A Journey into the Darkness: Symbolism in “The Fall of the House of Usher”
With just a few short words of “vacant and eye-like windows” (Poe 122), the description of those that reside in the mansion of “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been laid before the reader. As an author puts pen to paper, the creative use of words can be found to bring forth symbolism that means more than just a description of an object, event, or person. It embodies the essence of the heart and soul of what it reflects.
The House as a Mirror
Edgar Allen Poe’s use of literary devices and theories is spectacular as he takes the reader on an emotional and intellectual rollercoaster. With the use of symbolism, he paints a picture of the death, depression, and doom that awaits the family within the mansion. The unnamed visitor in the story is given a glimpse into something deep within the family before he enters the door. Poe paints such an intricate picture that foreshadowing and symbolism easily get combined to create a color sensation of darkness drawing the reader deeper into the story and plays upon the emotions.
The first thing the visitor notices as he rides up to his old school friend’s house is the “vacant and eye-like windows” (122) which unknowingly symbolizes to him and the rest of the world, the depression and emptiness that he will discover as he meets his friend he has not seen in years. He looks at his friend, Roderick Usher, and sees him with a “ghastly pallor of the skin” (125). There is no life behind his eyes. He is a mirror image of death in a living man and a sense of what is to come to him and his home. The symbolic windows that are seen from the outside of the house are in actuality the eyes of those that live there, including Lady Madeline. Both are “wasting away” a physical and mental disease that is eating them both alive (126).
As the windows are the eyes into the soul of the house and the family that call it home, the house itself is symbolic of the decay of the family line. The visitor sees the house as an “excessive antiquity” with the “discoloration of ages” and moss growing everywhere while there was no “extraordinary dilapidation” despite “evidently decayed condition of the individual stones” (123). The house the visitor sees in front of him and reflected on the pool of vaporous water symbolically is the family itself who is decaying and weakening individually. Roderick tells his friend that his sister and he are the only ones of the Usher family still alive. Her death from the illness she has would leave him as the “last of the ancient race of the Ushers” (126). Despite the stones on the outside of the mansion having not fallen down, they are in such a state of decay that one stone that gives into the weight upon it would bring the whole house down. This is also the condition of the family. The friend of Roderick had already known from their school days that the Usher family “had put forth, at no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent” (123). There is no other strong support in the family except what can be found between the brother and sister. They are strong together as the stones are in the mansion. The loss of one would result in catastrophe. One cannot survive without the other.
Decorations with Intent
Even the interior decorating becomes symbolic in the story. The visitor enters the house and immediately sees “the somber tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies” (124). Upon entering another room, he sees “dark draperies” and furniture that is “profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered” giving the whole effect of “stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom” everywhere (124). This house is full of darkness and depression. There is no joy here that can be reflected from the inhabitants onto the objects that are in each room. The very gloom of the objects and depressive nature are a reflection of Roderick and his sister.
A Story Within a Story
Symbolism in “The Fall of the House of Usher” goes beyond objects and color in the story. Poe uses a story within a story to reflect the true state of the family. In “The Haunted Palace”, the visitor was given a window to see into the soul of the Usher line. The words “But evil things, in robes of sorrow, / Assailed the monarch’s high estate;” explain the decay of the family and, thus, the house itself. As the visitor reads on he sees how the decay has long been in effect: “And, round about his home, the glory / That blushed and boomed / Is but a dim-remembered story / Of the old time entombed” (129). The tattered furniture is a fragment of a much more beautiful past. The house became the tomb of the living Ushers with darkness taking over the mansion and the soul. The vacant windows are tied into the story as the story describes the estate as empty though people are there “but smile no more” (129). Everything is a reflection of the darkness and emptiness that is felt and has been felt for generations.
Emotions and senses can become symbolic of the nature inside of a man or the world around him. When the visitor arrives, he finds a different Roderick Usher before him. The man of the house confesses to a “morbid acuteness of the senses” (125). He is sensitive to smell, taste, feel, sight, and only could tolerate “peculiar sounds” (125). These heightened senses are symbolic of the limited world he lives in. He has enclosed himself in the stone walls of his home where sounds resonate through the rooms and down the halls. Everything is intensified and signifies the narrow vision he has in life of just the house while not seeing the decay. He is oblivious to what is so obvious.
Symbolism in Nature
Nature steps in and aids in the picture of symbolism. As the story begins to climax with strange noises leading up to the explosive fall of the family and the house, a storm exhibits itself with “impetuous fury” (132). It invades the house and disturbs the deadening calm. Even the storm is full of darkness symbolizing the turmoil that has been brewing in the bowels of the mansion and is about to be unleashed on Roderick as the representative of the family: “yet we had no glimpse of the moon or stars – nor was there any flashing forth of lightening” (132). The darkness of the Usher family had obtained full fury in the nature and reached beyond the decaying stone. What was to come was something that could explode the family completely into oblivion and does.
All the symbolism comes to a climax as the doors open to reveal a “lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher” with blood contrasted on the white funeral robes as witness of her struggle against the ultimate darkness of the grave (135). As she tumbles forward as the representative of death onto her brother, they fall together. The last of the Usher family has given into the darkness that has haunted them for generations. As they fall in death, so does the house that gives into the generations of decay. The house becomes the ultimate symbol of the family and their fate.
An intense dissection of “The Fall of the House of Usher” reveals each action, object, and event as a symbol of the family isolation, decay, and impending doom. They have allowed the house itself to become their mirror to the world and eventually become their own tomb. The family and the house had become one as “in the minds of the peasantry…both the family and the family mansion” where the House of Usher (123). As one fell, the other was destined for the same darkened fate.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Anthology of the American Short Story. Ed. James Nagel. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008. 121-135. Print.
Read it online – http://www.online-literature.com/poe/31/