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Poe, Fall of the House of Usher
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" is perhaps the best-known American entry into the genre of Romantic and Gothic tale, yet it is worth asking what elements actually identify it as such. Spitzer describes the level of Gothic excess here:
Roderick and Madeline, twins chained to each other by incestuous love, suffering separately but dying together, represent the male and the female principle in that decaying family whose members, by the law of sterility and destruction which rules them, must exterminate each other; Roderick has buried his sister alive, but the revived Madeline will bury Roderick under her falling body. The "fall" of the House of Usher involves not only the physical fall of the mansion, but the physical and moral fall of the two protagonists. (Spitzer 352).
To a certain degree, this marks Poe's story out for particular interest, particularly for its participation in the Gothic genre. The United States lacked so many of the historical elements that gave force to the Gothic -- such as a fascination with degenerated aristocracy (as in Beckford's Vathek) and the imagined excesses of the Roman Catholic church, largely viewed from a Protestant perspective (as in various Gothic novels that employ crumbling Catholic monasteries or abbeys as their setting, ranging from Lewis' The Monk to the mock-Gothic use of the setting in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey or Thomas Love Peacock's Nightmare Abbey). It is worth considering Poe's story as an example of Gothic to establish some of his more original contributions to the genre.
As a matter of physical description, Poe's settings and characters in "Usher" derive from earlier Gothic and employ familiar devices. Walker notes that "the opening scene contains the ingredients of a conventional Gothic melodrama; the solitary rider, passing through a 'singularly dreary tract of country,' is oppressed by 'a sense of insufferable gloom', when, as evening draws on, he approaches the lonely, dilapidated, and melancholy House of Usher," which he terms "elaborate Gothic decor." (Walker 586). But at the same time, the central Gothic building of the story's title conceals a pun. Robinson notes the pun where by "the House of the title refers both to Usher's lineage and to his ancestral home" thereby stressing genealogy (Robinson 69). This seems to connect with the traditional aristocratic emphasis in Gothic: Stein notes that the traditional Gothic emphasis on aristocracy is here replaced by a fascination with the "hereditary deficiency" which is "connected with the 'undeviating' male line of descent in the Usher race" -- in other words, rather than being titled aristocrats, the Ushers are merely concerned about breeding. (Stein 110), But in any case, the sense of long tradition is what replaces the usual emphasis on the creepiness of Catholicism and Catholic countries in the English Gothic novel -- we are invited to consider the Ushers as a kind of abstracted form of aristocrat, and S. Foster Damon has even suggested that Poe may have intended a kind of pun on the name of "Bishop Ussher," the famous seventeenth century English clergyman who would use the Old Testament to calculate the age of the earth (Damon 73). When the great age of a family is somehow a guarantee of greatness, then certainly to trace one's ancestry to the antediluvian era would be a boon: the hint in the name may be that the Ushers, as a genealogical lineage, are older than God himself.
The Gothic's use of the supernatural is perhaps the first and most significant fact about Poe's tale, because it is ambiguous as to whether or not Poe intends Madeline Usher to be something supernatural in her final appearance. Bailey likewise argues that "Roderick seems engaged in a struggle against a power that he feels to be supernatural" (Bailey 448) -- in other words, he finds himself trapped in a Gothic fiction, while Poe's narrator does not accept the supernatural explanation outright. In contrast to this reading, Zanger reminds us that Poe had notoriously claimed that the death of a beautiful woman was the only natural subject for poetry, and so relates Madeline to a running theme throughout Poe's verse (as in "The Raven" with its invocation of a "lost Lenore"), which to some extent makes Madeline a sort of poetic vision come back to haunt the artist Roderick (Zanger 533). But obviously this is a metaphorical reading of the story. Kendall, by contrast, reads the supernatural as quite literal fact, and identifies the "hereditary Usher curse" as actual vampirism, and argues that "Madeline is a vampire -- a succubus -- as the family physician well knows and as her physical appearance and effect upon the narrator sufficiently demonstrate" (Kendall 450). Meanwhile, Howes notes that the level of Gothic detail here is such that Roderick has been variously interpreted as "vampire, practitioner of incest or necrophile, heroic artist moving into the intense inane, or object lesson in fatalism" (Howes 68).
Meanwhile it is worth looking at other elements which mark Poe's participation in the Gothic and Romantic motifs in this tale. The issue of the incestuous relation between twins straddles the divide between Gothic and Romantic. The earlier Romantic poet -- and influence on Poe's own musicality in verse -- Percy Bysshe Shelley had notoriously declared that incest was "the most poetical subject," and Lord Byron took this one further by actually sleeping with his own sister. It is certainly possible that Poe was aware of these rumors about Byron -- certainly after the publication of Poe's story, Lady Byron would confess secrets to Harriet Beecher Stowe (of all people) and gradually Byron's unorthodox sexual life would become a matter of historical record. It has been suggested, for example, that Poe had knowledge of the gossip about Byron's own incestuous sex life (beyond what Byron put into his own work, where it is pretty obvious) and that his famous poem "Annabel Lee" is actually conflating the names of Byron's wife (Annabella Milbanke) and Byron's sister (Augusta Leigh) to indicate that the vanished Annabel Lee is also a sister as well as a lost spouse. ("I was a child and she was a child" somehow suggests siblinghood.) Yet there are other hints that Poe may have known about Byron's incest at the time of writing "Usher," simply because it does seem clear there is an incestuous component between Roderick and Madeline that matches perfectly that between Manfred and Astarte in Lord Byron's own dramatic poem about his incest with his sister, Manfred. Manfred's sister Astarte dies upon yielding to her brother's sexual advances, then comes back to him as a ghost to warn him that his destruction is imminent: this much Poe seems to have imitated directly, but Manfred will kill himself with a kind of sublime insouciance whereas Roderick is actually going to have revenge taken upon him, in a kind of literalization of ideas about the decadence of the old families. In any case, both Byron and Shelley will employ the motifs of twins and of incest within a Gothicized context, as Poe does here. Herrmann and Kostis argue that the twin motif in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is less Romantic and more concerned with issues of "duplication," and they offer a novel suggestion that "Usher, as a signifier, may be read as us/her" indicating a kind of homoerotic bond between Roderick and the narrator interrupted by the revenant of Madeleine (Herrmann and Kostis 36). Meanwhile, Allison thinks the story presents a general metaphor in which the Romantic mental entrapment of Roderick is paralleled by the "terrifying biological and psychological entrapment" of Madeleine (Allison, 40). And similarly Hoffmann thinks "Roderick Usher is a prisoner in his own house, unable even to formulate his own sense of despair, let alone quest for a solution for it" (Hoffmann 160). But of course such interior spaces are typical of Gothic narrative, which almost always includes a crypt, a charnel house, or even a prison (as in Byron's "Prisoner of Chillon").
But a final reading of "The Fall of the House of Usher" insists upon Roderick as a sort of metaphor for Poe himself, and sees Usher as a creative artist. For example, Olson sees Roderick as artistic, arguing that "Usher's very condition, in other words, has enabled him to penetrate to an unusual depth of feeling. His pathological reaction to all sounds but a few has imposed upon him an artistic limitation which has contributed to the unity and depth of the effect" (Olson 558). The extent to which this is plausible is the extent to which Poe's own life partook of a sort of haunted excess which is typical of the Gothic -- his alcoholism, his marriage to his cousin and child-bride Virginia, his strange early death, his unreliability. To a certain extent Poe runs directly against the grain of nineteenth century American literature, and gives vein to a riot of strange sexualized and Gothicized imagery. Butler notes that Poe is "suggesting both physical…[continue]
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