narrator agrees to help Usher move the body.
  • The two men together carry Madeline to the vault. The narrator notes that the underground chamber lies directly underneath his own room in the mansion.
  • As they place Madeline into the coffin, the narrator notes, for the first time, how similar she looks to Usher. Usher responds that they were in fact twins, and that they shared a connection which could hardly be understood by an outsider.
  • The narrator also notes that Madeline’s cheeks are flushed and her lips pink. Then they screw the coffin closed.
  • Over the next few days, Usher’s countenance changes. He neglects his ordinary duties, looks even more pale, and has lost the luster in his eyes. The narrator feels though Usher’s mind is burdened with some oppressive secret. He stares into nothingness and seems to be listening to imaginary sounds.
  • The narrator also finds that he himself is subject to Usher’s superstitions. About seven or eight nights after putting Madeline in the tomb, the narrator feels nervous and scared and can’t get to sleep. There is a storm raging, but in the quiet interludes he thinks he can hear eerie sounds coming from the mansion. He dresses and begins pacing back and forth.
  • Then he sees Usher in the hallway. The man looks crazy, but the narrator figures any company is preferable to being terrified alone.
  • Usher wants to know if the narrator has “seen it” (28). He throws open the windows to the raging storm outside, and huge, powerful gusts of wind begin raging through the room. Outside, the narrator can see an eerie, glowing, gaseous cloud surrounding the mansion.
  • He tries to assure Usher that it is simply an electrical phenomenon, perfectly explainable through science. He then sits his friend down and begins to read aloud to him in order to pass the night away.
  • The narrator begins reading “The Mad Trist” by Sir Launcelot Canning. After some time he gets to the part where Ethelred, the hero, tries to break his way into the dwelling of a hermit. As Ethelred breaks down the door in the story, the narrator and Usher can hear the sounds of a door being smashed through.
  • Usher, meanwhile, has turned his chair around to face the door to the chamber.
  • The narrator, for lack of a better option, continues reading. As he reads about the sounds of a shield clanging to the ground, he hears the actual sounds reverberating through the palace.
  • Usher begins speaking. Yes, he says, Usher hears it too, has heard it for many nights now, yet dared not speak of it. Then he reveals to the narrator that they buried Madeline alive. These sounds they have heard are the sounds of Madeline breaking out of her coffin and making her way out of the underground vault. “Madman!” he screams, “I tell you that she now stands without the door!” (40).
  • At just that (appropriate) moment, a gust of wind blows the doors to the bedchamber open, and indeed there stands Madeline, bloodied and bruised. She rushes forward and falls upon her brother, who collapses to the ground, dead.
  • The narrator, a tad bit put off by all of this, runs terrified from the mansion. The storm outside is still raging. He sees a bright light on the path before him and turns around to the house to see where it is coming from. The moon, it seems, is shining through that tiny crack in the house that he noticed at his first arrival. As he looks back at the house, the fissure widens; the entire house splits in two and then falls, sinking into the tarn (lake) below.

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