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The Fall of the House of Usher, Research Paper Example

Pages: 5

Words: 1335

Research Paper

According to Poe scholar Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine in September of 1839, stands today as one of Poe’s greatest stories and as a prime example of Poe’s ability to weave the strange and the supernatural into a work of short fiction. Quinn points out that this short story contains a basic theme of loss identity via its unidentified narrator, Roderick Usher, the main antagonist, and Madeline Usher, his doomed sister (284).

Many literary scholars agree that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is the finest example of what is known as American Gothic, a sub-genre of fiction that expresses many of the prime elements of the European style of Gothic Romance–an atmosphere or setting of horror, dread, deterioration, and decay; the Gothic hero as a wanderer, in this case, the unidentified narrator; the fall from grace as found in earlier Gothic Romances like Matthew G. Lewis’ The Monk (1796) and Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794); and of course, the supernatural which is enhanced through a morbid setting (De Vore, Dominec, et al., “The Gothic Novel”). Therefore, Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” represents the quintessential American Gothic short story of the mid 19th century, due to the fact that it expertly incorporates all of the Gothic elements into a single literary unit.

For the general reader or one that has read the story only once or twice without considering its depth of complexity related to its themes, motifs, and characterizations, “The Fall of the House of Usher” offers numerous literary avenues to explore as perhaps Poe’s best example of what he called the “single effect” or the use of words and imagery to create a single emotional response in reader. As noted by literary critic Davis Morris, “The Fall of the House of Usher” “addresses the horrific, hidden ideas and emotions within individuals and provides an outlet for them” (De Vore, Dominec, et al., “The Gothic Novel”), a great example being Roderick’s obsession with burying his sister Madeline alive in the family vault deep beneath the house which he believes will set her free from the family curse of inherited madness and insanity. Morris also relates that “The Fall of the House of Usher” reveals specific truths to the reader through “realistic fear” (De Vore, Dominec, et al., “The Gothic Novel”),  such as when Madeline is buried alive and then awakes in her casket to seek revenge against her brother Roderick.

In addition, Morris quotes Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a British literary critic with an expertise in English Gothicism, as stating that “The Fall of the House of Usher” presents to the reader the idea of a protagonist (the unidentified narrator) who has to struggle “with a terrible, surreal person or force,” being Roderick Usher and the house itself, both which are “metaphors for an individual’s struggle with repressed emotions or thoughts” (De Vore, Dominec, et al., “The Gothic Novel”), such as Roderick’s desire to see his sister Madeline buried alive and the unidentified narrator’s desire to help his friend Roderick who certainly suffers from some form of mental derangement.

Morris also includes some observations by American novelist and critic Joyce Carol Oates who like Poe has written a number of short stories that contain many of the familiar elements associated with Gothic Romance. According to Oates, “The Fall of the House of Usher” overflows with repressed emotions which are “horrible not only because of what they are” (i.e., envy, hate, jealousy, and extreme melancholy) but also because of how they enslave a person” like Roderick Usher whose obsession with burying his sister Madeline alive makes him a slave to his own perverted emotions. These types of emotions serve as a way to draw the reader deep into the story, a sort of attraction which as Oates reminds us also seduces the reader. Also, the Gothic hero (the unidentified narrator) appears to be emotionally weaker than the antagonist, such as at the conclusion of the story when the narrator flees from the House of Usher as it sinks into the “deep, dark, dank” tarn (De Vore, Dominec, et al., “The Gothic Novel”) which could be viewed as a metaphor for the tomb.

Oates also declares that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is rampant with themes of repression concerning “forbidden desires,” one being Roderick’s deranged obsession with seeing his sister Madeline buried alive. For the readers of Poe’s often morbid tale, Oates relates that these “forbidden desires” are the focal points of the story. This also holds true for most Gothic novels that were written some fifty years before “House of Usher” (De Vore, Dominec, et al., “The Gothic Novel”).

However, many readers of “The Fall of the House of Usher” have offered various and different responses to it, both as an American Gothic classic that is often mandatory reading for lower-level literature classes and as a “tale of terror” or as Poe once remarked, tales of the macabre and arabesque (Quinn 285). As previously mentioned, Poe the short story writer once argued that many of his stories and poems were “productions of a singular effect” (Hiatt 2), meaning that the reader should walk away after reading “The Fall of the House of Usher” and other “tales of the macabre” like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” with a single feeling or emotional response. But sometimes, as observed by Robert F. Hiatt, readers tend to offer multiple effects or a number of different emotional responses to the story.

Hiatt believes that these multiple effects or responses to “The Fall of the House of Usher” are due to the complexity of the story. For example, the most common response among readers is one of fear, due in part to the fantastic setting of the story (“a singularly dreary tract of country”) and the gloomy and sullen atmosphere that Poe creates in relation to the house itself and the morbid nature of Roderick Usher. Also, many readers are disgusted by Roderick Usher’s desire to bury his sister Madeline alive. But some readers come away from the story with a feeling of wonder and awe, due to Poe’s masterful use of symbolism and metaphor and his ability to describe a situation or event with incredible detail.

Hiatt also provides some criticism from one of the best Poe scholars, the late Daniel Hoffman. In his opinion, Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an example of the American Gothic genre is a “thesaurus of Gothic clichés with its ‘lonely wanderer’ (the unidentified narrator), the ‘dreary landscape,’ the ‘decaying castle’ (the house itself), and the ‘reflective tarn” into which the house sinks at the conclusion of the story (Hiatt 6). Overall, most readers do pick up on these motifs of dreariness and desolation which in some ways supports Poe’s suggestion that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is indeed a production of a single effect.

In addition, many readers will immediately notice that “The Fall of the House of Usher” does not offer any sort of “normal” circumstances. As Peter Coviello points out, the story “is not noted for its happy marriages, light-hearted couplings, or long and untroubled friendly allegiances” (Hiatt 6) that are usually found in short stories and novels by some of Poe’s contemporaries who are now completely forgotten. Therefore, we can assume that the response of most readers to “The Fall of the House of Usher” is one of fear and detachment and that Poe’s insistence of a single effect in this masterpiece of American Gothicism does ring true for most readers, being an effect of weirdness that borders on the ravings of a madman.

Works Cited

De Vore, David, Dominec, Anne, et al. “The Gothic Novel.” 2015. Web. Accessed 11 February 2015. <http://cai.ucdavis.edu/waters-sites/gothicnovel/155breport.html.>

Hiatt, Robert F. “Gothic Romance and Poe’s Authorial Intent in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” 2012. Web. Accessed 11 February 2015. < http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1135&context=english_theses>.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. New York: Appleton-Century Company, 1963.

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