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The Fall Of The House Of Usher

By EssaySwap Contributor Feb 01, 2008 1610 Words
Edgar Allen Poe, master of the macabre, was one of the most prolific authors of his time. His short stories explore the dark side of life, touching on the realms of insanity, death, terror, and fear. In the psychological thriller, The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe examines the mental derangement and dissipation of Roderick Usher. In this tale and his other short stories, setting, in particular architecture and other structural elements contribute significantly to atmosphere and is physically and psychologically symbolic.

Although Usher?s mental illness is said to be hereditary, it is the House in which this disease of the mind flourishes. The story opens on a ?dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens.? Autumn is chosen because it is a time when the leaves of trees begin to wither away. Adding to the dark atmosphere, Poe never explicitly mentions where the House of Usher is located geographically, creating a sense of indefiniteness and remoteness. The authour employs similar remote castle settings in Ligeia and The Masque of the Red Death. In fact, in all three stories, he neglects to mention when the events occur, further adding to the feeling of uneasiness. Without a fixed time and location, the stories are excluded from the consciousness of the real world. Similarly, The Fall of the House of Usher and some of Poe?s other surreal tales including The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death are set within the confines of an enclosed area, apart from reality. In particular, the remote setting in the House of Usher represents Usher?s physical and psychological isolation.

The House of Usher was built in the gothic style, with its ?sombre tapestries? carvings on the ceiling, ebony black floors, and ?phantasmagoric armorial trophies.? A gothic mood, a ?sense of insufferable gloom? that pervades the house is created, setting the stage for future bizarre and supernatural occurrences. As the narrator examines this ?mansion of gloom? he notes the ?ghastly tree-sterns and the vacant eye-like windows.? The house mimics Usher?s mental condition. The windows are vacant and empty just as Usher?s eyes have lost its once ?miraculous lustre? of his youth. The parallel between Usher and the house can be further analyzed. The phrase ?House of Usher? refers to both the decaying physical structure as well as the ?all time-honored Usher race? linking the two as one entity, inseparable and indivisible. Poe emphasizes this symbolism by personifying the house, giving it the anatomy of humans, comparing its windows to eyes. The narrator views the house as upside down, through the reflection of the tarn, which shows that something is amiss with the family and the house. The stones which form the foundation of the house, and hence the family, are crumbling. The mansion?s once intricate and masterful architecture is now dilapidated and decrepit. It represents the former glory of the Usher family as well as the deterioration and fragility of Usher?s mental state.

The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptations of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones.

As the narrator learns more about the mental condition of his friend, the reader discovers the reason why Usher ?must perish.? Usher believes that his family is cursed, a ?host of unnatural sensations.? He suffers from a ?morbid acuteness of the senses? which in the end causes him to go completely mad. Usher has been damned by his family just as Morella in the short story Morella damned her husband.

The entire family ?lay in the direct line of descent.? Roderick and Madeline are not just brother and sister but twins who share ?sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature? which connect his mental degradation to her physical decline. As twins, they were once a sole unified entity in their mother?s womb. However, now they are physically separated, they each embody an aspect of one person, Madeline the physical, and Roderick the mental. They are one consciousness divided in two bodies. A fissure that extended from the roof of the house to the tarn is symbolic of the fundamental split in the twin personality of Roderick and Madeline, and foreshadows the final damnation of the House of Usher.

The Haunted Palace, a poem that Roderick reads in The Fall of the House of Usher, is a prime example or architectural symbolism. In the opening stanzas, a point-by-point comparison between the ?haunted palace? and a man?s head is made. The ?pearl and ruby? door is the man?s mouth, ruby representing red lips, and pearly representing teeth. Walls are symbolic of skin, and windows symbolic of eyes. Even the ?banners yellow, glorious, golden? can be compared to hair. In the final stanzas, the domain of Thought is disrupted by civil war, and the valley becomes barren, like the domain of Roderick Usher. The windows, or eyes of the palace are no longer luminous but ?red-litten,? perhaps representing bloodshot eyes. The once ruby and pearl door has become pale, since sick people have pale lips. This poem parallels both the House of Usher and Roderick?s palace of the mind, haunted by nightmares, apparitions, and ultimately insanity.

The interior design of many of the buildings in Poe?s works is symbolic. In The Fall of the House of Usher, hallways and passageways are maze-like, reflecting the nature of Usher, who is a ?lost drunkard or the irreclaimable eater of opium during the periods of his most intense excitement.? Art, an element of interior design is equally symbolic. In effort to lighten the melancholy air, Roderick and the narrator paint, play the guitar and read. Ironically, one of Roderick?s paintings does the opposite as his work merely illustrates his terror-stricken mind. The painting consists of a long, white underground tunnel that is filled with unnatural light, despite the fact that there is no distinguishable light source. Not only does this claustrophobic scene displays Usher?s own isolation in the damned ?mansion of gloom,? it foreshadows the entombment of Lady Madeleine.

Roderick?s isolation is further reflected through the windows inside the house. They are described as ?long, narrow and pointed and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within.? Windows of buildings permit people to see outside. However, Roderick has become so secluded within his own ?palace of the mind? that he is unable to see what is happening outside. Even though, Roderick?s disease of the mind flourishes in the House of Usher, he would be unable to live outside of it, as he has grown accustomed to the poorly lit and gloomy rooms. Light being a symbol for life, the lack of it in Poe?s settings creates a foreboding sense of death. Light is also seen as a symbol for clarity, or reason, therefore the dark rooms are also indicative of Roderick?s irrational and deteriorating mind. The narrator indicates that even the faintest of light tortures Roderick?s eyes.

The symbolism in the castle in the The Masque of the Red Death is similar to that of the House of Usher. Prince Prospero?s mansion is divided into seven rooms, with each irregular apartment painted in a different hue. The castle was a maze with ?a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards.? Each room had a stained glass window whose colour varied in accordance to the hue of the room. These coloured windows filtered out light, which is symbolic of reason, distorting reality. The different shades of light create a blur of strange images and occurrences that are unique to Poe?s surreal settings.

The idea of a premature burial is a recurring one in Poe?s short stories, also present in The Black Cat, The Tell-tale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Premature Burial. After Madeline supposed death, Roderick and the narrator bury her in a vault in the basement of the mansion. Madeline?s early entombment is a prime example of architectural symbolism. If the house is to be compared to Roderick?s mind, then the basement can be considered to be the subconscious and the upper level the conscious. When Roderick attempts to bury his sister, he is in fact trying to forget her, or bury her into his subconscious. However, she is still alive, and symbolically she resurfaces to the conscious part of Roderick?s mind by walking up the stairs. The bloodied Madeline falls on her twin brother, and they both die. Their simultaneous deaths represent the clash of the two parts of one consciousness, returning the twins to the unity they possessed before birth. As the narrator flees from the haunted palace of the mind, the house splits at the point where there was a zigzag fissure and sinks into the ?deep and dank tarn.? The collapse of the house parallels the destruction of both Roderick?s mind and the inevitable demise of the cursed Usher family.

Setting, in particular the architecture of buildings are subtly embedded in Poe?s short stories. At first glance, they seem to merely create atmosphere, but when analyzed, are shown to be physically and psychologically symbolic. In fact, the use of architectural symbolism is a recurring idea in Poe?s short stories. In The Fall of the House of Usher, by giving inanimate objects a life-like quality, Poe creates a supernatural setting, making the events that occur in the story more plausible. This, combined with many of Poe?s other unique aspects of writing, contributes to a classic gothic tale of terror.

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