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Themes in The Fall of the House of Usher
Despite Poe’s claim that his stories are not didactic, “The Fall of the House of Usher” does convey certain messages on the nature and cause of evil as well as the effects of isolation and solitude on one’s mental condition.
The Nature and Cause of Fear: The atmosphere Poe creates in the story is one of despair and terror, the very “mansion of gloom” manifesting as a symbol of the pervasive evil of the area. From the beginning of the story, the narrator is ill at ease and shocked by his environment, even though he is unsure exactly why he feels this way. This unease increases as more strange elements, such as Madeline’s mysterious illness and the house’s Gothic “donjon,” enter the story, causing more inexplicable fear in the narrator and in Roderick Usher. The narrator’s account of the terror only heightens the presence of it. His account is less than trustworthy, and his attempts to render it objective only increase the sense of foreboding as he falls victim to the evil of the House of Usher.
Themes Examples in The Fall of the House of Usher:
The Fall of the House of Usher
"bore..." See in text (The Fall of the House of Usher)
In a chilling, twisted image, the language in this passage figures Madeline’s death as a birth. The word “bore” suggests the bearing of an infant, such that her deathly collapse to the floor is a kind of delivery. On a thematic level, this metaphorical birth may signal that there is something redemptive in the fall of the House of Usher, as if it were a necessary fate for such a plagued family.
"the echo..." See in text (The Fall of the House of Usher)
Echoes are a central motif of the story. The echo here is a physical echo within the reality of the story; it is also an echo of the echo in the “Mad Trist” story and also an echo of the echoes in “The Haunted Palace,” the poem within the story. These echoes signify the powerful echoes of history and lineage, as can be seen in the role of the stories and poems within the story which serve to foreshadow the plot. The echoes also represent the atmosphere of the Usher mansion itself, with its eerie, echo-filled hollowness.
"“And you have not seen it?” he said abruptly..." See in text (The Fall of the House of Usher)
Roderick’s sudden question creates a moment of suspense for several reasons. His use of “And” at the beginning of his question suggests that he had been mid-conversation, perhaps with himself in his own head. The pronoun “it” is so broad that it encompasses an endless array of objects of interest, allowing the readers’—and the narrator’s—imagination to sprint full tilt into the most degenerate and frightening realms of the human psyche. Finally, the abruptness of Roderick’s question following a lapse of silence contributes to an atmosphere which is, for lack of a better word, creepy.
"Sleep came not near my couch..." See in text (The Fall of the House of Usher)
Sleep is depicted here as having a kind of agency, or an ability to act. It keeps away from the narrator, not daring to come near him. This increases the sense of isolation that the narrator is experiencing, and the lack of sleep likely contributes to his inability to properly reason.
"I shall ever bear about me a memory of the many solemn hours I thus spent alone with the master of the House of Usher...." See in text (The Fall of the House of Usher)
Careful readers may note the inclusion of the word “alone” in this statement. While the narrator and Roderick Usher are together, this word emphasizes the isolation and loneliness present within the house. The pervasive loneliness of the narrator’s time in the House of Usher compounds with the demeanor of his friend Roderick and the mysterious malady of Madeline to add to the fearful atmosphere.
"While he spoke, the lady Madeline (for so was she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared...." See in text (The Fall of the House of Usher)
Madeline’s entrance into the story takes the narrator by surprise. Her presence causes a “stupor” to oppress the narrator, and the fact that she doesn’t notice him and that she disappears rather quickly all suggest supernatural elements. Since Gothic literature is known for such things, Madeline’s presence is akin to that of a ghost’s haunting the apartment, creating a sense of dread in the narrator and conveying a fearful tone.
"I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.”..." See in text (The Fall of the House of Usher)
In his “Philosophy of Composition,” Poe stated that the purpose of art and story is to create a singular emotion. Here, the full-caps emphasis on “FEAR” emphasizes that it’s the primary feeling Poe is attempting to evoke in this story. Notice how the narrator crafts his struggle around abandoning life and reason. Isolation and madness are consistent themes in Gothic literature, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” is no exception.