Role-playing games are a great past time for literature enthusiasts. A player sits down, creates a character with quirks and a personality, usually special abilities, and meets with other people who have done the same. They sit at tables, in couches, on porches all around the world. They sit down to hear and participate in a story, a story told by the storyteller. The storyteller creates a scenario, a background, extra characters (NPCs), and certain rules. Once the story begins, control is a relative term. The storyteller knows the story, but the characters are free to move about and unknowingly change the story as they go. In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the storyteller and characters interact in a very strange way. The storyteller tries to maintain control and the characters try to free themselves. It is a struggle against two aspects, the oppressor and the oppressed, masculine and feminine. Madeline Usher, the sole female character in the story, is kept in the background, but holds her own by being the main drive for much of the plot. Roderick Usher, the male descendant of the Usher household, has qualities of the feminine, but introduces a powerfully masculine identity into the house. The line of triumph of the oppressed feminine over the oppressive masculine is blurry and leaves much to be desired.
The first key to the house as a story and backdrop is the connection often attributed to Roderick and the house. The idea that the house deteriorates with the last wielder of the Usher name has been argued before. Roderick’s slow descent into madness is marked by cracks in the foundation of the house. This theory holds good merit from textual evidence. The story itself follows that line; Roderick describes the house as having “an effect which the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down, had, at length, brought about upon the morale of his existence” (119). But this is just one influence the characters have over the plot and vice versa. This view of the house and the connection to the family is shaded by a masculine identity. Surely the last male heir of the Usher house must be the cause for the decay, regardless of the feminine Usher remaining.
It is easy to label Madeline Usher as a weak character. Not only is her lack of presence in the story noted, but her physical descriptions are that of a weak girl. Roderick explains to the narrator that she suffers from an unknown disease, “[a] settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character…”(119). Madeline suffers from an unknown illness and is kept indoors in case she becomes the victim of her own frailty. The narrator sees her only briefly before her burial later in the story, and soon after her appearance, she is confined to her bed.
The character of Madeline Usher is subjugated. She is kept in the background. Her family line is given to Roderick, her twin brother, as was the custom at the time. Within the story, she could be representative of other women in the nineteenth century: left in the home with no rights. Madeline can also represent one of the more important aspects of the feminine as a whole, the idea of death and rebirth in her premature burial and subsequent escape from her tomb. Beverly Voloshin makes note of another point of Madeline’s femininity through color association. “Madeline matches her brother’s pallor, but her special mark is red…blood red being the token of both life and death” (14). Not only is she often introduced with the color red, a generally accepted color for the feminine, but her actions in the story speak directly to the idea brought about by that color. Madeline is, essentially, the feminine half of the Usher family.
Roderick Usher, Madeline’s twin and the masculine half of the Usher family, is the initial, obvious oppressor. As...