Symbolism in the House of Usher

Before reading the below post, please read “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe is famous for his description in his writing. “The Fall of the House of Usher” is one of the iconic examples, the world of literature looks to on the topic of setting. Poe sets the mood and overall tone for the short story, by describing the setting and the quality of the location, in which the events will occur. On page 87 he describes the exterior of the house as, “upon the bleak walls, upon the vacant eyelike windows, upon a few rank sedges, and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees.” Demonstrating that he cleverly extends his eerie, mysterious, creepy atmosphere by speaking through his chosen place. 

The narrator identifies four characteristics of the exterior, calling the readers attention to them not on accident, but on purpose. In addition, each of these characteristics is symbolic of something else and offer a foreboding warning, or signal for what is to come. The bleak walls could simply refer to the forgotten and abandoned pealing paint. Later on in the short story, Poe conjures similar imagery by using the term, “The discoloration of ages had been great…cadaverousness of complexion” on pages 89 and 90. The vacant eyelike windows could describe the shape of the windows, or it could mean that eyes later in the short story will be vacant. No thoughts, dreams, or memories are happening behind those eyes, no life at all is taking place in there. Again, this detail symbolizes something to come later on in the story. This detail could symbolize the result of mental death Roderick suffers once Madeline dies. Lastly the reference to sedges and tree trunks could mean that the yard work has been abandoned in recent years, or it could mean that what once was living, has died and is beginning to decompose. Similarly, reference to dead vegetation could symbolize one or both types of death; physically for Madeline, and mentally or emotionally for Roderick. 

The house of Usher personifies the saying, “if walls could talk.” In this scenario they are, they house has details that tell the reader what has happened, and what will happen. Upon his entrance the narrator notices “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.” This crack could mean the house is old, worn, it has endured many years of weather. But, symbolically it tells a very different story. A fissure, meaning crack divides pieces making something not whole. In this case the house is indicating that the occupants have become separated, they are not whole. 

As the story progresses, Roderick convinces the narrator to help him bury Madeline, because she is presumed dead. Thus not only is she separated from him by death, but now also by physical location. However, at the conclusion of the story once Madeline comes back to seek her revenge and kills Roderick, the house splits into two. Although no longer separated by death, something has happened that can not be undone, thus the crack can not be mended. Instead the crack widens, and with her enraged they become farther apart.  Thus the crack continues to worsen until it gives way and splits the house into two, symbolically referring to her violently killing him. She subsequently dies of a seizure. Now they are longer separated by life and death, and are doomed like the remaining pieces of the house, which slip into the stagnant pond. 

In addition, Poe’s description of “The Fall of the House of Usher” lead to the implementation of setting as a character to further explain the circumstances of an individual’s psyche is a tradition that Poe started and is continued to be used today in literature as well as movies. One particular example comes to mind in the case of Theoden sitting in his throne as the King of Rohan in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The viking like hall is dark and reflects the mental state of the king, comatose, whisky beard, and milky eyes. 

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