Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Fall of The House of Usher

   “The Fall of The House of Usher” is an outstanding masterpiece. After reading it I was curious to learn what the critics said about it and I got disappointed.  The intricacies that make up the fabric of this fascinating short story by Edgar Allan Poe have been overlooked.
 According to Benjamin F. Fisher  “the ‘Usher’ narrator’s sojourn in the ‘house’ of Usher may symbolize a journey into depths of his own self, where he confronts psycho-sexual-artistic elements that horrify him by the far greater negative than positive possibilities they raise”. I agree partially with him on this statement, so let me start by saying that many of Poe’s stories explore the dark tunnels of the mind. This one is not an exception.
Poe was a daring writer who, under a literary veil, revealed the emotions and feelings that society might have judged and condemned. His poetical prose dredges up profound feelings and thoughts that had to remain hidden to avoid the inconvenience of their social consequences. Having said this, I will now explain my  perspective on “The Fall of the House of Usher”.
 I believe the house of Usher is the embodiment of Mr. Usher’s depressive state of mind. And what is a depressive state of mind but the entrapment of the soul in a network of dark thoughts and emotions? This dark web distorts the sufferer’s views. Yet falling prey to this complex network requires a specific kind of substrate: a combination of  sensitivity and a profound understanding of reality (both inner and outer realities). This is a kind of journey that Poe understood well.
 Through this story Poe paints the complex labyrinths of Mr. Usher’s moods, and the physical descriptions of the house are symbols of his mental experience. There is a spiritual connection between the narrator and Mr. Usher. Neither of them can be rescued from the sorrow of the atmosphere described by many critics as "claustrophobic".
 The narrator fathoms Mr. Usher’s emotional turmoil while he navigates the waters of his own melancholy. 

 “We painted and read together, or I listened, as if in a dream, to the wild improvisations of his speaking guitar. And thus, as a closer and still closer intimacy admitted me more unreservedly into the recesses of his spirit, the more bitterly did I perceive the futility of all attempt at cheering a mind from which darkness, as if an inherent positive quality, poured forth upon all objects of the moral and physical universe in one unceasing radiation of gloom.”

Roderick Usher had invited the narrator to his house because there was a “mental disorder that oppressed him”. Roderick had an earnest desire to see his childhood friend for he believed his visit might help him to “alleviate his malady”. Even though Roderick considered him his personal friend the narrator confessed that he did not know him well because of Usher’s introverted nature. He explained this in this paragraph:

 “Although, as boys, we had been intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend. His reserve had been always excessive and habitual. I was aware, however, that his very ancient family had been noted, time out of mind, for a peculiar sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art, and manifested, of late, in repeated deeds of munificent yet unobtrusive charity, as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies, perhaps even more than to the orthodox and easily recognizable beauties, of musical science.

  Each and every description is memorable and vivid. Reading this story is almost like visiting this Gothic house or dreaming of it because of the powerful images that his prose evokes:
 “There were many books and musical instruments scattered on the floor, but they failed to give any vitality to the scene.”
 “The windows were long, narrow and pointed, and so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within.” All these simple details of the house carve out a feeling of isolation and loneliness. Right from the first paragraph we are thrown into an obscure landscape:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was – but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.”
 In this paragraph the narrator is clearly deprived of hope, another hallmark of Mr. Usher's mental condition. 
 The loss of Mr. Usher’s beloved twin sister Madeline may have been the trigger of his mood disorder. Madeline had been his sole companion for many years. Some critics suggest that there are innuendos regarding a possible love affair between Madeline and Roderick. There are those who claim that the image of their  embrace under the moonlight at the end of the story hints at the union of their souls and the beginning of a new life together.
 A sense of despair looms as the story progresses. We later learn more details about Mr. Usher’s situation and how his disorder  wreaks havoc on his life:
And now, some days of bitter grief having elapsed , an observable change came over the features of the mental disorder of my friend. His ordinary manner had vanished. His ordinary occupations were neglected or forgotten. He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step. The pallor of his countenance had assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue – but the luminousness of his eye had utterly gone out. The once occasional huskiness of his tone was heard no more; and a tremulous quaver, as if of extreme terror, habitually characterized his utterance. There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage.”

  His descriptions help to deepen the character and move the plot forward while they build suspense. The man is struggling with his secrets. He is overwhelmed by the terror that guilt and uncertainty inflict upon him. He is very frightened and anxious.  The narrator educes Mr. Usher is a slave to his emotions. He has lost control over them; thoughts of death abound:
 “To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave. ‘I shall perish,’ said he, ‘I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul.”

   I believe Edgar Allan Poe was ahead of his time. He was able to reveal complex insights on the human psyche. His poetical, timeless story is the detailed account of  a mental crisis that resonates in our era of depression epidemics.

14 comments:

  1. Hi Julia,

    Yes, you are not imagining this. I have actually got here. Time to usher in a new dawn, methinks.

    Edgar Allan Poe was indeed enlightened about the impact of mental health well being in a time when mental health and being mentally ill, was frowned upon and terribly stigmatised. This took some courage for him to write that.

    Be well and I hope you were sitting comfortably when you noted I've really left a comment.

    Your friend,

    Gary :)

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    1. Thank you, Gary. I agree with you. It's good to read your comments again on my blog.
      I'm still sitting on the horse, my friend, and this is a source of inspiration.
      Stay well.
      Julia

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  2. I don't think I've ever read any Poe. I should take a look, shouldn't I?

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    1. Yes, I think his writing has the power to enkindle our imagination. His use of the language is rich and interesting. If you love the English language -- I know you do --
      his writing will captivate you. He has a unique style.

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  3. I love Poe's short stories and poems. I'll have to look into The Fall of the House of Usher

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    1. I will be writing more on Edgar Allan Poe's fascinating works.
      Thank you for stopping by, John.

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  4. Hi Julia .. I'll be back to read this properly - possibly December! I see I need to read it properly ... from your other comments and replies ...

    Cheers Hilary

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    1. Hi Hilary.
      No need to rush.
      Thank you for stopping by. I've also been slow at commenting these days.

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  5. What a terrific analysis, Julia. I think Poe's works are full of veiled references to mental illnesses. It's been many years since I read this particular story, but the parts you've quoted certainly support your premise.

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    1. Thank you, Susan.
      I believe some literary scholars out there need more life experience to understand the complexity of these remarkable masterpieces. This is my humble opinion.

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  6. Hi Julia. I’ve always considered Edgar Allan Poe to be a brilliant, imaginative and daring writer. I appreciated that he was ahead of his time in boldly exploring “the dark tunnels of the mind” in many of his writings. I read “The Fall of the House of Usher” many years ago and liked it. I think your analysis of the characters in the story, and your analysis of Poe, are spot on. It really is a poetical and timeless story and certainly one that would resonate in today’s world. After reading your excellent review, I want to read this story again!

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    1. Thank you for your insights, Jersey.
      I agree with you. His works are fascinating and I'm glad you enjoyed my analysis.
      Have a peaceful weekend.

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  7. I knew this piece when I watched the movie "Detachment", in which the first paragraph of the story is read both the beginning and the end. It is poetic and melancholic. Thanks for your review because after read it I finally read the story yesterday! And it was engrossing yet a bit chilling. I knew the author long time ago by his famous "Tale tell heart". Agree that he was ahead of his time. A true master of mystery.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Yun. You made my day! I love to know that somebody was inspired to read a literary piece after reading my blog!
      A Tale Heart, yes. I will be writing more on Poe's work in the future. Thanks!

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I appreciate each and every comment. Thank you.