Text: Wendy Stallard Flory, “Usher’s Fear and the Flaw in Poe’s Theories of the Metamorphosis of the Senses,” Poe Studies, June 1974, Vol. VII, No. 1, 7:17-19


[page 17:]

Usher’s Fear and the Flaw in Poe’s Theories
of the Metamorphosis of the Senses

Rutgers University, Douglass College

As a consoling alternative to the prospect of total annihilation at death, Poe conceives a theory of metamorphosis according to which the senses persist after the death of the physical body. The main weakness of this “consolation” is that the senses must then experience the process of decomposition of the flesh. Poe never deals with this problem in his theoretical writings, but it surfaces in a dramatic way in his stories — and particularly in “The Fall of the House of Usher” — as the theme of premature burial. In Usher’s dilemma Poe attempts to confront this problem by dramatizing it, but by making Usher a weak and evasive character Poe leaves himself free to blame Usher’s final terror on failure of nerve; thus Poe sidesteps the crucial flaw in his own theories.

An examination of Poe’s short “apocalyptic” writings shows that “the tottering of [Usher’s] . . . lofty reason upon her throne” is a sign not of insanity, as most critics have assumed, but of his approach to a state of superior perception. In “Mesmeric Revelation,” “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion,” “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” and “The Power of Words,” Poe is quire explicit about what he considers the highest mental activity that man is capable of, and what man’s priorities should be in his quest for knowledge. In “Monos and Una,” Poe states his belief that, on earth, man’s highest mental activities are the development of his “pure contemplative spirit and majestic [Platonic] intuition” (1). He judges the “poetic intellect” to be “the most exalted of all” because it speaks only to the imagination and not to the “unaided reason.” We are told that man’s weakness in the “last days” was to become infatuated with the idea of his power over nature, and that “he grew infected with system, and with abstraction. He enwrapped himself in generalities” (III, 203) . In “Eiros and Charmion” the approach of the comet reverses this perverse tendency in men and “The learned now gave their intellect — their soul — to no such points as the allaying of fear, or to the sustenance of loved theory. They sought — they panted for right views. They groaned for perfected knowledge” (III, 5).

It is important to notice that Poe uses the word “intellect” with the meaning of “soul,” and that the closest approach to knowledge in Poe is the almost entirely passive state of receiving sense impressions without the mediation and interference of the reason — a state precisely like Usher’s. In his mortal condition, man is inhibited in his ability to fully receive the stimuli which are available to his senses because of the intervention of his necessarily imperfect understanding. Poe believes that man is still subject to the curse of the Fall — that knowledge should be painful to him — but he believes that at death man undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes “. . . man the Death-purged . . . man to whose now exalted [column 2:] intellect there should be poison in knowledge no more” (IV, 205). In “Mesmeric Revelation” Poe distinguishes between two stages of man’s development. The first is the “rudimenrary” stage, which he likens to the caterpillar stage of the butterfly in that it is “progressive, preparatory, temporary” (V, 250), and which is characterized by our inability to receive sense impressions other than through our sense organs. After death he suggests that we are metamorphosed, like the butterfly, into an “ultimate life” in which “the external world reaches the whole body, (which is of a substance having affinity to brain . . .) with no other intervention than that of an infinitely rarer ether than even the luminiferous . . . [in unison with which] the whole body vibrates, setting in motion the unparticled matter which permeates it” (V, 251). He concludes that “It is to the absence of idiosyncratic organs, therefore, that we must attribute the nearly unlimited perception of the ultimate life. To rudimental beings, organs are the cages necessary to confine them until fledged” (V, 251252).

In “Monos and Una,” Monos describes his feelings immediately after his “death”: “The senses were unusually active, although eccentrically so — assuming often each other’s functions at random. . . . All my perceptions were purely sensual. The materials furnished the passive brain by the senses were not in the least degree wrought into shape by the deceased understanding” (IV, 206) .

The analogies with Roderick Usher’s temperament are striking. The extreme acuteness of his senses seems to suggest a straining of his being toward that “ultimate” state in which the whole body becomes one undifferentiated sense-organ. The painfulness of all but the most restrained sensations makes it appear as though the “circuits” of his “rudimentary” sense organs are overloaded. This painfulness is to be expected, since Poe considers the pain which man experiences to be integral to human experience on earth, and believes that “The pain of the primitive life of Earth, is the sole basis of the bliss of the ultimate life in Heaven” (V, 253).

The narrator’s comparison of Roderick’s state to that of “the irreclaimable eater of opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement” (III, 279) is, in fact, a positive indication according to Poe’s ideas about the “ultimate” existence. Usher’s state resembles the mesmeric trance which Poe describes in “Mesmeric Revelation,” and which, he says, “. . . resembles the ultimate life; for when I am entranced the senses of my rudimental life are in abeyance, and I perceive external things directly, without organs. . .” (V, 250). Roderick’s heightened sensitivity seems to suggest how closely he is approaching his metamorphosis.

That Usher’s hypersensitivity is a hereditary condition suggests that Poe feels the “poetic intellect” is at least partly something one is born with. Usher, like Poe, is committed by his particular temperament to an intense preoccupation with the mysteries of death. While Poe examines these mysteries methodically and programmatically through his philosophic writings and more indirectly in his tales, Usher approaches them only tentatively and hesitantly in his paintings, music, and random reading. Usher lacks Poe’s dedication and single-mindedness and is

[page 18:] dangerously passive. His undoing seems to lie in his lack of courage. Usher’s belief in the sentience of vegetable things, which the narrator dismisses as too bizarre to deserve comment, is one which is central to Poe’s belief in ultimate unity as he expounds it in Eureka (2).

It is not Usher’s “mind” which disintegrates in the course of the tale but his “reason”C understood with all the limiting connotations of Poe’s use of the word. If Usher is mad, then it is an enlightened and mind-expanding kind of madness. Although Usher’s hypersensitivity is a positive sign of imminent metamorphosis to a higher state rather than a sign of insanity, his intense fear is negative. It indicates his ambivalence toward the approaching metamorphosis and leads to his attempts to evade or postpone it. We see his evasiveness when he dismisses his malady as “. . . a mere nervous affection . . . which would undoubtedly soon pass off” (III, 280). Also, he had invited the narrator to stay with him in the hope that his friend’s cheerfulness would cure his own nervousness, but this is a vain hope, since, as soon as the narrator is in the vicinity of the house, he himself is overwhelmed with gloom. In many respects the narrator really plays the part of man’s own “reason” or “understanding” which he hopes can resolve the dilemma of his imminent mortality, but which Poe believes is ineffectual because the reason is completely abandoned in the experience of death, and the senses are self-sufficient.

The narrator does not present Poe’s view of the situation at all, because he sees only the negative aspects of Roderick’s state. Poe himself would not describe the reason as “lofty.” The narrator’s viewpoint is an unenlightened and “rational” one. He can only react to Roderick’s purely abstract paintings with an “intensity of intolerable awe” and feels that they are the product of an “excited and highly distempered ideality.” (Normally abstraction is frowned upon by Poe, but these paintings probably only seem abstract to the narrator because they have reference to a higher plane of perception than he can rise to.)

The imminence of death is strikingly frequent in many of Poe’s tales, and it is usually death as inevitable, rather than as voluntarily sought out. By setting several tales in a time of plague, he has found a simple way of dramatically intensifying all the threatening aspects of the prospect of death. The plague setting is very important in “The Sphinx” which resembles “The Fall of the House of Usher” in all but its trick ending. In “The Sphinx” Poe has reversed the roles taken by host and guest in “Usher,” making the narrator here the Usher-figure, and reinforcing the idea of Poe’s closeness to and sympathy with Roderick. As the two friends wait together daily hearing news of the death of friends from cholera, the narrator says:

The very air from the South seemed to us redolent with death. That palsying thought, indeed, took entire possession of my soul. I could neither speak, think, nor dream of anything else. My host was of a less excitable temperament, and, although greatly depressed in spirits, exerted himself to sustain my own. . . . His endeavors to arouse me from the condition of abnormal gloom into which I had fallen, were frustrated, in great measure, by certain volumes which I had found in his library. (VI, 238-239)

Poe keeps himself at a safe distance, though, by turning the tension into anticlimax and showing that this Usher [column 2:] figure also is deluded, in this case by the markings on the back of a death’s-head moth. Yet it is important to remember that although the tension of first intensity is broken, the two men are still left in a frightening and claustrophobic situation since the threat of the plague remains and their only recourse is to distract themselves from the thought of it. The characters in “The Shadow: A Parable” are in a similar situation. Here the shadow of death comes unbidden into a room where seven friends are trying to distract themselves, by singing and drinking, from the thoughts of imminent death by plague. The atmosphere of the room resembles that in the Usher mansion:

Black draperies, likewise, in the gloomy room shut out from our view the moon, the lurid stars, and the peopleless streets — but the boding and the memory of Evil, they would not be so excluded. There were things around us and about of which I can render no distinct account — things material and spiritual — heaviness in the atmosphere — a sense of suffocation — anxiety — and, above all, that terrible state of existence which the nervous experience when the senses are keenly living and awake, and meanwhile the powers of thought lie dormant. (II, 148)

The imminence of death makes itself felt for Roderick Usher in Madeline’s fatal illness. The narrator emphasizes that Roderick and Madeline are strongly interdependent, and are linked by “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature [which] had always existed between them” (III, 289). His sister’s fatal illness greatly contributes to Roderick’s dangerous fear, as he is terrified of his own vulnerability once she is dead. “‘Her decease,’ he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, ‘would leave him (him the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient house of the Ushers’” (III, 281). It is with “inexpressible agitation” that Roderick informs his guest that Madeline is on her death-bed. Madeline seems to stand for the physical body of a person approaching death, and Roderick for the senses of this same body. (Even though we would not think to separate these two, we have seen that Poe makes their separateness of fundamental importance in his theory of what happens to the body at death.)

Madeline’s disease is described as “A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character.” Catalepsy, characterized as it is by muscular rigidity and lack of response to stimuli, goes even further toward creating the general impression of the human body approaching death. Madeline’s catalepsy also marks her as opposite to Roderick with his excessive sensitivity to stimuli. They seem to make up two halves of a whole, and perhaps it is no coincidence that catalepsy is common in schizophrenia.

Roderick, knowing that Madeline is about to die, tries subconsciously to evade actual contact with her death by putting her into the vault before she has actually died, and yet his guilty terror indicates that he realizes that they must die together. The mind has to share the experience of the death of the physical body; so Madeline relentlessly seeks out Usher, and he dies from the shock of the confrontation with this spectacle of the physical body at the point of death.

In “Poe’s Sense of an Ending,” Paul Eakin describes [page 19:] Poe’s use of a “Lazarus plot” in which the hero returns from the verge of death, or from death itself, bringing the promise of final knowledge (3). He takes “Ligeia” as typical of that group of tales which involve a return from the grave, but “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which would seem to fit in this category, differs from “Ligeia” in some interesting ways. The narrator in the latter tale wills his former wife to return, while Usher resists the glowing evidence that his sister is still alive. In contrast to the intent and single-minded investigation of the mysteries of death which Ligeia and her husband undertake, Usher’s fascination with this subject, although obsessive, seems random and erratic. The collection of books which he has been poring over for years is a strange mixture, ranging from the comic and satirical to the occult and the macabre — including a manual on instruments of torture.

Eakin recognizes how Poe in his “Lazarus plots” must constantly find ways around the practical problem of how to arrange for the character who actually experiences death to return and recount his experience. In “Usher,” Poe uses a highly original solution to this problem by making the twins seem like two halves of a single person. In this way the “physical body” goes into the grave while the “mind” remains above; and yet Roderick’s mounting terror coincides with Madeline’s physical ordeal as though their simultaneous experiences together constitute one death. Madeline’s is never more than a physical presence in the tale. She never speaks or shows emotion, and the narrator only catches one glimpse of her before she is pronounced dead. When he sees her in her coffin he can only bear to glance at her briefly, just long enough to notice her striking resemblance to her brother and the faint blush and lingering smile on her face. When she finally reappears it is only her physical struggle and not an emotional ordeal which is emphasized. She is bloody, emaciated, trembling and reeling, yet she never screams, even in her violent death-agonies. She utters only a “low moaning cry” which would be involuntary. Poe’s separation of physical suffering from mental suffering here could partly explain Roderick’s paradoxical claim that he has “no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect — in terror,” thus suggesting that he is not concerned about the death of the physical body, only about the fate of the senses. In view of all this, it seems likely that the “Haunted Palace” of the poem is haunted by fear, not insanity.

At its center, this tale seems to be a dramatization of a dilemma which lies at the heart of Poe’s theories about the experience of dying. By allowing the senses to persist beyond the moment of death, he has theoretically averted the terrifying prospect of total annihilation, and yet the very persistence of the senses makes the deterioration and final annihilation of the body even more terrifying. In a supremely claustrophobic situation, the heightened senses are trapped in a decaying body and must experience its decomposition. Poe’s preoccupation with the horror of this situation is presented in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” where a man, mesmerized in articulo mortis and presumed to have been dead while still mesmerized for seven months, asks to be released from his trance. As soon as the trance is broken, “. . . his whole frame at once . . . shrunk — crumbled — absolutely rotted away beneath [column 2:] my hands. Upon the bed . . . there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putridity” (VI, 166).

We can easily see a consistency between Poe’s theories of what happens to the body at death and his fascination with premature burial. If the senses do persist into the grave, the correspondence to premature burial exists. Since the senses are alive at death, to be buried is to be buried alive. Perhaps there is an indication of Poe’s uneasiness about “physical” annihilation and his desire to cling to matter in his insistence in “Mesmeric Revelation” that God is not spirit but “ultimate, or unparticled matter” (V, 246), and that “God, with all the powers attributed to spirit, is but the perfection of matter” (V, 248). In “Monos and Una” also he emphasizes that man in his immortal state will still be “material” (IV, 205).

Usher’s painting of the inside view of a tomb where “no outlet was observed in any portion of its vast extent,” and which was far underground and yet lighted from within with “a ghastly and inappropriate splendour,” but without any “torch, or other artificial source of light” (III, 283), seems directly symbolic of a state of continued sensitivity beyond death. It is the tomb seen from within. Initially Usher believes his sister to be dead, and it is only after she is sealed in the vault that he has to make a decision about his course of action. He suspects very quickly that she is alive and yet his horror at the prospect of finding her alive inside her coffin is so extreme that it paralyzes him. Instead of daring to face the dilemma outright, he has to suffer the ordeal piecemeal, and his evasiveness proves fatal. It is not the spectacle or the prospect of death as annihilation which terrifies Usher, but the possibility — of which he becomes convinced — that some degree of life will persist in the “dead” body. This conviction seems to be a projection of the dark side of Poe’s strong need to believe that life of some kind is preserved in “the dead.”

In other tales the protagonists who are drawn to the brink of death are often freed from fear at the last minute and are mesmerized or exhilarated by curiosity or awe,4 but in “Usher” Poe allows his hero no escape from fear.



(1) The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison, 17 vols. (New York: Crowell, 1902), 111, 204. Subsequent references to Poe’s works will give volume number and page number in parentheses in the text.

(2) “All these creatures — all — those which you term inanimate, as well as those to whom you deny life for no better reason than that you do not behold it in operation — all these creatures have. in a greater or less degree, a capacity for pleasure and pain” (XVI, 314).

(3)American Literature, 45 (1973), 10.

(4) See “Descent into the Maelstrom,” “Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” “The Pit and the Pendulum,” and “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym.”


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[S:0 - PS, 1974]