Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher is arguably his most well-known and widely read short story. There is a breadth of scholarship that has been written on the story expressing a number of opinions. The many layers and idiosyncratic details of the story lend themselves to close, ruthless, analysis, as every detail is important and relevant to the story as a whole—a characteristic of Poe’s writing known as totality.
Even a single word can bring with it heavy significance, and each aspect of the story is interconnected. Because of all these particulars of Poe’s story, The Fall of the House of Usher has been read in innumerable different ways; some of the more striking ones being as a phrenological allegory, a reflection of the degeneration of the holy land, an example of poetic economy, and as a story that embodies the apocalyptic sublime. When the reader is aware of all the different layers to the story and the different readings that there have been of it since its publication, it greatly enriches the reader’s understanding of the piece, and also allows for greater appreciation of the story as an example of pure Gothic horror.
In her article, “Poe and Prophecy: degeneration in the Holy Land and the House of Usher,” Mary Robey explores Poe’s employment of the religious theme of degeneration through his allusions to “images of the arabesque.” By alluding to the arabesque and the holy land, Poe is able to strike a parallel between the decay of Usher himself and the prophetic decay of the near east. The arabesque was indicative of degeneration to Poe for many reasons, one of which was because it showed a degeneration into an inhuman state. The features of Arabic persons were seen as less human, and Robey explains that when Roderick Usher is being described by the narrator as having “’Arabesque’ hair,” this “signifies his marked deterioration and seeming regression.”
As the story progresses, Roderick falls deeper and deeper into hysteria, and this description of his arabesque hair is an early indication of the fact that he is in a state of decay. Robey furthers her argument by contextualizing Poe’s story within the historical time frame of its publication—a time where the holy land of the near east was falling apart, and “writers, travelers, and ministers viewed Palestine’s decay as evidence of biblical prophecy fulfilled, of the veracity of the Bible’s predictions of a Holy Land laid waste. Poe himself stated that the contemporary Holy Land illustrated ‘the visible effects of the divine displeasure.’” This information lends itself to the possibility that Poe’s story is not only a reflection of the human decay of Roderick Usher, but that Usher himself is an embodiment of the holy land.
Poe was fascinated with prophecy, and as the prophecy of the downfall of the holy land seemed to be unfolding, so did the prophecy of Roderick Usher’s demise as the narrator reads Mad Tryst aloud. While Robey’s argument overall is fascinating, as she herself states that “there has been little critical interest in religious themes in Poe’s work,” the more interesting idea that can be taken away from her article is Poe’s ability to link current events of his time, religious prophecy, and the Gothic theme of degeneration.
The idea of prophecy itself is very gothic, as gothic tales are usually concerned with the supernatural, and the idea of an ancient prophecy unfolding and leading to an apocalyptic death is teeming with gothic undertones. A more simple gothic tale might simply chronicle a man’s deterioration, and at face value thats what The Fall of the House of Usher does, but upon further examination one can find that there is much more to the story than that, that there is a commentary on religion and an appreciation for prophecy that are both used to enhance the Gothic elements of the tale.
Poe’s work is also often seen as allegorical, and if the reader doesn’t consider the House of Usher to be a representation of the holy land falling, then it is often seen as a manifestation of Roderick Usher’s psyche. Not only is it a representation of his psyche, but each of the characters that enter the house are representative of different areas of the brain. Poe was known to be interested in phrenology, and in his article, “Phrenological Allegory in Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher,” Brett Zimmerman gives a detailed account of how each character represents different phrenological ideas:
“What we have, in this deeper layer of significance, is a psychomachy, a war within Roderick’s mind between his distempered organ of Ideality and a distempered organ of Amativeness (Sex), represented by Madeline. The narrator can be seen to stand for Adhesiveness (Friendship). When the narrator, on the literal level, enters the house of Usher and the valet conducts him “through many dark and intricate passages” in search of Roderick’s studio (3: 277)–the place of Ideality–the boyhood friend and his guide are also taking an allegorical tour through the numerous organs of the human skull as “discovered” by Gall and Spurzheim (see Figure 1). Rather than seeing the Usher mansion as representing a death’s head, as some readers do, or merely a human head, body, or face, think of it as a (“living”) phrenological bust. This bust does not necessarily represent Roderick’s artistic mind only but also the Usher mind more broadly, because Madeline is also part of that consciousness. That she and her brother are twins suggests that they represent different components of the same psyche. Even more generally, we might surmise that the Usher mind is representative of the Artistic Mind, certainly as Poe conceived it.”
This gives the reader a more detailed idea of what might be going on in the mind of Roderick Usher—by seeing the different components of his psyche through the macrocosm of the House of Usher, we’re more in tune with his personality and mind, and as Zimmerman writes, we are inclined to believe that Roderick Usher has an “Artistic Mind,” which could potentially have been his downfall. Back to the notion of The Fall of the House of Usher as an allegorical tale, we could see this as being related to the “moral” or the story: that those with artistic minds must be wary of becoming overpowered and ultimately destroyed by their own psyches. This calls attention to two gothic elements that are reinforced by this argument, first that this story is a cautionary tale against succumbing to the power of our own minds, which can often deceive us. Roderick Usher is overpowered by his own artistic mind and, as explained by Jonathan Cook, Usher “attempts to transcend mortality in an idealized realm given over to the creation and enjoyment of art” (Cook 3); this is what leads to his doom.
Aside from this being a cautionary tale, one must look into the pseudoscientific undertones of phrenology that Poe weaves into his story. These are two prominent motifs in gothic stories, as most are cautionary tales and many include elements of new, controversial science that often ends up leading to disaster—take The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as examples. Clearly, there is more to this story than its vivid and “iconographic depiction of the terrors of death” (Cook 3), and there will always be more emerging scholarship on what is arguably Poe’s most noteworthy work of prose.
The one undertone that ties all of these different theories together is that of the Gothic, and even when scholars come up with new theories regarding Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, they always hark back to the gothic elements that pervade throughout the story. Whether it be the cautionary elements to the tale, the supernatural prophecies, or the nuanced allusion to phrenology and science, any analysis of the story will always come back to enforce the fact that it is a work of gothic genius.