A Hopeless Endeavor: The Quest for Knowledge in “The Fall of the House of Usher”

Term Paper, 2012

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Cultural and Epistemological Background of “The Fall of the House of Usher”
2.1 Historical and Cultural Background
2.2 Concepts of Epistemology in the 17th and 18th Century

3. The Quest for Knowledge in “The Fall of the House of Usher”
3.1 The Failure of Rationalism
3.2 The Failure of Anti-Rationalism
3.3 Poe’s Version of the Sublime

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most popular and most interpreted texts. Up to today, literary scholars argue about the proper meaning of the story. The text has been interpreted as a story of the supernatural, a tale of insanity, as a representation of romantic art (Sova 2007: 68- 69), as a vampire story (Kendall 1963) or as a text about incestuous love (Lawrence 1963). Most interpretations aim at finding answers to the major questions raised in the short story. Scholars have tried to find reasons for the crash of the mansion, for Roderick’s disease, for Madeline’s death, for the supernatural vapour around the house, and many other issues that the story leaves open. However, a general answer to all the questions has not yet been found.

In the following, I will prove that it is not necessary to find an answer to the inexplicable elements of the text, because they are part of the story’s message. The chaotic, nonsatisfying ending of “The Fall of the House of Usher” is intended, because the story is about the difficulty or even impossibility of explaining the world. That is why Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” can be interpreted as part of what Hagenbüchle termed “the epistemological crisis in nineteenth-century American thought” (1988: 122). Using the example of Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland, Hagenbüchle argues that at the beginning of the 19th century the foundations of human knowledge were questioned and fell apart (124). This thesis can be applied to other American authors besides Brockden Brown who also challenged established epistemological assumptions. In the following, I will argue that Edgar Allan Poe shows the limits of epistemology by creating characters who try to acquire knowledge through different approaches, but fail in the end. By doing this, he responds to his cultural and historical background and presents a rather pessimistic view of the American nation.

Concerning epistemological questions scholars have largely focussed on Poe’s most philosophical work Eureka, which was published in 1848 (Dayan 1987, Swirski 2000). Peter Swirski describes Eureka as a philosophical study in which “Poe tries to give us a New Epistemology tailored for the dawn of the new era of interdisciplinary union of Art, Philosophy, and Science” (2000: 41). According to Swirski, Poe formulated a critique of empirical science by claiming that empiricists repress imagination, which is absolutely necessary to gain knowledge (2000: 35). Scott Peeples has pointed out several parallels between Eureka and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” emphasizing the philosophical implications of the short story (2004: 188).

Therefore, it can be argued that “The Fall of the House of Usher”, which Poe wrote nine years earlier than Eureka, deals with questions of epistemology which led the author to formulate his more detailed theory of knowledge later in his life.

In order to place the short story in its cultural context, the following text will first deal with Poe’s role in the post-Enlightenment era and the influence of the American context on his writings. In a second step, I will describe the most important characteristics of different theories of epistemology up to the beginning of the 19th century so as to locate Poe within these theories of knowledge. In order to do so, the role of different epistemological approaches in the short story will be examined. As a detailed analysis of all the theories existing at Poe’s time would go beyond the scope of this work, I will focus on the two main epistemological concepts of rationalism and anti-rationalism, by interpreting the protagonists’ attempts to gain knowledge or explain the world surrounding them. An analysis of the function of the sublime in the story will help to point at the major epistemological problems exposed in the text. By conducting a close reading of “The Fall of the House of Usher” I will interpret the protagonists of the story as embodiments of the epistemological crisis of the 19th century.

2. Cultural and Epistemological Background of “The Fall of the House of Usher”

2.1 Historical and Cultural Background

Edgar Allan Poe’s literary works are commonly referred to as examples of American Gothicism. Especially his short story “The Fall of the House of Usher” has often been interpreted as a classic example of this genre (Magistrale 2001: 18, Voloshin 1986: 421, Nadal 2009: 56, Fisher 2004). When making these sorts of assumptions it is important to see Poe’s writing in its historical and cultural context. Poe published his stories and poems from the 1820s until the 1840s, a time when Transcendentalism and Romanticism began to influence American writing. These movements contradicted and rebelled against the views of rationalists and empiricists who had dominated the Age of Enlightenment during the 18th century. In order to show that Poe joined in this criticism of the so called Age of Reason, literary scholars such as Tony Magistrale compare his works to writings from the Enlightenment era and point out Gothic and Romantic elements in his texts.

The Gothic movement is today seen as an antithesis of the Enlightenment as it is concerned with the unconscious, irrationality and “tormented scepticism regarding the universality of rationality and natural law” (Magistrale 2001: 16). Poe joined this counter movement, but went a step further by “tear[ing] the Gothic tale out of the rationalist framework […] and mak[ing] it a medium for exploring the irrational, even flirting with the anti-rational” (Gray 2004: 122). Hoffman calls Poe a representative of Negative Romanticism because he “expressed a consciousness of the downfall of a whole cultural orientation” (1972: 20). These scholarly opinions suggest that Edgar Allan Poe found a new way of criticizing the Age of Reason by using existing forms of literature (Gothicism and Romanticism). In this context, most scholars are sure that Poe was influenced by European Romantic writers such as Coleridge (Gray 2004: 120) and Keats, Byron and E.T.A. Hoffmann, but also by Gothic writers like Walpole (Magistrale 2001: 18-19). Yet, one has to point out that “he adapted the Gothic to his own ends, shaping the genre as much as the genre had shaped him” (Magistrale 2001: 19).

One of the most remarkable characteristics of Poe’s writings is the fact that, in contrast to other writers in Gothic fiction, he did not use the American context as a setting for his stories. In general, Poe did not draw upon local history. Instead, he created “a world of his own, a place beyond locality or even nationality” (Arac 1995: 651). Therefore, at first sight Poe’s writings do not seem to be representative of a specifically American form of literature. However, upon closer examination it becomes clear that on a more implicit and mental level, Poe’s texts are deeply embedded within the American cultural context and mirror the epistemological crisis of the 19th century. According to Michael Hoffman, “’The Fall of the House of Usher’ deals with the historical shift from the late Enlightenment to early Romanticism” (1972: 20). The processes and effects related to this shift can be demonstrated by reconstructing the characters’ approaches to gaining knowledge and making sense of the world.

2.2 Concepts of Epistemology in the 17th and 18th Century

As this text is concerned with the search for knowledge in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the short story will be interpreted from an epistemological point of view. According to O’Connor and Carr, epistemology deals with the nature of knowing (belief, certainty and truth), the sources of knowledge, i.e. different modes of acquiring knowledge such as perception and reason, and the scope of knowledge, i.e.

possible limits of knowing. These criteria for knowledge are often questioned by sceptics, who assume that in some areas it is not possible to have any knowledge at all (O’Connor, Carr 1982: 1-2). As mentioned before, Poe’s times were dominated by scepticism towards the Enlightenment, the so called Age of Reason. Sceptics tried to deal with and modify the most influential epistemological theories of the 17th and 18th century. Some of the most important philosophers of that time were René Descartes, John Locke, David Hume and Immanuel Kant.

In the 17th century Descartes argued that there is no guarantee that knowledge is true. According to his theory, the senses are not always a reliable source of knowledge as they can be deceived and defective (O’Connor, Carr 1982: 4-5). Instead, he believes in “the possibility of knowledge of substantial truths a priori,” which means there are innate possessions or truths acquired by rational intuition rather than sense experiences (O’Connor, Carr 1982: 8). This theory defends the concepts of rationalism, so Descartes was received positively by many philosophers of the Enlightenment.

However, these rationalist theories of knowledge were opposed by John Locke, who was against any theory of innateness and declared the human mind a tabula rasa instead (O’Connor, Carr 1982: 150). In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding Locke states that “men […] may attain to all the knowledge they have, without the help of any innate impressions” (Locke 1971: 9). According to Locke, there are only truths a posteriori, which means that knowledge can only be gained by relying on the senses. In this philosophy reason takes a minor part: “Perception there being the first step and degree towards knowledge and the inlet of all the materials of it” (Locke 1971: 117). In the 18th century the existence of knowledge a priori was again denied by the philosopher David Hume. Instead, he asserted the empiricist belief in the use of the senses as a source of knowledge (O’Connor, Carr 1982: 10-11). In A Treatise of Human Nature, Hume distinguished between impressions and ideas. Impressions are “all our sensations, passions and emotions, as they make their first appearance in the soul” and ideas are “the faint images of these [sensations, passions and emotions] in thinking and reasoning” (1964: 311). From this Hume concluded that “all our ideas are copy’d from our impressions” (1964: 375). He insisted that all impressions are “clear and precise,” so ideas are the same except being fainter than impressions (375). In Essays Moral,


Excerpt out of 20 pages


A Hopeless Endeavor: The Quest for Knowledge in “The Fall of the House of Usher”
Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
483 KB
hopeless, endeavor, quest, knowledge, fall, house, usher”
Quote paper
Anna Poppen (Author), 2012, A Hopeless Endeavor: The Quest for Knowledge in “The Fall of the House of Usher”, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/278563


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: A Hopeless Endeavor: The Quest for Knowledge in “The Fall of the House of Usher”

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free