Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 10 December 2018

“The Fall of the House of Usher” and the Architecture of Unreliability

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines what many scholars consider the most accomplished and representative of Poe’s tales, “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). After a brief overview of the main axes of interpretation in the story’s reception history, it proposes an analysis of the tale’s main narrative strategy, the unreliable narrator, which is typical of Poe’s short fiction in general. Linking this device to the unstable architectonics of the house in the story, the chapter shows how the unreliability of the narrator lies at the heart of the text’s ability to choreograph active reader participation. It also historicizes the specific kind of unreliable narrators that Poe favors—those lacking a moral conscience or ethically informed perception—in the context of antebellum debates about slavery.

Keywords: Edgar Allan Poe, House of Usher, unreliable narrator, antebellum, conscience, reader participation, slavery, race

“The Fall of the House of Usher” occupies a singular place in the Poe canon. Considered by many critics his best and most representative short fiction, the story appears in countless anthologies and collections. It is considered foundational for the American Gothic and, more specifically, Southern Gothic.1 Despite its ubiquity and popularity among critics and readers alike, the meaning of “The Fall of the House of Usher” has proved uniquely elusive. Poe’s ability to create an undercurrent of suggestiveness is nowhere displayed more masterfully than in this story, and few texts have generated so many and such divergent readings. With its first-person narration, underground crypts, and multilayered literariness (including two embedded texts, an epigraph and many allusions to other texts), “Usher” epitomizes hidden depth and encrypted meaning. The result has been a dizzying array of critical interpretations claiming to offer the “key” to the textual house of Usher (as in Darrel Abel’s influential 1949 essay by that title).2 Psychoanalytic readings held a central place in the story’s early reception history, followed by philosophical and historical allegories, and later by a range of poststructuralist readings suggesting that reading and writing themselves were the real subjects of the tale.

I propose to show that Poe constructed this story to offer both an implied meaning and an affective reading experience in which the “discovery” of the “hidden” meaning is carefully choreographed into the narrative’s temporal movement by its unreliable narration. In the critical history of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator has often been subject to scrutiny and debate—especially since he calls attention to his own subjective fallibility so often and so insistently—but readings that focus on the narrator often ignore the larger historical and cultural context of the tale. By looking at how the story’s narrative unreliability is linked to cultural debates about slavery, conscience, and moral insanity, I hope to explain both the tacit content of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and its intended aesthetic effect.

Although most readers will be familiar with the tale, a short synopsis might help to refresh our sense of the story’s enigmas. An unnamed narrator approaches the house of his childhood friend and reflects on the bleakness of the landscape, his own inexplicable dread, and his inability to coax the terrible scene into assuming a sublime aspect. His optical experiment of looking at the house through its reflection in the dark tarn anticipates both the motif of doubling that will recur throughout the story and the ending, when the house actually collapses into the tarn. Inside, he finds his friend greatly altered, in the grip of an extreme nervous agitation and a “morbid acuteness of the senses” (M 2: 403). In one of the few occasions when Usher speaks, he informs the narrator—and reader—that he is terrified of any incident that would excite his overwrought nerves—in short, he fears any unusual incident at all. Shortly after, his sister Madeline dies and is temporarily entombed in a dungeon deep below the house, after which the two friends resume their pastimes of music and reading. Soon, however, Usher’s demeanor changes dramatically: he appears increasingly agitated, “listening to some imaginary sound” and “laboring with some oppressive secret” (M 2: 411). The last third of the story represents the suspense building over the course of a stormy evening as the narrator attempts to distract Usher by reading him a chivalric romance, while mysterious sounds from beneath the house echo noises in the narrative. Finally, in his second monologue, the distraught Usher confesses to hearing for days his sister’s struggles in the tomb and to dreading her probable desire for revenge. A moment later Madeline appears at the door and falls upon him, killing him, at which the house splits down along its fissure and disappears into the tarn as the narrator flees.

In addition to the status (and specifically, the reliability) of the narrator, the ambiguities that have inspired critics include the oddly evanescent character of Madeline, her relationship to Usher (the possibility of an incestuous union), and her uncannily impermanent death (with the issue of medical body-snatching and catalepsy in the background). As mentioned earlier, Poe succeeds in creating an aura of multilayered suggestiveness, leading many readers and critics to speculate on the meanings of seemingly innocuous details. The perennial question of tone (so masterfully treated by Jonathan Elmer3) emerges with the curious play of the narrator’s excessive self-consciousness at some moments and utter obliviousness at others. The story also treats its embedded romance (“The Mad Trist”) with so much irony that a reader is left wondering if the equally exaggerated frame narrative can be taken fully at face value. Finally, readers have been intrigued by Usher’s belief that the stones of his house are alive and sentient, something that appears to be confirmed in the latter part of the tale, when the house collapses into the tarn in which it was initially reflected. These are only some of the suggestive details generating debate among critics and scholars, several of which I will address in the sections that follow.

Critical Overview

Since the early twentieth century, when an obsessive interest in hidden meanings took center stage in Anglo-American literary scholarship, Poe—with his explicit interest in madness, secrecy, and narrative indirection—has invited a range of psychoanalytical and psychobiographical readings. Marie Bonaparte, a member of Freud’s inner circle in the 1920s, argued that Poe’s work emanated largely from his unresolved sense of loss of his mother, and that Usher was a projection of this loss.4 Reading the tale through the prism of his own psychological concerns, D. H. Lawrence argued that Madeline and Roderick exemplify the mutual destruction and loss of soul that can occur when two people love each other too much.5 The psychoanalytic tradition continued throughout the century. In his 1973 monograph, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales, G. R. Thompson meticulously demonstrates the analogies between the house and Usher’s sanity, suggesting that the story chronicles a gradual descent into madness.6 In 1981, J. R. Hammond argued that Roderick is “a mirror image of Poe or at least a projection, a doppel-ganger, of himself as he imagined himself to be,”7 and in 1996, Eric Carlson discussed “Usher” in A Companion to Poe Studies under the rubric of “Tales of Psychal Conflict,” focusing on the many readings taking either Usher or the narrator as psychological case studies, confirming the popularity of this approach.8

The other most common readings are also often allegorical, but they adopt a more philosophical, political, or historical focus. For example, in 1949 Darrel Abel proposed that the tale exemplified a contest between “Life-Reason” and “Death-Madness” for the possession of Roderick Usher.9 Similarly, Michael Hoffman, in “The House of Usher and Negative Romanticism” (1965), argued that the house in the tale is meant to represent the Enlightenment and therefore its demise signifies that the world is not as ordered and meaningful as the Enlightenment presumed.10 Although many critics succumb to the temptation to read the story allegorically, lured by its explicit preoccupation with hidden depths and multilayered architectonics, there is little evidence in Poe’s fictional or critical work to suggest that he worked in an allegorical mode in his stories except on rare occasions.11 In an 1842 essay on Nathaniel Hawthorne, Poe wrote that “there is scarcely one respectable word to be said” for allegory (ER: 582). “Under the best of circumstances,” Poe continues, “it must always interfere with that unity of effect which, to the artist, is worth all the allegory in the world” (ER: 583).

Unpacking this notion of “effect” for a moment, one infers that for Poe the impact of a work of art was largely a matter of choreographing the intricate interplay between expectation and discovery as a reader progressed temporally through a text. Poe’s stories rarely either announce an explicit meaning or hide one for critical excavation; rather, it is in between: a question of attending to the fairly obvious cues Poe provides the reader. For example, the story “William Wilson” is about a capricious boy who ignores his conscience to such an extent that when it returns in an externalized form to give him unsolicited advice, he fails to recognize it and ends up murdering it, thereby becoming a sociopath (referring at the beginning of the tale to his “later years of … unpardonable crime”; M 2: 426). The cues, or rather, clues, in this story include the opening epigraph, which explicitly names “CONSCIENCE” (M 2: 426) as a “spectre,” anticipating the way the narrator’s conscience haunts him like a ghost until he finally eliminates it once and for all.

In short, Poe often embeds a meaning that requires the reader to notice something that he does not state explicitly, but this reading is not a question of “interpretation” in the conventional sense of the word nor of allegory, but rather of connecting the dots in order to understand the basic elements of the plot. In the late tale “Hop-Frog,” the reader is made to understand—while the unreliable narrator pointedly does not—that the abused slave Hop-Frog is planning revenge upon the king who has kidnapped and tormented him. Generating strong dramatic irony, the tale requires the reader to infer from the situation (master–slave) and the visible but otherwise unexplained signs of Hop-Frog’s internal agitation (e.g., grating his teeth) that the seemingly innocent preparations for the king’s masquerade ball are actually a desperate plot for revenge and escape (M 3: 1353).

With poststructuralism in the 1970s and 1980s, allegorical readings made way for a new and intense attention to Poe’s craftsmanship, the complexity of his irony, and a fascination with his self-consciousness as a writer.12 In fact, Poe’s linguistic playfulness was often read as a prescient anticipation of Derridean deconstruction itself. Though more reliant on close textual analysis than allegorical approaches, many poststructuralist readings tended to reach the same conclusion--namely, that the text has no single meaning or is in fact about its own meaninglessness. For example, Joseph Riddel’s 1979 essay sees in “Usher” a self-reflexive fable about the absence that lies at the center of any text, an absence of meaning and presence and life, except as simulacrum of a simulacrum.13 Riddel argues this absence is allegorized in the story by the house of Usher itself, which is constructed upon a crypt, an architectural feature that allegorizes the notion that fiction is always constructed upon a “hollow coffin,” that is, an emptiness at its center. The embedded story and the other fragments and allusions to books and manuscripts are all attempts to defer the confrontation with the terrifying contents of the crypt, which, for Riddel, is not a prematurely buried woman but the missing body of the meaning of the text.14

Focusing more on the reading process, Harriet Hustis has argued that Poe embeds an interpretive “gap” that calls for the reader’s participation.15 In this sense, Poe is working within a larger tradition of “Gothic reading,” which, according to Hustis, creates a “disturbance” in the reading process, and which “bothers without quite spoiling narrative pleasure,” making readers active participants in the Gothic plot. The narrator is important to this process because he is the stand-in for the reader as well as a double for Usher, though he is also different from both in that he is a naïve reader, and this difference creates the gap that characterizes so-called Gothic reading. Like Riddell and most other poststructuralist critics, Hustis concludes that the point of all this effort is ultimately to show the “interpretive uncertainty” of texts. The ease with which poststructuralist critics find ambiguity and hermeneutic gaps in this story, and in Poe in general, stems from the fact that he deliberately embeds unreliable narration into almost every story, but the unreliability has a larger rhetorical purpose than to signify only itself, as I will show later.

Emerging from poststructuralist concerns but far more attentive to textual specificity and detail, Scott Peeples’s essay on “Usher” for the Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe offers an account that focuses on the meticulous “constructiveness” of the tale.16 Peeples examines the technical care with which Poe built his texts, like an engineer, carefully crafting correspondences between Usher’s house and the text.17 Ultimately, the story is “about” its own construction, and specifically about the tension between the loss of control depicted in the story and the complete control that Poe the author keeps over his fiction as he enacts the “artist’s fantasy of bringing that dead house to life.”18 Peeples begins with Poe’s authorial stance but also brings into focus the central importance of the house itself to any reading of the story, as is evident from the pun embedded in the title, where “house” refers to both the physical structure and Usher’s family line. This focus on the rhetorical complexity of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where the setting is an agent as well as a backdrop, brings us to the question of the possible correspondences between the story, its uncannily volatile house, and the larger cultural context of the story’s production.

To conclude this review, the critical reception of “The Fall of the House of Usher” reveals two main trends: first, a psychoanalytic and philosophical trend of assigning a single meaning to the text, and another more recent trend of denying meaning altogether. Both tendencies arise from critical paradigms (e.g., psychoanalysis, deconstruction) that search for evidence of their own pre-existing assumptions while generally ignoring the historical and cultural issues that informed Poe’s work. Recent scholarship that benefits from the insights of poststructuralism and its attention to form and language but also introduces cultural studies approaches has produced a new generation of readings linking historical questions to formal ones, helping us read “The Fall of the House of Usher” against the backdrop of antebellum America.

Cultural Criticism and Cultural Context

Possibly the most important development in Poe criticism in recent decades has been the emergence of race and slavery as central preoccupations. Discussion of Poe’s views on these issues and how they might have affected his work—however obliquely—have reshaped Poe studies since the 1990s. John Carlos Rowe’s claim in 1992 that “Poe was a proslavery Southerner and should be reassessed as such in whatever approach we take to his life and writings” can be taken as the opening salvo to this debate.19 The same year, Toni Morrison called for an investigation into the “Africanist” presence in American literature and identified Poe as one of the key figures who have shaped the chiaroscuro dynamics of the American literary imagination.20 Other important contributions to this discussion include Teresa Goddu’s Gothic America (1997), which proposed a more nuanced approach to reading race in Poe, and questioned specifically the facile reduction of racism to an exclusively Southern issue.21 Lesley Ginsberg’s claim that “The Black Cat” suggests how slavery corrupts owners raised the prospect of a far more complex Poe, one who understood that slavery was at the heart of the American “political uncanny,” a horror story rife with repression, projection, and various forms of collective psychosis. In Ginsberg’s influential reading, Poe emerges as a subtle critic of slavery despite his alleged “proslavery pronouncements.”22

Yet even these few proslavery pronouncements have been called into question in recent years. One of the most important turns in the recent debate about Poe’s racism was the publication of Terence Whalen’s Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses (1999), which explored the literary marketplace in which Poe worked, offered plausible explanations for many of Poe’s aesthetic and political positions in light of the pressures impinging upon him economically as a writer and editor, and perhaps most important, refuted the longstanding claim that Poe wrote the proslavery “Paulding-Drayton” review.23 Analyzing internal textual evidence, Whalen painstakingly demonstrated that Nathaniel Beverly Tucker, a Southern ideologue and writer, was its author. Whalen also pointed out that it is likely that Poe entertained a centrist view on slavery that combined an “average racism” with a belief that slavery should be gradually phased out.24 This would have been a common view among educated Southerners, and one that allowed Poe to offend neither Southern nor Northern sensibilities in his book reviews.

Not easily resolved one way or the other, given Poe’s penchant for ambiguity and irony, the debate surrounding Poe’s racial politics has continued, producing, for instance, a collection of essays devoted to the issue, J. Gerald Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg’s Romancing the Shadow (1997). In this volume, Rowe once more argues that Poe’s representations of race consistently upheld antebellum racial hierarchies and stereotypes and thereby affirmed the imperial fantasies and ambitions of the era.25 Most of the other essays, however, adopt a more nuanced view. Leland S. Person examines the subversive reversibility of black and white race markers—especially in terms of skin and hair color—in order to argue that Poe’s Gothic fictions function to destabilize “the psychological constructs of white male racism.”26 Kennedy painstakingly combs through Poe’s oeuvre and biographical scholarship to find evidence of Poe’s contacts with slaves, exploring his “conflicted relationship” with the South’s “peculiar institution.” Comparing The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym to the Narrative of Frederick Douglass (1845), Kennedy concludes that Poe’s novel invites oddly subversive and pessimistic readings of encounters between natives and American whites, tacitly undermining Southern proslavery arguments of that era.27

This tendency to understand a slave’s desire to revolt, based on an implicit recognition of suffering and discontent—universally denied or ignored by proponents of slavery—gives Poe’s depictions of bondage an antislavery tinge regardless of how grotesquely racist his physical descriptions of black characters could be. For instance, as described earlier, the late story “Hop-Frog” requires the reader to understand the natural desire of the slave to punish his master in order to guess what the eponymous character is plotting for the cruel king. The character himself is depicted as “a dwarf and a cripple,” walking in an awkward and comic gait, but the entire story hinges on the reader identifying with Hop-Frog’s rage and desire for revenge against the morally blind narrator, who is a court lackey unable to perceive the injustice of the situation he describes (M 3: 1345). The inevitable desire to rebel and take revenge on one’s master is also explicitly depicted in Poe’s early comic tale “Four Beasts in One” (1833), in which wild animals that have been domesticated as “valets-de-chambre” stage a mutiny and eat their masters (M 2: 123).

Poe’s recognition of the violence inherent in the master–slave relationship flies directly in the face of the most common arguments put forward by defenders of slavery in the South, especially in the wake of the Nat Turner revolt of 1831. The much later work of Southern lawyer and social theorist George Fitzhugh sums up the arguments that emerged in the 1830s and 1840s. These arguments, as Sam Worley has noted, moved away from the “necessary evil” view of slavery that had held sway in earlier decades and relied increasingly on the “virtual codification of strategies that posed slavery as a positive good.”28 In Cannibals All! Or Slaves Without Masters (1857), Fitzhugh argues that slavery is natural to human nature: “Man is a social and gregarious animal, and all such animals hold property in each other. Nature imposes upon them slavery as a law and necessity of their existence. They live together to aid each other, and are slaves under Mr. Garrison’s higher law. Slavery arises under the higher law, and is, and ever must be, coëval and coëxtensive with human nature.”29 In other words, Fitzhugh claims that slavery is an inherent and natural part of human society and history. Going further, he argues that the state of dependence created by slavery is the natural precondition for true affection and kindness between people, because everyone knows his or her role and place, and there is no jostling for power. In fact, Fitzhugh avers, it is the slave who is really the master in the South, because it is the slave who is maintained and cared for:

The humble and obedient slave exercises more or less control over the most brutal and hard-hearted master. It is an invariable law of nature, that weakness and dependence are elements of strength, and generally sufficiently limit that universal despotism, observable throughout human and animal nature. The moral and physical world is but a series of subordinations, and the more perfect the subordination, the greater the harmony and the happiness.30

Fitzhugh’s argument directly refutes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential argument in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts the slaveowners absolutely, making them cruel and blind to slaves’ suffering.31

Despite warnings from writers such as Stowe, the issue of slavery in the antebellum United States represents one of history’s most glaring examples of collective moral blindness. As Lesley Ginsberg explains in her article on “The Black Cat,” the Southern response to Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion was stupefaction, in particular with regard to his motives. For example, the Richmond Enquirer wrote that Turner acted “without any cause or provocation, that could be assigned.”32 Thomas Gray, the man who extracted Turner’s confession, expresses sympathy with readers’ frustration at seeing the “insurgent slaves … destroyed, or apprehended, tried, and executed … without revealing anything at all satisfactory, as to the motives which governed them.”33 Nothing highlights the absurdity of the slaveholding South’s failure to recognize the violence inherent to the institution of slavery more than Dr. Samuel Cartwright’s 1851 report in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal that among the “diseases and peculiarities of the Negro race,” as his article was titled, was a treatable illness called “drapetomania, or the disease causing Negroes to run away.” According to Cartwright, if slaves are kept “in the position that we learn from the Scriptures he was intended to occupy, that is, the position of submission,” and treated with kindness, then “the negro is spell-bound, and cannot run away.”34 The notion that a slave would want to be free regardless of how kind his master might be, and that holding another human being in bondage is itself an extreme form of violence inviting the most extreme measures in return, seems not to have occurred to these self-deluded defenders of slavery.

Herman Melville’s 1855 novella “Benito Cereno” is a canny examination of precisely this kind of blindness, with the naïve Captain Amasa Delano failing to grasp that the distressed Spanish slave ship he has boarded is in the midst of a slave mutiny despite much strange behavior on the part of its crew and captain. Scholars and readers such as Toni Morrison have generally understood Captain Delano as an example of the “willful blindness” of the antebellum South. As Morrison puts it, Delano’s complacent myopia “is similar to the ‘happy, loyal slave’ antebellum discourse that peppered early debates on black civil rights.”35 In contrast to such complacent myths, Poe’s depictions of relationships of subordination, in stories such as “Metzengerstein,” “The Black Cat,” “Hop-Frog,” and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, are, like Stowe’s and Melville’s, consistently rife with violence, deceit, mutiny, and mutual cruelty, undermining on every level the view of human nature as affectionately hierarchical advocated by proslavery ideologues like Fitzhugh and Cartwright.

Although “The Fall of the House of Usher” does not seem to be as directly concerned with race as Hop-Frog or The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, numerous critics have seen a link between the story and the slavery debate.36 In 1960, Harry Levin suggested that “The Fall of the House of Usher” could be read as a prophetic comment on the plantation system of the South. Specifically, he saw the South’s “feudal pride and foreboding of doom” mirrored in the story, and Usher as “driven underground by the pressure of fear.”37 While Levin’s reading acknowledges the vague sense of threat informing the tale, Maurice S. Lee has suggested that more specifically it is “slave rebellion” that “potentially lurks” in the story.38 This is not to argue that the story is meant as a simple allegory of Southern slavery and the threat of revolt. Instead, the issue of slavery should be regarded as a cultural framework for understanding the emotional charge of the story’s principal tensions and tropes. For example, the subterranean crypt where Madeline is placed as a precaution against grave-robbing physicians had once been a dungeon and has subsequently been used as a store-room for gun powder or “some other highly combustible substance” (M 2: 410). As I have argued elsewhere, this oddly detailed history of the room links its past function as a site of feudal-style imprisonment to the idea of combustibility, an association that would have resonated suggestively with the fear of insurrection in the post-Turner South, though its immediate function in the story is to allow a plausible explanation for the collapse of the house.39

Although the story anticipates the implosion of the nation around the issue of slavery twenty years later, the more immediate aspect of the text that invites reading it in terms of slavery is its preoccupation with revenge for imprisonment and premature burial (reflecting figuratively how slavery constitutes what Orlando Patterson has called “social death”40). Much of the story’s powerful conclusion derives its emotional charge from the fact that Usher ignores for days Madeline’s struggle with her coffin and crypt. In fact, her long struggle is what Poe himself cited as the point of the story. In an 1845 review article of his own work, Poe wrote that the main effect (or “thesis of the story”) can be described as “the revulsion of feeling consequent upon discovering that for a long period of time we have been mistaking sounds of agony, for those of mirth or indifference” (ER: 871).41 Literally, this refers to the sounds of Madeline’s struggle to escape her tomb, sounds which Usher has deliberately ignored and which the narrator has mistaken for the sounds in “Mad Trist.” Structurally, it recalls the masquerades and other festivities used to mask the sounds of suffering in other Poe stories, as in “The Mask of the Red Death” or “Hop-Frog.” The effect he describes here is complex, assuming both a process in time (“sounds we have been mistaking” followed by a “consequent” feeling of revulsion) and an ethical framework (“revulsion” here being essentially an affective response akin to horror, arising from a realization of having failed to act ethically). The word “mirth” in this passage is used in the technical sense that chivalric romances, like the story the narrator reads to Usher, are a form of amusement. Moreover, the fact that the narrator chooses to read a chivalric romance would have a special purchase in the context of the South, which tended to imagine its cultural roots in the medieval and Scottish chivalric traditions. The term “indifference” is equally freighted with cultural resonance, bringing us to the issue of conscience and its absence that many abolitionists argued was a natural result of the slave relationship—namely, that it dulled the moral faculty of the master and of the culture that tolerated slavery in general, inexorably pulling it toward a kind of moral numbness and idiocy.

Bad Conscience, or Moral and Epistemological Unreliability

If slavery forms a backdrop to the story, the more immediate subject of the tale’s construction and specific effect is the issue of conscience and moral apperception. This is a concern of Poe’s in many of his short stories and is a key feature of the unreliability of his narrators.42 Conscience, as a specific cognitive faculty, was the subject of particular interest and attention in the 1830s, as the debate over slavery was heating up. Francis Wayland devoted five chapters to “Conscience, or the Moral Sense” in his tract on moral philosophy, Elements of Moral Science (1835), describing its specific function as “repelling vice” and contesting a subject’s “lower propensities” but lacking the power to do more than advise. Wayland’s language gives conscience an independent existence and agency, conceptualizing it as an entity separate from the decision-making subject. He repeatedly stresses the importance of “hearkening” and “obeying” the “impulses” of conscience and argues that one’s conscience could be strengthened or atrophied, like a muscle, by use or disuse. Moreover, not only could individuals weaken and destroy their conscience by failing to obey it, but entire communities could collectively deaden and lose their moral sense by repeated acts of cruelty or violence. Citing gladiatorial Rome and revolutionary France as examples, Wayland argues that failure to heed conscience on a collective level produces a collective loss of moral sensibility.43

In light of the great political issues at stake in the question of conscience in a slaveholding society, it is no surprise that a writer as acutely aware of the subtleties of power, exclusion, and social repression as the once privileged and then disowned and nearly destitute Poe would take this up as a key concern.44 What is surprising is how Poe scholarship has largely overlooked the fact that lack of conscience is the main form of unreliability that many of his first-person narrators display. Poe uses morally unreliable first-person narrators in stories such as “William Wilson,” “The Business Man,” “The Black Cat,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” and their function is always to describe but then to neglect crucial elements of a specifically ethical nature. An obvious example is “The Tell-Tale Heart,” where the narrator betrays his moral insanity quite quickly by avowing at the end of the second paragraph that he is a murderer (“I made up my mind the take the life of the old man”; M 3: 792). At the other end of the spectrum, the narrator of “Berenice” is revealed only at the end of the story to be the perpetrator of a horrible crime. When we learn that Berenice’s teeth are in his possession, we are forced to infer that he has pulled them out from her alive (as her body is disfigured and his own clothes are “clotted with gore”; M 2: 218). Even the ending is narrated “unreliably” by never using the word “teeth.” Instead, the narrator describes “thirty-two small, white, and ivory-looking substances” falling to the floor (M 2: 219). This absurdly indirect description (after all, who could recognize that there are thirty-two of anything in a single glance?), like all unreliable narration, requires the reader to produce the final meaning himself or herself by recognizing them as teeth, even though the narrator does not name them as such. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” by contrast, the reader gradually discerns that the seemingly congenial narrator is a sociopath intent upon revenge. His sadism is only fully revealed at the moment near the end when he mocks his victim’s pleas for mercy by repeating them sarcastically (“For the love of God, Montresor!” “Yes” I said, “for the love of God!”; M 3: 1263).

Similarly, the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher” betrays the limitations of his unimaginative subjectivity gradually during the course of the last section of the narrative. It could be argued that the narrator plants doubts in the reader’s mind with his initial lengthy descriptions of his unexplained emotions upon first seeing the house, and his provocative comparisons to narcotics (repeated again soon after when he tries to describe Usher’s manner as that of an “irreclaimable eater of opium”; M 2: 402). This is because the entire narrative is structured to prepare the reader for the specific effect that Poe wanted to create—as mentioned above, “the revulsion of feeling consequent upon discovering that for a long period of time we have been mistaking sounds of agony, for those of mirth or indifference” (ER: 871).

To create that temporally complex effect, involving “a long period of time” during which “sounds of agony” are mistaken for sounds of “mirth,” Poe structures the story in roughly two parts, with Madeline’s apparent death as the fulcrum. In the first section, he establishes all the necessary cues and clues to help the reader make sense of what is happening, but which the narrator will fail to understand, namely, that Madeline has been entombed alive and has managed to escape the underground crypt. These clues include references to the narrator’s unreliability, Madeline’s catalepsy, and her lifelike appearance but also the explanations foreshadowing Usher’s own “unreliability,” since he is the first to fail to attend to Madeline’s struggle. Thus, Usher’s most extensive speech occurs in this section, partly paraphrased and partly quoted. Usher informs the narrator (and the reader) that he has preternaturally sensitive hearing as well as a general acuteness of the senses, and then explains his fear of any incident, “even the most trivial,” which would operate upon his “intolerable agitation of the soul” (M 2: 403). In short, he is hypersensitive and morbidly perceptive of sounds, and terrified of anything that would upset him. These elements, along with some suspicion that the narrator’s judgment is not entirely transparent and reliable, are all that are needed after Madeline is entombed and Usher’s manner dramatically changes—as he appears to be “listening to some imaginary sound” and “laboring with some oppressive secret”—for the reader to guess that the cataleptic Madeline was not dead when she was entombed and that Usher can hear her stirring (M 2: 411). We know that he is terrified of any unusual incident, and we are given thereby a motive for why he does not dare to tell anyone what he hears. Usher’s strange behavior thus constitutes a hermeneutic gap that invites the reader to fill it with a plausible explanation, which Poe has carefully prepared.

The long last section of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in which the narrator describes hearing “low and indefinite sounds” that continue to grow louder and more alarming as he reads the “Mad Trist” to Usher in order to distract him, is the dramatic and emotional heart of the story (M 2: 411). Its rhetorical power depends on the fact that most readers—even first-time readers, I would contend, if they have read attentively—are aware or suspect that Madeline has been buried alive and that the narrator and the brother seem (or pretend) to not recognize this fact. I say “pretend” because Usher turns out to have heard her struggles all along. He is, in fact, the sociopath at the heart of the story, who has suppressed his conscience and moral judgment, like the narrator of “William Wilson.” In contrast to Usher’s deliberate failure to rescue his sister, the narrator is merely blind (and deaf) to her suffering. The seeming stupidity of the narrator is illustrated in at least one film adaptation by making him into a myopic, bumbling fool.45 The effect for the reader is a curious combination of uneasiness about Madeline’s torture and resurrection and epistemological pleasure from drawn-out scenes of dramatic irony (the reader knows something crucial the protagonist seems unable to grasp). Poe prolongs this scene to amplify its uncanny effects: an angry Madeline laboriously draws closer while the two men read and listen to sounds of her approach in a state of denial. The situation generates a peculiar, ethical position for the reader, aware of suffering that the main characters ignore or fail to recognize.

The climax coincides with Usher’s revelation, prompted by the “distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous” sound of Madeline’s tomb door being opened. This noise makes the narrator jump to his feet but leaves Usher “undisturbed,” once more proving that he has already been listening to—and ignoring—the sounds of Madeline’s struggle. Now, characterized by a “stony rigidity” and “sickly smile,” Usher confesses his self-deception and failure to act: “Not hear it?—yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long—long—long—many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it—yet I dared not—oh, pity me, miserable wretch that I am!—I dared not—I dared not speak! We have put her living in the tomb! Said I not that my senses were acute? I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them—many, many days ago—yet I dared not—I dared not speak!” (M 2: 416). Here Usher fills the hermeneutic gap in the conclusion, which the reader had been invited to guess at as soon as the narrator mentioned that Usher seemed to be “laboring with some oppressive secret” and “listening to some imaginary sound” (M 2: 411).

Usher’s monologue illuminates the latter part of the story in more detail:

[“]And now—to-night—Ethelred—ha! ha!—the breaking of the hermit’s door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangour of the shield!—say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault! Oh whither shall I fly? Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste? Have I not heard her footstep on the stair? Do I not distinguish that heavy and horrible beating of her heart? Madman!”—here he sprang furiously to his feet, and shrieked out his syllables, as if in the effort he were giving up his soul—“Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!” (M 2: 416)

Usher here reveals the specific fear at the crux of his agitation, namely, that Madeline is coming to reproach and possibly punish him for his failure of conscience and will. The climax simultaneously evokes the unspoken but pervasive anxiety about slave rebellion—that men and women prematurely consigned to the social death of slavery will refuse to stay dead and instead seek justifiable retribution—that hung over the antebellum South and that still gives this story its peculiar frisson, even if the cultural particulars remain unspecified.46

One odd aspect of this final speech is Usher’s calling the narrator “madman.” We have been led by the narrator to regard Roderick as verging on insanity, and yet this accusation from Usher reminds us of the many clues the narrator had dropped about his own mental instability: his references to opium consumption, to his “insufferable gloom,” his “superstition,” and to his long familiarity with “the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as their basis” (M 2: 399). The fact that the term “madman” can easily apply at this point to either Usher or the narrator himself is also one of many instances of the radical convertibility that characterizes Poe’s work (as Joan Dyan has noted47), namely, that things and people are oddly convertible and interchangeable, like Rowena and Ligeia in the tale titled after the latter.

Another odd thing about this speech, as many critics have noted, is the overly formal expression “without the door” for “outside the door.” This curious phrase has been used to argue that Usher has had incestuous relations with his sister while she was alive, or even after she has been entombed, since “without the door” could be read to mean that she has lost her hymen (the figurative door to her physical self).48 While it is true that Poe may have followed Gothic tradition in permitting suggestions of incest to arise, the curious expression shows again how narrative content is mirrored by and inseparable from the oppressive and unreliable architectonics of the house. For instance, the door of the dungeon produces portentous sounds that the narrator and Usher hear and/or ignore.

Similarly, the whole structure of the house proves a source of crucial ambiguities. For example, while giving “little token of instability,” the house is nevertheless doomed to collapse (M 2: 400). The narrator early alludes to the fracture that ultimately causes the collapse of the house—and does so in that highly subjectivized and uncertain way that characterizes his sensibility from the outset. He reports the crack while appearing not to see it: “Perhaps the eye of a scrutinizing observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn” (M 2: 400). Both the conditional tense (“might have”) and adverb evoking uncertainty (“perhaps”) call attention to the fact that the narrator is precisely NOT the “scrutinizing observer” needed to convey the meaning of the “barely perceptible” flaw in the structure.

The house is central and present to the story in other ways as well, from the pun of the title, collapsing the family and the physical building into one entity, to the suggestively black (“ebon”) floors, hinting at the black substratum of Southern society, and the general gloom both inside and outside the mansion, as well as the crucial details of the placement of the crypt underneath the house, which causes Madeline’s muffled sounds of struggle to arise from below. John Timmerman has argued, “In no other work … has Poe structured this sentience, or interconnectedness, between the physical world and mental/psychological world more powerfully and tellingly” than in “Usher.”49 In fact, Poe emphasizes the importance of the house by including the poem “The Haunted Palace,” recited by Usher in a moment of “artificial excitement,” hinting that Usher and the narrator have possibly indulged in “artificial”—that is, narcotic—diversions. Despite Poe’s reluctance to use allegory in fiction, here, as in other poems, he indulges in another artificial pleasure—an extended comparison of the face-like castle inhabited by the “monarch Thought” with Usher’s mind and reason “tottering … upon her … throne,” as the narrator remarks (M 2: 406). With this embedded poem, Poe traces connections between house and mind as explicitly as possible, framing the story—on one level—as a descent into madness by Usher, or the narrator, or both, triggered by mechanisms of denial, repression, and lack of conscience. Lindon Barrett’s association of reason with whiteness in antebellum America opens the door to a more tacitly racialized reading of “The Haunted Palace,” while Betsy Errkila explicitly sees the “hideous throng” of the poem, which invades and overcomes the reign of reason behind “the pale door,” as an allusion to American fear of insurrection by “Negroes and lower classes.”50

Another example of the house’s importance to the unfolding of the story is the strangely importance given to Usher’s theory that the atmosphere around his house derives intimately from the fungi covering the stones of the house and the trees around it, linking all together in a close network of charged and sentient matter. This theory (discussed in a later chapter by Branka Arsić) evokes further evidence of the narrator’s unreliability. He keeps insisting that Usher’s theory is untrue and even beneath notice (“Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none”; M 2: 408), and yet the end of the narrative bears out Usher’s version. During the final scene, a thick gaseous and glowing cloud indeed envelopes the house before vanishing with it into the tarn.

Usher’s belief in the sentience of the physical mansion and tarn takes on a still more ironic significance when read in light of a culture whose laws defined certain human beings as things. If we consider that African Americans were bought and sold as chattel on the premise that they were not human, the debate about Usher’s belief in the consciousness of his physical environment assumes a sinister suggestiveness. It was, after all, the condition of the white Southern master to be surrounded by sentient beings whose intelligence and emotions had to be denied in order for the plantation and the slave economy itself to endure.

To conclude, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is the keystone to Poe’s later work. With suggestive indirection, the story evokes sympathy for the sufferer of a grave injury, namely, living entombment accompanied by abandonment—conscious malice on the part of the sociopathic Usher and heedless neglect in the case of the “inept” narrator, as Timmerman characterizes him.51 Like many of Poe’s stories (including, notably, “Hop-Frog”), “Usher” betrays what Kennedy has described as “potential empathy for those in bondage.”52 It is perhaps also no accident that Poe’s later work Eureka makes a strangely moving case for the absolute equality of all souls and all animate beings as mere figments of a larger “Divine Being” into which all will one day melt (“the sense of individual identity will be gradually merged in the general consciousness” [L1: 106]). In any case, although the narrative is dense with details and allusions never entirely accounted for by any single reading or interpretation, the emotional effect of the tale clearly depends on the horror and repugnance that readers are invited to feel as they discover the cruelty on which the unstable House of Usher stands.


Goddu, Theresa A. Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

    Hayes, Kevin J., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

      Kennedy, J. Gerald, ed. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

        Kennedy, J. Gerald, and Liliane Weissberg, eds. Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

          Martin, Robert K., and Eric Savoy, eds. American Gothic: Interventions in a National Narrative. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998.Find this resource:

            Perry, Dennis R., and Carl H. Sederholm. Poe, “The House of Usher,” and the American Gothic. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.Find this resource:

              Rosenheim, Shawn, and Stephen Rachman, eds. The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.Find this resource:


                (1) Dennis R. Perry and Carl H. Sederholm, Poe, “The House of Usher,” and the American Gothic (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

                (2) Darrel Abel, “A Key to the House of Usher,” University of Toronto Quarterly 18, no. 2 (January 1849): 176–185.

                (3) Jonathan Elmer, Reading at the Social Limit: Affect, Mass Culture, and Edgar Allan Poe (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995), 90–91.

                (4) Marie Bonaparte, The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-Analytic Interpretation, trans. John Rodker, foreword by Sigmund Freud (London: Imago, 1949), 237–250.

                (5) D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, ed. Ezra Greenspan, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 66–80. Similarly, Patrick Quinn saw incest as the secret heart of the story, proposing that the main conflict staged by the tale is “the warfare taking place in Roderick … by his consciousness against the evil of his unconscious.” See Patrick F. Quinn, The French Face of Poe (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1954), 245.

                (6) G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1973), 96.

                (7) J. R. Hammond, An Edgar Allan Poe Companion (London: Macmillan Press, 1981), 71.

                (8) Eric W. Carlson, “Tales of Psychal Conflict: ‘William Wilson’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in A Companion to Poe Studies, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 188–208.

                (10) Michael J. Hoffman, “The House of Usher and Negative Romanticism,” Studies in Romanticism 4, no. 3 (Spring 1965): 158–168.

                (11) This is not to say that Poe never uses allegory at all. He certainly uses it in his poetry, and stories such as “The Masque of the Red Death” lend themselves well to allegorical readings, but the emotional and aesthetic effect of a tale is far more likely to be his main focus.

                (12) For more on Poe’s irony, see Elmer’s Reading at the Social Limit.

                (13) Joseph N. Riddel, “The ‘Crypt’ of Edgar Poe,” boundary 2 7, no. 3 (Spring 1979): 117–144, 130.

                (15) Harriet Hustis, “‘Reading Encrypted but Persistent’: The Gothic of Reading and Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” Studies in American Fiction 27, no. 1 (March 22, 1999): 3–20.

                (16) Scott Peeples, “Poe’s ‘constructiveness’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Kevin J. Hayes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 178–190.

                (19) John Carlos Rowe, “Poe, Antebellum Slavery and Modern Criticism,” in Poe’s Pym: Critical Explorations, ed. Richard Kopley (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 117.

                (20) Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 31–33.

                (21) Teresa Goddu, Gothic America: Narrative History, and Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 93.

                (22) Lesley Ginsberg, “Slavery and the Gothic Horror of Poe’s ‘The Black Cat,’” in American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative, ed. Robert K. Martin & Eric Savoy (Iowa City: Iowa University Press, 1889), 123, 122.

                (23) Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 111–146. For an earlier discussion of the controversy surrounding the “Paulding-Drayton” review, see Dana D. Nelson, The Word in Black and White: Reading “Race” in American Literature, 1638–1867 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 90–92. Stefan Schöberlein confirms that N. Beverly Tucker wrote the review in “Poe or Not Poe? A Stylometric Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s Writings,” Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 32, no. 3 (2017): 643–659.

                (25) John Carlos Rowe, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Imperial Fantasy and the American Frontier,” in Romancing the Shadow: Poe and Race, ed. Gerald Kennedy and Liliane Weissberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 100.

                (26) Leland S. Person, “Poe’s Philosophy of Amalgamation: Reading Racism in the Tales,” in Romancing the Shadow, 207.

                (27) J. Gerald Kennedy, “‘Trust No Man’: Poe, Douglass, and the Culture of Slavery,” in Romancing the Shadow, 225–257.

                (28) Sam Worley, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and the Ideology of Slavery,” ESQ 40 (1994): 222.

                (29) George Fitzhugh, Cannibals All! Or Slaves Without Masters (Richmond, VA: A. Morris, 1857), chap. 32,

                (31) Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ed. Elizabeth Ammons (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994), 7.

                (34) “‘Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race’ by Dr. Cartwright,” Africans in America, PBS Online, accessed December 8, 2017,

                (35) Toni Morrison, “Melville and the Language of Denial,” The Nation, January 7, 2014,

                (36) See, for example, J. Gerald Kennedy’s short overview of these approaches in Strange Nation: Literary Nationalism and Cultural Conflict in the Age of Poe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 67.

                (37) Harry Levin, The Power of Blackness: Hawthorne, Poe, Melville (New York: Vintage Books, 1960), 160–161.

                (38) Maurice S. Lee, “Absolute Poe,” in Slavery, Philosophy, and American Literature, 1830–1860 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 23. Stephen Dougherty has also recently read the tale as a “nightmarish prophecy of the cultural and political defeat of American slave society,” only with a Foucaultian focus on “modern, bourgeois identity” and miscegenation, in “Foucault in the House of Usher: Some Historical Permutations in Poe’s Gothic,” Papers on Language & Literature 37, number 1 (2001): 19.

                (39) At least one Northern newspaper took Nat Turner’s revolt as the beginning of the end for the South, writing dramatically that “the first drops of blood, which are but the prelude to a deluge from the gathering clouds, have fallen” (The Liberator, Boston, September 3, 1831). The writer warns that the entire country will be the scene of bloodshed and righteous vengeance if slaves are not immediately freed, and that more revolts like Turner’s will naturally follow: “Woe to this guilty land, unless she speedily repents of her evil doings! The blood of millions of her sons cried aloud for redress! IMMEDIATE EMANCIPATION can alone save her from the vengeance of Heaven” (reprinted in Henry Irving Tragle, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material [Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1971], 64). My source for the implications of the combustible dungeon is G. R. Thompson, Poe’s Fiction, 94. For my own discussion of this, see The Poetics and Politics of the American Gothic (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2010), 51.

                (40) Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).

                (41) Although this review was anonymous, and Thomas Mabbott attributes it to someone else, G. R. Thompson has argued that it is “almost certainly” written by Poe, and the editors of the Library of America edition of Poe’s essays and reviews list it as his.

                (42) An excellent discussion of conscience in antebellum literature is Richard H. Brodhead, in “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America,” Representations 21 (Winter 1988): 67–96, where he quotes an antebellum guidebook in which the conscience is described as something that seems uncanny for children: “another than themselves, and yet themselves” (79).

                (43) Francis Wayland, The Elements of Moral Science, ed. Joseph Blau (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963), 49.

                (44) J. Gerald Kennedy even muses that “without employment or income, Poe must nevertheless have drawn occasional, ironic comparisons between his circumstances and those of the slave.” See “A Brief Biography,” in A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 31.

                (45) Most notably, Jean Epstein’s La Chute de la maison Usher (1928).

                (46) Madeline’s role as embodiment of repressed conscience is also paralleled by similar characters in other Poe stories, such as, William Wilson’s double, already discussed, or the “mummer” who stands in the shadow of the “ebony clock” (one more allusion to the black slave population of the South?) in “The Masque of the Red Death” and causes the death of Prince Prospero, who had also tried to lock his people’s suffering outside his castle gates and mask the sound with revels. All these figures function as personifications of stifled conscience returning to exact justice. For a discussion of Southern anxieties about black violence and revenge, see Elizabeth Young, Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor (New York: New York Press, 2008).

                (47) Joan Dayan, “Amorous Bondage: Poe, Ladies, and Slaves,” in The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Shawn Rosenheim and Stephen Rachman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 179–209.

                (48) See David Leverenz, “Poe and Gentry Virginia,” in The American Face of Edgar Allan Poe, 221.

                (49) John H. Timmerman, “House of Mirrors: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Other Stories, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009), 163.

                (50) Lindon Barrett, “Presence of Mind,” in Romancing the Shadow, 172; Betsy Errkila, “The Poetics of Whiteness: Poe and the Racial Imaginary,” in Romancing the Shadow, 58.

                (52) J. Gerald Kennedy, “‘Trust No Man’: Poe, Douglass, and the Culture of Slavery,” in Romancing the Shadow, 237.