Interpretations of Poe's Fall of the House of Usher
Edgar Allan Poe is known for his foreboding tales and poems that delve into the darkness of the human mind. His short story “Fall of the House of Usher” is certainly no exception to this mold. The gruesome deaths of Madeline and Roderick Usher come as the conclusion to the gradual decay of the entire Usher line, which ended with the two siblings. What this decay specifically is and what the destruction of the “house” signifies, however, is open to interpretation.
One of the most extreme, yet rather common, explanations behind the strange, destructive relationship between the two siblings is one of incest. Textually speaking, towards the introduction of Madeline into the story, Roderick seems distressed, going so far as to say “‘I must perish in this deplorable folly” (Poe 267). Roderick also later admits that his own malady had its origins in his “tenderly beloved sister, his sole companion for long years, his last and only relative on earth” (Poe 267).
These lines may not mean anything significant, but it is at least conceivable that they may imply a relationship beyond that of normal brother and sister. At the very least, some critics, such as Patrick F. Quinn, seem to think so. Quinn argues that the relationship could be incestuous; if not in deed, than at least in thought (88). Even if unconsciously so, the twins’ utter dependence on one another is fruitless and destructive, creating a quasi-incestuous link that can produce no heirs. Had one or the other ventured into society, their house would most likely continue on. Instead, they remain bound to one another, thus spelling out their and their line’s fate.
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Another interpretation, however, is that Madeline and Roderick represent two halves of the same consciousness. This line of thinking is not quite as extreme, nor is it necessarily a huge stretch. After all, twins are oftentimes thought to have a deeper connection between them than other siblings might, and may therefore be used as a device to express two halves of a whole. Although he admits the possibility of seemingly incestuous overtones, Quinn generally seems to lean towards this analysis of the story. “Usher” may well have been a case of split personality, in a sense (88), especially since Madeline is never described in terms that do not relate her to her brother.
Everything from her appearance to her mysterious illness is only expressed in terms of how it connects her to Roderick. Upon seeing her in the coffin, the narrator notices “A striking similitude between the brother and sister” (Poe 272). If this theory holds true, then Madeline is merely another aspect of Roderick’s consciousness, the dark side that haunts him and that he wishes to drive away (89). The fact that Roderick hastens to bury his sister with such eagerness could support this. Unfortunately, if this is the case, then the effort to destroy his demons rather than deal with their existence proves to be Roderick’s undoing. Madeline comprises as much of “Usher” as Roderick does, and the attempt to rid himself of that darkness ultimately brings about his death, as well as the end of the Usher line.
Like any work of literature, critics will always have many interpretations of the same story. Regardless of what specific darkness the Usher twins portray, however, it certainly seems true that Poe draws attention to their decaying lifestyle as the root cause of their house’s fall.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "Fall of the House of Usher." The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Arthur Hobson Quinn. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992. 262-77.
Quinn, Patrick F. “That Spectre in My Path.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Fall of the House of Usher. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 82-90.