Why We Like These Stories: A Personal Essay on The Fall of the House of Usher

This blog post is part of the ‘Why We Like These Stories’ series: a series of personal essays from the staff of Boydell and Brewer and University of Rochester Press on their favourite short stories and why they like them to celebrate Short Story Month. For the full list of essays, click here.

“I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” ― Edgar Allan Poe

What does it mean to be insane? Or perhaps we would be more inclined to ask ourselves, what causes insanity?

These are the questions so often explored in Gothic Literature, a genre characterised by its macabre nature and the Age of Enlightenment. Gothic writers rebuked the era’s celebration of logic and reason and instead, placed its emphasis on the celebration of the irrational, the outlawed and the socially and culturally dispossessed. The Age of Enlightenment was significantly a period of transition, as scientific and industrial revolutions of the eighteenth century brought forth feelings of fear and anxieties of the unknown, becoming a bedrock for the Gothic tales that followed. These narratives were dominated by themes of the supernatural, eerie landscapes, death, violence, isolation, claustrophobia, and of course, insanity.

Edgar Allan Poe in The History and Progress of the World, 1913. Source: Wikimedia

The very idea of insanity and the role it plays in the gothic landscape is one that has often fascinated me. Perhaps that is why I couldn’t resist the temptation to base my undergraduate dissertation around Edgar Allan Poe as it is hard to think of Poe without the idea of insanity: be it his own state of mind or that of his fictional characters. He possesses an uncanny ability to delve into the dark recesses of humanity, exposing the common nightmares that lurk beneath carefully structured lives.

I somehow passed through most of my young adolescent life without ever once hearing a single mention of Poe (which now seems utterly bizarre to me!). That was until I fell face first into a deep love for the Romanticism period during my second year at University. I’d somehow drifted off course during my research for what I could write a 10,000-word essay on and not despise at the end of it. Harry Potter was too precious. Jane Austen and Shakespeare were too overly done. All of my ideas felt very English, and by English, I simply mean, very English-writer centric. I’d missed out on the opportunity to study American Literature opting, ironically enough, to do classes on writing short fiction. Somehow, I managed to work my way back around to the idea that Romanticism + Short Fiction + American Literature = Edgar Allan Poe, combining the areas of Literary study that I loved with the areas I had yet to explore.

I was thus faced with Penguin’s illuminous green 1040-page anthology and the hope that I’d made the right decision on what I wanted to research. The Fall of the House of Usher definitely wasn’t the first tale I’d opted to read but remains the one I find myself returning to, time and time again. It’s a story I find extremely simple and yet extremely complex. The interpretations of the text feel endless. Whether you look at the text from a psychoanalytical point of view or through the lenses of gender and sexuality, formalism or even Marxism, the results can be very different. Is this a story about the fall of decadent aristocracy or the degeneration of an incestuous family? Its simplicity can be found in its heart. At its heart, Usher presents a symbolic account of man’s descent into madness and derangement, exploring the dark underside of the human consciousness. We’re once again confronted with that theme: insanity.

The story begins like this: on a “dull, dark and soundless day in autumn,” our unnamed narrator visits his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, but something feels amiss in this “mansion of gloom”. Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of this short story is the House of Usher. An architectural ruin that simultaneously creates an aura of foreboding and isolation, and symbolises a family in decay. The relationship between the physical and psychic seem almost interchangeable here. Its occupants, Roderick and Madeline, are the last descendants of the “House of Usher”, both of whom are suffering from mysterious illnesses.

The first appearance of The Fall of the House of Usher in Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine, September 1839. Source: Wikimedia

Roderick suffers from an illness of the mind – an excessive nervous agitation and a morbid acuteness of the senses. Madeline, who is rarely present over the course of the narrative, is afflicted by “a settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person” that could not be diagnosed, much less cured, by her doctors. This interesting dynamic between the twins and their conditions is one often explored by academics. Are their illnesses an affliction caused by an incestuous family line? Or perhaps a representation of the doubling motif so often used to create the uncanny in Gothic literature.

Madeline, like numerous other women in Poe’s stories, dies as a result of her malady and is placed in the family tomb. Her state of being acts as the catalyst that drives the narrative further down its destructive path, and as such, in the wake of her death, Roderick begins to change drastically. His orderly manner vanishes, roaming from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal and objectless steps; his mind unceasingly agitated.

At the climax of the story, Roderick announces that his sister has been buried alive. The shrouded figure of Lady Madeline, almost vampiric in nature, returns and falls upon her brother in a mutual moment of death, making him a victim of the terrors he had anticipated. The house, with its life-like characteristics, collapses in the wake of the Usher’s downfall.

So, what does it mean to be insane in The Fall of the House of Usher? Poe’s portrayal of Roderick’s deterioration raises important questions about the causes, stages, and effects of insanity. His very existence within reality eventually seems to become impossible.

This unsettling and dark tale has captured my attention for the last five years and will continue to fascinate for many more. I hope you find yourself wanting to discover the works of Poe if you haven’t already and asking yourself what it means to be insane. The Master of Macabre will never fail to make your hairs stand on end, and what a delight that is!

Scott Peeples explores the controversies that abound in the studies of Edgar Allan Poe from the time of his death to the present. Was he an alcoholic? Drug addict? Pathological liar? Necrophile? And how important are these issues when it comes to understanding his work?

The Afterlife of Edgar Allan Poe is 40% off during our Short Story Month Sale. Use promo code BB741 at check out through May 31st.

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