46 pages 1 hour read

Edgar Allan Poe

The Fall of the House of Usher

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1839

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Fall of the House of Usher”

American author Edgar Allan Poe wrote the Gothic short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” in 1839. It first appeared in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine published in 1839 and in Poe’s collection of short stories Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque in 1840. Poe is considered one of the founders of Gothic and Romantic literature in the United States. He is best known for his poetry and short stories, which treat themes of mystery, ill-fated love, madness, the macabre, and the supernatural. Poe invented the literary detective with his character C. Auguste Dupin, who appears in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Purloined Letter” (1845),” and “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (1845). “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a foundational Gothic text and helped to cement the Gothic aesthetic. This guide uses the Elegant Ebooks version of the text, which is freely available through the University of Pennsylvania library’s Online Books Page. This guide also maintains Poe’s use of the term “madness” to refer to physical and mental torment, the dark and delicate balance between reality and wild figments of the imagination.

An unnamed narrator tells the story in the first-person past tense, though he at times interjects comments in the present tense. This narrative switching gives the impression that he is looking back on the story’s events from an unspecified time in the future, a popular conceit in nineteenth-century literature.

The story begins with the narrator on his way to visit his old friend, Roderick Usher, who has sent a letter requesting the narrator’s company. Usher is suffering from a physical and psychological illness and hopes his friend’s presence will help him recover. The narrator has not seen Usher in years and is somewhat perplexed by the letter, nevertheless, he decides to honor his friend’s request.

It is a dark, depressing day as the narrator rides through the bleak countryside on horseback. He emphasizes the extreme feelings of gloom he experiences as he approaches the house: “I do not know how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit” (3). The gloom is not even poetic, he notes, and continues to describe in great detail both the physical properties of the area and the negative emotions they evoke in him.

When the narrator arrives, he notes the decrepit, evil atmosphere of the stately house and the nearby tarn, or small lake, that luridly reflects the house’s visage. The Usher family is old and aristocratic, but it has never flourished. Roderick is the last heir, a fact that makes the narrator’s ability to cure Usher even more urgent.

At the house, a servant takes the narrator’s horse, and a silent valet, or butler, escorts him through dark passages into a dreary hall. The ancient objects and decorations—armor, tapestries, carvings, paintings—make the narrator uneasy, and he begins to have strange trepidations. He passes Usher’s family physician, who does not speak to him, and the valet conveys the narrator to Usher’s studio.

Usher, who was lying on the sofa, rises and greets the narrator. The narrator feels pity when he sees how pale and ill Usher has become, describing him as “ghastly” (8). Usher’s behavior swings rapidly between ecstatic and melancholy. Usher is suffering from a nervous condition and is perpetually afraid that something terrible will happen. The narrator learns that Usher has lived in his small set of rooms for years, never venturing into the other wings of the house. Usher believes the decrepit state of the house is negatively affecting his mental and physical state.

Usher’s sister Madeline also suffers from a mysterious illness. a wasting disease that doctors have not been able to diagnose. While Usher is explaining this to the narrator, the narrator sees Madeline, who looks ghostly, walk silently through a far corner of the room. She does not seem to notice him. From Usher’s description of her advanced illness, the narrator guesses that this will be the last time he sees her alive.

The narrator spends the next few days trying to lift Usher’s spirits. They paint, listen to music, and read together, and the narrator listens to Usher play the guitar. The more time they spend together, the more the narrator realizes that he cannot help Usher. Usher paints and plays with frenzied inspiration, as if in a dream. The narrator recounts a poem titled “The Haunted Palace” that Usher recites. It has given Usher the idea that plants are sentient (15). The narrator dismisses the idea as pure fantasy, but Usher insists that the house’s poor condition and decaying environment are eroding his faculties.

One night, while Usher and the narrator are reading, Usher tells him that Madeline has died. The narrator is shocked when he hears that Usher plans to temporarily keep her body in one of the house’s vaults. Usher says that Madeline’s doctor suggested this, and the narrator believes it reasonable. They carry her coffin into a small, damp dungeon-like room in the basement. The narrator notes that the vault is directly below his sleeping quarters. After setting down the coffin, they unscrew the lid. Only then does the narrator notice how similar Madeline and Usher look. Usher tells him that they were twins and always shared an uncanny sensibility. They replace the coffin’s lid, and the narrator shudders at Madeline’s flushed face and slight smile, as if she could be alive.

About a week after Madeline’s death, Usher’s condition worsens. His behavior becomes even more erratic and distracted, and it begins to affect the narrator’s own mental state. One stormy night, the narrator cannot sleep and begins to have inexplicable feelings of terror. Usher comes to his room with a lamp and asks the narrator if he has seen “it” (20). Usher opens the draperies and reveals a strange luminous cloud hovering around the house.

The narrator quickly closes the window and tells Usher that it is merely an electrical phenomenon or gases expelled from the tarn. He tries to distract Usher by reading to him. The story describes a hero, Ethelred, who breaks down the door to an evil hermit’s dwelling after being denied entrance (21). Ethelred finds not a hermit, but a dragon, which he slays. During the reading, the narrator believes he hears strange noises coming from deep within the house. In the story, Ethelred moves the dragon’s corpse to obtain an enchanted shield. When the shield clangs to the ground in the story, the narrator hears a similar sound somewhere in the house. Usher exclaims when he hears the sound too, and soon Madeline bursts through the doors in a bloody nightgown. She writhes and throws herself upon Usher “in her now violent and final death-agonies,” killing him (25).

Horrified, the narrator flees and runs out into the storm. When he looks back at the house, a crack in its roof has widened to split the house open. A flash of light dazes him, and he hears a ghastly scream as the house crumbles into the black waters of the tarn.