"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Short Story Review: “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe, Part 2

Please excuse the delay in completing my analysis of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  I’ve had a complicated last few weeks.  Part 1 can be found here.  As before, the quotes are taken from PoeStories.  As before, citation will be by paragraph number.

Now that we’ve looked at the opening paragraph and some of the story’s motifs, I think it behooves us to place the story in its form, which is Gothic fiction.   In its essence, Gothic fiction entails a story with excessive emotions, a complex and ancient abode, such as a castle, a mysterious, moribund character, an atmosphere and sense of gloom, and an element, either real or imaginary, of the supernatural, all of which add up for the reader to a state of horror.  What drives the narrative is a journey into a labyrinth, either literally through the castle or metaphorically through the psychology of the characters or the enigma of the situation and events.  Or, of course, a combination of all them.  Here in “The Fall of the House of Usher” we have the decayed, gothic mansion, the enfeebled aristocrat who is on the verge of emotional breakdown, and the buried-alive woman who breaks out of her tomb.

The character of Roderick Usher is at the heart of the story.  Here is how the narrator describes him upon first meeting. 

Upon my entrance, Usher arose from a sofa on which he had been lying at full length, and greeted me with a vivacious warmth which had much in it, I at first thought, of an overdone cordiality --of the constrained effort of the ennuye man of the world. A glance, however, at his countenance, convinced me of his perfect sincerity. We sat down; and for some moments, while he spoke not, I gazed upon him with a feeling half of pity, half of awe. Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with difficulty that I could bring myself to admit the identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood. Yet the character of his face had been at all times remarkable. A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin, speaking, in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten. And now in the mere exaggeration of the prevailing character of these features, and of the expression they were wont to convey, lay so much of change that I doubted to whom I spoke. The now ghastly pallor of the skin, and the now miraculous lustre of the eve, above all things startled and even awed me. The silken hair, too, had been suffered to grow all unheeded, and as, in its wild gossamer texture, it floated rather than fell about the face, I could not, even with effort, connect its Arabesque expression with any idea of simple humanity.

In the manner of my friend I was at once struck with an incoherence --an inconsistency; and I soon found this to arise from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy --an excessive nervous agitation. For something of this nature I had indeed been prepared, no less by his letter, than by reminiscences of certain boyish traits, and by conclusions deduced from his peculiar physical conformation and temperament. His action was alternately vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic concision --that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation --that leaden, self-balanced and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement.

It was thus that he spoke of the object of my visit, of his earnest desire to see me, and of the solace he expected me to afford him. He entered, at some length, into what he conceived to be the nature of his malady. It was, he said, a constitutional and a family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy --a mere nervous affection, he immediately added, which would undoubtedly soon pass off. It displayed itself in a host of unnatural sensations. Some of these, as he detailed them, interested and bewildered me; although, perhaps, the terms, and the general manner of the narration had their weight. He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses; the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odours of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.

To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave. "I shall perish," said he, "I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect --in terror. In this unnerved-in this pitiable condition --I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR."  [par 8-11]

There are two points that stand out in that characterization.  The first is Usher’s intense sensitivity to sensation.  The nature of his malady is to be hyper sensitive, due to his “excessive nervous agitation.”  This takes us back to the opening quote of a heart being “strung tight” and “resounds” with touch.  The narrator tells “he suffered from a morbid acuteness of the senses,” and it touched all five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound (par. 10).  These sensations set the foundation for Usher’s ability to sense beyond human capacity, a capacity that transcends into the paranormal.  The other point is that this sensitivity is not a liberating ability but an enslaving one.  Usher has fallen into a condition alternating between vivaciously energy and depressed ennui, nervous agitation and leaden sullenness, akin to both a drunkard and an opium addict.  Notice too here the reflecting dualities.  The transcending sensations do not lead to an opening of a new horizon, but a debilitating and suffocating constriction.  Usher’s emotional state—one in which he feels he’s “in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR”—reflects entombment state that Madeline, his sister, will find herself later in the story.

I would be remiss if at this point I didn’t mention the relationship between Poe, this story, and the American 19th century philosophic and quasi religious movement, transcendentalism.  The part of transcendentalism that’s relevant here is that the transcendentalists believed that God exists everywhere in everything all around us.  It’s a pantheistic belief, and through the senses God can be found.  To the transcendentalist,  though God is transcendent just beyond us with effort we can get in touch with Him.  It’s a rather blindly optimistic outlook that all things are there for the good.  Poe is strongly an anti-transcendentalist, rejecting that what the senses touch is not necessarily God, and is certainly not always particularly good.  Through the narrator’s impressions—which gave him an “utter depression of soul” in the first paragraph—there is certainly ambiguity to what he senses.  But through Usher’s fallen state we see that what he has sensed through his supernatural intuition is definitely not good and possibly evil.  Poe declares an anti-transcendental position when he has the narrator state how the atmosphere within the House oppressed his imagination, “an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn --a pestilent and mystic vapour, dull, sluggish, faintly discernible, and leaden-hued” (par. 4).

Another motif that is central is that of the family history.  In fact, the dilapidated house that the narrator rides up to is most certainly a metaphor for the family house of Usher.  What ails Usher is rooted in the family history, perhaps even biology: 

I had learned, too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honoured as it was, had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain. It was this deficiency, I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other --it was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of 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.  [par.3]

Usher claims his malady is “constitutional” (that is, part of his nature) and a “family evil” (par. 10).  We see a “dissolution” in his sibling (par. 13), though it’s unclear if she suffers from the same malady.  Their demise would bring the end of the “ancient race of the Ushers” (par. 13).  It is his aristocratic past, as exalted in the song Usher composes, that stands in contrast to the dissolution of his current state.  The germ of his disintegration is in his “race” but the slow degeneration has now reached a climax in his generation.

So to pull the entire story together here, I think what the reader should focus on how the various narrative movements unwind and lead to the climax.  This is how I would list the movements, and remember the plot moves through the narrator’s first person experience:

1. The movement to meet Roderick Usher.
2. The movement to grasp Usher’s condition.

3. The movement to understand why Usher is in this state.
4. The decline and burial of Usher’s sister, Madeline.

5. The breaking out of Madeline from her tomb overlaid by the Ethelred story.
6. The concluding destruction of the house.

The plot is a progression into the labyrinth of Usher’s mental state, his sensations, his creativity through the song he formulates, through the reflection of his sister’s apparent death, and then through reactions to the story the narrator reads Usher during the storm as Usher’s sister breaks free of her tomb.

So what does these motifs and philosophic underpinning and plot all amount to?  What is the theme here?  With that I want to bring it back to the beginning of the story.  After that incredible first paragraph where the first person narrator comes up to Usher’s house and sees the reflection in the tarn, the character provides in three paragraphs the exposition of being called by Usher and their youthful history together.  But then he returns back to describing Usher’s house. 

Shaking off from my spirit what must have been a dream, I scanned more narrowly the real aspect of the building. Its principal feature seemed to be that of an 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 the 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.

The narrator gleans the “zigzag” crack that splits the house through from the roof down to the front.  The reflection provides another set of doubles—the actual, deteriorated house and the image.  What we repeatedly have in the story are contrasting doubles and fragmentation.  Let me list the doubles that I discern: sensation/reason, structure/image, brother/sister, gloried past/degenerated present, life/death, enslaved/freedom, story/reality, mental disorder/sanity, physical/metaphysical.  I’m sure with effort one can find identify even more. 

And this once again brings us back to the very first paragraph that I dissected in detail in the first blog.  There I pointed out how the pattern of the story was to build doubles, aesthetic reflections.  It is in building of doubles and their ultimate fragmentation that we arrive at the full meaning of the story.  in the story’s last paragraph, the narrator flees from the horrific death of Usher and his sister in one climatic embrace.  But as the narrator flees, he looks behind him. 

Suddenly there shot along the path a wild light, and I turned to see whence a gleam so unusual could have issued; for the vast house and its shadows were alone behind me. The radiance was that of the full, setting, and blood-red moon which now shone vividly through that once barely-discernible fissure of which I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zig-zag direction, to the base. While I gazed, this fissure rapidly widened --there came a fierce breath of the whirlwind --the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight --my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder --there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters --and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the "HOUSE OF USHER."  [par. 47, counting each stanza of the song as a paragraph]

The fissure cracks open and splits the house apart.  The central theme of the story then, if it could be so consolidated into a statement, is that the degeneration of an individual is a schism between his senses and his reason, a separation from those he holds dear, and a fragmentation from his identity.  This story presents a gloomy vision of a broken world.  But it makes for one of the greatest short stories ever written.

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