I’ve been away for a while, working on my wedding plans, midterms and Christmas, not to mention an enormous rewrite of “Guts and Glory”. I hope, in length and quality, this post makes up for it. This is the third installment in my graduate papers series, and by far the most detailed. Below I have pasted my midterm thesis. If you like dystopian literature and/or Edgar Allan Poe, well, I hope you enjoy this!
I’ll be back posting fun shorts soon. Promise! 🙂 ~ MM
Metaphor of the Fall of Social Conventions
The Fall of the House of Usher
by Edgar Allan Poe
Dictionary.com defines dystopia as “a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.” The literary genre of dystopian science fiction is generally said to have begun in 1899 with HG Wells’ publication of The Story of Days to Come. (xtimeline.com) Yet sixty years prior, in 1839, Edgar Allan Poe published his classic tale of a dying noble House, entitled The Fall of the House of Usher. This short horror tale has been critiqued by many literary scholars using a variety of classifications, from vampiristic narrative (Kendall) to the unification of Enlightenment thinking with romanticism (Timmerman), to historical significance and permutations (Dougherty), to name only a few. In this paper I will add to those yet another theme, identifying The Fall of the House of Usher as uniquely and deeply dystopian. Though of course dystopia was not known then as it is today and thus Poe himself would not have called it so, I feel that its image of a dark and twisted future for the upper-classes is very much a precursor to our modern view of dystopian literature. In this vein, I will first discuss Poe’s own personal social status and political opinions, then the political environment of Poe’s larger world, and lastly the themes of a dystopian social downfall in The Fall of the House of Usher itself.
Edgar Allan Poe’s personal social status was unstable at the best of times. Born to thespian parents, Poe’s father David Poe Jr. had been a lawyer before changing his career, though his own family could best be described as middle-class. (eapoe.org) When he was three years old, Poe’s natural parents died. He was then unofficially adopted by the tobacco merchant John Allan and brought up in the upper-class world of private schools and distinguished gentry. His relationship with his adoptive father was always strained, however, and in 1827, after Poe quit college from lack of funds, their relationship deteriorated beyond repair. Not long after that Poe joined the army where he earned the rank of regimental sergeant major and later enrolled at West Point. Once again, without Allen’s adequate financial backing Poe was forced to leave, this time ending up with his aunt in Baltimore. Allan died in 1835, leaving Poe no legacy, and although Poe gained great prominence as a writer and a literary critic, his work brought little income. He supported himself and his wife, Virginia Poe, with various editorial pursuits until her death of tuberculosis in 1847 and then his own mysterious death of brain legions in 1849. (Contemporary Authors Online)
Considering his strained relationship with a gentried guardian who never actually adopted him and who left him nothing, as well as his overall negative criticism by, and snubbing of, his upper-class writer contemporaries (Contemporary Authors Online par 25), it cannot be too far off the mark to assume that Poe’s own opinions on social class and political structure were what we would call liberal today. Even though little is known about Poe’s actual political and social beliefs beyond that he was an idealist and a visionary (Biography.com 3), this fact alone would press one to believe that he felt the class structure of his time was unjust. And when one adds to this his boyhood days with house slaves and merchant sailors while growing up in Allen’s home (Neurotic Poets par 2), the assumed image of Poe as a social idealist and visionary in addition to his well-known artistic idealism and vision can easily be seen.
Still, it is a well known fact that Poe did not subscribe to the idea that works of literature should have a moral. Instead, he would best be described as an aestheticist, having said about his own work, “Beauty… is the sole legitimate province of the poem.” (Canada par 5) Thus, he believed in the aesthetic mantra of art for art’s sake. With this in mind, then, is it erroneous to think that Poe may have put his personal societal beliefs and opinions in his work at all? I would argue that he very much did, even if he did not do so intentionally, as I believe a writer inevitably pours much of himself into his work. To back up this claim, Poe himself based his literary criticisms on a dualistic theory that “…first, a work must create a unity of effect on the reader to be considered successful; second, the production of this single effect should not be left to the hazards of accident or inspiration, but should to the minutest detail of style and subject be the result of rational deliberation on the part of the author.” (Contemporary Authors Online par 22) And so we see that Poe believed a work of literature should, in fact, contain deep-seeded themes that would affect the reader in an emotional way, if not teach an overtly stated lesson. Also, many of Poe’s modern critics compare his oft-used metaphor of a dying young woman with his personal experiences in the young deaths of his mother and his wife, and again with his idealistic view of beauty in life and death (Biography.com 3). So we know that he did include at least some of his own psyche in his work. Opinions on the social order of the day can easily be included under that emotional umbrella.
Poe published The Fall of the House of Usher in September of 1839 while living in Philadelphia with his new wife Virginia. (Scharf 1) Though Poe himself found the height of his success during this time, the social and political order of his environment was highly volatile. Slavery was a huge hotbed topic of the day, an issue that would culminate into the American Civil War only two decades later. (Philadelphiahistory.org) As well, a terrible economic depression gripped America in early 1837, lasting until 1843 and forever changing the standard American social order: “Every class in the community was affected, and economic interests were deeply stirred.” (Rezneck 663) Living in the bustling urban setting of Philadelphia, Poe must have been entirely aware of these issues. Indeed, knowing that he was an idealist brought up by the upper-class and now a member of the financially lower-classes living in poverty (Scharf 1), it is safe to imagine that the economic depression, especially, effected him in a deep way. It is only natural that these deep emotional underpinnings of financial depression and societal ruin would seep into his work of the time.
The Fall of the House of Usher takes place “in the autumn of” an unspecified date, as the Narrator makes his way to the home of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher. The house, while not technically a barony or lordship, is called The House of Usher by the peasantry around it for the length of generations that the high-class family of Usher has held it. The Narrator’s friend Roderick is the last of that noble line, with only himself and his sister the lady Madeline still living there. Within days of the Narrator’s arrival at the House, Madeline, having long been sick, dies. Roderick, who has been wasting away for some time of the same affection, urges his friend to help him wall her body up in a deep vault below the Narrator’s own room. Once this has been accomplished, Roderick’s mind spirals into deep madness until, in the end, he is certain that his sister is indeed alive, has clawed her way out of her entombment, and is now coming for him. In a terrified stupor he cries out, “Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!” (Poe 42) And indeed she has been alive, if barely, and has found her way back to the living only to finally die at the threshold along with her brother, who himself dies from terror as her dead body falls on him. The story closes as the Narrator flees from the House of Usher in horror, leaving it and its ghosts, both literal and metaphoric, to the dark tarn that engulfs it.
The Fall of the House of Usher is ripe with dystopian allegory. For the purposes of this paper I will split these allegorical images of a society’s social and economic downfall into four distinct parts: The physical deterioration of the once proud house itself; the direct connection between the house and its noble family; the downfall of the Usher family from a mysterious disease; and finally, the Lancelot story-within-a-story and the sudden freak storm that together finalize the demise of Usher.
The story opens with a bleak description of the house: “I know not how it was – but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom invaded my spirit.” (Poe 25) This description goes on for over three pages and, while no outright assumption is given of what it may have looked like in its heyday, in-between the lines of Poe’s dreary description of the house one can see that it had once been strong and beautiful: “Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity… there was much that reminded me of the specious totality of old woodwork… Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eves… [yet] the fabric gave little token of instability.” (Poe 28) Inside the house, this theme of the decay of beauty and strength continues: “The room in which I found myself was very large and lofty. The windows were long, narrow and pointed, and so vast a distance from the black oaken door as to be altogether inaccessible from within… The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered.” (Poe 28-29) Altogether, the home of the Usher dynasty reflects a stark image of its once-proud high-class family, now fallen into decay.
The direct connection of the house to its family is blatant, as told by the Narrator early on: “… I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people… speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other… … in the minds of the peasantry who used it… [the title of The House of Usher applied to] both the family and the family mansion.” (Poe 27) This connection is thematic throughout the entire story, sometimes restated as blatantly as in the beginning, but most often far more subtlety noted. These subtle hints can best be seen in the physical duality of the house with its current master, Roderick Usher. Take, for example, the initial description of Roderick in comparison of the earlier description of the vast windows of the house as quoted above: “… an eye large, liquid and luminous beyond comparison …” (Poe 29) and this, as compared to the fungi growing on the outside of the house: “… hair of more than web-like softness…” (Poe 29) Indeed, it seems that Roderick and the house are one in the same. This connection is further confirmed in the final scenes when Roderick goes mad from entombing his sister in the vault below. Although he has no concrete way of knowing that she is still alive and has made her way out of the vault, Roderick is not only certain she is coming, but he tracks her progress: “Will she not be here anon? Is she not hurrying to upbraid me for my haste… she now stands without the door!” (Poe 42) It may seem to the discerning reader that the house itself has told him where she is at each moment. Finally, the house’s connection to its master is clinched in its supernaturally violent sinking into the tarn directly after Roderick, its final master, meets his own demise.
When the story opens, both the lady Madeline and Roderick are sick with a mysterious disease that their doctors have been entirely unable to diagnose, let a lone treat. Madeline is further gone than her brother but not by much. The Narrator meets the main physician of the family when he first comes to the mansion: “His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with trepidation and passed on.” (Poe 28) The description of “low cunning and perplexity” seems an odd oxi-moron. However, I believe this pertains to the doctor having an idea of what is wrong but also not entirely believing it, as the mysterious disease is far more psychological than physical. Indeed, the sickness is observed in as much a way in Roderick: “His action was alternatively vivacious and sullen. His voice varied rapidly from a tremulous indecision (when the animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance) to that species of energetic concision – that abrupt, weighty, unhurried, and hollow-sounding enunciation – that leaden, self-balanced, and perfectly modulated guttural utterance, which may be observed in the lost drunkard…” (Poe 30) Even Roderick himself seems to know that his condition is not entirely physical, as he tells the Narrator, “’I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results… In this unnerved, in this pitiful condition I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.’” (Poe 30-31) Taking into consideration Poe’s perceived political and social beliefs and the devastating financial depression of the day, this commentary by Roderick can easily be seen as a direct connection to the uncertainty of future that the upper-classes were feeling at the time.
This disease of fear slowly eats away at both Ushers, just as the economic fear ate away at the people in Poe’s real world, until both Ushers are dead. Madeline dies not only from her disease but from her brother’s premature burial of her body, a metaphor that can easily be traced to the attitude of Poe’s day towards the workless poor: “”Fly, scatter through the country, go to the Great West, anything rather than remain here. . . .’” (Rezneck 665) Roderick, in a desperate effort to wall away the fear of his own demise, walls away the demise of his sister so that he can’t see it. But still it haunts him, just as the wails of the poor haunted the wealthy during the depression, until he, too, is dead. One can even say that he dies from her own hand, his fear getting the best of him at the end and that fear being clinched in the view of his sister’s terrible state. This can be viewed as a veiled warning that when society ignores its brothers and sisters in need, its own demise cannot be far off.
In the final pages of the story, the Narrator is in his own rooms experiencing a terrible feeling of foreboding when Roderick visits him in a condition that appalls his friend: “…there was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes.” (Poe 38) A storm has been brewing for some time before this visit, but the Narrator has chosen not to look at it. Roderick, however, throws open the casements and forces his friend to look. The storm is mostly made up of violent and unpredictable winds along with an “… unnatural light of a faintly luminous and distinctly gaseous exaltation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion.” (Poe 39)
The Narrator, fearing the storm and its possible effect on his already mad companion, closes the shutters and forces Roderick to sit and listen to him read a story in the hopes that it will distract them both from the wailing winds and unnatural light outside. The story, not one of Roderick’s favorites, is titled “The Mad Tryst of Sir Lancelot Canning”. Though the hero of this story-within-a-story is not Sir Lancelot, it should be noted that to most, Sir Lancelot is best known for his affair with Queen Guinevere and the resulting toppling of King Arthur’s golden rule over Camelot. As such, I feel Poe’s choice to use this particular character in his imagined title is very telling in the metaphor of the dystopian-esque fall of his own society. As the Narrator begins to read, Ethelred, the hero of the tale, has just decided to force his way into a hermit’s dwelling, being both drunk and in need of a place to stay. There Ethelred is attacked by a dragon and is forced to slay it. During the course of the story there are three distinct points where both the Narrator and Roderick hear literal echoes from the fictional story within the house: the tearing of wood as Ethelred smashes his way into the dwelling, the harsh shriek of the slain dragon in its death-throws, and finally the mighty and terrible ringing sound of the great enchanted bronze shield as it falls to the silver floor, Ethelred having taken it down from the wall. In each instance the Narrator is shocked, so we know that these sounds are not in Roderick’s own head, but quite literal. To his terrified friend, Roderick gives his perceived account of each: “And now — to-night — Ethelred — ha! ha! — the breaking of the hermit’s door, and the death-cry of the dragon, and the clangour of the shield! –say, rather, the rending of her coffin, and the grating of the iron hinges of her prison, and her struggles within the coppered archway of the vault!” (Poe 42) These three sounds can be interpreted another way as well, when taking into consideration The Fall of the House of Usher as dystopian allegory: The fall of the hermit’s door is the fall of the lower-classes that always comes first in a depression. Then follows the dragon’s protection of the great shield, or the government’s protection of the high-classes and the death-cries of its ultimate fall. Finally, the shield itself falls with a great clangor: the fall of the upper-classes and the end of society as it has previously been known. Taking Madeline’s metaphoric place as the out-of-work masses ignored out of fear by the upper-classes (Roderick), this metaphor finds its way full-circle as she accosts him, thus finalizing her own death as well as his own.
The storm plays a part in all this as well. Raging outside as the Narrator reads the story of Ethelred, it throws a great gust of wind into the chamber, opening the doors and revealing Madeline’s dying form: “… the huge antique panels to which the speaker pointed threw slowly back… It was the work of the rushing gust — but then without those doors there DID stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher.” (Poe 42) The storm is also the final nail in the Usher coffin, with its gusts finishing a crack down the middle of the house and sinking it into the tarn forever. Metaphorically speaking, I can see the storm and its winds as change, forever altering society (Usher) as it has henceforth been known.
Taking all these things into account, then, we can see that Roderick’s house, family, and physical and emotional state can be seen as a mirror to the misery-filled dystopian future that Poe and many others of his day feared coming from the depression that gripped their world. Thus, while it is not directly considered so, I feel The Fall of the House of Usher can be seen as a precursor to modern dystopia as we now know it.
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© Jessica Sandoval 2012