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Character Analysis in The Fall of the House of Usher

The Narrator: The story is told through the eyes of an unnamed narrator who knew Roderick Usher during childhood. When first exploring the area surrounding the House of Usher—and eventually inside the house itself—the narrator claims to experience strange, inexplicable sensations that only grow stronger and more unusual the more closely he examines his environment. As the narrator relates the events happening to Roderick and Madeline, his own sensory faculties are called into question, creating doubt in readers’ minds as to the veracity of his account.

Roderick Usher: The narrator’s account of Roderick Usher is that of a cultured, sensitive man skilled in music and educated in strange and occult topics. Roderick is also described as physically cadaverous and of poor health—possibly the result of the Usher family’s lack of diversity in their bloodlines. As the last of the Ushers, Roderick suffers from a nervous condition and shows a strong, almost supernatural connection with his twin, Madeline, and the physical House itself.

Madeline Usher: The twin sister of Roderick, Madeline suffers from similar maladies as Roderick that likely stem from their shared family history. The narrator claims that her physicians cannot diagnose her affliction, but it is clear that as Madeline’s physical health deteriorates, Roderick’s mental faculties follow suit. Madeline becomes an almost paranormal, ghostly figure from her disease. The strength of her connection to her twin brother manifests fully in the climax of the story.

Character Analysis Examples in The Fall of the House of Usher:

The Fall of the House of Usher

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"the breaking of the hermit's door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangour of the shield!—say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault!..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

In her return from death, Madeline turns out to be the character engaging in the hero myth intimated in the “Mad Trist,” albeit in a warped manner. Each stage of Ethelred’s journey is refigured as a stage in Madeline’s undead escape from the tomb. Each correspondence has been marked, as the narrator chillingly describes, by an ongoing confluence between fictive and real soundscapes: cracks, shrieks, and clangs! In an intriguing inversion of the hero myth, the figure who is usually the prize—the cave-trapped maiden—is flipped into the hero, whose journey is an autonomous self-liberation from the bonds of death and entombment.

"the hypochondriac..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

At several points throughout the story, the narrator refers to Roderick Usher as a “hypochondriac.” In modern usage, the word is associated with hypochondriasis, a neurological condition in which the patient is gripped by an anxiety that they are in a state of disease and decay. In its original usage, hypochondriacs are those with a gloomy, melancholy, and depressive disposition. Roderick—and Madeline, too, for that matter—are hypochondriacs in every sense of the word.

"It was no wonder that his condition terrified—that it infected me...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

An em dash (—) has several purposes, one of which is to signal an abrupt, emphatic shift in thought. In this line, the narrator begins to state that Roderick’s behavior terrified him, but then he quickly recasts it to say that “it infected” him. The abrupt shift shows a kind of self-correction: the narrator admits that the terror, madness, and paranoia of Roderick and the House have become a part of him as well. If he has become infected by these things, then the truth of his story should be questioned: his mental condition is not stable, and so he likely cannot accurately relate events.

"that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The word “sympathies” refers to an affinity or connection between particular things, and the noun phrase “scarcely intelligible nature” suggests that the “sympathies” are not well understood or comprehensible to outsiders like the narrator. Basically, Roderick is telling the narrator that he and his sister share a special kind of connection.

"I will not deny that when I called to mind the sinister countenance of the person whom I met upon the staircase..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Earlier in the text, the narrator said that this person “wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity” and that the man “accosted [him] with trepidation.” This earlier description, while not very positive, is far from the “sinister countenance” that the narrator now ascribes to the man. Given his time in the House of Usher, it’s possible that the narrator’s perception of people and events either has been altered or that he’s not accurately portraying things as they are.

"Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

This passage serves several purposes. First, it emphasizes Roderick Usher’s deteriorating mental state. He stubbornly believes his own theory that “vegetable things” are sentient—that is, they have consciousness. He then extends this belief to the land and vegetable matter around and within the house, claiming that it has infiltrated the walls of the House of Usher. Finally, he makes the claim that this sentience has influenced “the destinies of his family.” The narrator’s startled reaction is justified, because Roderick is essentially claiming that the House is alive and has a will of its own.

"a full consciousness on the part of Usher, of the tottering of his lofty reason upon her throne...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The narrator attributes the verses that follow to Roderick Usher (in reality, the poem was written by Poe years earlier). What’s notable about this attribution is that the narrator cites these verses as an indication that Roderick’s “reason” is “tottering”—which is to say that the narrator perceives Roderick’s sanity to be slipping.

"the last waltz of Von Weber..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

This is an allusion to German composer Carl Maria Friedrich Ernst von Weber's (1786–1826) Invitation to the Dance, written in 1819. The narrator alludes to this beautiful and romantic piece of music to illustrate how solemn and dark his time with Roderick Usher has become: the way Usher performs casts a dark, perverse shadow upon music, such as Invitation, the narrator once thought beautiful.

"If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Roderick possesses great artistic powers that have the power to cause physical reactions of awe in the narrator. The power of Roderick’s craft and his ability to put ideas and abstractions on paper are so intense that the narrator can only compare them to the nightmare-like works of the Swiss painter Henry Fuseli.

"the more bitterly did I perceive the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Despite becoming closer with Roderick, the narrator realizes that his desire to “alleviate the melancholy of [his] friend” is futile. As Madeline’s health fades, Roderick’s pervasive gloom deepens, darkening the environment in an “unceasing radiation of gloom.” The tone conveyed in this passage is one of hopelessness, and the strong connection between Madeline’s physical health and Roderick’s mental condition is emphasized.

"Arabesque expression..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The adjective “arabesque” can refer to an intricate ornamentation and patterned design. Poe’s narrator uses it here to suggest that Roderick Usher’s face, body, and expression all represent an elaborate combination of different features that it make it very difficult not only to determine what he is thinking but also to find “any idea of simple humanity.” So, the initial characterization of Roderick is one of incongruity, of cadaverousness, and of exaggeration, suggesting that he is an inscrutable and unstable person.

"A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The amount of description the narrator uses to describe Roderick Usher is similar to that which he used to describe the House. Like the House, Roderick has traits that are distinctly Gothic in that they represent both death and beauty: while his skin is pale, his body corpse-like, and his hair like cobwebs, he has bright eyes, beautifully curved lips, and a delicate nose.

"of the constrained effort of the ennuyé man of the world...."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

The word “ennui” means a feeling of weariness, dissatisfaction, or a general boredom with life and events. The narrator states that Roderick makes an effort that is overly cordial—that is, too warm and welcoming—which suggests that Roderick’s seclusion has made him inept at proper greetings and affections.

"Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream..."   (The Fall of the House of Usher)

Readers ought to notice the narrator’s refusing to acknowledge the reality of his situation by claiming that feelings of apprehension and ill will are simply “a dream.” The narrator’s refusal should give readers pause about how accurately he is portraying the events in the house. If the narrator cannot trust his own senses, then readers should not fully trust the narrator’s point of view in the story.

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