“The Fall of the House of Usher” is acknowledged as one of the best short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. In this brief essay, we will explore a few of its symbols. As many authors before have established (see Wasserman, 1977) there is something weird in the relationship between the siblings Roderick and Madeline.
Usher’s room as a reflection of his mind
A symbol any close reader may recall is the room in which Roderick Usher lingers and plays his guitar. It can be conceived as a metaphor of his own twisted and dark psyche. Both the room and the protagonist’s personality could be described as dark: as Roderick spends years isolated from the world, not even the windows in the room are suited for providing some light from the outside. He is an artist, but that does not bring any light or hope upon his character. At the same time, the musical instruments “lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow.”
The remote arches of Roderick chamber remain unreachable for the narrator, his only personal friend. This can be interpreted as a symbol of Roderick Usher’s deepest secret, that is only insinuated and suspected –again, both by the narrator as well as the reader. Many critics believe Poe is alluding to an incestuous relationship between Usher and Madeline.
The dreadful bond between the siblings
Madeline has been Usher’s “sole companion for long years”. Is the fact that brother and sister have been living isolated from the world enough for labelling their relationship as incestuous? Probably it is not. However, in the story, there are other hints that certainly point in that direction. The narrator has just a glimpse of her ghostly figure; Usher no longer mentions her name for several days, after crying passionate tears after seeing her wonder around his door. The readers know she suffers from an illness, but so does Usher, and yet his symptoms are described in detail. The whole figure of Madeline is surrounded by mystery.
After Madeline is supposed to die, her corpse is kept in a vault, but not in just any vault, but a former donjon. Is Usher trying to punish her sister / lover for abandoning him? Is he trying to get rid of her though he knows she might still be alive? The one thing we know for certain is that he is hiding her in the dark, constraining her, as psychoanalysts would explain we do in our minds with our darkest secrets. The narrator only finds out that the Ushers were twins after he takes a look at her mortuary expression, and at the same time he comes very close to the true nature of their relationship: “Usher, divining, perhaps, my thoughts, murmured out some few words from which I learned that the deceased and himself had been twins, and that sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them” (my emphasis)
After the burial, Usher just becomes worse in nature, and again, the narrator suspects he has something to hide: “There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was labouring with some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage.” Usher lacks such courage –or, we may wonder, does Poe avoid revealing the real dreadful bond all together?
The end of the story has been anticipated: brother and sister die together in one final embrace, and the house, another obvious use of symbolism for representing their lineage, is destroyed by terrible forces of nature –the whirlwind.
We have explored Usher and Madeline’s relationship, together with other strong symbols that provide enrichment to this tragic work by Edgar Allan Poe. For our purposes, we will not refer to the biography of the author, even when certain aspects of his life could be useful for further understanding some of the main motifs, such as the incest theme.
Wasserman, R. R. (n.d.). Text: Renata R. Mautner Wasserman, "The Self, the Mirror, the Other: 'The Fall of the House of Usher'," Poe Studies, December 1977, Vol. X, No. 2, 10:33-35. Retrieved from https://www.eapoe.org/pstudies/ps1970/p1977201.htm