The Fall of the House of Usher

The Fall of the House of Usher

Infobox Book |
name = The Fall of the House of Usher
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = 1894 illustration by Aubrey Beardsley.
author = Edgar Allan Poe
country = flagicon|USA United States
language = English
series =
genre = Horror
publication_type = Periodical
published_in =
publisher = "Burton's Gentleman's Magazine"
media_type = Print (Magazine)
pub_date = September 1839
english_pub_date =
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is a short story written by Edgar Allan Poe. The story was first published in "Burton's Gentleman's Magazine" in September 1839. It was slightly revised before being included in a collection of his fiction entitled "Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque" in 1840. It contains within it the poem "The Haunted Palace", which had earlier been published separately in the April 1839 issue of the "Baltimore Museum" magazine.

Plot summary

The tale opens with the unnamed narrator arriving at the house of his friend, Roderick Usher, having received a letter from him in a distant part of the country complaining of an illness and asking for his comfort. Although Poe wrote this short story before the invention of modern psychological science, Usher's symptoms can be described according to its terminology. They include hyperesthesia (extreme hypersensitivity to light, sounds, smells, and tastes), hypochondria, and acute anxiety. It is revealed that Usher's twin sister, Madeline, is also ill, suffering from catalepsy. The narrator is impressed with Usher's paintings, and attempts to cheer him by reading with him and listening to his improvised musical compositions on the guitar. Usher sings "The Haunted Palace", then tells the narrator that he believes the house he lives in to be sentient, and that this sentience arises from the arrangement of the masonry and vegetation surrounding it. Usher later informs the narrator that his sister has died and insists that she be entombed for two weeks in a vault in the house before being permanently buried. They inter her, but over the next week both Usher and the narrator find themselves becoming increasingly agitated for no apparent reason. A storm begins. Usher comes to the narrator's bedroom, which is situated directly above the vault, and throws open his window to the storm. He notices that the bog surrounding the house seems to glow in the dark, as it glowed in Roderick Usher's paintings, although there is no lightning.

The narrator attempts to calm Usher by reading aloud "The Mad Trist", a novel involving a knight named Ethelred who breaks into a hermit's dwelling in an attempt to escape an approaching storm, only to find a palace of gold guarded by a dragon. He also finds hanging on the wall a shield of shining brass of which is written a
mace, Ethelred fells the dragon, who dies with a piercing shriek, and proceeds to take the shield, which falls to the floor with an unnerving clatter.

As the narrator reads of the knight's forcible entry into the dwelling, cracking and ripping sounds are heard somewhere in the house. When the dragon is described as shrieking as it dies, a shriek is heard, again within the house. As he relates the shield falling from off the wall, a reverberation, metallic and hollow, can be heard. Usher becomes increasingly hysterical, and eventually exclaims that these sounds are being made by his sister, who was in fact alive when she was entombed and that Usher knew that she was alive. The bedroom door is then blown open to reveal Madeline standing there. She falls violently in death upon her brother, who dies of his own terror. The narrator then flees the house, and, as he does so, notices a flash of light causing him to look back upon the House of Usher, in time to watch it break in two, the fragments sinking into the tarn.


"The Fall of the House of Usher" is considered the best example of Poe's "totality", where every element and detail is related and relevant. [Beebe, Maurice. "The Universe of Roderick Usher" as collected in "Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays", Robert Regan, ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1967. p. 123]

The theme of the crumbling, haunted castle is a key feature of Horace Walpole's "Castle of Otranto", a late 18th Century novel which largely contributed in defining the Gothic genre. But Poe's version of Gothic literature is a biased one because it is fundamentally hyperbolic -- horror is here so intense that it verges on the grotesque. Romanticism is represented in the same way, for the character of Usher brings the stereotype of the Romantic poet to its extreme. Usher closely resembles the bedazzled, melancholy genius who is haunted by death and madness. However, he inspires awe as well as repulsion, owing to his corpse-like appearance. He is even, to a certain extent, a comic character. Indeed, he is both a sublime musician and writer as well as a hopeless drug addict. He is seemingly in love with his own sister, whom he irresponsibly buries even though he knows she is cataleptic.or|date=September 2007

"The Fall of the House of Usher" shows Poe's ability to create an emotional tone in his work, specifically feelings of fear, doom, and guilt. [Meyers, Jeffrey. "Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy". New York City: Cooper Square Press, 1992. ISBN 0815410287 p. 111] These emotions center on Roderick Usher who, like many Poe characters, suffers from an unnamed disease. Like the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart", his disease causes his hyperactive senses. The illness manifests physically but is based in Roderick's mental or even moral state. He is sick, it is suggested, because he "expects" to be sick based on his family's history of illness and is, therefore, essentially a hypochondriac. [Butler, David. "Usher's Hypochondriasis: Mental Alienation and Romantic Idealism in Poe's Gothic Tales" as collected in "On Poe: The Best from "American Literature". Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993. ISBN 0822313111 p. 189-90] Similarly, he buries his sister alive because he "expects" to bury her alive, creating his own self-fulfilling prophecy.

The House of Usher, itself doubly referring both to the actual structure and the family, plays a significant role in the story. It is the first "character" that the narrator introduces to the reader, presented with a humanized description: its windows are described as "eye-like" twice in the first paragraph. The fissure that develops in its side is symbolic of the decay of the Usher family and the house "dies" along with the two Usher siblings. This connection was emphasized in Roderick's poem "The Haunted Palace" which seems to be a direct reference to the house that foreshadows doom. [Meyers, Jeffrey. "Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy". New York City: Cooper Square Press, 1992. ISBN 0815410287 p. 111]

L. Sprague de Camp, in his "Lovecraft: A Biography" [p.246f] , wrote that " [a] ccording to the late [Poe expert] Thomas O. Mabbott, [H. P.] Lovecraft, in 'Supernatural Horror,' solved a problem in the interpretation of Poe" by arguing that "Roderick Usher, his sister Madeline, and the house all shared one common soul". The explicit psychological dimension of this tale has prompted many critics to analyze it as a description of the human psyche, comparing, for instance, the House to the unconscious, and its central crack to the personality split which is called Dissociative identity disorder. Mental disorder is also evoked through the themes of melancholy, possible incest and vampirism. An incestuous relationship between Roderick and Madeline is not explicitly stated, but seems implied by the strange attachment between the two. [Hoffman, Daniel. "Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe". Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972. ISBN 0807123218 p. 297]

Major themes

*The doppelgänger theme, prominent in such works of Poe as "William Wilson", appears as well in "The Fall of the House of Usher". The reflection of the house in the tarn is described in the opening paragraph, and "a striking similitude between the brother and sister" is mentioned when Madeline "dies".
*Poe uses the theme of the death and resurrection of a woman here as well as in "Ligeia" and "Morella."
*The theme of mental illness is explored in this work, as it is in numerous other tales such as "Berenice".
*Interment while alive is also explored in "The Premature Burial" and "The Cask of Amontillado".
*There are also various Gothic elements, such as the decrepit castle and tarn, whose signs of decay reflect the mental condition of Usher, which is rapidly deteriorating.

Allusions and references

*The opening epigraph quotes "Le Refus" (1831) by the French songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger (1780-1857), translated to English as "his heart is a suspended lute, as soon as it is touched, it resounds". Béranger's original text reads "Mon cœur" (my heart) and not "Son cœur" (his/her heart).

*The narrator describes Usher's musical compositions as reminding him of "the wild air of the last waltz of Von Weber". Poe here refers to a popular piano work of his time -- which, though going by the title "Weber's Last Waltz" was actually composed by Carl Gottlieb Reissiger (1798–1859). [ [ E. A. Poe Society of Baltimore - A Few Minor Poe Topics ] ] A copy of the music by Reissiger was found among Weber's papers upon his death in 1826 and it was mistakenly attributed to Weber.

*Usher's painting reminds the narrator of the Swiss-born British painter Henry Fuseli (1741-1825).

Roderick Usher's library

All of the books mentioned in the story are real works except for "The Mad Trist". No book like the "Vigiliae Mortuorum secundum chorum Ecclesiae Maguntinae" exists exactly as Poe described it, though there is a real (and very rare) book by that title, which means "The Office of the Dead as sung by the choir of the Church of Mainz". Aside from these, the books are:
*Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset (1709-1777): "Vert-Vert" (1734), "La Chartreuse"
*Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527): "Novella di Belfagor Arcidiavolo" (1545)
*Emanuel Swedenborg né Swedberg (1688-1772): "De Coelo et Ejus Mirabilibus, et de Inferno, et Auditis et Visis" (1758)
*Ludvig Holberg (1684-1754): "Niels Klims underjordiske Rejse" (1741)
*Robert Fludd/Robertus de Fluctibus (1574-1637):
**"Utriusque Macrocosmi at Microcosmi Historia" (published between 1617 and 1619)
**"Integrum Morborum Mysterium: Medicinae Catholicae" (1631)
*Joannes Indagine (1467-1537): "Die Kunst der Chiromantzey" (c.1523)
*Marinus Cureau de la Chambre (1594-1669): "Discours sur les Principes de la Chiromancie" (1653)
*Johann Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853): "Das alte Buch und die Reise ins Blaue hinein. Eine Mährchen-Novelle" (1835)
*Tommaso Campanella né Giovanni Domenico Campanella (1568-1639): "Civitas Solis" (1623)
*Nicolau Aymerich (c.1320-1399): "Directorium Inquisitorum" (1376)
*Pomponius Mela: "De situ orbis" (c.43 CE)

*Fludd wrote two works which had sections on chiromancy (palmistry). Both are given above. The relevant sections are entitled, respectively, "De Scientia Animae Naturalis cum vitali seu astrologia chiromantica" and "De Signis sine praesagis chiromanticis".

*Campanella originally wrote "City of the Sun" in Italian in 1602 as "La città del Sole" before rewriting it in Latin between 1613 and 1623, and its subsequent publication in Latin as "Civitas Solis" in Frankfurt in 1623.

*De la Chambre later published "Discours sur les Principes de la Chiromancie" as part of "L'Art de Connaitre Les Hommes" in 1662.

Literary significance and criticism

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is considered Poe's most famous work. [Kennedy, J. Gerald. "Introduction: Poe in Our Time" collected in "A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe". Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0195121503 p. 9] This highly unsettling macabre work is considered as the masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon Gothic literature. Indeed, as in many of his tales, Poe borrows much from the Gothic tradition. Still, as G. R. Thomson writes in his Introduction to "Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe" [p 36] , "the tale has long been hailed as a masterpiece of Gothic horror; it is also a masterpiece of dramatic irony and structural symbolism."

In fact, "The Fall of the House of Usher" has been criticized for being too formulaic. Poe was criticized for following his own patterns established in works like "Morella" and "Ligeia" using stock characters in stock scenes and stock situations. Repetitive themes like an unidentifiable disease, madness, and resurrection are also criticized. [Krutch, Joseph Wood. "Edgar Allan Poe: A Study in Genius". New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926. p. 77]

Poe's inspiration for the story may be based upon events of the Usher House, located on Boston's Lewis Wharf. As that story goes, a sailor and the young wife of the older owner were caught and entombed in their trysting spot by her husband. When the Usher House was torn down in 1800, two bodies were found embraced in a cavity in the cellar. [A.I.A. Guide to Boston. Susan and Michael Southworth p. 59]

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

In the low-budget Roger Corman film from 1960, known in the United States as "House of Usher", the narrator falls in love with the sickly Madeline, much to Roderick's horror. As Roderick reveals, the Usher family has a history of evil and cruelty so great that he and Madeline pledged in their youth never to have children and to allow their family to die with them. When Madeline falls into a deathlike slumber, her brother rushes to have her placed in the family crypt. When she wakes up, Madeline goes insane from being buried alive and breaks free through insanity-induced strength. She confronts her brother only to fall dead at his feet. Suddenly the house begins to collapse and the narrator flees as Roderick is killed by the falling house. The film was Corman's first in a series of eight films inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

In the 2008 David DeCoteau film, it is implied that the house is a living being, dependent on the human souls that Roderick and Madeline provide it with. A female narrator is a friend of the brother and sisters. Incest and vampirism are strong themes. The female narrator ends up being pregnant by Victor with twins that appear locked in the same embrace that their father and aunt were in at the time of their death. The central character is called Victor Reynolds, a reference to the name allegedly called out by Poe the night before his death.

Czech surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer made a movie based on this story.

List of films

* "La Chute de la maison Usher" (France, 1928) by Jean Epstein
* "The Fall of the House of Usher" (US, 1928) by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber
* "The Fall of the House of Usher" (UK, 1949) directed by Ivan Barnett
* "House of Usher" (a.k.a. "Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Mysterious House of Usher") (1960) by Roger Corman with Vincent Price
* "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1966) (TV)
* '"Zánik domu Usheru" ("The Fall of the House of Usher") (1980) (animated version by Jan Švankmajer)
* "Histoires extraordinaires: La chute de la maison Usher" (1981) (TV) with Mathieu Carrière
* "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1982) (TV) with Martin Landau and Ray Walston
* "El hundimiento de la Casa de Usher'" (1983) by Jesus Franco with Howard Vernon
* "The House of Usher" (1988) with Oliver Reed
* "The House of Usher" (2006)
* "House of Usher" (2008) by David DeCoteau


In the early years of the 20th century, Claude Debussy wrote about 30 minutes of an opera called "The Fall of the House of Usher". The libretto was his own, based on Poe, and the work was to be a companion piece to another short opera based on Poe's "The Devil in the Belfry". At Debussy's death the work was unfinished, however. In recent years completions have been attempted by two different musicologists.

The Alan Parsons Project's first release (1976's "Tales of Mystery and Imagination") features a long instrumental named after this story. The track has five parts: "Prelude", "Arrival", "Intermezzo", "Pavane", and "Fall" and its style showcases 20th century classical music and progressive rock. The music incorporates fragments of Debussy's unfinished opera.

Peter Hammill composed and recorded an opera based on the story in 1991. In this work, the house itself becomes a vocal part, to be sung by the same performer who sings the role of Roderick Usher. The libretto by Chris Judge Smith incorporates material from other writings by Poe, and also adopts the subplot of a romantic attraction between Madeline Usher and the narrator, who is given the name Montresor. This recording still had drums in it though and thus was not a real opera. Hammill realized that and released a totally overhauled version in 1999, without drums but with an added violin and layers of electric guitar that created an orchestral sound. He also resang all of his own vocals. This second version of the opera is the real McCoy; it truly deserves the name "opera".

Another operatic version was composed by Philip Glass, with a libretto by Arthur Yorinks.

Nikita Koshkin composed a piece for the classical guitar entitled "Usher Waltz" inspired by the story.

Other adaptations

Pulp writer and filmmaker Edward D. Wood published a short story titled "The Fall of the Balcony of Usher".

The actor and director Steven Berkoff wrote a play based on the story.

Allusions in other works

Toward the end of Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks" (1901), the best friend of Hanno, the last male member of the doomed Buddenbrook family, exclaims that "This Roderich [sic] Usher is the most wonderful character ever invented. . . . If only I could ever write such a good story!"

*Ray Bradbury's story "Usher II", which appeared in "The Martian Chronicles", refers heavily to Poe's story.

*Brian Stableford's 1988 science fiction story, "The Growth of the House of Usher" expands on Poe's idea of the house being sentient. It features a dying architect who invites a friend to his house, which is entirely a product of biotechnology with Poe-related features (for instance, its basement produces cloned "Madelines" whose life-cycle is to climb to higher levels of the house then die).

*In "Lisa the Simpson", a ninth season episode of "The Simpsons", the Simpsons watch a fictitious TV special entitled "When Buildings Collapse." One of the buildings to fall is called The House of Usher.

*Dodie Smith's novel "I Capture the Castle", Neil compares the Mortmains' castle to the Usher house.

*The punk/post-hardcore band Finch released a song from their second full length CD, "Say Hello to Sunshine", called "The Casket of Roderick Usher".

*The folk rock band Lindisfarne had a number 3 UK hit single in 1972 with the Alan Hull song "Lady Eleanor", with lyrics alluding to this and other Poe stories which had been the subject of film productions by Roger Corman starring Vincent Price in the 1960s.

*The premise of horror computer game Clive Barker's Undying is distinctly comparable to Poe's story, and also developing in the sister of the protagonist character's ill friend having perished under a wasting disease, and (as well as his other dead siblings), returning to life from the grave.

*Geggy Tah has a song entitled "House Of Usher" on their second CD which makes reference to Madeline's being buried alive.

*In Jasper Fforde's novel "The Fourth Bear", the maiden name of the main character Jack Spratt's wife Madeleine is revealed to be Usher. This revelation occurs in a chapter in which she wonders whether she might be a fictional character.

*"House of Usher" was a 1984 computer game for the Commodore 64. The horror themes indicate it was inspired by Poe's story.

*In the 1962 World War II adventure film "The War Lover" starring Steve McQueen, a bomber plane is named "The House of Usher." Later in the film, the plane returns to base, severely damaged, and crash lands, the crew member killed. This film was released two years after the 1960 release of "The House of Usher" starring Vincent Price.

*German heavy metal band, Stormwitch released a song called "The House Of Usher" on their 2002 album "Dance With The Witches" telling the story in the lyrics. The band have also released a song on a much earlier album titled "Masque of the Red Death", another Edgar Allan Poe story.

*In the Steven King novel Duma Key the main character Edgar Freemantle compares his newly bought house on the Gulf of Mexico with The House of Usher.

*The french metal band Forbidden Site wrote a song called "The Fall of Usher", of which the text clearly refers to Poe's novel.


External links

* [ "The Fall of the House of Usher" - Full text from Works, 1850]
* [ "The Fall of the House of Usher" Study Guide]
* [ Summary, analysis, background and quiz on] "The Fall of the House of Usher"
* [ "The Fall of the House of Usher"] —eText at
* [ Full text on] with hyperlinked vocabulary words.
* (audiobook)
* [ "The Fall of the House of Usher"] at American Literature
* [ "The Poe Decoder - 'The Fall of the House of Usher'"] An analysis on "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Martha Womack

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