The Fall of the House of Usher Book Summary
(Classical gothic imagery – drippingly dark surroundings and terrifying ghostly symbols – is used throughout this tale to evoke a sense of fear and foreboding that present-day novels and films have made commonplace to modern lovers of horror. Thus, in order to let the story to have its desired effect, a reader must imagine himself living in the relatively tranquil and circumscribed realm of rural England in the 1800s.)
The Narrator had received a letter from a boyhood acquaintance, Roderick Usher, begging that he come to him “post-haste.” Usher had written to explain that he was suffering from a terrible mental and bodily illness, and longed for the companionship of “his only personal friend.” The plea seemed so heartfelt that the Narrator immediately set out for the Usher ancestral home.
Approaching the ivy-covered, decaying old house, the Narrator was struck by an overwhelming sense of gloom which seemed to envelop the estate. The very sight of the manor caused within him “an illness, a sickening of the heart, an unredeemed dreariness.”
But even though the “eye-like” windows of the mansion seemed to be staring at him, he managed to swallow his fear and continue in his carriage up the path to the door. As he rode, he tried to recall Roderick Usher as he had once known him; years had passed since they had last met. He remembered his old friend as an extremely reserved fellow, quite handsome but possessing an eerie, morbid demeanor.
Roderick’s family was noted for its particular musical genius – and for the fact that no new branch of the family had ever been generated. For centuries, the title of the estate had passed directly from father to son, so that the term “House of Usher” had come to refer both to the family and to the mansion. Sadly, though, Roderick was the last surviving male issue of the Usher clan.
Finally, the carriage crossed over the creaking moat bridge to the door, and a servant admitted the Narrator. He was led through intricate passageways and past hung armored trophies to Roderick Usher’s inner chamber, a sorrowful room where sunlight had never entered.
Usher himself looked equally shut in, almost terrifying: pallid skin like that of a corpse, lustrous eyes, and long hair that seemed to float about his head. Moreover, he was plagued by a kind of sullen, intense, nervous agitation, similar to that of a drug-addict experiencing withdrawal. The list of his complaints was dismaying:
He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of a certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured even by faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.
But Usher wasn’t alone in the house – the Narrator caught a fleeting glimpse of his friend’s twin sister, Madeline, who bore an astonishing resemblance to Roderick. Additionally, it became evident that the brother and sister shared an uncanny, almost supernatural, sympathetic bond.
Roderick could sense just what Madeline was feeling, and she in turn could read his every thought. Pathetically, though, beloved Madeline was grievously ill, a “gradual wasting away of the person” that was beyond the powers of physicians to cure. On the very night of the Narrator’s arrival, Madeline was confined to bed; he never again saw her alive.
For weeks the Narrator tried to distract his depressed friend. They talked, painted, and read together. Usher himself even played the guitar. Once he improvised a wildly horrible ballad about a noble castle invaded by demons – a song which finally convinced the Narrator that Usher had gone mad.
Dad after day the two former schoolmates discussed their opinions on various matters. One conversation became especially intense: Usher believed that all matter, even inanimate objects, possessed some measure of intelligence; therefore the very stones of his house, he contended, were, in essence, alive.
Indeed, he had long felt that the entire estate, with its dark atmosphere and personality, had “moulded the destinies of his family” and made him what he was. Then one day Usher announced to his friend that Madeline was “no more,” and that he intended to entomb her body in the house’s dungeon rather than bury it.
The two carried Madeline’s encoffined corpse to the grim and moss-covered underground catacombs and laid it in a vault. There they unscrewed the bolts atop the casket and lifted the lid. Again startled by the dead sister’s resemblance to her brother, the Narrator was even more shocked to note a blush on her cheek.
Nevertheless, they resealed the coffin and locked the vault’s heavy iron door. During the week that followed his beloved sister’s death, a marked change came over Roderick Usher; he acted more agitated than ever and grew more and more pale. Often he would stare blankly into space, giving the appearance of “laboring with some oppressive secret, which, to divulge, he struggled for the necessary courage.”
It happened late one night, when the Narrator found himself unable to sleep. An inexplicable terror took hold of him – a fright which was not at all soothed by the violent storm that raged outside. As he paced nervously about, suddenly Usher dashed into the room. “There was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes … hysteria in his whole demeanour.”
In an attempt to calm Usher, his friend pulled from the bookcase a second-rate medieval romance and began to read aloud. But in the midst of a passage describing a knight who tears apart a wooden door, the Narrator thought he heard, somewhere in the house, the same cracking and ripping sound so vividly portrayed in the book.
Undaunted, he read on – this time, a passage that described the knight’s fatal blow to a dragon, which then cried out with a long, piercing wail. Again there immediately emanated from the dark recesses of the house a similar shriek. Although shaken, the Narrator kept reading.
Now the book told of “the clangorous sound of a knight’s shield falling to the ground” – and once again, just as the words left his lips, the Narrator heard a distinct metallic ringing noise. At this, he became totally unnerved and turned to Usher, who made a chilling announcement: he had buried his sister alive! All week he had listened to her stirring in her sarcophagus; heard her struggles; felt the beating of her heart. “I heard them – many, many days ago,” he admitted. “Yet I dared not – I dared not speak!”
And now – tonight … the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the copper archway of the vault! The heavy and horrible beating of her heart. … Madman! I tell you that she stands without the door!
At that, the antique doors flung open, and there stood the hideous, blood-stained apparition of Lady Madeline. With her last burst of energy, and with a bloodcurdling scream, she fell on her brother, and “in her violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor, a corpse, a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.”
Aghast, the Narrator fled down the shadowy halls and from the house. At some distance, he glanced back. There, in the light of the “full, setting and blood-red moon,” he saw the massive House of Usher being rent into pieces by a whirlwind, and then swallowed up into the dark lake that surrounded it.
The Fall of the House of Usher Characters
An unidentified Narrator
Roderick Usher, the Narrator’s gravely ill friend
Lady Madeline, Roderick’s even more infirm sister
The Fall of the House of Usher Review
One of the earliest and most famous of all horror stories, The Fall of the House of Usher is filled with the elements that fans of the genre relish: a decaying manor house, dungeons, medieval trappings, suggestions of dementia. … It’s hard to say that Poe’s plot is exceptional; it seems that he is attempting to create not so much a story as a feeling – a deep sense within the reader of mankind’s “grim, phantasmic FEAR” (Roderick’s words).
Some critics have suggested that the tale is not meant to be taken seriously; that it is intended as a parody of traditional horror. Some may find tremendous symbolism in the saga: twins tied in life and in death as they had been in birth; a strong woman’s struggle to free herself and survive being buried alive, then returning to punish a weak man.
References to blood at the end suggest to some that Madeline perhaps was a vampiress. Still others simply enjoy Poe’s unmatched style that conjures up remarkably horrid mental images and brings on a wonderfully grim suspense.
In all, the imaginative details and descriptions, the inventive drama, and the sheer popularity of the story, have made it a literary classic.
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