“The Fall of the House of Usher” was first published September 1839 in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. It was later slightly revised in 1840 for inclusion into the collection Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque.
Poe may have been inspired to write the story by the events of the Hezekiah Usher House which was located in modern Boston. Supposedly the young wife of the house’s owner was caught with a sailor by her husband and the two were entombed in their meeting spot. When the house was torn down in 1830, two bodies were found embraced in the cellar. 1
“Usher” begins with the unnamed narrator arriving at the family estate of his childhood friend, Roderick Usher after receiving a letter requesting his company. The narrator hopes that through his presence and sympathy, Usher’s “acute bodily illness” (127) will dissipate and his health will be restored. Unfortunately, the only outcome of the narrator’s attendance is the complete destruction of the Usher family and estate. Describing the story’s conclusion is particularly difficult because it is here that seemingly supernatural events occur: sounds from a fictional romance enter the material world, Usher’s recently buried sister appears in the narrator’s chamber only to cause Usher’s (and her own) untimely death, and the entire house splits and sinks below the earth. Poe’s focus on the effect of his stories rather than the theme or topic becomes fully apparent in the final few scenes of “Usher.”
Notes & Quotes
- I think that “Usher” presents a great example of how Poe believed that horror could transmit itself from body to body. It is also a great example of the porosity of Poe’s character’s bodies and minds against the overwhelmingly terrifying and/or gloomy atmospheres in which Poe places them. The sense that fear could be “caught” is palpable throughout the story (in fact, the narrator claims at one point that Usher’s fear “infected” him) and could be connected to Poe’s own skepticism of medical treatments of “dis-eased” minds. Dr. Benjamin Rush argued that physicians should enter their patients’ perspectives and beliefs in order to properly diagnose their sickness and provide a cure. Poe displays exactly how dangerous this move could be. He makes the reader complicit in the effort to get inside of Usher’s mind, as we must follow the narrator within the Usher house as well as in his doomed efforts to sympathize with his friend.
- We have a sort of vampiric character in Usher’s sister. She pulls her brother down into death at the end of the tale.
- I’m interested in “Usher” as an example of the American gothic mode. Although it is set in Europe, he contains a number of elements common to the American gothic- there is a danger in sympathizing with the wrong person; madness is contagious, which could be a terrifying prospect for an American in the 19th century, considering their republican government was still new; there is some ecogothic elements (moron that in the next bullet point; the Ushers are a noble family which is completely eviscerated by the end of the story; the Usher house is far away from society and feels isolated, not unlike the United States’ position far away from “cultured” Europe.
- The description of the old Usher house and the “rank miasma” and the tarn surrounding it provide a great example of American ecogothic. By the end of the story, there is a great storm outside and the house splits and sinks into the tarn. The entire essence of the nature in “Usher” is connected to contagion and influence- the atmosphere hangs heavy and infects everyone within.