Preferred Citation: Chandler, Marilyn R. Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

2— "The Fall of the House of Usher": And Who Can Tell the Teller from the Tale?

"The Fall of the House of Usher":
And Who Can Tell the Teller from the Tale?

Roderick Usher's "mansion of gloom" is one of the most memorable of Poe's dark, many-chambered Gothic mansions and one of the most richly symbolic houses in American fiction. This story, like a number of his others, explores the ambiguous interrelations of body and soul, material and spiritual reality, and the interpenetration of good and evil with a lurid fascination far exceeding even the voracity of Thoreau's audacious philosophical speculations.[1] The idea of the house as "psychological space" reaches an epitome in Poe, whose complex use of houses as animated spaces provided a model for many literary descendants. Poe's interest in houses was not, however, purely as vehicles of literary signification. In them he explored the ideas of home, comfort, and interiority as elements of psychic life, thematic issues for him perhaps particularly because, growing up in an adoptive household and being sent off to boarding schools on both sides of the Atlantic, he spent much of his childhood in places that were not, in the deepest sense, home. Like Irving, James, and other American writers with a strong European orientation, Poe played out his ambivalences about personal and national identity by developing a fascination with the predicament of dividedness itself and with the permeability of those boundaries that maintain the separateness of fundamental categories. In houses, particularly old houses with family histories, he found an ideal emblem for these concerns.

In 1840 he wrote a curiously impassioned article for Burton's Gentleman's Magazine that contemptuously diagnosed the epidemic of tastelessness in American interior decoration and that went on to prescribe the elements of a tastefully and comfort-


ably decorated sitting room with all the vehemence and doctrinaire adamance of a preacher exhorting his congregation to repentance. Among the catalogue of aesthetic sins Poe regarded as peculiarly American was the indiscriminate and imitative display of wealth. He contrasted such shallow ostentation with coherent and tasteful decor that bespeaks "legitimate taste" deriving from "true nobility of blood," which "rather avoids than affects that mere costliness" that breeds petty rivalry and material envy."[2] He criticized Americans' "inartistic" arrangements of furniture in which "straight lines are too prevalent—too uninterruptedly continued—or clumsily interrupted at right angles. If curved lines occur, they are repeated into unpleasant uniformity. . . . By undue precision, the appearance of many a fine apartment is spoiled" (159). This catalog of decorative offenses continues with a critique of carpets—objects he claims should be "the soul of the apartment"—that feature "the abomination of flowers, or representations of well-known objects of any kind." Carpets, Poe claims, should have "distinct grounds, and vivid circular or cycloid figures, of no meaning ," and should be "rigidly Arabesque" (159). And, finally, lighting should avoid the cardinal sin of "glare" and "glitter," to which he claims Americans are addicted, as they are to the mirrors and windows that increase those effects. "Flickering, unquiet lights, are sometimes pleasing—to children and idiots always so—but in the embellishment of a room they should be scrupulously avoided" (210). All these obscenities he summarily regards as evils "growing out of our republican institutions," by virtue of which "a man of large purse has usually a very little soul which he keeps in it." Poe adds, "The corruption of taste is a portion or a pendant of the dollar-manufacture" (210).

It is not surprising in light of this diagnosis that Poe chose to situate his stories in Gothic castles of indeterminate medieval origin rather than in the prosaic and literal spaces of American "apartments," where money had driven out mystery and a "soulless" environment was the result. His was the romantic project par excellence of retrieving and reclaiming the mysteries of the nether side of human nature by a retreat into the shadowy regions of myth and history and by the re-creation of environments that allowed, evoked, and even generated a


dreamlike state of consciousness where darkness, shadows, and rich variations of sensual stimuli disturbed the mind into speculation. Such an environment, conversely, would seem to prohibit the rational discourse or transaction of ordinary business that Poe regarded as the pitifully limited vernacular of republican life.

By contrast with the typically "well-furnished" American apartment he finds so odious, he concludes his sermon on taste with a description of a comfortably furnished room, detailed down to the smallest matters of fabric, picture frames, and wood grain. In this room there are no "brilliant effects"; rather, "repose speaks in all." The landscapes in the pictures have an "imaginative cast," the lighting is low, the tone of the pictures is "warm but dark," and the windows and lampshade are "crimson-tinted," throwing a "tranquil but magical radiance over all" (210). Such an environment would allow, and indeed foster, a retreat to the interior chambers of the mind, with little intrusion of ordinary daylight to chase away the shadows of dreams.

This compulsive insistence on the requirements for interior repose reiterates the many characteristics of the interior spaces depicted in equally vivid detail in Poe's tales. Houses in many of his stories are depicted as places of "living entombment"—labyrinthine, claustrophobic places filled with darkness, shadows, filtered and colored light, and permeable boundaries The insistence and even urgency of the narrator's voice both in the stories and in the article on decoration suggest a disturbing unsettledness about the issue of comfort: light, mirrors, and large pictures of recognizable plants and animals seem almost intolerable; they intrude on and violate the consciousness that requires darkness in order to be at peace. Poe's stories are replete with characters who respond in the same exaggerated way to the sensory environment of interior spaces where objects, sounds, and textures threaten to overwhelm the senses and who recoil from sudden lights, reflections in mirrors, or movements of objects in the wind. Mirrors, in particular, recur as a consistent motif, betokening a blurring or slippage of boundaries between two worlds—boundaries that need to remain intact to preserve sanity.


The house of Usher has just such a disturbingly seductive interior, conducive to speculation but not investigation, full of dark corners, hidden places, mirrors and windows that suddenly cast their filtered and reflected light on faces and objects and endow them with frightening reality. The house mirrors its inhabitant, Roderick Usher, who is doubled also in his twin sister and again in the narrator, who describes himself as in certain respects a twin Roderick. Doubling effects multiply throughout the story until everything becomes an analog or image of everything else—boundaries of identity break down not only among characters but among the house, the body, nature, and the text, all of which manifest similarities of structure and behavior that bind them into claustrophobically close metaphorical relationship. The reader, having entered the text, is eventually drawn into a dark and curious labyrinth, just as the narrator is, and so becomes yet another link in this chain of doubles.

Ambiguity, one of the most pervasive devices by which this confusion of identity is accomplished, begins in the title, where both "fall" and "house" have at least one figurative meaning and a literal meaning between which the narrative oscillates until categorical distinctions between the literal and the figurative, the temporal and the spatial, begin to collapse. Throughout the story, the narrator's uncertain and ambiguous rhetoric emphasizes this blurring of boundaries. The house is situated in indefinite time and space and so could be anywhere "long ago and far away." This effect of mythic or dream time, a common Gothic device, serves Poe's epistemological purposes nicely. These purposes are, in part, to baffle the reader into questioning rational categories of experience and to blur the boundary between language and the phenomenal world, thereby forcing the reader to enter a no-man's-land where the distinction between them is uncertain. Poe seeks in effect to evoke a transcendentalist frame of mind in which the world is understood as text, subject to the devices of textual analysis, so that distinctions among moral, linguistic, aesthetic, and empirical categories tend toward the same kind of metaphorical collapse discussed previously.

The first mention of the house animates and personifies it as "the melancholy House of Usher" and later as "this mansion of


gloom" (244, 246). The pathetic fallacy here confuses the subject-object relation. Again and again the narrator attributes human characteristics to the house that must, logically, be projections of his own state of mind and yet seem to him, and by extension to us, actually to inhere in the building itself. These attributions evoke whatever deep reserves of primitive animism lie in us to be reawakened, which results in confusion of the animate with the inanimate. When the narrator claims his own feelings rather than projecting them, he describes them as effects produced by some ineffable activity on the part of the inanimate world; for instance, in his further reflection on approaching the house, he remarks, "I know not how it was—but with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit" (244). The house is apparently "emanating" something subtle that the narrator, sensitive soul that he is, receives. "I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house . . . the vacant eye-like windows . . . with an utter depression of soul" (245), he recalls, at first trying to calm his nerves by reducing the house to a "mere" neutral object and then giving way to his animistic fears before the eyelike windows, which give him an inescapable feeling of being observed. Here again there is a confusion between subject and object, viewer and viewed. Which direction energy and influence are flowing remains an unresolved question.

Another doubling occurs when the narrator looks into the tarn at the foot of the mansion and sees the house's image replicated. This simple image of the relation between dream and reality or between the world of the senses and the world of the imagination harks back to the myth of Narcissus. By means of this device the writer issues a warning and at the same time a tantalizing conundrum: that it is dangerous to take the image for the thing itself but that there are states of mind, and states of nature, in which the two are indistinguishable.

Before entering the house, the narrator pauses, "shaking off from [his] spirit what must have been a dream," to provide a detailed description of the "real aspect" of the building, a phrase intended to establish a renewed clarity about the boundaries between self and object, mood and nature (247–248). Yet as the description proceeds, these boundaries begin to blur again, and


the language of the narrator is suffused with personifying metaphors that make it clear how fragile these distinctions are once the reiterative character of the phenomenal world is fully recognized. The "principal feature" of the house, he recalls, seemed to be its "excessive antiquity":

The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves. Yet all this was apart from any extraordinary dilapidation. No portion of the masonry had fallen; and there appeared to be a wild inconsistency between its still perfect adaptation of parts, and the crumbling condition of the individual stones. In this there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old wood-work which has rotted for long years in some neglected vault, with no disturbance from the breath of external air. Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability. Perhaps the eye of a scrutinising observer might have discovered a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn. (248)

The perspective of the narrator as he takes in the "real" aspect of the house is jarringly surreal: while he stands at a suffiicient distance to take in the whole discolored facade and estimate its "excessive" antiquity, he also notes "minute fungi" hanging in "fine tangled web-work" from the eaves—something it would have been impossible to see in such detail from the presumed distance. The same odd perspectival disjuncture occurs when he speculates that "the eye of a scrutinizing observer" might "perhaps" find a "barely perceptible fissure" along the front of the building, leaving it to the reader to decide whether he is in fact claiming to have seen such a thing and, if so, how such a claim is possible from his vantage point. These quick shifts of perspective, ambiguously presented, can serve either to reinforce the impression that the narrator is extraordinarily observant and sensitive, and, moreover, possessed of almost preternatural visual powers, or to undermine his credibility when added to previous proofs of his overactive and projective imagination. We might even regard them as the visual equivalent of Poe's reputed aural schizophrenia—an affliction


that distorts the hearer's ability to locate the direction and distance of sound.

A further difficulty is presented by the narrator's observations about the "wild inconsistency" between the whole and the sum of the parts, adding up to what he calls a "specious totality" and introducing the old conundrum of how the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. Somehow the "houseness" of the house manages to transcend the actual condition of the disintegrating wood and stone of which it is made. Comparing the house to woodwork in a neglected vault that no "breath of external air" can reach suggests by association that this environment, too, is somehow mysteriously hermetically sealed. By the end of the description we have again to question what degree of credibility to assign the narrator's perceptions: How many of the characteristics he attributes to the old house belong to the house before him? How much of what he is seeing is a dream image projected onto an old but unextraordinary edifice?

By the time the narrator reaches the house, the identification of his person with the house before him has been thoroughly established. As he enters it the equation of physical with psychic space becomes increasingly explicit. The butler leads the narrator down "many dark and intricate passages" on his way to Usher's studio, passing antique furnishings that he first describes as "ordinary," though they soon strike him as "phantasmagoric"—a term that grammatically refers to the furnishings but also logically describes the mental state of the narrator. Once in Usher's studio, the similarity between house and psyche broadens to include physical features that are replicated in Usher's anatomy, thus doubling the doubling effect already produced by the metaphorical relation between house and narrator. Roderick's studio is

very large and lofty. The windows were long, narrow, and pointed and at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within. Feeble gleams of encrimsoned light made their way through the trellised panes, and served to render sufficiently distinct the more prominent objects around; the eye, however, struggled in vain to reach the remoter angles of the


chamber, or the recesses of the vaulted and fretted ceiling. Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and musical instruments lay scattered about, but failed to give any vitality to the scene. (249)

Much in this description suggests that we are viewing the inside of a head, a reading already suggested by the "vacant eye-like windows" in the narrator's description of the outside of the house. If these windows are eyes, however, they allow the inhabitants to look out only on the atmosphere because they are too high to allow a view of the landscape; in fact, their "gleams of encrimsoned light" and "trellised panes" add an almost comic effect of veins infusing bleary and bloodshot eyes staring vacantly into space. When the words the eye appear immediately following this bizarre description, the effect resonates like sound in a hollow chamber: Whose eye? Have we not just been talking about eyes? We locate the eye, as we must, as the narrator's own, but only after a slight confusion of point of view.

The chamber itself seems to have indefinite dimensions and few distinct boundaries other than the "vaulted and fretted ceiling." Within the room are all the accoutrements of an abundant intellectual and aesthetic life, but again we encounter a puzzling disjuncture between parts and whole. The whole lacks the "vitality" suggested by the presence of all these evidences of life. As the narrator goes on to describe Roderick's own cadaverous aspect, the analogy between his person and his habitation is made even more explicit.

With the introduction of Roderick Usher, a third line is added to the fugue of ambiguities. Just as the house reflects the narrator's emotional state, it also reflects Roderick's physical state to such a degree that the building and the man seem united in a general excess of contagion and disease that has spread beyond Usher's wracked body to walls and windows; the building seems simply an outer shell, an extension of the person. The narrator remarks, innocently enough, on "the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people" (247), an observation that might betoken nothing more than mild curiosity but for the word accred-


ited , which reintroduces the troubling question of whether the house is a function of the inhabitants or the inhabitants a function of the house. Moreover, the contagion seems to have spread beyond the house to the surrounding countryside: the narrator "fancies" that "about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity . . . a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued" (247)—words that precisely describe both house and inhabitant.

A brief digression into family history serves to complicate the question of identity further. The narrator pauses over the term the house of Usher , "an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion." The house of Usher has, he informs us, "put forth at no period, any enduring branch; in other words . . . the entire family lay in the direct line of descent" (246). Like Hawthorne, Poe is fascinated with the notion of linear descent, genetic inheritance, and the ways in which genetic questions disturb the belief in individual uniqueness, free will, and originality so dear to the American romantic imagination.3 Nothing here is itself alone; nothing is entirely self-defined or self-determining: Roderick begins to seem simply one more tarnished reiteration of an old type and, like the house, to have outlived that type's original purpose and character. Like the house, he is a withering anachronism, flawed by unbuttressed weaknesses, crumbling from within. Both Poe and Hawthorne were fascinated by the effects of inbreeding, the dangerous insularity of those notions of family so long dominant in European culture, and both suggest that the antidote to the hereditary weaknesses exacerbated by inbreeding might be precisely the cultural pluralism that adds "new blood" to old veins. The geometric equivalent of such reasoning is that a vertical must be balanced by a horizontal; a structure that is very tall or long must have proportionate width to give it strength and stability.

From Roderick's person we shift focus once again to Roderick's paintings and find ourselves in another chamber in this hall of mirrors. Claiming that "if ever mortal painted an idea," Roderick had done so, the narrator comments, "For me at least—in the circumstances then surrounding me—there arose


out of the pure abstractions which the hypochondriac contrived to throw upon his canvas, an intensity of intolerable awe" (254). The label hypochondriac forces a reassessment of Roderick's sickly condition, which the narrator previously described as cadaverous, because the label suggests that Roderick's sickliness is an illusion. And if so, whose illusion? What is also asserted here is Roderick's power of projection (rivaled, we might observe, by the narrator's own), which seems able to duplicate on canvas an emotional state that is then recreated and possibly even magnified in the beholder. This entanglement of attribution creates in the reader a dizzying confusion as to the locus of the "special effects" being produced. Roderick's paintings add yet another term to the series of replications; the "long and rectangular vault or tunnel" recalls the long passageways of the house itself as well as an interior that in its abstraction suggests an attempt to convey something of the shape of interior mental space. Moreover, this tunnel is an image of the unresolved and the indefinite, a passageway connecting nothing with nothing. In this context the reader may recognize the tunnel as an image of the text itself.

When we get to Roderick's song, "The Haunted Palace," another displacement shifts Roderick to the position of a narrator who is telling a tale that replicates his own story and that is about a place very like his own castle, which, it seems, is very like a body whose "red-litten windows" resemble his own bloodshot eyes. We have heard this somewhere before. The story folds back on itself in what threatens to be an infinite regression and produces the effect of standing on a threshold looking across a room at a mirror, not knowing whether we are seeing an extension or a reflection. The question arises, moreover, as to whose consciousness governs here because we are getting a story within a story retailed by a narrator who is by no means reliable and indeed tends to project his own distorted frame of reference on everything he sees; Roderick's symbolic self-awareness seems to duplicate exactly the narrator's perceptions, which he has at intervals identified as quite peculiar to himself. In case we have not picked up the resemblance between Roderick's song and the other elements of the story, the narrator pauses to explain in rather simpleminded fashion that the song seems to


extend the not uncommon belief in the sentience of the vegetable world to the inorganic world and, in Roderick's "disordered fancy," to the "gray stones of the home of his forefathers" (257) as well, which in their particular arrangement and their blending with the fungi and decayed trees seem to have absorbed something of the vitality that infuses objects indiscriminately. Because this is precisely the vision of the house purveyed by our own narrator earlier, his remark about Roderick's "disordered fancy" seems to boomerang, and we are left, dear reader, holding the bag, wondering whether our own fancies are not in turn being disordered to the point of paralysis given that the ability to distinguish similarity from difference and to preserve distinct categories of objects and experiences is rapidly disintegrating as boundaries are systematically extinguished. Moreover, the distinction between fancy and empirical certainty diminishes with Roderick's claim that the evidence of this sentience in the environment can be observed "in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls" (257). As proof of this "atmosphere" he cites its influence on the destinies of his family, of which he himself is the end product. In language resembling a line of ratiocination about a phenomenon carefully and scientifically observed and noted, Usher makes equations that challenge both the certainties of scientific method and the definition of sanity.

To amuse themselves (and perhaps, we are tempted to think, to escape, albeit unsuccessfully, this vortex of similarities and phantasmagoric atmospherics) Usher and his friend, our unreliable narrator, undertake a program of reading. But their fare consists entirely of books that are "as might be supposed, in strict keeping with this character of phantasm" (258). These works focus largely on subterranean voyages, heaven and hell, magic, the occult, and strange creatures that belong to no clear category of life—such as satyrs. The books once again serve to duplicate the themes and impressions produced in everything the narrator looks on and so become simply one more iteration of the suffocating similarity that conflates all things under the rubric of one endlessly bifurcating design.

Into this increasingly complex miasma of mirrors enters Lady Madeline. She has appeared once, passing briefly before


the narrator as he stood in Roderick's chamber and disappearing without Roderick's apparent notice, coming from darkness and returning to it with no distinct locus of entry or exit. Some days after the narrator's arrival, he finds that she has died and is to be interred for two weeks "in one of the numerous vaults within the main walls of the building" located, significantly enough, "immediately beneath that portion of the building in which was my own sleeping apartment" (258–259). By this time physical proximity and spatial relation have become so consistently significant symbolically that we cannot fail to assume that the "immediate" vertical proximity of Madeline and the narrator pairs them on a "vertical axis" as Roderick and he are paired, we might say, horizontally, making Madeline and the narrator counterparts. So we line up the ways in which we know that to be true: each is a close complement to Roderick—each in a peculiar way his other half; the narrator is Madeline's replacement as Roderick's housemate and companion—there seems to be only one position in this world of binaries to be filled as Roderick's counterpart, and the narrator and Madeline share that position in the structure, displacing each other because there is no room for a third term. Moreover, the narrator has created a similar confusion about the oppositions between each of them and Roderick: Madeline is presumed dead even though she seems a vital presence, while Roderick seems in every respect "vacant," "cadaverous," and moribund. Similarly the narrator is presumed sane (if we are still so generous or credulous as to make such a presumption,) though he has given abundant evidence of being in the grip of his own morbid "fancies," and Roderick may easily, with a slight shift of our terms of "accreditation," appear to be the more lucid, sensitive, and self-aware.

Lady Madeline's dismal quarters provide a number of clues about her role; as in our introduction to Roderick, a description of her chamber precedes information about her:

It had been used, apparently, in remote feudal times, for the worst purposes of a donjon-keep, and, in later days, as a place of deposit for powder, or some other highly combustible substance, as a portion of its floor, and the whole interior of a long archway through which we reached it, were carefully sheathed with copper. The


door, of massive iron, had been, also, similarly protected. Its immense weight caused an unusually sharp grating sound, as it moved upon its hinges. (259)

By the logic of this description, this room is one in which, clearly, form has followed function. To have placed Lady Madeline's body in a room that was first a place of torture and imprisonment and then a storage place for high explosives resonates with sinister implications about the magnitude of her power to threaten Roderick. Why else would she be placed in a room so heavily fortified against combustion or escape? With a little "fancy"—and by this time, if Poe has had his way with us, we have become as fanciful as the narrator—we can easily imagine her as a preternatural presence whose "energy" has been released from captivity by death and so threatens to fill and dominate the house, thereby shattering what fragile and illusory claims to normalcy Roderick can still make.

Yet it is not, in fact, Roderick who appears most palpably threatened by Lady Madeline's eerie presence in the house, but the narrator, who lies above her in his own chamber, a prey to fears that he tries to attribute to the character of the place itself:

I endeavoured to believe that much, if not all of what I felt, was due to the bewildering influence of the gloomy furniture of the room—of the dark and tattered draperies, which, tortured into motion by the breath of a rising tempest, swayed fitfully to and fro upon the walls, and rustled uneasily about the decorations of the bed. But my efforts were fruitless. An irrepressible tremour gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm. (261)

The narrator's capacity for self-delusion through projection reaches a peak here when the accoutrements of his bedroom seem to him the source of such overwhelming fears. The movement of the wind—action without visible presence—though logically perfectly explicable, becomes emotionally indistinguishable from the eerie and inexplicable activities of a poltergeist. The narrator's body imitates the involuntary and uncontrollable movement of the wind itself, as he gives way to fear that, characteristically, he describes as generated by an "incubus"—an alien presence—within his very heart. The narrator is


no more master of the forces within his body than Roderick is master of the forces at work within his house; the narrator simply houses invading spirits that usurp his authority and hold him captive. Like the vaulted chamber in which Madeline lies, he seems to contain explosive forces that threaten to break out and must be carefully guarded to be held in check.

In the final scenes of the story all the fragile, vestigial boundaries between objects suffer their final collapse. Roderick enters the narrator's chamber on a dark and stormy night like the one just described. He is terrified by the strange agitation of the wind, which seems to have "collected its force" in their immediate vicinity while the clouds "flew careering . . . against each other" with "life-like velocity," and huge masses of "agitated vapour" that produced a "luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation" that "hung about and enshrouded the mansion," obscuring the moon and stars. The whole place is enclosed by a thickening environment charged, it seems, with baleful intention. The house and its inhabitants seem engulfed and ingested by some hostile, vaporous being of cosmic proportions.

The narrator, who has just admitted to paralyzing fear of lesser phenomena than this, utters his hollow reassurances to Roderick, closes the curtains, and insists that "these appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon—or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn" (263). Of course, the terms of the latter half of the narrator's glib explanation belie the lucidity of the first half, just as his explanations of things always crack down the middle. Calming his own agitation by assuming the false role of comforter, the narrator takes up one of Roderick's "favourite romances" by proposing to pass the terrifying night reading aloud. He admits as an aside that it is a vulgar book of "uncouth and unimaginative prolixity" but is the only one immediately at hand.

Lo and behold, as it happens, the story provides a direct allegory for the situation in which the two readers find themselves: it describes a violent, drunken hero, Ethelred, entering the dwelling of a hermit by force on just such a tempestuous night, "ripping apart the door. . . . Pulling [with his gauntleted hand] sturdily, he so cracked, and ripped, and tore all asunder,


that the noise of the dry and hollow-sounding wood alarumed and reverberated throughout the forest" (264). Immediately on reading this sentence, the narrator hears just such a sound in some far corner of the house—an "echo" of the noise described in the story. As Ethelred enters the dwelling and kills the dragon therein, the beast emits a shriek that is again echoed in some distant chamber of the house of Usher. Our narrator, by now in the grip of terror, suppresses his emotions to avoid exciting the "sensitive nervousness" of his companion, who, however, seems to have remained oblivious to these sinister coincidences. Roderick seems, indeed, to be in some kind of trance, his body rocking "from side to side with a gentle yet constant and uniform sway," imitating the motion of his house in the wind (265).

Pushing on with the story in a final desperate attempt at suppression, the narrator arrives at a passage where a shield falls from the wall and rings onto the silver floor at the hero's feet, apparently moved by some supernatural force. A third time, the sound described in the story is reiterated somewhere within the house, and the narrator, now "completely unnerved," rushes to Usher's side and finds him in a state of "stony rigidity," in which he gazes fixedly into space, babbling crazily about the irrepressible and inescapable presence of Madeline and ending with a shriek that she now stands without the door. As Madeline enters, the final implosion begins: she falls "inward" on her brother, united with him as one in an incestuous death throe. The narrator flees the house, which is now indistinguishable from its shadows under a "blood-red moon," and as his nerve fails and his sanity cracks, he watches the fissure in the facade of the ancient house widen under the pressure of the "fierce breath of the whirlwind." The house is rent in two, and with a "tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters" it sinks into the tarn and disappears completely from sight (267–268).

The elements of the story ultimately cancel each other out. All distinctions collapse under the pressure of metaphor; the structural tensions that maintain the partitions between mental categories give way, and we are left with a blurred image of a vaporous, boundless, undifferentiated atmosphere at an


indefinite hour of the night somewhere on the edge of the world long ago and far away. Like the house, the story disappears, leaving us watching, like the bewildered narrator, from a bridge that presumably leads back to the "real world" we have left. The long narrative, heavy with illusory meanings, has collapsed on itself; each paragraph in some way echoes or reiterates or recalls a previous one, eventually producing a weird sense of recognition each time a new scene is introduced so that finally difference and sameness are impossibly confused and constant repetition has ended in obliteration, as an incantation deprives words of sound, leaving the one who utters them in a state of undifferentiated awareness, without form or boundary or structure, in which categories have no meaning and the fragility of logic and the speciousness of language become laughably apparent.




2— "The Fall of the House of Usher": And Who Can Tell the Teller from the Tale?

Preferred Citation: Chandler, Marilyn R. Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.