A good work of art will go on intriguing us and will grow as we grow. In fact, a final decyphering of a work of art is impossible both individually and generally. If a work of art is understood forever, then it does not exist as a work of art any more for a particular person or for the world. Even the artist abandons his work unfinished, says De Vinci.
It is in this spirit that we have to approach the novelette The Fall of the House of Usher. The Fall of the House of Usher possesses the quintessential -features of the Gothic tale: a haunted house, dreary landscape, mysterious sickness, and doubled personality. For all its easily identifiable Gothic elements, however, part of the terror of this story is its vagueness. The title itself is intrigung with its double meaning of the word “House” since it can mean a building or a family. Since both the family and the house falls into ruins at the end of the story, both meaning are appropriate.
The possibility of varied reading of the story facilitates the presence of a variety of themes. From a doppleganger effect to incest to twin souls, the story pivots on several themes. The story is about a dilapidated house with fissures and houses usually symbolize the human mind. Madeline and Roderick will die only together in the story suggesting that they have a single soul between them. The building too seems to be a living entity as it too dies with them. The effect of the environment on human mind can also be a theme of the story. The myriads ways in which minds can be twisted is another interesting theme that the story explores.
Very little dialogue is heard in this story and what is heard is more an expression of thoughts that a commentary on actions. To compensate for this absence of voice, a fairly long poem is included and a story is told. The narrator shares all his thoughts with the reader. One of the main characters Madeline does not utter anything at all.
Characterisation is a remarkable aspect of the story. The story is told from the third person point of view and the speaker or the narrator has no access to the thoughts of the two other characters at all and this is highly logical. He can only report what he sees and what he hears. This limited vision of the story proper intensifies the tension and suspense in the story since the reader too is left in the dark as the narrator. The language used by the narrator says a lot about him, his anxieties, fears, apprehensions and nervousness. Everything he witnesses is also looked deep into and analyzed which shows the level of fear he has. His fearful mind reflects on the house and its premises. We have only his word about the state of affairs there. Roderick is depicted as a mental wreck. The narrator suspects substance abuse and sexual abuse when he sees the behaviour of his friend. If Roderick’s relation with his sister has to be put under the scanner, we have more than ample reason to suspect the relationship he has with the narrator. Roderick could be sick, highly tense about the impeding death of his sister, influenced by the gloomy nature of the house he lives in or may be taking some drug which was not uncommon those days. Madeline is more dead than alive all through the story though she is dynamic nonetheless. She passes by the narrator as if he does not exist and then lends herself to be buried alive. She comes back to life after a week to scare the living daylights out of her brother. Around her too there are a lot of clues that pulls the reader to understand her in a good number of ways. She is the perfect symbol of the story itself just as Roderick represents the house and the narrator represents the writer. Roderick and Madeline Usher are the last of their distinguished line. They are, therefore, the “House of Usher,” as is the strange, dark mansion in which they live. The narrator of Poe’s tale is a childhood friend of Roderick’s, summoned to the decaying country pile by a letter pleading for his help. He arrives to find his friend gravely altered, and through his eyes, we see strange and terrible events unfold. The reader is placed in the position of the narrator, and as such we identify strongly throughout with the “madman” watching incredulous as around him reality and fantasy merge to become indistinguishable. The unity of tone and the effortlessly engaging prose are mesmerizing, enveloping both subject matter and reader.
The setting is the most important aspect of the story as it takes the maximum text-space of the story. Instead of standard narrative markers of place and time, Poe uses traditional Gothic elements such as inclement weather and a barren landscape. We are alone with the narrator in this haunted space, and neither we nor the -narrator know why. Although he is Roderick’s most intimate boyhood friend, the narrator apparently does not know much about him—like the basic fact that Roderick has a twin sister. Poe asks us to question the reasons both for Roderick’s decision to contact the narrator in this time of need and the bizarre tenacity of narrator’s response. While Poe provides the recognizable building blocks of the Gothic tale, he contrasts this standard form with a plot that is inexplicable, sudden, and full of unexpected disruptions. The story begins without complete explanation of the narrator’s motives for arriving at the house of Usher, and this ambiguity sets the tone for a plot that continually blurs the real and the fantastic.
Poe creates a sensation of claustrophobia in this story. The narrator is mysteriously trapped by the lure of Roderick’s attraction, and he cannot escape until the house of Usher collapses completely. Characters cannot move and act freely in the house because of its structure, so it assumes a monstrous character of its own—the Gothic mastermind that controls the fate of its inhabitants. From beginning to end we hear a lot about its nooks and corners. It is described more vividly than any of the characters and thus can even be called the protagonist of the story if we consider its immense influence on the characters and their actions. The unnatural interactions between the brother and the sister, the different sickness each of them have and the possibility of something supernatural can be considered as the problem or conflict in the story. In that case, it is the house that eggs them on and finall collapses on them to effect the climax, though a tragic one.
In short, the story is a mirror that reflects the inner life of the reader and gives him exotic experiences which he will never have otherwise. It is a futile task to work towards a conclusive meaning of the story. It is a story to be read repeatedly and slowly, like an imagist poem. This is all the more evident when we compare the language Poe uses here and elsewhere. The sentences are long and goes around in circles giving us more and more abstract as well as concrete images. The narrator gives a running commentary of the action, thereby making us see what we would have missed had we been right there in the scene of action.
An unnamed narrator arrives at the House of Usher, a very creepy mansion owned by his boyhood friend Roderick Usher. Roderick has been sick lately, afflicted by a disease of the mind, and wrote to his friend, our narrator, asking for help. The narrator spends some time admiring the awesomely spooky Usher edifice. While doing so, he explains that Roderick and his sister are the last of the Usher bloodline, and that the family is famous for its dedication to the arts (music, painting, literature, etc.). Eventually, the narrator heads inside to see his friend.
Roderick indeed appears to be a sick man. He suffers from an “acuteness of the senses,” or hyper-sensitivity to light, sound, taste, and tactile sensations; he feels that he will die of the fear he feels. He attributes part of his illness to the fact that his sister, Madeline, suffers from catalepsy (a sickness involving seizures) and will soon die, and part of it to the belief that his creepy house is sentient (able to perceive things) and has a great power over him. He hasn’t left the mansion in years. The narrator tries to help him get his mind off all this death and gloom by using the literature, music, and art that Roderick so loves. It doesn’t seem to help.
As Roderick predicted, Madeline soon dies. At least we think so. All we know is that Roderick tells the narrator she’s dead, and that she appears to be dead when he looks at her. Of course, because of her catalepsy, she might just look like she’s dead, post-seizure. At Roderick’s request, the narrator helps him to entomb her body in one of the vaults underneath the mansion. While they do so, the narrator discovers that the two of them were twins and that they shared some sort of supernatural, probably extrasensory, bond.
About a week later, on a dark and stormy night, the narrator and Usher find themselves unable to sleep. They decide to pass away the scary night by reading a book. As the narrator reads the text aloud, all the sounds from the fictional story can be heard resounding from below the mansion. It doesn’t take long for Usher to freak out; he jumps up and declares that they buried Madeline alive and that now she is coming back. Sure enough, the doors blow open and there stands a trembling, Madeline. She throws herself at Usher, who falls to the floor and, after “violent” agony, dies along with his sister. The narrator flees; outside he watches the House of Usher crack in two and sink into the dark, dank pool that lies before it.