In Poe’s stories, as in his famous poem, “The Raven,” love and death are often intertwined, with the beloved being a beautiful woman dying young, only to be obsessively sought after but found “nevermore.” Poe was traumatized by the sudden death of his own young wife, Virginia, and the sudden shocking death of a young woman became a constant motif in his work.
Whatever affection seems to exist between Roderick and “his tenderly beloved sister” (p. 42) is not healthy but doomed. They are both hypersensitive, and because they are twins, they have “A striking similitude” and “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature” (p. 46). It is as though they are one soul in two bodies. Roderick is stricken by Madeleine’s impending death yet inexplicably speeds it up. He predicts both their tragic deaths and then makes them happen, perhaps understanding death is imminent and unavoidable, a family curse. The family is known to have mental illness as a legacy. The other possibility is that what is between the brother and sister is sinful and painful, and that neither can bear the consequences.
Poe makes death and decay frightening because he reveals them to be the hidden destiny of everyone and everything. The narrator gets this insight immediately on approaching the house and feeling a “depression of soul” which he compares to the opium eater coming out of his pleasant illusions to find “the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil” (p. 38). Death is the truth we all fear at the end of life, and love is not enough to stop it from happening. The narrator’s friendship and devotion to Roderick can do nothing to avert the tragedy. He too is drawn into complicity with death by going along with the plan to bury Madeleine.
The Sentience of All Things
Having material or normally inanimate objects come alive is one of the stock motifs of gothic or horror stories. Shrieking trees, moaning or talking paintings, furniture, houses, animals, and natural locations are thus to be expected in a story like Poe’s. Poe takes this archetype further, however, and makes Roderick Usher propound a theory of the correlation of matter and spirit. Poe suggests there is a spiritual world beyond the material one, and that one influences the other. He does not mean this in a particularly positive or religious sense, but evokes the spiritual in terms of the demonic. The narrator describes the House of Usher and the black tarn that swallows it as having “no affinity with the air of heaven” but instead having a “pestilent and mystic vapor” (p. 39).
Of particular interest is Usher’s reading of Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), the Swedish mystic, whose doctrine of correspondences helps to explain Usher’s theory about the House of Usher being sentient. Swedenborg taught there are correspondences or equivalent laws and relationships in the spiritual and physical worlds—one reflects the other. The human soul is a microcosm that precisely mirrors the macrocosm. Thus, it is not fantastic to think that the material House of Usher, the mansion, is alive and reflecting the mental or spiritual life of the Usher family.
Roderick Usher, however, blames the house itself for producing the evil influence. Is the house evil in itself, the agent of evil, infected with evil spirits as the ballad suggests, or has it just accumulated the evil influence and fate of the family over the centuries? Poe does not say, but the story implies a unified or quantum world where spiritual forces interact with the material world in a sort of field effect. This is proven when a stranger, the narrator, enters that field and is affected with some of the same symptoms as the Usher family (depression, fear, loss of normal moral perception, distorted judgment). This theory of the unity of matter and spirit is further developed in Poe’s essay, “Eureka.”
Hypochondria and Madness
Many of Poe’s stories detail the distorted thinking of a person going mad, such as in “The Black Cat,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Poe, the victim of hypersensitivity, like many of his characters, is interested in mental processes, both rational and irrational. He is credited with inventing the detective story in which a brilliant mind rationally solves riddles. In another vein, his horror stories show the mind coming unbalanced.
The Usher family has a “peculiar sensibility of temperament” that has a positive result in their artistic and philanthropic endeavors (p. 39), but which also shows itself as hypochondria, a very popular topic in nineteenth century fiction, which today might be labeled depression. Roderick is described by the narrator as incoherent and inconsistent. He engages in “a series of feeble and futile struggles to overcome an habitual trepidancy—an excessive nervous agitation” (p. 41). Perhaps he is bi-polar, as the narrator suggests: “His action was alternately vivacious and sullen” (p. 41). The narrator continually likens the atmosphere of the house and Roderick’s behavior to drunkenness or to an opium hallucination. Roderick says he has a constant terror and dread, not of anything in particular, but calls it an “agitation of the soul” (p. 41). He has “unnatural sensations,” “a morbid acuteness of the senses,” and “superstitious impressions” (p. 41). The narrator finds out about Roderick’s fears “through broken and equivocal hints” (p. 41) rather than any coherent communication. Indeed, at the end, Usher is reduced to a “gibbering murmur” as he rocks in his chair (p. 49) and makes his confession.
The story details Usher’s descent into madness, and his complete awareness of what is happening to him. He sings and makes music from “the highest artificial excitement” (p. 43). The narrator knows that Roderick has a “full consciousness” of his “tottering” and “lofty reason” when he hears him sing “The Haunted Palace” (p. 43) about a once “Radiant palace” that loses “wit and wisdom” as it becomes taken over by “a discordant melody” (pp. 43, 44).
The reader realizes Roderick’s madness before the narrator does, when Roderick decides to bury his sister in the basement. The narrator seems convinced by Roderick’s reasons for doing such a terrible and irrational act, but then, he has been in the house for many weeks and is obviously affected. In the last scene, he is almost in as much fear as Roderick is. He is aware that his friend is mad by now: “there was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes—an evidently restrained hysteria in his whole demeanor” (p. 47). Even then, the narrator calls on science to explain the weird light in the tarn, but as Madeleine rends her tomb and kills her brother with fear, the narrator beats a hasty retreat just in time for the mansion to fall.