Tomb or Womb: The Freudian Approach to Live Burial in Edgar Allan Poe‘s "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Premature Burial"

Term Paper, 2011

20 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Freudian’s Approach to Reading Poe: Live Burial
2.1. The Longing for the Womb in “The Fall of the House of Usher”
2.2. Lady Madeline Usher as Freud’s Uncanny Muse
2.3. The Return of the Repressed and Breaking the Moral Order
2.4. Repressed Wishes for Death in “Premature Burial”?

3. Conclusion


1. Introduction

There is a certain clever rhetoric from the buried protagonist in the introduction “The Premature Burial”, Edgar Allan Poe’s tale: “The boundaries which divide Life from Death, are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and the other begins?“ (Poe 322), as he finds himself “buried” in what he believes to be a coffin, as the story starts to intrigue us with one of the most terrifying and arguably uncanny experiences - live burial.

The narrator is obsessed, a walking “dead man”, who eventually saves himself from the terrifying experience and exaggerated fear, but not from the uncanny feeling. It is as much dreadful as when we as readers perceive the buried-alive Lady Madeline Usher breaking the vault steel door of her coffin, uttering eerie sounds and appearing bloody at her brother Roderick’s door in Poe’s even more gruesome tale, “The Fall of the House of Usher”. The protagonists too are quite different, as are the representations of the motive of live burial in both stories - one hand we deal with, as this essay will try and prove, an evident incestuous relationship and perhaps Roderick’s certain repressed wishes, and on the other hand the exaggerated, almost satiric general fear of a seemingly cataleptic state and death.

Yet in both stories, the buried-alive come back, and along with them the repressed returns. Both accounts intimidate the reader , undoubtedly perform a Poe-like effect on us as readers, a great deal we ascribe to Poe’s terrifying premature burial. Yet why would we choose to argue about the terrifying in the premature burial? Is there more to a general obsession with death in that the narrator in “The Premature Burial” goes through all the details to prevent an inside-the-coffin experience? The opening line of the story certainly stands out of the satiric resolution of the story. Similarly, Madeline Usher is surely not just a walking dead seeking revenge, with a supernatural strength that can break down steel vault doors and, falling down, kill her brother? Uncanny it undoubtedly is, but is there more to it then our mind first perceives, something behind the terrifying experience? There is an approach that offers a deeper analysis.

In his famous essay on the “The Uncanny”, published in 1919, psychologist Sigmund Freud toys with the idea of the experience of live burial. What we consider, as he says, one of the most terrifying uncanny element in human consciousness, present in our two tales as well, Freud attributes to a “psychological transformation of another phantasy which had originally nothing terrifying about it at all, but was filled with a certain lustful pleasure - the phantasy, I mean, of intra-uterine existence“ (Freud 15). In an attempt to understand more about his theory, we need to look deeper in his analysis to try to puzzle out what the psychological transformation is, and what he suggests lies behind our superficial understanding of the horror of live burial, and what kind of a “intra-uterine existence” relates to our protagonists, if at all.

The aim of this essay is therefore quite direct - our approach does not deal with the attempt to interpret author’s intention in general. The narrator of “Premature Burial” might be able to rationally account for his experience after he is saved, however irrational his behavior may be. Whether some supernatural, magical, or as some critics argue, or just another form of Poe’s exaggeration of death morbidity - for the purposes of this paper it does not matter. Our discussion will not dwell on the supernatural element nor will it try to irrationalize the rational. In this paper I invite a specific Freudian reading, rather than generic overall impression of the uncanny of the live burial. The psychoanalytical theoretical approach will try to deal with the narrator’s idea of boundaries between life and death as terrifying transformation of the buried narrator in “Premature Burial” and something strangely familiar in our conscious - as well as a certain wish, Roderick’s longing for an utopian-like state of a mother’s womb, repressed in burying Madeline. Poe’s application of the uncanny element will leads us to conclude that what Freud is to the theory, Poe is to practice.

Furthermore, the paper calls for specific aspects in Freudian’s approach, which he regards to the uncanny theme of live burial, with an aim of proving that Poe’s characters are much more a psychologically constructed ideas, who exhibit certain psychological traits that go in account with Freud’s idea of live burial - connecting heimlich and unheimlich, female genitals and intra-uterine existence as a psychological transformation. Addressing this issues of Poe’s motive in the two tales, the Freudian literary reading confirms that there is more to being buried alive, than meets the uncanny eye, that is, subconscious mind.

2. A Freudian Approach to Reading Poe: Live Burial

There are certain aspects in Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” that intermingle with each other and form the basis for his interpretation of live burial as the uncanny element, such as a hint to the intra-uterine existence, homely feeling of security and repressed sexual wishes. Examining their relationship will help us to investigate how the whole approach applies to an interpretation Edgar Allan Poe’s two tales.

Initially, Freud explores the origin of the word uncanny is debated upon, going to great lengths to uncover the ambiguity between words in different languages. What he ends up is an unexpected conclusion that combines the uncanny and something pleasant (Germ. unheimlich, heimlich), as the same term: “among its different shades of meaning the word heimlich exhibits one which is identical with its opposite, unheimlich. What is heimlich thus comes to be unheimlich” (Freud 3). In addition, Freud says that unhemlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich. This would then suggest that what is considered eerie, strange, unfamiliar, scary, relates closely to something familiar, “Friendly, intimate, homelike; the enjoyment of quiet content, etc., arousing a sense of peaceful pleasure and security as in one within the four walls of his house” (ibid.).

From this conclusion we relate directly to what in this essay concerns us most. Discussing the role of live burial, Freud explains that although many people are terrified at the thought, or phantasm of being buried alive, this feeling is simply a “psychological transformation of another phantasy which had originally nothing terrifying about it at all, but was filled with a certain lustful pleasure - the phantasy, I mean, of intra-uterine existence“(ibid. 15). Connecting the familiar and unfamiliar, heimlich and unheimlich in a singular unit, Freud suggests that in his psychoanalytical basis, what scares us in live burial is a psychological transformation - a wish to come back to that “friendly, intimate, homelike” (ibid.) state of pre-birth existence, to put it bluntly, to be reunited with the mother.

By extension of his debate of what lies behind that phantasy of burial, Freud also states that “It often happens that male patients declare that they feel there is something uncanny about the female genital organs”, which coincides with his initial explanation, that “This unheimlich place, however, is the entrance to the former heim [home] of all human beings, to the place where everyone dwelt once upon a time and in the beginning” (ibid. 15). He does not leave the question open, but concludes in with an arguably typical analogy: “There is a humorous saying: “Love is home-sickness”; and whenever a man dreams of a place or a country and says to himself, still in the dream, “this place is familiar to me, I have been there before,’ we may interpret the place as being his mother’s genitals or her body” (ibid. 15). His final sentence substantiates our attempt of trying to investigate what uncanny there is about live burial in Poe’s tales, especially regarding his concluding sentence: “In this case, too, the unheimlich is what was once heimisch, homelike, familiar; the prefix ‘‘un’’ is the token of repression.” (ibid 15).

Our study will observe these three aspects, not simply for the reasons of traceability in Poe’s accounts, but with an aim of connecting the three aspects in a circular movement that develops in the stories - if the wish for returning to the female genitals into the intra-uterine existence of what is pleasure, has something uncanny and does the wish of it conflict with the moral. In Freud’s psychoanalytical assumptions, the uncanny would not be that frightening nor scary as we generally associate with live burial seems, but would awoke a strangely familiar repressed memory from the childhood, that is, a pre-childhood state, that of “intra- uterine existence”.

This theoretical framework will serve as a starting point for our discussion as we try to search for the interpretation in the works of an author that seems to have been innocently acquainted with the whole idea and that seems to be obsessed with death, and live burial - Edgar Allan Poe, for he is known to present “portrayals of body mutilations, smothering, drowning, entombments of the living, the wasting away and rotting away of bodies, situations emptied of human dialogue, [that] are calculated to re-evoke in the reader the archaic fears of childhood” (Kaplan 45). Poe’s use of burial before death is common, as beside the two famous tales: “The Fall of the House of Usher”, published in 1839, and “The Premature Burial”, from 1844, it is contained in well-known tales such as “Ligeia” and “Berenice”1.

Precisely the different application of the live burial makes it possible to consider Poe a Freud’s right hand. “The Fall of the House of Usher” might not directly remind us of Freud’s initial statement on the uncanny, but the initial lexical blend that connects pleasant and the uncanny in a friendly and homelike state is quite intriguing in studying Poe. The people that he buries return from a grave, whatever that grave my stand for. The motives for such an outcome relate back to Freud as Poe too seems to revoke some experiences or archaic fears of childhood.

Where in “The Premature Burial” the narrator questions us, what are the borders between life and death, and in the “The Fall of the House of Usher”, those lines are yet even more distinct, as Roderick Usher confuses us with his state and his sister Lady Madeline’s. It might often have been a woman that dies and comes back in Poe’s tales, yet Poe brings Madeline back because of Roderick Usher. The uncanny feeling dominates in the two tales, yet Roderick and Madeline strikingly reminds us of our theoretical reference - assuming that a wish for intra-uterine existence would suggest a circular life movement, and eliminate the justification of the uncanny feeling.

The burial not only symbolizes the deep structure which has interested Poe within the human consciousness, probably in a way following Freud’s assumption a rather general one that “To many people the idea of being buried alive while appearing to be dead is the most uncanny thing of all” (Freud 14), as one of Poe’s most recurrent themes - death. And, at that initial reading, Poe seems to stop where Freud begins. He deepens the live-burial: If uncanny is coming close and becoming pleasant, that is, “Friendly, intimate, homelike; the enjoyment of quiet content, etc., arousing a sense of peaceful pleasure and security as in one within the four walls of his house” (ibid. 3), how does Roderick’s burying of Madeline relate to it? She is the return of the repressed in Roderick.

Similarly, the narrator of “Premature Burial” comes to a terrifying realization that he is inside a coffin. Poe’s tales that arguably first and foremost have in mind to intimidate agitate the reader to feel fear, for what many critics claim his responsibility. In trying to find that combining factor, and see whether Poe too subconsciously applies those repressed wish in his tales, we need to look no further than this psychoanalysis by Freud. The analysis of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Premature Burial” helps us discover that there is something repressed; heimlich or unheimlich. In that “token of repression” (ibid. 14), Poe seems to be an applicant of Freud’s theoretical ideas.

2.1. The Longing for the Womb in “The Fall of the House of Usher”

The narrator arrives to the House of Usher perplexed by the overall eerie feeling in the House. He meets Usher, and observes him, only to find out that “he suffered from a morbid acuteness of senses” (Poe 78). Even the physical characterization allows us to view Roderick as a person of disturbed senses, which, as we will see later, moves on to the psychological judgments. He himself claims he is struggling with “the grim phantasm, FEAR” (Poe 82), and that he will lose this struggle, that he “shall perish” (ibid.), and he seems rather convinced. Does he just suspect that he is on the verge of death due to the imminent death of his last companion in the long Usher family line, his twin sister Madeline?

Furthermore, Roderick goes on intriguing the narrator, or rather, attributing his condition to his long beloved sister’s, conceding that “Her decease, he said with bitterness which I can never forget, would leave him, the hopeless and the frail, the last of the ancient race of the Ushers” (Poe 82) and at precisely that moment Madeline passes the hallway, not saying a word, as some sort of a terrifying sight, existing primarily as an thought in Roderick subconscious, who then shoves his head in his hands unable to stand the sight of her. The narrator cannot account for that feeling, as we begin to sense some uncanny feeling that Madeline seems to be causing.


1 cf. Mckee, John D. “Poe’s Use of Live Burial in Three Stories”. The News Bulletin of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association. Vol. 10, No. 3 (May, 1957). JSTOR. Web. 14 December 2010.

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Tomb or Womb: The Freudian Approach to Live Burial in Edgar Allan Poe‘s "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Premature Burial"
University of Graz
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tomb, womb, freudian, approach, live, burial, edgar, allan, poe‘s, fall, house, usher, premature, burial
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Gaj Tomas (Author), 2011, Tomb or Womb: The Freudian Approach to Live Burial in Edgar Allan Poe‘s "The Fall of the House of Usher" and "The Premature Burial", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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