“The Fall of the House of Usher”: Human Conditions in the Gothic Sublime

From the time it was published in September of 1839 in Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” has confounded readers. Its complex psychic themes seem puzzling and sometimes indefinable. It has thus occasioned a host of contrasting interpretive responses. Events from the fall of the aristocracy to the abolition of slavery have been offered as allegorical content in Poe’s tale. Moreover, “Usher’s” place as a Gothic text has itself been long debated. Readers over time have both embraced and rejected Poe’s text as an example of American Gothic literature. Some critics have suggested that “Usher” was Poe’s criticism of the Gothic as a channel to discuss human emotion and psyche. Others have hailed the work as an archetype of Poe’s capacity to create purely Gothic texts. Viewed from either perspective, “Usher’s” Gothic elements, at least aesthetically, are difficult to ignore. Poe places his tale in and around a decayed feudal manor; its characters witness and partake in an unnerving series of ghastly and supernatural events; and reader and narrative alike traverse an obscure, internal landscape of psychological anxiety. Uncertainty is fundamental to Poe’s narrative—it is the complexion of its narrator, and center in his relationship with the maddening Roderick Usher. The environment of “Usher” is an uncertain interpretation of the narrator’s heightening angst. Uncertainty is the locus of fascination with the text itself. Through its uncertainty of character and darkness of landscape, and the veiled perspective of reality these create, the tale delivers sublime terror in its clearest state. It is, perhaps, because of these mechanisms that “The Fall of the House of Usher” has amassed its array of interpretive meanings. But the vast and contentious litany of symbolic meanings point to a deeper, more central purpose. “Usher” eludes literal interpretation because it is an exploration of themes existing outside the scope of the tangible. Framing a narrative around unsure characters within an obscure environment, Poe not only explores inherent psychological traits, but calls attention to those themes with an aesthetic that is sublimely horrible, and unquestionably Gothic. “The Fall of the House of Usher” rests on these principles to highlight the ubiquitous roots of fear and anxiety, and, therefore, positions itself well within the Gothic tradition.

Before discussing its legitimacy as a Gothic text, or the thematic interpretations that it so contentiously precipitates, the aesthetic gothic sublimity of “The Fall of the House of Usher” should be explained and illustrated. Eighteenth-century philosopher and writer Edmund Burke describes the sublime as that which provokes thought or emotion associated with pain, anxiety, fear, etc., while avoiding the possibility of experiencing physically what brings forth those feelings: the vicarious experience of something terrible through an intermediate who partakes in the event causing that experience (Cook 8). This brings sublime pleasure, the most extreme feeling without the actual harm that delivers it. Sublimity, as here described, can be the driving force of aesthetics in art. Sharpness, obscurity, chiaroscuro, agedness, etc., are qualities used to create the sublime in visual arts. Variations of these may also be employed in literature, especially in landscape. Narrative techniques similarly convey the sublime through characters and events, and the overarching themes of the text itself. Even the most superficial reading of “Usher”—its dark and gloomy atmosphere, its ominous and arcane plot, and its shocking denouement—suggest that Poe’s handling of the sublime is deliberate and effective.

Jonathan A. Cook, author, professor, and Melville scholar, in writing of the Gothic sublime in “Usher,” notes that Poe’s study of Burke’s theories led to his “drawing on a number of its basic principles in order to create an effect of sublime terror” (7). Still, some critics question Poe’s aim in so closely following Burke’s sublime theory. Some analyses of “Usher” suggest that Poe applies Burkean theories of sublimity only to satirize them, to point out their inadequacies in conveying aspects of the human psyche. They argue that Poe evoked the sublime aesthetic to call attention to its inability to dig at the roots of the human condition (Cook 6). These arguments, however, diminish the scope and efficacy of the sublime in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

From his first vividly poetic passage, Poe exemplifies the sublime aesthetic which pervades his narrative, the “sense of insufferable gloom” that remains its tone throughout (Poe 702).

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, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within the view of the melancholy House of Usher. (Poe 702)

Immediately, a sense of discomfort diffuses throughout the landscape. The silent, autumnal darkness the narrator here describes conjures an eerie, disconcerting sensory experience. Readers are confronted with oddly contrasting elements: an “oppressively low” “heaven,” and a “soundless day,” both conflict with rationale and experience. Unknowing is a key to the Burkean sublime, and the dark soundlessness of this setting works to confound and depress both reader and narrator alike. Furthermore, under the ominous “shades of the evening,” and experiencing the “melancholy” emotion that exudes from the landscape as he nears the Usher mansion, the narrator is companionless. Feelings of terror and anxiety are often elevated when in isolation; the narrator’s solitude not only fills him with greater apprehension, but witnessing his unaccompanied journey has similar effects on the reader. Finally, giving life to inanimate things mystifies and sensualizes them. By describing the Usher mansion as “melancholy,” the narrator acknowledges the possibility that its existence is beyond merely physical. This supernatural aspect—which is central to Gothic literature—is the foundation of “Usher’s” sublime setting.

Both the mansion and the landscape are wellsprings of Gothic sublime. They are the primary agents of terror that affect the narrator so deeply, and they are the suspected origins of the plight of the Usher family. Its “black and lurid tarn,” “eye-like windows,” “rank sedges,” and “decayed trees” convey an inextricably sublime bleakness (Poe 702). Inside, the mansion’s “dark draperies” and “fretted ceiling,” its “phantasmagoric armorial trophies” and the “ebony jaws” of its passageways, work to fascinate and intimidate (Poe 704, 714). Still more sublimely terrible is the “distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion” (Poe 711). And while these especially tangible elements strengthen “Usher’s” sublime, the key to its sublimity is the uncertainty of the characters exploring those physical details.

Recalling that uncertainty is a primary agent of the Burkean sublime, observing the deeply conflicted nature of its characters, its narrator especially, reveals the impetus of “Usher’s” sublimity. Despite being confronted with the scene previously detailed, the narrator finds that “no goading of the imagination could torture [the landscape] into aught of the sublime” (Poe 702). As Cook notes, the narrator is “an apparent connoisseur of aesthetic effects in landscape and architecture,” and evidently he has yet to glean any sense of “half pleasurable because poetic” sublimity from his environment (Cook 10) (Poe 702). In an attempt to alter his perspective, the narrator looks to the reflection of the mansion in the lake at its feet, but his effort is futile. Thus, his attempted reinterpretation suggests that the narrator is prone to the influence of his own fallible perspective. “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been criticized for this unreliability. Often, it is suggested that if “Usher’s” narrator is capable of being deceived—by Roderick, the environment, or his own perceptions—then perhaps he will deceive readers. But this doubtfulness effectually caters to the sublime experience. Gothic fiction specialist Harriet Hustis remarks, for example, that these criticisms “[assume] that we (as readers and as critics) don’t want, or, more importantly, don’t like to be deceived” (2). Sublimity leans heavily on the unknown and the untrustworthy, and to fully explore sublime horror in “Usher,” Poe employs characters that are as unsure of their own perceptions as readers are of theirs. “Usher’s” narrator wrestles with his rationality as the environment works upon his fears. He attempts to shake off the oppressing gloom, then, fruitlessly, to reconfigure it into something more pleasing. Nevertheless, his affright persists; and therefore, the sublime is enhanced.

Thus it is through its characters that “Usher’s” sublime is most evoked. Unfamiliarity and irrationality are integral to the actors’ texture. On entering Usher’s mansion, the narrator is confronted with a gallery of seemingly familiar sights that yet impart upon him “vague” and “unfamiliar” “sentiments” (Poe 704). He knows the things he sees, but he struggles to recognize the feelings they arouse. He meets with Roderick and is taken aback by the daunting change that has worked over him. Roderick, like the objects in his dwelling, is at once familiar yet alien. His “manner” is of “incoherence” and “inconsistence” (Poe 705). Likewise, Roderick’s music and art are mad and brilliant, lucid but eerily opaque. Perhaps, though, the most sublimely conflicted character in “Usher” is Roderick’s terminally ill twin sister, Madeline. Her appearances are fleeting, yet she is the impetus of her brother’s dreadful mental state; she is living, yet succumbs to “cataleptical” fits, giving the appearance of death; and her presence provokes awe “not unmingled with dread” (Poe 706). Madeline, even before her demise, seems a ghost, and Roderick is at odds with her suffering: his illness is altogether antipodal to hers. He is plagued by a “morbid acuteness of the senses,” and his “large, liquid” eyes are “luminous beyond comparison” (Poe 704). Roderick’s condition is antithetical of the “cataleptical” ills of his sibling. While Roderick’s ailment is bold and explicit, Madeline’s illness is wholly dubious. The very symptoms of her disease mimic death, yet she grips to life. This conflicting duality of and between its characters imbues “Usher” with intense sublimity.

Following Madeline’s entombment, Roderick’s decaying psyche slips farther and faster into chaos, and the narrator is carried with him. In the final, angst ridden events of the tale, Roderick makes a tortured confession: “I dared not speak…miserable wretch that I am…I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin” (Poe 713-14). Perhaps mislead by his own disturbed condition, or, perhaps, desperately hoping to end his own anguish through an act of quasi-suicide, Roderick buries his twin sister, and knows he has interred her living. He is wracked with guilt, yet he persists in hiding his knowledge. His impropriety is manifest through his sister’s seeming reincarnation. And while she in fact never had perished, the narrator and the reader are nonetheless assaulted by the unthinkable circumstance of the dead rising. The character of Madeline Usher thus instantiates a superlative horror and confliction within Poe’s tale. Its characters, and its readers, are exposed to the height of dread by Roderick’s rueful actions, by the notion of being entombed alive, and by the sight of death reincarnate. Yet, only through the intermediates of Roderick and the narrator might sublime pleasure be here experienced. These deeply conflicting characters and events create an unnerving, unsettling air of Gothic sublime. Thus, Poe explores not just aesthetic compositions of sublime setting and scene, but also experiments with the nature of his characters—not only their constitutions, but their unique interpretation and telling of the narrative. “Usher’s” characters, its narrator in particular, experience and express sublimity internally.

Various aspects of the human condition are, therefore, cause and effect of Poe’s tale. Foremost is the wavering uncertainty of one’s perspective in various spheres of interpretation. Hustis argues that “The Fall of the House of Usher” evades metaphorical interpretation through its “mechanisms of duplicity” (1). She insists that “Usher” be read as a “gothic of reading,” that its underlying motive is mirroring the very experience of reading a Gothic text (Hustis 4). For example, the narrator’s initial “reading” of the Usher mansion betrays his desire to construe a picture from the scene before him—a scene that is somehow different from that which his sense experience dictates. The “arrangement…of the details of the picture,” mimic the arrangement of words, sentences and paragraphs of the text readers read (Poe 702). In this way, according to Hustis, “Usher” “calls attention to the narrative space it occupies” (9). A more overt illustration occurs during the climax of the tale, when the narrator reads “Mad Trist”—a fictitious story in typical Gothic form—in an effort to allay both his and Roderick’s escalating anxiety. “Ultimately, the two characters ‘activate’ a Gothic text (both within and outside of the text…)” (Hustis 8). As the narrator reads, and Roderick listens, the tale is essentially brought to fruition in the text of “Usher.” “[T]he mirror is held up to the reader: the activity of reading has been made visible” (Hustis 8). Hustis claims that the result of this “mirroring” is a “dynamic of interpretative uncertainty” (9). For this reason, “Usher” is often contested as a Gothic text; and for this reason, there remains such a vast array of interpretive meanings.

This is indeed a unique and convincing argument. But it falls short, similar to other substantive interpretations, by narrowing “Usher’s” themes to concrete and literal meanings. Ed Cameron, of the University of Texas Pan-American, writes extensively of psychoanalytic Gothic fictions, and the struggle to give them symbolic meaning. He suggests that by compelling readers to “fill in the blanks,” Gothic fictions encourage them to witness their own psychological fears and anxieties within the very texts they read (Cameron 27). This occurs both individually and culturally. Cameron builds his case using common interpretations of major nineteenth-century Gothic novels. “Frankenstein,” for instance, was thought to represent the struggles of the proletariat in nineteenth-century Britain. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster is a collective of discarded parts, is never allowed total autonomy, is derided by higher-class (bourgeois) citizens, and is ultimately condemned by its creator. Hence, Mary Shelley’s novel is a metaphor of the growing class struggle in an increasingly capitalist society. Similarly, “Dracula” represents “the external threat [that] emanates from the ownership of the means of production” (Cameron 22). He is despotic, secluded, greedy, and ambitious. But Cameron also recognizes that Gothic fictions, and the characters they produce, can be seen as templates of repressed psychological fears, anxieties of experienced repression, or the expression of ideologies. He asserts that reading “Gothic fiction as symbols for something that can also be presented literally…treats Gothic as symptomatic of its time” (Cameron 29). What really exists in the undercurrent of Gothic texts is the fear and anxiety of the human condition. Gothic writers give an image to something otherwise repressed, something that cannot be expressed literally, or, perhaps, appropriately. It is in this vein that criticism of “The Fall of the House of Usher” should take place.

“Usher” explores the depths of human uncertainty, both of ourselves and of the world around us. “Usher’s” narrator struggles to retain his ration. He understands that his perceptions may fail him, and keeps this forever in mind. “Usher” vividly illustrates the duality of human nature—the ability to objectively critique our mental state, but the incapacity, at times, to stave off fear and anxiety. Importantly, Poe discusses the nature of relationships. Roderick is deeply connected with his sister Madeline; yet, when his suffering becomes unbearable, he is quick to bury her as the source of his anguish. “Usher” reflects the desire for, and danger of, solitude and isolation. It exemplifies the duplicity of imagination and creation, both aiding and impeding psychological health. “Emotional ambivalence is difficult to live with,” says Cameron, so “we tend to repress [it]” (24). The result of repression is fear and anxiety. “Usher,” by calling them forth, connotes a trove of personal and societal objections. Like many psychoanalytic texts, “Usher” substantiates prevailing societal maladies and cultural dynamics. But this form of interpretation necessarily constricts the text to a limited, literal incident. Assigning such tangible existential meanings externalizes and disperses what is most intimate in the literature.

Wrestling with deeply internal, emotional issues can be uncomfortable. Literature in the Gothic sublime attempts to alleviate disquiet by “fixing the horror elsewhere,” in a supernatural, or otherwise fantastic identity (Cameron 23). It projects into an other, the psychological issues that we avoid. The Gothic sublime confronts what exists beyond pleasure, but presents it within a pleasurably dreadful aesthetic. “The Fall of the House of Usher” works comfortably in this medium. Its ever-oppressive, provocatively beautiful landscape is poetically composed to chill and entice. Poe liberally employs elements of the Burkean sublime to peruse the limits of ration, and the dangers of unreasonable emotion. He has created a tale with such broad and thorough psychological themes, that it escapes metaphorical meanings by applying itself to a great many. Indeed, its universality is its engine for evading interpretation. Importantly, the very fact that “Usher” is capable of discussing such intimate human misgivings, while also promoting delightful experiences, is testament to its place in the sublime tradition. Ambiguity gives “Usher” a veil through which readers glimpse but shadows of their repressed psychological conditions. Poe uses this very obscurity, and the uncertainty of the characters in his tale, to create a sublimely grim and penetrating literary experience that fits well within the American Gothic canon.

(This is my thesis paper for an early American literature course. (I got an A).

Works Cited:
Cameron, Ed. “Ironic Escapism in the Symbolic Spread of Gothic Materialist Meaning.” Gothic Studies 10.2 (2008): 18-34. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

Cook, Jonathan A. “Poe and the Apocalyptic Sublime: “The Fall of the House of Usher”.” Papers on Language and Literature 48.1 (2012): 3-44. ProQuest. Web. 2 Nov. 2015.

Hustis, Harriet. “”Reading Encrypted but Persistent”: The Gothic of Reading and Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”.” Studies in American Fiction 27.1 (1999): 3-20. ProQuest. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Eighth Edition. Volume 1. Ed. Nina Baym, and Robert S. Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2013. 702-714. Print

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