The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)
by Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
The foundation of the “House of P-B” is fear and the superstructure consists of the beliefs, attitudes and values of the false self. Within this house the identities, and thus the behavior of the occupants, are driven by the illusion that they are prisoners of the endless narrative circling neurotically through their minds; the sensations in their slowly dying bodies and their uncontrolled emotional reactions to all of this experience. No wonder that living in the “House of P-B” is slowly driving many of us a little crazy.
As the narrator in The Fall of the House of Usher comes to realize, the illusion can slowly become “reality” to all of the occupants trapped inside Usher’s house which seemed to have a life of its own. The three characters in the story include Usher, his sister and the visitor (narrator). “More and more, the visitor felt that Usher’s superstitious beliefs about the malignant influence of the house were true. He could not sleep, and his body began to tremble almost as unreasonably as Usher’s.”[i]
Of course, using Poe’s story as a metaphor for the principles or “superstructure” of Simple Reality, is not to be found elsewhere among the many critics of Poe’s writing. He is possibly America’s most misunderstood and underappreciated writer. “More than a century after his death, Edgar Allan Poe probably remains—both in his life and his work—America’s most controversial writer.”[ii]
What do the conventional critics think Poe meant to say with his ambiguous short story? Their analyses fall into three general schools of interpretation: psychological, supernatural and symbolic. Since we have characterized human behavior in P-B as self-destructive and since self-destruction is by definition insanity, we can say that the human community is descending further into madness. Roderick Usher, then represents humanity’s psychological disintegration. “As an artist, intellectual and introvert, Usher has become so reclusive that his prolonged isolation, coupled with the sickness of his sister, has driven him to the edge of madness; along with the narrator, the reader sees him go over the edge.”[iii]
In the context of Simple Reality, humanity is seen as an irrational animal with a mind filled with superstition and driven by cravings and aversions. The human experience, therefore, is explained less as that of an occupant of an asylum for the insane, as in the psychological explanation above, but more like that of an endless nightmare filled with phantasmagorical forms and creatures. According to this second school of interpretation, only the presence of the supernatural can explain the behavior of the characters. “The Usher curse is working itself out; the house is possessed and is destroying the occupants. Roderick is a demon drawing vitality from his sister until, as a Nemesis figure, she returns to punish him; Madeline is a vampire claiming her victim.”[iv] And indeed, P-B is replete with vampires, ghouls and zombies but there is nothing supernatural about them, they are ourselves and our neighbors.
“In the third view, the story is seen as an allegory: Roderick as intellect is suppressing sensuality (Madeline) until it revolts; Madeline is a mother figure who returns from the grave to punish Usher-Poe for deserting her and having incest desires; Roderick is the artist who must destroy himself in order to create; the entire story is a symbolic enactment of the Apocalypse according to Poe.”[v]
Each of the three interpretations of Poe’s short story is valid in explaining the human condition as seen from the perspective of Simple Reality. Was Poe perhaps unconsciously assuming the role of archetypal prophet and warning humanity of our impending disaster as long as we persist in choosing self-destructive behavior?
When we choose reaction over response we are surrendering to the fear-driven false self. “‘I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive,’ says Roderick Usher, ‘when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.’ Thus Poe underscores ‘fear’ as the central emotion he wished to provoke, and the story can best be discussed in terms of how he develops this response [reaction].”[vi] We may be attributing too much intention to Poe as a 19th century prophet, but we have made clear throughout this book that artists play that role unconsciously.
Roderick Usher was right about his basic conclusions. The “life” we must abandon is the pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. We must also come to realize that our dependence on “reason,” i.e., our intellect, only intensifies our fear. Turning to our inner wisdom, our heart-felt intuition, will empower us to experience the collapse of our ghostly illusions with equanimity and relief.
[i] Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper, 1989, page 292.
[iii] Ibid., page 293.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.