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On the use of allegory and the narrative function of the name "Usher" in E.A.Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"
1.) Discuss the use of allegory in E.A.Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher."
In an allegoric narrative the action and setting have by definition a second meaning next to the superficial, literal sense. In the case of E.A.Poe's story "The Fall of the House of Usher" this is already indicated by the lexical ambiguity of the title. Its equivocal quality is due to the term "house." On the one hand we could read "house" as a metonymy denoting Usher's family. The title would then mean "The Decline of the Lineage of Usher" - which is probably how most readers would interpret it straight away. On the other hand, however, "house" could simply mean Usher's estate. We could then paraphrase the title as "The Tumbling Down of Usher's Mansion." As the term “house” can refer to both the house as well as its inhabitant, this ambiguity is a first hint to the allegorical relation between both.
We are told already in the title that both are threatened by imminent destruction. The terms "house" and "fall" are contrasted there: "house" in either sense is a term with - at least at first sight - entirely positive connotations. It implies stability, age, tradition; a house is something long-lasting that gives shelter to its inhabitant. "Fall," in contrast, is clearly an absolutely negative term connected with decay, etc. The gap between both terms is vast: something as solid as a house is not expected to "fall." In the end, however, it does - the story is therefore to be read as an allegory of transitoriness.
On quite an early stage the mansion turns out to be not that stable as it should be: the narrator perceives a “fissure”1 in the building. On an allegoric level this fissure corresponds to Usher’s mental illness; the final collapse of the whole building, brought about by this “barely perceptible fissure” (277) corresponds to Usher’s eventual death - it impressively underlines the fact that with his death Usher's lineage, the “house of Usher,” is extinct.
The story's allegorical leitmotif of transitoriness is supported by the temporal and spatial setting, both of which are introduced at the very beginning of the story. Corresponding to the "fall" that is a central theme of the story and that makes its first appearance in the title, Poe has chosen autumn, "the time of the fall of the leaf,"2 as the temporal setting for his story - a season that is traditionally and for obvious reasons connected with decay. In the first sentence we are told that the initial scene is set on a "dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year” (273).
And not only the year but also the day is coming to an end here as "the shades of the evening [draw] on" (273). This apocalyptic imagery, pointing to the imminent "Fall of the House of Usher," is continued and intensified in the description of the landscape surrounding Usher's house - a "singularly dreary tract of country" characterized by "trunks of decayed trees" (273) - as well as in the description of the outward appearance of the mansion itself. It is called "melancholy" (273), a quality normally attributed to people rather than to things. This personification of the house again points to the close allegorical relation between the mansion and its inhabitant. As the narrator looks at this "mansion of gloom" (274) with "bleak walls" (273), he perceives "the crumbling condition of the individual stones [of the masonry]" (276) - an "indication of extensive decay" (277) - and eventually the "fissure" (277).
The mansion's "principle feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity" (276), a quality that also characterizes the interior - "the Gothic archway of the hall" (277), the "long, narrow, and pointed" (277) (=Gothic!) windows - and which points to the long history of Usher's "ancient" and "time-honoured" (275) family. Both the house and the family are very old; they are now, if you like, in the autumn of their lifes and are not spared the fate of all things earthly. The description of both the temporal and spatial circumstances of the story is used purposefully here; the setting is endowed with allegorical meaning, it underlines the motif of transitoriness and functions as a harbinger of the imminent destruction that awaits the "House of Usher."
The frequent use of the image of the "vault" points to another central, allegorical theme of the story that is connected to the mansion as well. A house can be a symbol for a secure place giving shelter - here this security is perverted, the house has turned into a prison and a grave for Usher and his sister. Usher's room resembles such a vault, its windows are "altogether inaccessible from within," (277), the ceiling is "vaulted" (278). Another vault appears on one of his drawings. It is an image of absolute imprisonment as it lies "at an exceeding depth below the surface of the earth" and has "no outlet" and "no torch" (283). And finally there's the vault in which Roderick's sister is entombed, a place from which, at least one would think so, no escape is possible. The fearful image of the vault illustrates the fact that Roderick "had never ventured forth" from his dwelling "for many years" (281).
2.) Analyse the narrative function of the name "Usher" with special re ference to the mental processes represented throughout "The Fall of the House of Usher."
The name "Usher" is not just an arbitrarily chosen name. An usher is, according to the definition given in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, “someone who works in a law court whose job is to make sure there is no trouble.”
Yet another allusion to the judicial sphere is made by the speaker who considers Usher's request to visit him "a very singular summons" (p.275). A summons is an official order to appear in a court of law. By making use of this kind of terminology, the narrator shows that he feels under a certain moral pressure: "as his best, and indeed his only personal friend" (274) he feels obliged by their old bonds of friendship to stand by Usher. The narrator complies with Usher's request like someone would obey a summons. He appears in the House of Usher, an inquisitional, moral court of conscience where his friendship and strength of character are put to the test - will he be able to endure the strange world he is going to be ushered into? The process of being ushered into Usher’s world sets in at the very start of the story where the narrator gives an account of his perception of the landscape. He proves to be strongly affected by it - among his feelings are "a sense of insufferable gloom" and "an utter depression of soul" (273). Not only does he turn out to be not at all objective here; we also have to be sceptical about his soundness of mind when he compares his intense experience of the landscape and the mansion "to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium" (273). Although he has not entered the building yet, he has already been ushered into his friend's world and has already tasted the madness that is waiting there. Later, the narrator will compare Usher to an "irreclaimable eater of opium" (279). He enters the mansion and is conducted "through many dark and intricate passages" (277) that represent Roderick's strange and inaccessible world of thought. As time goes by, the narrator is ushered deeper and deeper into this world - "a closer and still closer intimacy admitted me more unreservedly into the recesses of his spirit" (282). One day, as he listens to one of Usher's "wild fantasias" (284), he is suddenly aware that he perceives "for the first time, a full consciousness on the part of Usher" (284). After they have entombed Usher's sister in a vault "immediately beneath (...) [the narrator's] sleeping apartment" (288), Usher is completely out of his mind and in "extreme terror" (289), which has a strong effect on the narrator. He is finally overpowered by "the wild influences of [Usher's] fantastic yet impressive superstitions" and admits to be "infected" (290) by his friend's condition. The process of being ushered into Usher's world is now complete; "the nervousness which had dominion over me" (290) corresponds to Usher's "nervous agitation" (274). The symptoms of his agitation are given in great detail - and we have to ask ourselves, whether we can trust this narrator any longer, e.g. when he claims to perceive "certain low and indefinite sounds" (290).
1 E.A.Poe, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, Tales (New York: AMS Press Inc., 1965) 277. Vol.3 of The Complete Works of E.A.Poe. All subsequent references to “The Fall of the House of Usher” are to this edition and will be given directly in the text.
2 "Fall" in Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Cassell 1997.