The Mental Deconstruction of Roderick Usher
Note: this is a paper I wrote in April 2008 on Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher.” I had a bad habit of turning in a first draft if I was never required to write a rough piece beforehand. Hopefully this re-write, will solve all or most of the problems the original final draft had. Anyway, enjoy. And, um, don’t plagiarize, desperate/lazy youths. M’kay?
Edgar Allen Poe is an extremely close writer; no word is useless and show be scrutinized carefully. Roderick Usher is the main focus of Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” There are, indeed, many problems going on in his mind that later infect the Narrator, who is unnamed. Another central, yet barely mentioned, character is Roderick’s identical twin sister Madeline. She is cataleptic and looks almost dead. All three characters are victims of a mental breakdown. Madeline reminds Roderick of death — not only his death, but the death of their family house; Roderick is plagued by the pressure he has to uphold as the last son in a long line of artists; and the Narrator is not only affected by the gloomy appearance of nature, but is also affected by the negativity of Roderick. One argument for the story is that the Narrator, Roderick, and Madeline are all the same person split into three personalities. The purpose of the Narrator is to witness the adverse effects of isolation and to reach out of the Usher name and begin anew.
Roderick Usher is a tragic artist with a split personality whose destiny is to become an Emersonian artist — where one characteristically optimistic in life and “is educated by nature, books, and action” (Sacks 87) — but feels weighed down by duty to his house’s legacy and the expectations that ride along with it, making him pessimistic. His mentality is weak and easily broken, not characteristic of a typical man according to society. Men are usually seen as strong in intellect and reason, yet Roderick is in a constant state of depression and is stressed. He is overly paranoid, he is a hypochondriac, and he possesses acute senses. His state of mind seems to reflect what is going with nature, for it carries a “mean appearance.” Furthermore, Roderick seems to hold some kind of terrifying sensation for his identical twin sister, Madeline. To begin, Roderick grew up in a family of renowned artists. The House of Usher is also built on the tradition of incest to keep the bloodline pure. As we all know to be true today, incest can cause some serious defects from generation to generation. In Roderick and Madeline’s case, the defect is mental and physical oppression. When looking at the house itself, it reflects the state of being that the Usher are in, currently. The stone that is being used as the house’s base is rotting and chipping away; there is a long fissure along the entire face of the house. The rotting stone could symbolize the family overall; they are long dead and unable to hold together the family name. The fissure along the length of the house could symbolize Roderick’s fractured mind, more specifically, his split personality. The only things keeping the house together are the vines. Those vines could represent the emerging of the one sounds character left in Roderick’s mind, the Narrator. The interior of the house is as depressing as the exterior. This, too, reflects the state of mind of the Ushers, namely Roderick. There are underground tombs and weaving passageways, all representing the darkness and complexity of the human mind. As mentioned in the introduction, Madeline is a source of terror for Roderick. It is not clear why, but it certain that Roderick is trying to oppress her. Because of Madeline’s cataleptic condition, she is the very resemblance of death. However, she is not dead. On the argument that Madeline is also Roderick, it is possible that Roderick is keeping Madeline down because he thinks negatively of women.
One bold argument is that Roderick is gay. He possesses Madeline’s feminine qualities, but because society at the time is so unforgiving on the subject of loving the same sex, Roderick must suppress these feminine characteristics at all costs. Images in the story confirm Roderick’s femininity: “There was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes — an evidently restrained hysteria in his whole demeanour” (Poe 2482). Hysteria is a word associated with women. Until the late nineteenth century, hysteria, which is derived from the Greek word meaning “uterus,” used to describe a woman’s manic psychological condition caused by a disturbance to the uterus . Another passage gives further evidence of Roderick’s femininity through the Narrator’s observation (assuming the Narrator is Roderick, of course): “An irrepressible tremor gradually pervaded my frame; and, at length, there sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm” (Poe 2482). The image of an incubus is a feminine one, for it is the opposite of a succubus, who are only associated with men. In trying to suppress his femininity, Roderick grows a sort of hatred and fear of women. One of the books Roderick and the Narrator poured over, a novella titled Belphegor by Niccolo Machiavelli, is about how women are the damnation of the world. The novella’s protagonist, the fallen angel Belphegor, notices that men entering Hell blame their wives for their misery. He decides to take human form and live in the human world to investigate and marries Onesta Donati. Her vanity and wasteful spending, along with her family’s demands, soon reduces Belphegor to poverty and debt. He flees imprisonment, and then pursued by debt collectors. He eventually returns to Hell, grateful to be rid of his human life, denouncing the institution of marriage overall . This particular story feeds into Roderick’s hatred for women and compels him to continue suppressing Madeline both physically and mentally (assuming Madeline is both a real person and a personality within Roderick’s mind). The mere mention of the book in this story reflects the man’s mentality of wanting to be higher than women, for all men must maintain a social hierarchy over women.
Roderick’s suppression of the feminine is further shown when the Narrator’s bed sits one floor above Madeline’s tomb. The position of his bed is parallel to where Madeline lies — implying there should be male domination over women. Moreover, Roderick pronounces that his sister is dead. There is a strong possibility that she actually is not considering that her physical condition only gives the illusion of death. Roderick should have known this, so why did he decide to bury her this time? In his attempts to finally oppress the feminine side of himself for good, it is only logical to bury that side of himself to where it cannot reemerge again. However, as the reader finds out in the end, this attempt does not work. Roderick’s declining masculine mentality (his ability to reason) heightens his paranoia and makes him hallucinate; whatever happens in his mind happens outside as well, or so he thinks. The Narrator seems to be the last hope for this falling artist.
The Narrator is the sole consoler for Roderick; he is the one spark of reason left in Roderick’s mind that is reaching out. The Narrator witnesses and scrutinizes all that is wrong around the artist, from the decaying and depressing of nature itself to the decaying and depressing of his friend Roderick. The Narrator sees himself as a separate person from the beginning of the story, but find himself slowly becoming just like Roderick. Roderick’s demeanor is affecting the Narrator, who is becoming depressed as well. Soon, the Narrator can hardly identify himself as an individual anymore. He later, instead, associates himself with Roderick: “In the manner of my friend I was at once struck with an incoherence — an inconsistency; and soon found this to arise from a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy — an excessive nervous agitation” (Poe 2475). The Narrator is beginning to be taken in by Roderick’s negative, sickly state of mind. Like Roderick, the Narrator is beginning to feel the same sensations, experiencing the same hallucinations. Meanwhile, nature outside is becoming more tempestuous — Roderick’s mind is declining more and more, becoming increasingly chaotic over time. In the end, the Narrator is the sole witness to the Ushers’ demise, to the demise of the isolated artist. He escapes the enclosing sepulcher as if the personalities derived from the Usher legacy finally disappears, letting the Narrator roam free with a new sense of self without being bogged down by tradition.
In the end of the story, Madeline overcomes her oppression at lets Roderick’s femininity out once more. Being in a delicate mental state, Roderick’s fears of the feminine manifest (in his mind) into a corporeal form and terrifies him to death. Thus, the Usher legacy implodes on itself and dies away, freeing the Narrator from tradition (out with the old and in with the new). The mirror imagery of Roderick and Madeline represents the constant battle between opposing sides within one person. The masculine side, Roderick, is constantly oppressing Madeline, the feminine side. Both sides eventually collapse on one another and leave only the Narrator who manages to escape. The beginning of the story is the emergence of the Narrator. As mentioned earlier, the Narrator is a part of Roderick, the artist, reaching out to a troubled mind. The Narrator is the new artist seeing to come out from tradition (and what society expected of him) and make something new.
“Belfagor arcidiavolo.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 22 Feb. 2014. Web. 02 July 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belfagor_arcidiavolo.
“Hysteria.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 29 April 2014. Web. 02 July 2014. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hysteria.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Paul Lautner. 5th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Pages 2475-2482.
Sacks, Kenneth. Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2003.