“The Fall of the House of Usher”. Edgar Allan Poe 1839. “The Fall of the House of Usher”. The gothic context of the tale The doubling motif of the tale The function of setting in the tale The structural unity of the tale. The Gothic literary tradition.
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“The Fall of the House of Usher” Edgar Allan Poe 1839
“The Fall of the House of Usher” • The gothic context of the tale • The doubling motif of the tale • The function of setting in the tale • The structural unity of the tale
The Gothic literary tradition • Begun in eighteenth century England • Novelists • Horace Walpole • Ann Radcliffe • Matthew “Monk” Lewis • Popular form in British literary journals • Imported into American short story - 19th century • Key ingredient was sensationalism
Gothic Architecture in America • Started in US about 1840 • Steeply pitched roofs • Pointed arch windows • Elaborate trim around roof edges • High dormers • Lancet windows
Poe’s “house of Usher” looks more like a medieval castle or English cathedral in Gothic style
The house might look something like this (from a photograph by Simon Marsden in his Visions of Poe)
Elements of Gothic Writing • Emphasis on setting • Exterior: landscape • Interior: houses • Castle-like architecture • Characters are brooding, secretive • Buried family secrets • Long history of family tied to place
The Doubling Motif • In literary criticism, this is called a “doppelganger,” from the German for “double-goer” • Examples are: • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson) • The Secret Sharer (Joseph Conrad)
What function does the doppelganger motif serve? • Represents the dual nature of man • In Poe, one side of man is reason, or the mind • The other is emotion, or the body • Roderick and Madeleine are genetically twins, but psychologically they are also doubles.
Who Represents What? • Roderick • An artist figure (509) • Nervous agitation (509) • Lives in dark upstairs apartment (511) • Cadaverous complexion (511) • “want of moral energy” (511) • “excessive nervous agitation” (511-12)
Roderick’s mental condition is affected by his environment • “He was enchanted by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted . . . 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.” (512)
Here, “physique” refers to something physical • And “morale” refers to something mental • Roderick is all mind in a weak body • He represents in one way the life of the isolated artist • Paintings • Reading • Guitar playing
Madeleine • Illness has debilitated her • All descriptions focus on the body • “gradual wasting away of the person” (513) • Roderick and the narrator screw down the lid of her coffin (518) • She returns from the tomb to reclaim her twin brother, her “double” • “the huge antique panels…threw back” (521) • She “fell heavily inward upon…her brother and…bore him to the floor a corpse”
What is Poe’s point? • Poe addresses the dual and conflicted nature of the Self • Mind and body are at war with each other in each of us • We try to repress one side and live without it • But we cannot achieve a harmonious existence in this way
The Function of Setting - Exterior • The “house of Usher” has two meanings • The physical dwelling • The family line, or lineage • “the entire family lay in the direct line of descent”
The house is also a type of character in the story • Like the family, it is of “an excessive antiquity” (510) • The landscape is overgrown and ragged • On the front down the middle is “a barely perceptible fissure” going in “a zigzag direction” (510)
Interior Setting • Gothic architecture (511) • “windows were long, narrow and pointed” • “feeble gleams of encrimsoned light” • “dark draperies” • “atmosphere of sorrow” • Roderick lives upstairs (mind) • Madeleine is entombed below ground (body)
Structure and Unity • Poe creates texts within texts • “The Haunted Palace” (poem) reflects the Usher family life in the house (515) • “The Mad Trist” (story) parallels Madeleine’s return from the grave • The storm outside is analogous to the turmoil inside the characters in the house • The book titles in Roderick’s library are symbolic of the themes of the story
Roderick’s Library • “the Chiromancy of Robert Flud, of Jean D’Indagine” • “the Directorium Inquisitorum” • “old African Satyrs, over which Usher would sit dreaming for hours” (516-17)
Poe’s Theory of Literary Unity • Poe earned his living as a “magazinist,” not a fiction writer. • He was an editor and reviewer for many major magazines. • Poe wrote a great deal of literary criticism, literary theory, and book reviews. • His theory of literary unity was articulated in a review of Hawthorne’s collection of stories, Twice-Told Tales in 1842
An author should “conceive, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, [and] then invent such … events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. • In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.
Unity in “Fall of the House of Usher” • First and last paragraphs are mirror images of each other, creating symmetry • The texts-within-text reinforce the central theme • The house itself symbolizes the split in the family • The construction of the house reflects a “perfect adaptation of parts” (510)