Text: Gerald M. Garmon, “Roderick Usher: Portrait of the Madman as an Artist’,” from Poe Studies, vol. V, no. 1, June 1972, pp. 11-14


[page 11, column 2:]

Roderick Usher: Portrait of the
Madman as an Artist”

West Georgia College

The question of what happens in “The Fall of the House of Usher” has prompted almost as much critical examination as the question of the governess’ sanity in Henry James’ tale “The Turn of the Screw,” and in one recent article, I. M. Walker argues that the solution to the mystery of the “House of Usher” is the same as that of “The Turn of the Screw”: both narrators are insane. According to Walker (who develops further the interpretation of the tale first presented by Darrel Abel), the narrator of Poe’s tale is a highly sensitive person who depends on rational or commonplace explanations for everything that happens and who is disposed to regard Roderick’s suggestions of supernatural forces as the imaginings of a hypochondriac and a madman. But from the beginning the narrator has doubts about his own rational explanations of the incredible events that are occurring. Finally the influence of Roderick’s sick mind and the poisonous “miasma” of the decaying House so distort the narrator’s contact with reality that he imagines he sees the dead Madeline walk into the room and fall on her brother (1).

This is certainly a convenient explanation, for nothing needs to be explained if all of the events of the story are merely the ravings and hallucinations of two madmen. But there is little in the story and less in Poe’s approach to the art of the short story to support such an interpretation. With James’ “Turn of the Screw” the situation is quite different. James often leads his readers to question some part of the accuracy of his narrators’ observations, and in “The Turn of the Screw” — the one tale in which James allows the whole of the plot to be questioned — he was careful to supply a framing device within which the tale is seen as a fiction within a fiction. There is no such device in Poe’s tale, and yet Poe was very nearly, if not quite, as conscientious an artist as James, and he considered this tale to be one of his best, most carefully wrought works (2).

Walker has attempted to supply a natural explanation by theorizing that the narrator was influenced by “FEBRILE MIASMA,” which he identifies with the atmosphere, or “foul air” that rises from the tarn surrounding the House. He quotes Thomas C. Upham, “the highly esteemed American philosopher and psychologist” to prove that miasma was generally considered injurious to health and apt to cause gloom and pain, and then he attempts to show (p. 588) that Poe agreed with the theory.

Poe was certainly aware of the accepted medical opinion that gases arising from stagnant water or decayed matter could be a danger to health, since he mentions this on more than one occasion. In “King Pest” (1835) the luminous and pestilential “atmosphere” arising from the deserted and decaying city is similar to that seen by Roderick Usher and the narrator on the night of the catastrophe, and ten years later in an essay on “Street Paving,” he suggested that an objection to wooden paving could lie in the possibility of “ . . . injury to the public health from miasmata arising from the wood.” [page 12:]

The weakness of this argument, other than the fact that it is based largely upon external evidence, is that it is inaccurate and misleading. The atmosphere in “King Pest” proves in no way dangerous to the men who run through it, although it has frightened away the rest of the town. And the sentence following the one quoted by Walker from Poe’s essay “Street Paving” actually denies the probability of harm. “Whether such injury actually does occur is very questionable. . . .” A little further on Poe writes: “. . . although it has been frequently asserted that the mercurial effluvium is injurious to the health — the assertion has been frequently refuted in the most positive and satisfactory manner” (3). So we must conclude that, if the narrator does indeed lose his mind, the cause is not the gases, since such a phenomenon is inconsistent with Poe’s understanding of the nature of these gases.

At the other extreme of the critical spectrum, scholars have suggested that the incredible escape of Madeline from her coffin is a reality in the story, but one which is best explained if we understand Madeline to be a vampire who calls on a superhuman strength to break out of the tomb. Other than the fact that Madeline does return, and possibly the fact that she falls on her brother there is no evidence to support such a theory (4). One critic has taken the use of the word incubus to indicate the presence of a vampire motif. The word as used in the story, however, means no more than a frightening, burdensome, or oppressive sensation. The narrator says he feels “upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm.”

Such questions as Madeline’s method of escaping her tomb are actually rather unimportant. Poe set out to tell a tale of Gothic horror — ”not of Germany, but of the soul,” yet still Gothic.5 His goal is to evoke a sense of horror in his readers’ minds, and in such an attempt it is not necessary to explain every detail so long as a general rationale is present. And, indeed, Poe, through his narrator, seems to emphasize the horror of the unknown. Although what we recognize as being within the realm of possibility may differ significantly from Poe’s ideas, we must approach his tales with the belief that they were written within a framework of what Poe believed possible. Such explanations need not preclude possible psychological readings (6) or the vampirist reading, but they should serve to place the story within the limits of a world Poe believed plausible, and not mere hallucination.

None of the critics of “The Fall of the House of Usher” satisfactorily answers all of the questions which the story raises, each dealing with only those parts which interest him or suit his theory. Four problems have attracted the bulk of critical scrutiny: 1) What is the significance of the House and in what way is the idea of sentience to be accepted by the reader? 2) What is wrong with Madeline and Roderick? 3) How does Madeline escape from her tomb — or does she? 4) How authoritative is the narrator? To this list of questions I would add two more: What is the function of Roderick’s art? And why is the narrator sent for in the first place?

In the first of these additional questions lies a unifying concept which throws light on all of the other problems. The function of Roderick Usher’s art has been generally ignored or dismissed as a mere device which [column 2:] adds to the atmosphere. Despite the prominence which the creation of atmosphere has in Poe’s art, I would like to urge recognition that Roderick’s art functions more importantly. For one thing, it contributes greatly to the definition of his character, pointing directly to the paradox that Usher’s heredity and environment endow him with a hypersensitivity that enables him to be an artist seeking freedom and individuality but at the same time doom such endeavors to failure. The narrator describes Usher as a man intensely involved in his art.

From the paintings over which his elaborate fancy brooded, and which grew, touch by touch, into vagueness at which I shuddered the more thrillingly, because I shuddered knowing not why; — from these paintings (vivid as their images now are before me) I would in vain endeavor to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words. By the utter simplicity, by the nakedness of his designs, he arrested and overawed attention. If ever mortal painted an idea, that mortal was Roderick Usher. 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, no shadow of which felt I ever yet in the contemplation of the certainly glowing yet too concrete reveries of Fuseli. (Works, III, 283)

The one thing, above all else, that this description tells us is that Roderick is an Artist. When the physical description of Usher is considered in conjunction with his art, the impression of his character is strengthened. Roderick is manifestly a man who has lived in a sensuous world, developing his sensuous tastes and abilities.

It then seems feasible that this highly developed appetite for the sensuous life is the “constitutional family evil” of the Ushers, part of which is the incestuous relationships of Roderick’s ancestors. There is, however, no suggestion of physical incest between Roderick and Madeline; indeed this may be the reason why the family, the House, must end, for intercourse is the most intense of sensations, too intense for Roderick. Moreover, the reduced sentience of Madeline and the increased sentience of Roderick suggest the relative roles played by the females and males in the long history of the Usher family, the final results of which are now dramatically and fatally visited upon the last of the Ushers. In their very inability to consummate an incestuous relationship, Roderick and Madeline have come to the end of the line. That is, the artist is a man whose sensibilities — and in this case, as in many others, his sensuousness and sensitivity — are greater than other men’s. The Usher family has been given to heightening their sensitivities for generations, and part of that heightening seems to have been incest — partly and immediately because the sensations of intercourse are greater when the ultimate perversity of incest is added. But the sin of incest also produces offspring whose sensitivities become increasingly acute with each generation until it produces the ultimately sensitive and finally effete Roderick and Madeline.

As in most ancestral houses, it is the male who rules and embodies the active principle. The incest which began some generations back would be, then, a gratification of the male’s lust; the female would play a passive, consenting role, and these roles are accented in the characters of Roderick and Madeline. But in consenting, the female plays a most important and finally absorbing role. She creates and destroys: she creates the offsprings, the [page 13:]generations, who in their progressive weaknesses are destroying the family; this passive mode of destruction is finally dramatized by Madeline’s falling on her brother. We should recognize that in the deterioration of the ability to act the roles of the male and the female become nearer and nearer to each other. When at last the male is no longer able to exert his will, he has lost his most consistent male characteristic. Now, in a stunning Gothic twist, the House takes on that role.

If we recognize Roderick as a hypersensitive artist, and the conflict in the story as one particularly pertinent to this artistic temperament, we next discover in the House (“both the family and the family mansion”) a source of opposition to the artist’s integrity. Let us then turn to one of the traditional and hardly deniable interpretations of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” that in which the House is defined as a sentient thing capable of exerting an influence on the brother and sister who live within and who are its prisoners. The idea of sentience in inanimate objects was part of Poe’s understanding of nature, and only in the broadest sense of the word is it “supernatural” (7). Roderick recognizes the House and the atmosphere which surrounds it as a “terrible influence which for centuries had moulded the destinies of his family, and which made him . . . what he was.” With such powers, the House embodies Roderick’s heredity and environment, for these are the things which shape us all and provide the artist his peculiar inspiration. Of course, in Usher’s world the influences are carefully narrowed and insidious in their cumulative effect. What has made Usher what he is, then, is the insidious combination of the family evil of incest that has produced an hereditary heightening of sensations, particularly in the males, with the long communion the family has had with the House, which has identified them even more completely with it than the knowledge of their guilt could have done alone. The House (that is, the building), because of this long life with the Usher family, has also taken on the hereditary trait of extreme sensitivity, and, since the family must die out (neither Roderick nor Madeline being physically capable of reproducing), the House has taken on the dominant, aggressive, male role and wills its own destruction with that of the last of the Ushers. Nor could it do otherwise. The crack in the mansion which the narrator notices on his first looking at the House, we may assume occurs with the birth of Roderick. With his life, the beginning of the end of the family is insured, for it is only through the male members that the family propagates its personality and name.

Roderick, however, cannot accept the fall; he strives as an artist for individuality. But individuality is something the House of Usher cannot allow (8). Usher intuitively knows this, I suggest, just as he must feel that any real hope for his individual existence lies outside of the family, with whom he must break completely all ties, and outside the House. It is this vague knowledge that leads him to send for the narrator. To this unnamed friend, Roderick tries several times to express his half-formed fears through the only means he can — his art works — though he also expresses himself in such vague comments as that the House has an effect “on the morale of his existence.” The narrator introduces us to Roderick’s thought and art with little reference to the order in which they [column 2:] were introduced to him, but one of the first things the narrator describes is Roderick’s paintings. Those paintings which the narrator describes as “pure abstractions” seem intended to paint the horror of annihilation which the House poses, but which Roderick cognitively understands only vaguely. The one painting the narrator is capable of recalling in sufficient detail to describe in words has a grim and rather pointed meaning.

One of the phantasmagoric conceptions of my friend, partaking not so rigidly of the spirit of abstraction, may be shadowed forth, although feebly, in words. A small picture presented the interior of an immensely long and rectangular vault or tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device. Certain accessory points of the design served well to convey the idea that this excavation lay at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth. No outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent, and no torch, or other artificial source of light was discernible, yet a flood of intense rays rolled throughout, and bathed the whole in a ghastly and inappropriate splendour. (Works, III, 283)

Even when Madeline is dead and the narrator has helped Roderick carry the coffin to the underground tomb, the narrator still does not recognize that Roderick’s painting, on the simplest level, had been of his sister’s tomb. This painting, seen as an attempt to communicate with the narrator, suggests that Roderick very likely doubts his own sanity and is trying to use the narrator for a standard of rational thinking. His next attempt to communicate his fears to the narrator is by means of the ballad, “The Haunted Palace.” This is more successful, but the narrator misses the point that the song describes Roderick’s fears of going insane rather than a present reality. Immediately there follows the discussion in which Roderick explains his theory of the living, sentient House, which is working its will upon him. Again the narrator fails to see Roderick’s views as anything but those of a madman.

Time has run out for Roderick Usher, and his last attempt to escape the House by means of the narrator has failed. It is little wonder then that at the climactic moment, after the narrator has so failed to understand Roderick’s struggle, that it is Roderick who shrieks “MADMAN! . . . MADMAN!” at the narrator, for while the narrator is not mad, he is totally out of contact with the reality of Usher’s world.

Now the conflict of the tale may be explicitly stated. Roderick is a man whose temperament is a development of the very sensations which must destroy him, and he is struggling against his environment and his heredity. The House, Madeline and his ancestry have fixed the limits of his individuality. Only in breaking these limiting factors can Roderick hope to gain his freedom as a man and an artist. His first step, after coming to the realization that the end is near and that Madeline’s approaching death is harbinger of his own, is to try to break the bond between him and Madeline. This he tries to accomplish by inviting in an outsider and then avoiding his sister. Finally, he seems to have won his first victory with the apparent death of his sister, for he has come to fear that he is doomed to die with her. When she apparently dies first, Roderick sees a ray of hope for himself. Madeline has been too close a limit to his personality; she has in effect defined him (9), limiting his ability to act — to leave the House of Usher, for example. [page 14:]

With the destruction of this defining force, Roderick has gained a measure of freedom. So when Madeline falls into a cataleptic coma, Roderick rushes her to the tomb; in charity we may believe that he does not know at the time of the burial that she still lives. There is, however, the distinct possibility that Roderick wills her death and believes that he has been successful, but he is not certain. For this reason he entombs her where no one can examine the body. It is still a horrible struggle for him, for he has come to identify with her as he has with the House. Madeline does not die, and finally the House, in one tremendous display of will, tears open the coffin — perhaps in the shifting of the foundations which a few minutes later will cause the House to fall. The House even throws open the doors to the room in which Roderick and the narrator wait — again the shifting foundation offers a practical explanation. The narrator in his usually pedestrian and uncomprehending manner attributes the opening of the doors to a gust of wind, “but then without those doors there DID stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher.” Thus is Roderick destroyed by his fatal flaw: the very quality of his nature that makes him an artist: his extreme sensitivity, which simultaneously makes him long for freedom and yet makes him incapable of ever achieving it. The House of his heredity claims him for its own.



(1) I. M. Walker, “The ‘Legitimate Sources’ of Terror in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” Modern Language Review, 61 (1966), 585-592. Darrel Abel, “A Key to the House of Usher,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 18 (1949), 176-185.

(2) The artistic integrity of such a solution might also be questioned, especially by Poe. Moreover, James did not consider ‘The Turn of the Screw” a very serious work of art; he called it a potboiler.

(3) The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: AMS Press, 1965), XIV, 167-168. Hereafter cited as Works.

(4) This theory was arrived at independently by two critics. See Lyle H. Kendall, “The Vampire Motif in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ “ College English, 34 (1963), 450-453, and J. O. Bailey, “What Happens in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’?” American Literature, 35 (1964), 446. Neither article attempts to explain why Madeline is the weaker of the two if she is a vampire. Nor is there any given reason why Madeline should die, even at the end, since the usual way to kill a vampire is by a stake through the heart. Are we to assume that Madeline survives the fall of the House?

(5) In his preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) Poe wrote that “The Fall of the House of Usher” and his other stories were realistic and based on principles of human nature; he concludes, “If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul — that I have deduced this terror only from its legitimate sources, and urged it only to its legitimate results” (Works, I, 151). Unfortunately, in none of his commentaries on this tale does Poe make it clear to a modern reader what he considered “legitimate sources.” Still, it is reasonable to assume, knowing Poe’s love of ratiocination, that when he refers to the “terror of the soul” that he is not thinking of anything so “supernatural” as mere vampires. On the probability that Poe worked into his stories a hidden or obscure meaning, there is rather good evidence. See, for example, Poe’s letter to P. P. Cooke, an occasional contributor to the Southern Literary Messenger, dated September 21, 1839. Commenting on several stories including “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Ligeia,” Poe writes “Your word that it is ‘intelligible’ suffices — and your commentary sustains your word. As for the mob — let them talk on I should be [column 2:]grieved if I thought they comprehended me here” (Works, XVII, 53)

(6) The most authoritative psychological and symbolic interpretations include Maurice Beebe, “The Universe of Roderick Usher,” Personalist ( 1956), 147-160; Patrick F. Quinn, The French Face of Edgar Allan Poe (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1957), pp. 240-251; Edward H. Davidson, Poe: A Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957), pp. 196-198; D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1923), pp. 110-116 and Darrel Abel, “A Key to the House of Usher.”

(7) This explication of the tale as a kind of dramatization of Poe’s theory of sentience in inanimate objects, which receives so prominent a place in Eureka, is best presented in E. Arthur Robinson, “Order and Sentience in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’” PMLA, 76 (1961), 68-81. Robinson’s article is exhaustive and convincing, but he sees no need to explain how Madeline escapes from the tomb, nor does he explain Roderick’s art.

(8) The problem here, of course, is that if it is natural for all things, living and non-living, to move toward dissolution and unity, then why does Roderick, or for that matter any man, resist the death urge? Professor Herbert F. Smith writes, “What has happened with Roderick and his house is an example of aberrant microcosmic organization . . . the Universe of Poe’s Eureka is apparently equipoised between the forces of attraction and repulsion. . . .” See “Usher’s Madness and Poe’s Organicism,” American Literature, 39 (1967), 387-388.

(9) The closeness of the brother and sister is mentioned twice in the Harrison edition, which is based on Poe’s second revision in 1845, but in the original published version in Burton’s Magazine of 1839 there are two other passages which make the similarity more pointed. This passage is omitted on what is in the Harrison edition page 271. “Her figure, her air, her features — all, in their very minutes” development were those of Roderick Usher who sat beside me.” And on page 288 of the Harrison edition there is omitted “. . . Usher (the exact similitude between the brother and sister even here again confounded me.) “ See Works, III, 340.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1972]