Fall of the House of Poe

As promised, here is the slide show presentation I did for class.1

Below it are the notes I wrote for each slide.  Exciting, no?
During the actual presentation, I wound up sort of extemporizing from instead of reading directly off the notes.



For my paper and presentation, I chose Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher to thematically, psychologically, and biographically analyze.  As you might imagine, these themes are twined around one another like vines; where one leaves off, another picks up.

However, while talking to a couple of my more literary frou-frou1friends, I mentioned that I had chosen Poe and his House of Usher as my research subject. Reactions were less than thrilled, overall.

I have liked and admired Poe’s writing since my high school days.

He was a talented and very prolific author. Over the course of his 22-year career he wrote: one novel, over 50 poems, one poem in a play format, over 60 short stories and numerous essays, news articles, and literary critiques.

He wrote in a variety of styles, not just the Gothic horror that most people know. He wrote one of the first modern science fiction stories and he is credited as the Father of modern detective novels. In fact, Sherlock Holmes is based off a character in a Poe story: C. Auguste Dupin.

This is not counting his letter writing – of which there is a tremendous amount. The U.S. Postal service was the Facebook of that time. As one of the very first writers who struggled to earn his living by writing, he often wrote to friends and family to ask for money, love, or both.

But other than scholars and me, who even enjoys his work?

Just those crazy Goth kids …oops, wrong Goths….

Just those crazy Goth kids are into that depressing stuff, right?
Actually, that isn’t true. Human’s fascination with the dark– something that Poe did very well – is pretty universal.

What is GOTHIC?


As it turns out, Gothic covers a pretty wide landscape. The actual definition is listed on your handout. But, the short version is a written landscape wherein the fantastically dread can occur.

Americans love their Gothic literature. Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily is considered Gothic. So is Hitchcock’s Psycho and Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

One of Poe’s mainstays in his Gothic writing was the use of the grotesque; that is, to purposefully arouse shock and disgust in his readers. He lured them into a story by capturing their mind’s eye with images of death, of decay and rot; mingling them within them a sense of ethereal beauty.

GROTESQUE:  An artistic style that is intended to cause fascination by using images that cause dismay & revulsion.
It’s the car wreck phenomenon. You aren’t supposed to look; you don’t really *WANT* to look. But you do it anyway.

Humans love a dichotomy. Death and life. Love and hate. Rot and growth. It’s all a way to make something frightening and mysterious, less so.

I could go into several other examples: Jung’s Great Mother archetype with her destructive/nurturing tendencies. The Kali Ma, Beautiful Destroyer. The Republican party. There are examples everywhere. Even in places you wouldn’t normally think to look.    CLICK “Mostly” link.

But, I only have 25 minutes and I have yet to get to the meat of the paper.

So, that’s why I chose Poe. But, given that he has been analyzed, over-analyzed, even-Freud would say “enough with zee analyzation!” – what could I do that hadn’t already been done?



First, the story itself is a katabasis; the ‘narrator’ journeys through the dark underbelly of the House of Usher, both literally and figuratively, during his stay there. He is a witness to the madness and downfall of his host, Roderick Usher as well as the implosion of the house, itself.

I’m not going to play the video this in its entirety – I’ve linked it in the handout if you want to see it later. But, I thought it was a nifty take on the ultimate journey through the Underworld to knowing. He starts off, and things just get weirder and more dangerous as he goes. Eventually, he reaches the end and is rewarded.
Usually, the reward of katabasis is knowledge. However, in order for this to occur, an anabasis must happen as well. Anabasis is the return journey with the prize.


One of the ways that I believe Poe used the story of Usher as an allegory for his own life is through the use of use of metafiction.

What IS metafiction, you ask? Glad you asked.

According to Patricia Waugh, it is “…a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact [sic] in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality.”

Although it has been around since Homer’s Odyssey, it didn’t really get a full head of steam as a literary trope until the 1960’s. The term wasn’t even in use until 1970.

So, if it wasn’t in vogue or much use at the time, how could it be present in Usher?

In actuality, it was in a number of his works: The Imp of the Perverse, and  Ligeia are both thought to be metafictional in nature.

Although it may have been subconscious in nature – and without really being able to quiz Poe on it, we might never know for sure – I do have my doubts. He was an extremely precise writer. As I mentioned, he authored more than one essay on the mechanics of writing. The parallels one finds in Usher might certainly be intentional. But to what purpose?


(Heh. It goes to ‘eleven’.)

NARRATOR: is the voice and speaker of a story. In theory, this character is supposed to be separate from the author, himself.

However, in the case of much of his work, the narrator is often a thinly disguised Poe.

Poe, due to a variety of psychological reasons, mirrored himself in the story the narrator, Roderick Usher, as well as the House itself.

This slide shows both a quote from “Usher”, describing Roderick; and a watercolor done of Poe when he was around 35 years old. This was during one of Poe’s more prosperous moments and shows him in far better adult health than he had enjoyed since his college days.

One of his contemporaries said, “I distinctly recall his face, with its ample forehead, brilliant eyes, and narrowness of nose and chin; an essentially ideal face, not noble, yet anything but coarse, with the look of oversensitiveness [sic] which when uncontrolled may prove more debasing that coarseness. It was a face to rivet one’s attention in any crowd; yet a face that no one would feel safe in loving. . . .”

You can see the similarities between the description(s) and the image.

In later years, he would adopt the mustache that most people today picture when they think of him.


Poe can also be seen in the physical House, too. He even describes the House as one would a creature; imbuing it with a sinister aspect.

Although at first it appears sound, if somewhat menacing, the House is slowly disintegrating. Either the madness of the people within it – Poe’s voices, maybe? – or the disinterest of care of same, cause the House to be a slowly self-destructing object.

Poe was often his own worst enemy. In spite of a ferocious talent, he was prone to binge drinking, an air of superiority, callousness in dealing with others, jealousy when working with other writers, and an instability within his personal life. Although he was always neatly dressed and presented, he was more often than not, slowly falling apart.

Poe’s life was a series of ill luck, missed opportunities, and self-sabotage. Usher is a Romanticized portrait of a suffering artist being driven slowly mad by a too-loud, too obnoxious, and not nearly refined enough world.

One of the main parallels that I will go over in my research paper is the death by consumption (tuberculosis) of almost every important woman in Poe’s life. His birth mother, his adoptive mother, and his wife – all die young, of consumption  after lingering illnesses. All of these women were pale, large eyed, dark haired women.

In spite of his attempts to control his environment, both Roderick and Poe lose the women they love (Poe often called his wife “Sissie”) to a wasting disease. This loss, in turn, eventually kills them.




1 – See: Hipsters, Literary Snobs

1 – Please note: This website and its content is copyright of Bonnie Steele – © Bon Steele 2012. All rights reserved. Any redistribution or reproduction of part or all of the contents in any form is prohibited. This is Bonnie Steele’s work and I do not authorize anyone to copy, use, distribute, or sell it.  You may not, except with our express written permission, distribute or commercially exploit the content. Nor may you transmit it or store it in any other website or other form of electronic retrieval system.

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