Pit and the Pendulum
An Evening With Poe
Of Edgar Allan Poe
And Enlightening Look
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
.......When the narrator arrives by horseback one autumn evening at the House of Usher, the sight of its bleak walls and desolate grounds fills him with gloom. He draws up his horse at the edge of a tarn, a small lake encircling the mansion and reflecting its forbidding image.
.......In a letter, the owner of the property, Roderick Usher, had begged the narrator to visit him for several weeks. Such a visit, he wrote, would be a form of therapy for Usher against a mental disorder afflicting him..Usher and the narrator had been close friends since childhood, although Usher was never one to confide his inmost thoughts to anyone. The narrator, therefore, does not know Usher as well as their close friendship would suggest. The Usher family has long been distinguished for its devotion to the arts and its dedication to charitable causes.
.......Looking up from the lake, the narrator, upon beholding the mansion and the grounds once again, perceives that an eerie atmosphere—“a pestilent, mystic vapor”—overhangs the scene. The ancient building is discolored. A tangled fungus covers the walls. The structure appears stable, however, even though individual stones of the masonry are crumbling.
.......After riding across a bridge to the front of the house, the narrator hands the reins of his horse to a waiting servant, enters the mansion, and walks through a Gothic archway. A valet conducts him through a labyrinth of hallways with tapestries and coats of arms, then up staircases. On one staircase, he meets the family physician. Finally, he enters the chamber of Roderick Usher. It is a large room with a vaulted ceiling and dark draperies, as well as various books and musical instruments scattered about. Usher, lying on a sofa, rises and greets the narrator warmly. Then they sit down.
.......Usher, a delicately handsome man, is much altered in appearance since the last time the narrator saw him—so much so that the narrator hardly recognizes him. He is sickly pale; his silken hair has grown wildly about his face. He is nervous, agitated one moment and sullen the next, speaking rapidly, then slowly like a drunkard or opium user. His illness, he tells the narrator, runs in the family.
.......“He suffered much from a morbid acuteness of the senses,” the narrator says. “The most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror.”
.......Usher says, “I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect — in terror. In this unnerved — in this pitiable condition — I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR."
.......The gloomy mansion is in part responsible for his depressed state of mind. But what deeply disturbs him is the condition of his beloved sister, Madeline: Long in declining health, she now appears to be dying. She is his only relative and, for many years, has been his only companion. Her death would leave him as the only survivor of the ancient Usher family. While Usher and the narrator converse, Madeline passes quickly through the distant end of the room and disappears. The sight of her fills the narrator with a sense of dread that he cannot explain. Physicians have been unable to identify the exact cause of her illness, but its symptoms were as follows: “A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptical character.” Although she had long managed to remain on her feet, that very evening—not long after the narrator arrives—she is confined to bed.
.......Over the next few days, the narrator does his best to cheer up his friend. They paint and read books. The narrator listens to Usher play his guitar. It becomes clear, however, that Usher remains locked in his prison of gloom. One of Usher’s paintings depicts a long subterranean tunnel with a low ceiling and white walls. Although no torches line the walls, a ghastly light radiates from the scene.
.......While playing the guitar, he sometimes vocalizes improvised verses remarkable for their organization and clarity. One of them, “The Haunted Palace,” is a ballad that tells of a stately, radiant palace through whose windows passersby could see spirits moving to the rhythms of a lute around a throne upon which a monarch sat. Echoes of the sweet music passed through the pearl- and ruby-studded door of the palace, singing of the “wit and wisdom” of the king. But evil invaded the palace, attacking the monarch and desolating the palace. Never again would morning dawn for him. Only discordant melodies would henceforth emanate from the door.
.......When the narrator discusses the meaning of the ballad with him, Usher speaks of the ability of the trees on the grounds and the fungus on the stones of the house to create, over time, a sinister atmosphere that shaped the destinies of the long line of Ushers.
.......The books he read focus on fanciful, mystical, or religious subjects—a subterranean voyage, palmistry, satyrs, a Dominican directory on the Inquisition, and “the manual of a forgotten church.”
.......One evening, after Usher informs the narrator that Madeline has died, he announces that he will preserve her corpse for two weeks in a vault in one of the walls of the building before its final burial. This unusual step will keep the corpse out of reach of her attending physicians, who are curious about the malady that killed her. It will also provide a temporary resting place for the body while burial plans are decided.
.......The narrator assists Usher in lifting the body into the coffin and placing the coffin in the vault, situated beneath the part of the house containing the narrator’s bedroom. In feudal days, the vault served as the keep of a dungeon and in later years as a storage place for gunpowder. The archway in front of the vault was covered with copper, as was the huge iron door opening into the vault. After setting the coffin in place, they moved aside the lid to look one more time upon Madeline Usher. Noticing the very strong resemblance between her and Roderick Usher, the narrator wonders whether Madeline and her brother were twins; Roderick confirms that they were and says that they shared certain feelings that others would find hard to comprehend. Before screwing down the lid of the coffin, the narrator notices that her illness left a “faint blush” on her breast and her face. Her lips were locked in lingering smile."
.......In the following days, Roderick Usher paces aimlessly and his complexion takes on an even paler hue. He speaks in a tremulous voice, as if he were experiencing terror. The narrator observes:
.......“There were times, indeed, when I thought his unceasingly agitated mind was laboring with some oppressive secret, to divulge which he struggled for the necessary courage . . . [and] I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.”
.......About a week after Madeline was laid in the vault, the narrator is unable to sleep because of a nervousness that overcomes him—perhaps resulting from the gloomy surroundings. His body begins to shake. He hears “indefinite sounds,” perhaps from a storm raging at that moment, and puts on his clothes and begins to walk around his chamber. After a few moments, he answers a knock at his door. It is Usher carrying a lamp. He has the same cadaverous look except that “there was a species of mad hilarity in his eyes.”
Usher looks about for a moment and says, “And you have not seen it?” Then he throws open a window to the storm. A blast of wind rushes in, nearly knocking the men down. Outside, the narrator sees low clouds gusting into one another in the glow of an unearthly light from “faintly luminous and distinctly visible gaseous exhalation which hung about and enshrouded the mansion.”
.......The narrator, protective of Usher, pulls him away from the window, telling him that the strange sights result from ordinary “electrical phenomena” or arise from the small lake on the property. To calm Usher, he seats him in a chair and reads from a romance: "The Mad Trist," by Sir Launcelot Canning. As the tale progresses, Usher listens carefully to every word of the story as the narrator comes to the part when Ethelred, the hero, breaks into the dwelling of a hermit by driving his spiked war club through the door. The sound of the cracking, splintering wood reverberates through the forest. At that moment, the narrator hears a similar sound that appears to be coming from some distant corner of the mansion. Perhaps the storm rattled windows.
.......The narrator reads on.
.......Upon entering the hermit’s dwelling, Ethelred encounters a dragon keeping guard over what turns out to be a palace of gold. On a wall is a shield inscribed with these words:
.......Who slayeth the dragon, the shield he shall win.
.......The narrator hears a wild scream in the mansion, not unlike that which he imagines the dragon gave out in his dying moment. But the narrator maintains calm so as not to excite Usher. However, Usher turns his chair to the door. His lips tremble as if he is trying to say something. His head hangs on his chest. His body begins rocking.
.......The narrator reads on.
.......After slaying the dragon, Ethelred walks up to the shield. But before he can reach for it, it falls crashing to his feet. At that moment, the narrator hears a similar sound in the mansion. The narrator jumps up and goes over to Usher out of concern for his reaction to the sound. But Usher continues to rock, his eyes fixed in an empty gaze. When he begins murmuring, the narrator places an ear in close to hear what he is saying. Usher speaks of hearing something for many minutes, hours, days. Then he says:
“I now tell you that I heard her first feeble movements in the hollow coffin. I heard them — many, many days ago — yet I dared not — I dared not speak !”
.......Usher jumps to his feet and says, “"Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!"
.......The wind throws open the door and there stands Madeline Usher with blood on her burial garments. Then, giving out a low cry, she enters the room and, in the throes of her final death spasms, falls upon Roderick Usher. During the fall, he dies. The narrator flees the mansion. During his escape, he sees a blood red moon shining over the building. The mansion then collapses, and the dark waters of the tarn swallow every last fragment of the House of Usher.
The story begins at dusk on an autumn day in an earlier time, probably the 19th Century. The place is a forbidding mansion in a forlorn countryside. The mansion, covered by a fungus, is encircled by a small lake, called a tarn, that resembles a moat. A bridge across the tarn provides access to the mansion.
Roderick Usher, the master of the house. He suffers from a depressing malaise characterized by strange behavior.
Madeline Usher, twin sister of Roderick. She also suffers from a strange illness. After apparently dying, she rises from her coffin.
Servant, domestic in the Usher household. He attends to the narrator's horse.
Valet, domestic in the Usher household who conducts the narrator to Roderick Usher's room.
Physician, one of several doctors who treat Madeline Usher.
Type of Work
"The Fall of the House of Usher" is a short story of Gothic horror written in first-person point of view. It was first published in September 1839 in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine. In 1840 and 1845, Poe published it with other stories in Tales of the Grotesque and of the Arabesque.
Poe carefully makes every word, every phrase, every sentence in the story contribute to the overall effect, horror, accompanied by oppressing morbidity and anxious anticipation of terrifying events. Notice, for example, the tenor of the words in the opening sentence of the story. I have underlined those that help establish the mood and atmosphere.
But besides painting a gloomy picture, the words in the paragraph also beat out a funereal rhythm—at first through the alliteration of during, dull, dark, and day, and then through the rhyming suffixes of oppressively, singularly, and melancholy.
Alliteration occurs frequently in the rest of the story, in such phrases as the following:
cadaverousness of complexion
feeble and futile struggles
certain superstitious impressions [the s in impressions does not alliterate because it has a z sound]
sensation of stupor
partially cataleptical character
wild air of the last waltz
fervid facility of his impromptus
impetuous fury of the entering gust nearly lifted us from our feet
and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the "House of Usher."
As in his other short stories, Poe frequently uses anaphora in "The Fall of the House of Usher." Anaphora is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is repeated at the beginning of a clause or another group of words. Anaphora imparts emphasis and balance. Here are boldfaced examples from "The Fall of the House of Usher":
While the objects around me—while the carvings of the ceilings, the sombre tapestries of the walls, the ebon blackness of the floors, and the phantasmagoric armorial trophies which rattled as I strode, were but matters to which, or to such as which, I had been accustomed from my infancy—while I hesitated not to acknowledge how familiar was all this—I still wondered to find how unfamiliar were the fancies which ordinary images were stirring up.
Many minutes, many hours, many days, have I heard it
The central theme of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is terror that arises from the complexity and multiplicity of forces that shape human destiny. Dreadful, horrifying events result not from a single, uncomplicated circumstance but from a collision and intermingling of manifold, complex circumstances. In Poe’s story, the House of Usher falls to ruin for the reasons listed under "Other Themes" (below).
Evil has been at work in the House of Usher for generations, befouling the residents of the mansion. Roderick Usher's illness is "a constitutional and family evil . . . one for which he despaired to find a remedy," the narrator reports. Usher himself later refers to this evil in Stanza V of "The Haunted Palace," a ballad he sings to the accompaniment of his guitar music. The palace in the ballad represents the House of Usher and its master, Roderick, whose mind has been degenerating. The first two lines of Stanza V are as follows:
Assailed the monarch's high estate.
Roderick and Madeline Usher seal themselves inside their mansion, cutting themselves off from friends, ideas, progress. They have become musty and mildewed, sick unto their souls for lack of contact with the outside world.
Failure to Adapt
The Usher family has become obsolete because it failed to throw off the vestiges of outmoded tradition, a failing reflected by the mansion itself, a symbol of the family. The interior continues to display coats-of-arms and other paraphernalia from the age of kings and castles. As to the outside, “Its principal feature seemed to be that of an excessive antiquity. The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves."
Roger and Madeline suffer from mental illness characterized by anxiety, depression, and other symptoms. Catalepsy, a symptom of Madeline’s illness, is a condition that causes muscle rigidity and temporary loss of consciousness and feeling for several minutes, several hours, and, in some cases, more than a day. Generally, it is not an illness in itself but a symptom of an illness, such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, hysteria, alcoholism or a brain tumor. Certain drugs, too, can trigger a cataleptic episode. The victim does not respond to external stimuli, even painful stimuli such as a pinch on the skin. In the past, a victim of catalepsy was sometimes pronounced dead by a doctor unfamiliar with the condition. Apparently, Madeline is not dead when her brother and the narrator entomb her; instead, she is in a state of catalepsy. When she awakens from her trance, she breaks free of her confines, enters her brother's chamber, and falls on him. She and her brother then die together. Besides Roger and Madeline, the narrator himself may suffer from mental instability, given his reaction to the depressing scene he describes in the opening paragraphs. If he is insane, all of the events he describes could be viewed as manifestations of his sick mind—illusions, dreams, hallucinations.
From the very beginning, the narrator realizes that he is entering a world of mystery when he crosses the tarn bridge. He observes, "What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher ? It was a mystery all insoluble."
The narrator describes the
mansion as having a “pestilent and mystic” vapor enveloping it. He also
says Roderick Usher “was enchained by certain superstitious impressions
in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted.”
The Fungus-Ridden Mansion:
Decline of the Usher family.
The narrator's reference
to catalepsy—describing Madeline Usher as having “affections of a partially
cataleptical character”—foreshadows her burial while she is still alive.
Madeline as Target of Murder Plot
Although physicians are incapable
of curing Madeline’s illness, they recognize “transient” catalepsy as one
of its symptoms, the narrator reports. This information means that both
Roderick and the narrator are aware that Madeline occasionally enters trances
resembling rigor mortis. Furthermore, the narrator reports that Madeline
has “the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face” before he
and Roderick screw down the coffin lid. One may theorize, then, that Roderick
and the narrator are aware that Madeline is still alive when they close
her coffin and, therefore, that they are attempting to commit murder. If
that is what they are doing, the next question that arises is why. Here
is a possible scenario: Roderick, as Madeline’s twin, is united to her
in looks and personality. The narrator even suggests that they communicate
through extrasensory perception, pointing out that “sympathies of a scarcely
intelligible nature had always existed between them.” There is a possibility,
too, that they are partners in incest—which, in their case, would be a
kind of narcissism, or self-love, because they would be making love to
their own image. Now to the motives: It may be that Roderick is longing
for independence; he does not want to be simply a mirror image or alter
ego of his sister. Also, he may wish to end the oppressive guilt he suffers
under the burden of the family evil, incest. (See
Other Themes, Evil.) It may be, too, that he wants to rid himself of
the illness Madeline passes on to him via the “sympathies” described above.
So he decides to eliminate her. He summons his friend (the narrator) to
commiserate with him, hearten him, and help him dispose of Madeline while
she is in the throes of a cataleptic trance. After awakening from the trance,
Madeline—refusing to allow Roderick to dissever their relationship—summons
unearthly strength to break out of her coffin and the vault. Then, after
entering her brother’s chamber, she thrusts herself upon him “and in her
violent and now final death-agonies, bore him to the floor a corpse, and
a victim to the terrors he had anticipated.” Their bodies locked, they
go to their doom as a single, pitiful lump of humanity.
Edgar Allan Poe was born
on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was
taken into the home of a childless couple—John Allan, a successful businessman
in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather.
At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools
there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied
at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S.
Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After
beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his
young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined
the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while,
he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his
poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented
the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an
outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never
really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several
people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble
paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing
cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.