Poe’s Warning? The Fall of the House of Usher

Halloween is nearing. Time for the turning of leaves, candy corn and little costumed tricksters extorting confections from neighborhood adults to thwart the threat of toilet paper decorations hanging from trees in their yard. It’s also the perfect time for the macabre tales and poetry of Edgar Allan Poe, the favorite author of yours truly.

Though born to a family of actors from Boston, Massachusetts in 1809, an orphaned Poe was taken in and raised by the Allan family of Richmond, Virginia after his father abandoned him and the subsequent death of his mother before he reached the age of two. His childhood and early adulthood was not devoid of conflict with his benefactor, John Allan. Culminating in a rift over gambling debts and tuition costs at the University of Virginia, their differences became irreconcilable when he quit school and later had a failed stint as a cadet at West Point.

Poe eventually achieved fame as a literary critic, a poet, and a short story novelist who pioneered the murder mystery genre and whose work had a flair for gothic horror themes. He was one of the first American writers to eke out a living through his prose, as meager as it was, and the body of his work was indeed prolific.

Though raised in the aristocratic environs of antebellum Virginia, his work took him to the northern centers of American publishing like New York and Philadelphia, with Baltimore being the most southern publishing hub that he spent time in. Virginia was always his home, however, and his writing often reflected his connection to the culture of the antebellum South.

Which brings me to one of his most famous tales, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” published in 1839. My childhood was blessed with fond memories of seeing Vincent Price’s interpretation of the main character, Roderick Usher, in the 1960 movie based on the story. This was my first exposure to Poe and eventually compelled me to purchase and read the entire anthology of his short stories and poems.

Before we go over the synopsis of the story, it is important to understand that the best writers build underlying themes into their prose, often by the skilled use of metaphor and allusion. I further want to point out that this can also leave the underlying message subjective and open to interpretation. In Poe’s day, it was uncommon and considered somewhat crude for celebrities, especially writers, to openly comment on politics. We should be so fortunate today! If Poe had an opinion on the political currents of his day, he would have buried those opinions within the imagery of his stories. With that said, I believe that “The Fall of the House of Usher” was a subtle commentary on the growing rifts between abolitionists and states’ rights activists, northerners and southerners, in the decades leading up to the American Civil War.

The story opens with the narrator, who is unnamed, traveling on horseback to visit an old acquaintance named Roderick Usher, who has beckoned him to pay a visit to the Usher family estate. A thick, oppressive air of doom hangs about him as he approaches the Usher manor. He takes note of a fissure in the foundation and masonry of the home and then proceeds to gain entrance when a servant greets him at the door.

When he finally greets Roderick Usher, he learns that he is ill and suffering from a peculiar heightening of the senses. A debilitating disease that makes the slightest noise, excess in lighting and even a change in temperature intolerable. He wears gloves as to not be overwhelmed by his sense of touch. The visitor also learns that Usher’s sister, Madeline, suffers from catalepsy, a coma-like condition that leaves her rigid and lifeless for spells.

After a short passage of time, Usher’s sister dies, as her brother had predicted, and the narrator is tasked with helping Roderick to entomb her in a crypt in the home. That same ominous night, they proceed to screw her casket shut tightly and hide her away. One might be struck by the extra caution that is taken to secure the casket of someone who is supposedly dead and lifeless. The narrator also learns at this time that the siblings were twins and possessed a supernatural bond of spirit.

A week or so passes, and on a dark and stormy night, Roderick suggests they pass the time by reading a book together to relieve his insomnia. Usher grows increasingly irritated as the foreboding of the night grows, he hears with acute senses the sounds of his sister clawing her way out of the coffin that her living body has been entrapped in as the narrator reads of seemingly parallel fictitious sounds in the book they’re sharing.

Suddenly, Usher declares that they have buried his sister alive as she then appears at the door, bloody from her struggles in the crypt. She flings herself upon Usher, attacking him as they both fall lifeless to the floor, and at this point which the narrator flees the home, looking back at the house only to see it crumbling and falling into an abyss that has formed along the fissures that he had noted earlier. This scene draws the story to an end. Truly a suspenseful and entertaining tale of gothic fiction.

But belying the superficial and horrific fancifulness of the story, I believe, is a prophetic warning that Poe was offering to his reader. The supposed indivisible union of this (then) new American enterprise was destined to fall apart. Even the almost supernatural bond of a twin brother and sister could not prevent their rivalries from turning murderous. Roderick Usher’s meticulous and malicious attempt to entomb his sister alive was met with his own demise when her awakened body sought retaliation.

The Civil War has often been called a brother war. The rifts that occurred between and within families were like the cracks in the masonry of the Usher home. A weakened structure ready to crumble under its own weight and instability, much like the volatile nature of the pillars of American democracy. And also much like the Usher siblings, the conflicting ideologies of the time were a toxic recipe for illnesses that had no cure outside of self destruction.

We all know what eventually happened. While the wounds created by that war were eventually sutured and doctored up, they never actually healed. Today, in 2018, we find many of those wounds open and agape, oozing with the same blood that was drawn over a century and a half ago. The American enterprise was, and still is, an idea built upon a weak and crumbling foundation. It’s just a matter of time before it is consumed into the abyss.

I do not know what Poe thought of the institution of slavery, or his opinion on the question of racial purity or national homogeneity. But, I have no doubt in my mind that his warnings ring as true today as they did in 1839.

Will we ever see a resolution to these age old problems that have plagued this land for centuries? Well, perhaps Poe gave us other bit of literature from which to derive the answer. I’m afraid I’ll have to quoth the Raven, and predict, “nevermore.”

-By Dixie Anon