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“The Fall of the House of Usher”

23 Feb 2017Literature Essays

Edgar Allan Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” is narrated in the first person by one of the active participants in the story. The unnamed narrator relates his experience in the house of Roderick Usher who is a descendant of an old family and who believes that the house is contributing to his mental deterioration which is also affected by the eventual decease of his twin sister Madeline. Characteristic of Poe’s writing, we once again go through the experiences of a person’s mind and thought. The difference with the “Fall of the House of Usher” is that we are seeing two minds working at the same time – the mind of the narrator and the mind of Roderick Usher from the perspective of the narrator which may or may not be biased.

What makes this story more interesting is the participation of two passive characters – the sister of Usher Madeline and the house itself – and it is in the interaction of all four characters that critics have focused their interpretations, critiques and reviews.

This story has been interpreted by literary critics numerous times and the interpretation of each critic varies from religion, to philosophy to sociology and to psychology.

Concepts of Freudian sexuality and psychoanalysis have been associated to this story as well as well as the philosophical concepts of Locke, Kant and Hegel. It is specifically in the philosophical concepts of empiricism and transcendentalism that this paper will focus on to get to what Poe is trying to relay in his creation of this story. As the story goes, we wonder whether or not what is happening to Usher is as the narrator describes as hypochondria and madness or is what Usher is uttering the actual truth.

Beverly Voloshin claims that the “Fall of the House of Usher” is heavily influenced by the transition from the age of Enlightenment to the age of Romanticism in literary art. According to her, writers at the time were moving from empiricism towards transcendentalism: “When the writers of the 1830s and 1840s tried to get out of the block universe or dead level of eighteenth-century empiricism, they produced curious and paradoxical figures of transcendence.” (Voloshin 19)

To better understand what Voloshin is referring to it is best to differentiate empiricism and transcendence. Empiricism posits that knowledge can only be acquired through sensual experience while Transcendence claims that there is a consciousness outside the realm of the world that moves the world – in other words a God.

Therefore, Voloshin is claiming that from a sensual experience that literature took in the Age of Enlightenment writers are moving to a more romantic inclination towards transcendence as best represented, according to her, by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature.” (19) She compares Emerson’s Nature which reaches up to the divine to Poe’s “Usher” which she avers to have a downward movement of transcendence: “Poe presents transcendental projects which threaten to proceed downward rather than upward. The tales have a paradoxical structure in which transcendence is figured as an outward or downward movement, as the method for going beyond the universe of Lockean empiricism is to go through it.” (19) She is basing this downward movement on the depression of the house and it’s invertedness in the tarn claiming that somehow the story gives the impression that the divine experience has been finished and the house and the characters are now in “the after-dream of the reveller upon opium.”(Poe 7.)

John Timmerman also acknowledges the fact that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is heavily influenced by Poe’s movement from Enlightenment to Romanticism, however, he adds one more factor to the equation – Poe’s cosmology. (Timmerman 228) Timmerman claims that “The Fall of the House of Usher” fully utilizes Poe’s spiritual beliefs which Poe indicated in his essay “Eureka”: “we can observe the theory for unity, symmetry, and harmony emerging from Eureka, the aesthetic principles of the theory in his essays, and the application of those principles in a study of the conflict between Romanticism and Enlightenment in "The Fall of the House of Usher." (228)

In Timmerman’s article, he enumerates the different spiritual beliefs of Poe which are contained in Poe’s “Eureka”. Poe apparently believes in the existence of a Prime Mover as the source of all - “'In the beginning' we can admit-indeed, we can comprehend, but one First Cause, the truly ultimate Principle, the Volition of God” (Poe qtd. in Timmerman 229) - but at the same time Poe believes that this first cause is represented by unity. (229) Timmerman continues on to discuss Poe’s “Poetic Principle” which states that “that the task of the poet is ‘to apprehend the supernal loveliness’ (Essays 77) of God's order and that the best way to do so is through sadness. Poe reflects ‘that (how or why we know not) this certain taint of sadness is inseparably connected with all the higher manifestations of true Beauty’ (Essays 81).” (230) This discussion eventually leads to Poe’s sentience theory wherein “If indeed all things are willed into being ex nihilo, then not only all humanity but also all matter is part and parcel with God.” (230)

All of these, Timmerman puts together to explain how he believes Poe creates an “architecture of mirrors” to demonstrate his cosmological and philosophical beliefs. (231) Each an every character –from Roderick to Madeline to the Narrator and the house – represent opposite forces of the scale like irrationality/rationality, psychological disease/physical disease, order/disorder, and harmony/chaos. Timmerman continues that these mirror images ultimately represent the move from enlightenment to romanticism: “In this story, however, the balance between Enlightenment and Romantic itself is situated at the heart of the story. Roderick himself is emblematic of Romantic passion, while Madeline is emblematic of Enlightenment. Their genesis, as fraternal twins, is unified-a perfectly mirrored complementarity-but the story unveils their splitting to mutual destruction.” (237) Timmerman, however, does not touch on empiricism which is a highlight during Enlightenment and transcendentalism.

I believe that both articles, combined, fully interpret the story of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” However, I believe Voloshin made the mistake of confusing transcendence with transcendentalism. Transcendentalism, which states that knowledge can be formed a priori even without sensual experience, is the reaction towards empiricism, not transcendence. Transcendence is more Aristotelian, nevertheless, transcendentalism complements transcendence in the sense that the a priori knowledge which humans supposedly have comes from a First Cause or Prime Mover. Thus I do not agree that the transcendence in “The Fall of the House Of Usher” has a downward movement. I believe that with the sentience theory and cosmological belief of Poe, empiricism and transcendentalism in the story eventually resulted in transcendence proving that the events in the house are real.

The narrator represents empiricism wherein all his knowledge and judgments are based on his sensual experiences, from the sight of the house inverted in the tarn to the density of the air on top of the house. He believed that his experience can easily be changed if that which appeals to his senses are changed a s well: “It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression”( Poe 7) Roderick represents transcendentalism because even without sensual experience he already has knowledge of what will occur and of the sentience of the house. The house, although inanimate, represents the supernatural force.

Remember that unity is representative of the divine, as far as Poe is concerned, and the house in the manner in which it was constructed provided order at the same time a union that lasted through time despite an existing crack in the wall. This is supported when the narrator said, “There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime.” (7) Although the author claims that the heaviness cannot be attributed to the divine, knowing Poe’s cosmological belief, we know that that depression which the house permeated is part and parcel of the Beauty that can only be divine. Therefore, order, unity and sadness are existent in the description of the house.
Madeline is the anti thesis of all – transcendence, empiricism, and transcendentalism. She represents the mundane world, mortality and the frailty of man. She does not feel for her senses have already failed her (“a partially cataleptical

Character” (11)), she does not show any knowledge of anything whether sensual or a priori and she is sick showing the weakness of man and man’s eventual death. However, Madeline remains the catalyst of the story which brings both characters – the narrator and Roderick – towards transcendence.

Initially, the narrator tries to remains objective giving natural explanations to the occurrences that is happening in the house (i.e. calling Roderick a hypochondriac, reading the Mad Trist of Sir Lancelot to appease the fear felt both by himself and Roderick due to the storm.). His knowledge of reality is based on what he feels and what he perceives, anything beyond this means it was not real thus he made the conclusion that Roderick is mad. On the other hand, Roderick who has a priori knowledge believes that he is falling into a mental illness. He believes that his senses are acute, so acute it can be considered “godly” or insane to the narrator. Without any sensual experience or rational proof, he knows for a fact that the house is “alive”. Nonetheless, Roderick feels that he is losing any form of order and unity. It is when Madeline jumps on Roderick, killing him, that Roderick’s transcendentalism reaches transcendence through death. Roderick, through death has overcome his fear and has reached the next spiritual dimension. On the other hand, the narrator finally reaches and believes transcendence through his sensual experience. He experiences, first hand, the re emergence of Madeline and the force that seems to control the events in the house. He has sensual proof that the house is alive. And finally the shattering of the house, is the destruction of the physicality of God and the transcending from the senses to the spirit because now, even without the house, which can be perceived and sensed, the narrator knows, through his experience that there is a supernatural force there. In the end, both empiricism and transcendentalism resulted in proving transcendence.

In conclusion, during the time that “The Fall of the House of Usher was written, society was going through a transition. Initially, the existence of God and anything supernatural was without question and then the Age of Enlightenment had arrived and it gave the whole of society a different view of God, the supernatural and religion. Empiricism was one of the intellectual concepts that questioned the existence of any supernatural force. However, the dawn of Romanticism came the Transcendental philosophies defending the existence of God, and posits that man’s intelligence came from this transcendent being. Poe was in the middle of this transition. He also had his own convictions about religion and he definitely believed that there is a God, if not, a Prime force. All of these – from the changing philosophies and intellectual concepts to his own beliefs – he portrayed best in “The Fall of the House of Usher”. He used his genius in manipulating his characters and allowing the reader to go into the mind, of not just one, but two of his characters to better demonstrate the two different philosophies and how the concepts eventually intersect into his own cosmological beliefs with the presence of the third character Madeline.

It may be so that this story can be interpreted in numerous ways, but looking at it through empiricism and transcendentalism, Poe was able to portray the prominent ideas during his time and he was able to synchronize two supposedly opposing philosophical concepts into one story – a feat most writers tried to do during the transition, but that which Poe was able to do masterfully.

Reference:

  • “Rationalism vs. Empiricism.” Stanford University of Philosophy. 19 August 2004. 24 October 2007.
  • Irani, Tushar. “PHILOSOPHY AS IDEALISM: DEFINITION AND TRANSCENDENCE IN HEGEL'S THEORY OF FREEDOM.” 2 October 2002.
  • Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher”. The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction, 10.3. Comp. and Ed. Charles William Eliot. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1917: 7-18. Bartleby.com, 2001. 24 October 2007 
  • Robinson, E. Arthur. “Order and Sentience in "The Fall of the House of Usher." PMLA, Vol. 76.1. (1961): 68-81.
  • Timmerman, John H. “House of mirrors: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 39.3 (2003): 227-244
  • Voloshin, Beverly. “Transcendence Downward: An Essay on ‘Usher’ and ‘Ligeia.’” Modern Language Studies 18.3 (1988): 18-29.

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