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The Fall of the House of Usher
Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, using characterization, and imagery to depict fear, terror, and darkness on the human mind. Roderick and his twin sister, Madeline, are the last of the all time-honored House of Usher (Jacobs and Roberts, pg. 462). They are both suffering from rather strange illnesses, which may be attributed to the intermarriage of the family. Roderick suffers from “a morbid acuteness of the senses”(464), while Madeline’s illness is characterized by “ a settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent all though transient affections of a partly cataleptical character”(465) which caused her to lose consciousness and feeling. The body would eventually assume a deathlike rigidity.
Roderick believes the house is controlling his condition. He calls on the narrator, a boyhood friend, in a last ditch effort to cheer his life up by giving him someone to communicate with. The narrator arrives to a house of gloom and darkness with decaying furniture. He immediately is afraid for his life and wonders how his friend can live in a house of such darkness. Several days pass and it is filled with art discussions, guitar playing, and literature reading, all in an effort to keep Roderick’s mind busy (465).
The narrator and Roderick prematurely encoffined Madeline in a vault in hopes to alleviate his metal condition. She is either dead, in a coma, or a vampire; Poe allows the reader to make his own assumption. She is possibly a vampire because they bolt down the coffin hoping she will not escape. As some days pass his mental condition worsens related to the fear and terror of the noises coming from the vault. The narrator is unaware if the noises are coming from the coffin, but he believes they are all throughout the house.
As they are reading literature in the study, there is a loud knock at the door; it is Madeline at the door, embodied in blood from scratching her way out of the coffin. The narrator realizes they buried her alive and looks to Roderick for answers. Roderick, terrified, is unable to look at Madeline, realizing that death has come for him. Madeline proceeds to walk towards Roderick and falls on him, the reader assumes that she begins to eat him but the narrator flees in fear of death.
“…. there did stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady
Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and
the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her
emaciated frame. For a moment she remained trembling and reeling
to and fro upon the threshold- then, with a low moaning cry, fell
heavily inward upon…her brother, and in her violent and now final
death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse…”(Jacobs and Roberts, pg. 473).
Suddenly the wrath of the storm increased, and the mansion began to shake and crumble. The narrator frantically fled from the mansion in terror. Only once did he glance back at the mansion, when a wild light arrested his attention. “The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood red moon, which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure…” There was a loud explosion, and the walls of the mansion came crashing down. Deep and dank tarn closed sullenly and silently of over the fragments of the “House of Usher.”
Poe introduces three characters: Lady Madeline, Roderick Usher, and the narrator, whose name is never given. Lady Madeline, twin sister of Roderick Usher, does not utter a single word throughout the story. In fact, she is absent from most of the story.
At the narrator’s arrival, she takes to her bed and galls into a catatonic state. He helps bury her in a vault, but when she reappears, he flees. Poe seems to present her as a ghostlike figure. Before she was buried, she roamed around the house quietly. According to the narrator, Lady Madeline “passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and without having noticed his presence, disappeared”(465). Overall Madeline Usher appears to be completely overcome by a mental disorder.
Roderick Usher, the head of the house, is an educated man, descending from a wealthy family. Once an attractive man, “the character of his face had been at all time remarkable” (464). However, his appearance had since deteriorated. Roderick had changed so much that “the narrator doubted to whom he spoke”(464). Roderick’s altered appearance probably was caused by his mental condition overtaking his body. The narrator notes various symptoms of insanity from Roderick’s behaviors: “in the manner of my friend I was struck with an incoherence…an inconsistency…habitual trepidancy, and excessive nervous agitation. His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision to that of the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium”(464). These are “the features of the mental disorder of the narrator’s friend”(465). Roderick’s state worsens throughout the story. He becomes increasingly restless and unstable, especially after the burial of his sister. He is unable to sleep and claims that he hears noises.
In contrast to Roderick, the narrator appears to be a man of common sense.
He seems to be a compassionate man coming to comfort a dying friend from boyhood. He seems educated and analytic. He observes Usher and concludes that his friend has a mental disorder. The narrator’s tone suggests that he cannot understand Usher. However, he himself is superstitious. When he looks upon the house, even before he met Roderick Usher, he observes “here can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition” (463). The narrator also automatically turns away from an unpleasant truth by reasoning or by redirecting his focus. When he and Roderick go down to bury Madeline, he speculates that she may not be completely dead yet. Studying her face, he notes “the mockery of faint blush upon the bosom and the face”(469). Yet, rather than mentioning his suspicion to his friend, he remains silent and continues the burial. Furthermore, when Roderick claims that there are ghosts in the house, the narrator feels fear too, but he dismisses the fear by attributing it to natural causes. He tells Roderick that “the appearances are merely not uncommon”(470). In the end, this fear finally overcomes him. Although the narrator had been able to suppress his fears, Lady Madeline’s reappearance runs him out of the house.
The three characters are unique people with distinct characters, but the same type of “mental disorder” ties them together. All of them suffer from insanity, yet each responds differently. Lady Madeline seems to accept the fact that she is insane and continues her life with that knowledge. Roderick Usher appears to realize his mental state, and struggles to hold on to his sanity. The narrator, who is slowly contracting the disease, tries to deny what he sees, hears, and senses. He, in the end, escapes from the illness because he flees form the house.
Poe uses the imagery and the life-like characteristics of an otherwise decaying house as a device for giving the house a supernatural atmosphere. For example, from the very beginning of the story, the reader can tell that there is something unusual and almost supernatural about the building. As the narrator approaches the home of his long-time friend, Roderick Usher, he refers to the house as the “melancholy House of Usher”(461). Upon looking at the building, he even describes the feeling he has as “a sense of insufferable gloom pervading my spirit”(462). The windows appear to be “vacant,” and “eye-like” and the narrator goes on to observe the “rank sedges,” and the “black and lurid tarn,” in which he sees the reflection of the house. Although the narrator tries to view everything in a rational manner, upon seeing the house and its surroundings, he has a heightened sense of superstition. He says that, “about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity” (463). This statement indicates that perhaps the house does indeed have supernatural characteristics. The narrator observes the details of the house and finds that the house has fungi growing all over it and the masonry of the building is decaying. He says, “ there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the utterly porous, and evidently decayed condition of the individual stones”(463). This observation suggests that perhaps something supernatural is holding the house intact, otherwise it would have fallen to the ground long ago.
Upon entering the house, the narrator sees the inside of the house as well as the odd behavior and personality of its inhabitants and is increasingly convinced that the house has some supernatural effect on those who live there.
For example, while walking through the passages he is confused as to why familiar objects such as the tapestries on the wall or the trophies fill him with a feeling of increased superstition and he even describes the armorial trophies as “phantasmagoric” (463). The narrator is remarking on Usher’s strange behavior in the house. He later describes his own superstition late one night before going to bed, “I endeavored to believe that mush, if not all of what I felt, was due to the bewildering influence of the gloomy furniture of the room…”(470). He also describes feelings of alarm, which he has as causeless, perhaps indicating that the house may in fact be having some effect on him. Throughout the story, Poe gives life-like characteristics to inanimate objects giving the house a supernatural quality.
Fear is a basic element of human emotion that is caused by the expectation or realization of danger. The existence of fear is essential for establishing our beliefs, and the actions we take throughout our lives. The Fall of the House of Usher revolves around this realm of fear, and reveals the importance of facing and overcoming our fears. Poe suggests in the story that the denial of our fears can lead to madness and insanity. This message is especially clear as we follow the deterioration of Roderick Usher’s mind. Upon entering the house, the narrator discovered the true source of Roderick’s illness. “I feel that I must inevitably abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, Fear”(465). Roderick is overwhelmed by the fear he is experiencing and it affects every aspect of his life. It is the constant presence of fear that has caused his illness. Roderick does not know how, or is unwilling to try to overcome his fears.
Roderick and his sister is the last of the long line of Usher descendants. “Her decease would leave him the last of the ancient race of the Ushers”(465).
Roderick seems not only to fear death but also the uncertainty the future holds. “He is enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and from which for many years, he had never ventured forth”(465). The narrator is implying that he leaving the house and facing his fears may relieve Roderick’s mental condition. As a result of Roderick’s fear, however, he is restrained from leaving and does not make the attempt to defeat this enduring power that holds him captive. After Madeline is placed into the vault, Roderick’s fear increases and his insanity becomes more evident. “He roamed from chamber to chamber with hurried, unequal, and objectless step. The pallor of his countenance has assumed, if possible, a more ghastly hue”(469). The narrator closely studied Roderick and tried to understand his fears, while at the same time he was ignoring the inception of his own fears. Inevitably, the dramatic and intense fear was passed on to the narrator. The narrator does not recognize that his feeling are derived from the fear within him. When Madeline returns from her supposed death both the characters become paralyzed by fear. Roderick is ultimately destroyed by his biggest fear, fear itself. The narrator escaped form the house and its eventual collapse, but not necessarily the fear endured. This seems to suggest that fear is continuous and that no salvation exists. The recurring concept of fear in the story shows its power and impact on humanity. Poe shows that ultimately we must recognize our fears in order to overcome them. Although Roderick is very much alive, his appearance would indicate death and his behavior show signs of deteriorating sanity.
“The fissure in the house seen earlier by the narrator symbolizes Roderick’s deteriorating mental condition, as well”(Lopez, Steve, pg.3).
Upon the narrator’s entrance into the room, Roderick remarks on “the solace he expected to afford him”(Poe, 668). Perhaps Roderick knows of some evil to come and he occupies his time with reading, music and the company of his old friend so that he will not go crazy. This indicates that perhaps Roderick is aware of some supernatural element belonging to the house. The fact that the two remaining members of the House of Usher appear so deathly, may be a sign of the final end to the family. Later, upon putting Madeline’s supposedly dead body in a vault, the narrator notices the unusually healthy complexion of the deceased Madeline. He tries to rationalize what he sees by concluding that it must have been caused by her particular illness. The fact that the color in her face is mentioned may be a sign that perhaps she is not really dead and that she may reappear later in the story. The narrator remarks, “There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with on oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage”(Poe, 673). The narrator also comments on how Roderick seems to stare at nothing and appears to be “listening to some imaginary sound”(Poe, 673). Again, this may be another hint of some evil occurrence yet to happen. Roderick does in fact lose his sanity as well as his life when Madeline reappears before him and the narrator at the end of the story. In conclusion, Poe’s use of characterization and imagery to depict fear and darkness truly makes The Fall of the House of Usher a story of the battle with fear that we must face in order to free our mind.
Abel, Darrel. “A Key to The House of Usher.” Interpretations of American Literature. Ed. Charles Feidelson, Jr. and Paul Brodtkorb, Jr. New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.
Jacobs, Henry E. and Roberts, EdgarV. An Introduction to Reading and Writing. 5th Ed.: Simon&Schuster: New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1998: pgs. 461-473.
Lopez, Steve. Personal interpretation of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The American Tradition in Literature 8th Ed. George and Barbara Perkins. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1994: pgs. 1511-1523, 673-678.
Walker, I. M. “The Legitimate Sources of Terror in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe’s Tales. Ed. William L. Howarth. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971.
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