Battling melancholy and anxiety for much of his life, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) wrote often on the plagues of the human mind, and of the ever mounting toil of maintaining some semblance, while one’s more infective thoughts bubble to the surface. During his time the psychological sciences were newly burgeoning, and mental illness was often viewed from a cryptic and mystical perspective. Yet, through his grotesque chronicles of the mind’s decay, Poe explored very real qualities of the human psyche. Such a story is told in “The Fall of The House of Usher.” Poe wrote of a mind’s cunning ability to deceive itself, of its intimate relationship with the outside world, and of the panicked asphyxiation brought about when that world becomes too heavy. Poe’s account of the deranged mind is a lucid reminder of its vulnerability. It is often the very pressure of maintaining one’s sanity amidst an uncontrollable situation that goads such self-perpetuating collapse. Submerged in paranoia, one’s perspective becomes skewed; every sound and sight – every thought – brings ever closer a total eclipse.
Readers are first met by an unnamed narrator as he approaches the forest-bound manor of Roderick Usher, a “boon companion” from his youth who has reached out in a time of crisis. Usher’s request for company is aroused by a gradual, yet steady and persistent crumbling of mental stability. His “summons” seems a final, dejected attempt to subdue the duress of his notoriously disturbed lineage, and the physical surroundings that he credits for such derangement. Indeed, even before reuniting with his host – before Usher’s “morbid acuteness of the senses” clues him to the “sentience” of his “dwelling” – the narrator is overcome by an admittedly inexplicable “sense of insufferable gloom” that ruminates from within the setting. Once re-acquainted with Usher, the narrator learns of his deepening madness, of its apparent relation to the Usher home and name, and of a second Usher, a twin sister to Roderick, whose affliction is strikingly dissimilar from his own. What follows is a fruitless attempt to comfort and perhaps mend his broken host. Yet, upon the alleged death and subsequent burial of his twin, Roderick’s condition escalates, culminating in his ruin, the destruction of his otherworldly environs, and ultimately the fall of the Usher legacy.
Poe’s language throughout the tale is characteristically dense and descriptive. His sentences are often long and structurally complex. They are thickly laden with adjectives and adverbs that leave no question as to the narrator’s impression of the setting and of the man whom it bares so heavily upon. Poe’s opening line greets readers with prose that threatens the brink of verse: “During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens.” Indeed, one finds such usage of alliteration and assonance throughout the work. These devices create a depth of imagery that parallels the profound psychological disturbance that the House of Usher emanates.
As the narrator absorbs the landscape, he is struck by “an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart — an unredeemed dreariness.” That a reasonably facultative man is taken aback so directly by the landscape builds credibility into the narrative. One is nearly convinced, well before the testimony of an irrational Roderick Usher, that, in fact, the mansion and its habitat exhale “an atmosphere which [has] no affinity with the air of heaven, but which [has] reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn.” Questioning his own senses, the narrator looks upon the scene from its reflection in an adjacent pond. This attempt to reason away his fear by rearranging “the particulars of the scene” is futile, and what he sees is yet “more thrilling than before.” Not only does this bolster the rationing capacity of the narrator, it leavens the habitat’s energy; it extols the power that an environment holds over the minds of its inhabitants. This is made no more explicit than in the rising action that leads to the climax. As Usher and his guest endeavor to allay their distress, following the burial of his sister, what had previously been the “insoluble” breath of the Usher mansion swells to a verifiable storm. It forms “masses of agitated vapor” and “distinctly visible gaseous exhalation[s].” The fury of his “dwelling” maintains course with Usher’s delirium, and, together with his death, the mansion gives way to its own maddened ferocity. Both the man, and the mansion are destroyed in unison. That an external environment can work itself so thoroughly into the one’s thoughts and reactions is an undeniable observation, made clear in the tightly bound relationship of Roderick and his abode. And no matter how strong-minded a person may be, as evidenced by the narrator’s frenzied reactions, the medium in which they exist probes every fiber of thought.
Yet, Usher is seized not only by the haunting entity of his residence, but also the unwavering lineage from which he has descended. His forebears “had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch;” Usher is deeply entrenched in his name, and the “peculiar sensibility” with which it is synonymous. In effect Usher surrenders his individuality and plays out the history of his progenitors. Thus, he is tormented by an ailment less his own than of Usher legend. It is an affliction contracted from his noxious surroundings, yet also trapping him within their walls. This environment both chisels away at his sanity and placates the very symptoms that it evokes. Usher suffers from “a morbid acuteness of the senses.” He is only able to tolerate the dullest of sounds, the dimmest of lights, and the numbest touch. Therefore, his mansion – the very thing that infects him – seems the only acceptable residency. This chain reaction is kindled by the implication of his name alone, with no apparent clinical foundation. Certainly this rings true in the self-fulfilling prophecies of mental illness, and even in the everyday social conduct of a healthy mind. One’s interpretation of an environment, a situation, and especially a social role, is filtered through a pre-determined set of beliefs that dictates the behavior they then express, thus tailoring the climate to their particular condition, and often conceiving an issue where one does not yet exist. Without help, one’s malady only deepens. Roderick Usher perhaps realizes the need for an outside influence to break the cycle. Yet, just as an unwell individual must withdraw from the context that supports their condition, so should have Usher sought to break free of his injurious whereabouts. Still, he is tethered by infirmity, by the illusory comforts of his estate, and by the contradiction of mind that pushes ever harder when logic strives to pull.
Poe observes this dichotomy not only in the exchange between place and imagination, but also the struggle that exists exclusively within the mind. The disunion of Roderick Usher, however, is exposed less through his own internal conflict than through the relationship he maintains with his twin. In every sense, Lady Madeline is Usher’s counterpart. His hypersensitivity, and “nervous agitation,” are contrasted by her “cataleptical character.” Usher is wildly expressive throughout the narrative, while Lady Madeline remains voiceless, and undeveloped. That they are twins and of an “exact similitude” establishes the inseparable connection that they share. Consequently, as Usher’s derangement worsens, his twin’s health wanes in kind. As such, it seems wholly implausible that he should mistakenly bury her alive. If irrationality and self-destruction are defining elements of Poe’s tale, then it stands to reason that the mistaken entombment of his twin was, indeed, akin to an attempted suicide. Knowing, perhaps, that neither he nor his mansion could continue without such an integral link – that one less brick could open the “barely perceptible fissure” dividing the mansion – Usher sought his own respite through the riddance of his twin. In due time, this proved successful. Lady Madeline scarcely survives her internment, and, perhaps by the breath of the Usher Mansion itself, emerges from the heavily fortified vault in which she was abandoned. Enduring just long enough to reach her brother, in the throes of the storm that heaved her from the crypt, Lady Madeline envelopes Usher, and “[bears] him to the floor a corpse.” Usher’s death is indistinguishable from his twin’s; having no physical malady to relieve him of being, he relies upon Lady Madeline’s terminal illness to bring his own death. With no living Usher remaining, the plague of the House of Usher is brought to an end. Roderick, his mansion, and his sister, are all parts of one whole; when one fails, the others strain, until they tear. For all that science and medicine has discovered, the processes of human thought and emotion remains enigmatic. The human mind is an astonishingly complex organ. Nevertheless, despite its monumental power, it remains curiously delicate.
Edgar Allan Poe is astutely observant in his commentaries on mental illness. Undoubtedly, his own hardship honed the accuracy of his reflections. His well-known story, The Fall of The House of Usher, overwhelms readers with its profound richness of prose, and with a morosely woven setting, which drowns the scant collection of characters in isolation, anxiety, and hopelessness. Permeating through the wrecked and terror-stricken Roderick Usher, is the anguish of self-defeat, the ever sharpening angst of one’s own distorted outlook, and the unremitting strangle of an overbearing environment. As pervasive thoughts deepen, their effect gains momentum. Amidst the dismay and delusion, the only discernable conclusion seems as antagonistic as the events that lead to it. If the pressure cannot be relieved, the tortured mind implodes.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” A Pocketful of Prose: Vintage Short
Fiction Volume One. Ed. David Madden. Boston: Wadsworth, 2006. Print