Essay: Symbolism in the Fall of the House

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Symbolism in "The Fall of the House of Usher"

One characteristic of Edgar Allan Poe's writing is his penchant for generating a psychological thriller in very few words. King of the gothic short story, Poe knew how to get into the minds of his readers and one of his tricks was working on his readers from the inside out. Poe understood fear and he knew that the best fear does not lurk outside but rather in the mind. With this in mind, Poe constructed psychological thrillers that chip away at sanity one spec at a time. Poe's characters are disturbed and sometimes downright unstable and it is with this framework he develops stories that frighten readers from the inside out. One story in which we see Poe's talent at work is "The Fall of the House of Usher," where decay takes place on a mental and physical level, heightening the suspense for which Poe is so well-known. In the story, the crumbling house symbolizes Roderick's decaying mind.

From the beginning of this tale, all things work from a psychological aspect. The narrator, when he sees the house, feels a "sense of insufferable gloom" (Poe 38) and "sorrowful impression" (38). The house sits "through a singularly dreary tract of country" (38) and when our narrator finally arrives at the front of the home, he feels an "utter depression of soul" and an "iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart -- an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime" (38). The inside of the house produces no better reaction. The windows are "long, narrow, and pointed, and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within" (39). The light that squeaks in is barely enough to light the chambers and, compounding the situation, dark draperies hang from them. The narrator notices the objects in the chamber fail to "give any vitality to the scene" (39). Poe paints a portrait of something sinister and fearsome with every word he uses to describe this house. Similarly, Roderick garners the same response from or narrator. He is wan and pallid with hair like gossamer. While one is living and the other dead, Poe constructs a likeness between these two characters that will remain for the rest of the tale. His friend strikes within him an incoherence and inconsistency, which he at first attributes to Roderick's nervous nature.

This nervous nature becomes the foundation for the psychological terror of this tale. The madness is a mystery at the beginning of the tale and this elevates the mystery we sense with the air of the house. Poe uses mood and atmosphere to heighten this mystery and prepare readers for tings more dreary and icy than what the narrator beholds. The additional element we have is the character of the house. Francesca Cangeri maintains there is a correlation between the house and its owner. The house is eerily human in that it has "vacant and eye-like windows" (Poe 38), which are mentioned twice. The house is covered with ivy and there is "tension between the progress of decay and the perfect arrangement of the single stones" (Cangeri 6). This image, Cangeri asserts, is reminiscent of Poe's theory of cosmology, which he describes a "continual struggle of all things between attraction and repulsion" (6). Dawn B. Sova asserts that while this story is gothic because it is dark, romantic, and supernatural, it "departs from the usual gothic fare in its emphasis upon retrospection rather than action and incident" (Sova 69). The focus of the story is not a crumbling building but the very mind of Roderick. This brings us to one of Poe's specialties, which is inciting psychological fear in readers. This fear includes stepping into Roderick's mind to experience the "onslaught of insanity" (69). The end of the story raises questions it can never answer, "because the characters who may possess vital knowledge perish" (69). The story ends in the same dreary way that it begins, since no questions are answered and readers are left to ponder the frailty of the human mind.

That frailty becomes an issue worth exploring, since our narrator appears to be sane -- at least at the beginning of the story. We must rely on him to relate facts and information and we do so with confidence. However, our ability to depend on the narrator for factual and logical responses is hampered through the narrator's gradual mental shift. This technique confirms the independent unconscious we see first in Roderick and then in the narrator. Something is going on with these two men and it is not something easily defined or escaped. Roderick may not have attempted to escape it but our narrator had the wherewithal to realize something ghastly was going on. It is the sane vs. The insane with this thrilling tale. Poe not only pits the two men against each other, he also allows us to see the two of them against the character of the house. Georges Zayed writes that the tale is the "most authentic expression of Poe's symbolism: it accentuates the mysteries of the unconscious life and the irrational progression of obsessions; it provokes terror and results in the insanity of the protagonist" (Zayed 85). Roderick's failing cerebral is analogous with his dilapidating home. Furthermore, the narrator's mental state is conected to Roderick's. The house has some unknown control over Roderick and as the story moves along, Roderick's madness reaches our narrator. We see a complete mental breakdown when the two bury Madeline. We read that afterward, the narrator feels the "full power of such feelings" (Poe 46). He cannot sleep and he fights to "reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me" (946). This is fascinating and thrilling from the standpoint that madness lives in and comes through the house. It is worth noting that the house causes the sounds and it does not help that Roderick and our narrator work together to achieve Madeline's burial. The story is perverse in this regard and this notion is reinforced when the narrator goes over the edge. The effect the house has on the narrator is significant because it demonstrates the power of the house and how it deserves attention as an independent character in the story.

The story finds its roots in Romanticism, which was "attracted to subjectivity and the unconscious, mystery and the imagination, the romantic sensibility tended to embrace the contradictions and complications of human nature" (Magistrale 261). Romantic stories can possess soothing characteristics and "elements of restless distortion and the macabre, a plaintive yearning for the sublime in spite of the suspicion that perhaps the quest for tranquility and beauty is forever beyond the human ability to grasp" (261). It is this aspect of the unconscious Poe attempts to reach with fear and terror. Daniel Hoffman contends Poe's tale is a "testament to the autonomy of the unconscious, by whose inexorable powers are revealed the deepest truths of the soul" (Hoffman 175). Interestingly, the story depends upon our narrator, who only just escapes madness. Our narrator comes dangerously close to crossing the line, a fear that many of us experience when something in our world does not seem quite right but we cannot put a finger on what that is. The mystery here lies in the connection between the house and Roderick and the fascinating thing is how our narrator senses it but finds it difficult to isolate. This is Poe's way; he aims to work confusion in with terror to create a memorable experience. All one needs for a thrilling tale to work is an active imagination and memorable characters.

Poe might have lived without many things but imagination was not one of them.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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