The Melancholy of Two Ushers: Into the Mind of Poe
What if you could jump into the mind of the strange and the mentally insane? Think about seeing the world through the eyes of someone deemed irrational or absurd. It is believed by some, that a writer must be just as, if not more, insane than the characters he (or she) creates. This most basically focuses on the method for how a writer is able to create their characters, how they are developed, and how a writer cannot write about things that they have not experience, even in the most abstract of means. The same could be said about a character’s psychological beliefs and that there must be some basis that they were created from. One of the original and most renowned authors for implementing deep psychological aspects is Edgar Allan Poe.
Who is Poe?
Poe was born in Boston and the second son of David Poe Jr., an itinerant actor who died before Poe was three. He was then adopted by the Allan family of Virginia. Young Edgar traveled with the Allans to England in 1815 and attended school in Chelsea. In 1820, he was back in Richmond where he attended the University of Virginia and studied Latin and poetry and also loved to swim and act. However, his school days ended after events involving drinking and gambling and eventually enlisting in the army for two years.
In 1836, her married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, and began his writing and editing career, during which he won many awards and publications but also reverted back to his love of drinking. Virginia later died in 1847 and Poe became very unstable. Now living in their last place of residence, a cottage in the Fordham section of the Bronx in New York City, Poe turned to drinking and alcohol more frequently and was purportedly displaying increasingly erratic behavior. Almost a year later Poe became engaged to a wealthy widow, in hopes of turning his luck and fortune around, but he then died two years later after being reacquainted with a group of associates. (Cassil, 1227)
Poe was known for his brilliant writing style, which was influenced by German romanticism and encouraged the usage of Gothic devices. People believed that his own life of debauchery, poverty, and even his gentlemanly mannerism could have been what created the mixture within his style of writing. Some even consider him to be the inventor of the detective story genre with a common theme of having mentally insane killers creating what they believed to be the perfect murder. Poe released various famous short stories that could be categorized as psychological drama such as The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Cask of Amontillado long before the genre of ‘psychological drama’ was even invented. So in a manner of speaking, Poe must have had his own share of insanity to be able to create such a diverse spread of psychological characters. Of course, one of Poe’s most intriguing pair of characters comes from his short story, The Fall of the House of Usher.
Meet the Ushers
The Fall of the House of Usher is focused upon an unnamed narrator and his reencounter with Roderick Usher, a childhood friend of the narrator whom claims that he has a desperate illness, and Madeline, Roderick’s precious twin sister. The narrator, therefore, stays with the Ushers in the mysterious and depressing house, which he calls “this mansion of gloom” (Poe, 1228). The narrator mentions how both Roderick and Madeline are the last of their household, which was famous for their dedication to the arts. As the story continues, the narrator falls deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole as he begins to find out more about his friends, the Ushers. What makes this story so interesting is how, like most of Poe’s works, the deep and twisted mentality that is demonstrated in both Roderick and Madeline Usher’s characteristics were developed before the invention of modern human psychological science.
The master of the House of Usher, Roderick Usher, holds many similarities to other works of Poe. Roderick, like the protagonist from The Tell-Tale Heart, has what he considers to be extremely acute senses, but taken to even further extremes. In the Tell-Tale Heart, the narrator mentions that he also has an over acuteness of the senses. The tension of constantly hearing the heartbeat of his victim creates a slow insanity within the mind of the narrator as he feels a flow of guilt, breaks down, and confesses to the police of his perfect murder. This story shows the slow development of guilt leading towards further insanity within the mind of the narrator. (Womack, “The Tell-Tale Heart”)
According the Right Diagnosis, hyperesthesia is an increased sensitivity to touch or painful stimuli. (“Hyperesthesia”) Stimuli can be defined as anything that causes a reaction in an organism or part of an organism. Examples of stimuli being: sound, light, or touch; all of which had an effect on Roderick’s personality and explain the dark and messy atmosphere that is the interior of the house.
In Roderick’s case, it manifest physically as if a mental or moral state in which his life is ruled by these senses. (1232) He is able to hear sounds that come from anywhere in the house or the fact of how dark and dreary the house is as it would affect his sight. The narrator describes the scene of the interior,
“Dark draperies hung upon the walls. The general furniture was profuse, comfortless, antique, and tattered. Many books and instruments lay scattered about, but fail to give any vitality to the scene. I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.” (1230)
Roderick is even very sensitive towards what he is able to eat and drink being a bland gruel-like substance. Although Roderick still is able to enjoy some form of the arts as he does enjoy literature as the narrator, or the fact that he has a specially made guitar that he can play and paints.
Therefore, it displays that there is a limitation set upon his own mental laws and fixations as well as exceptions to them as well. These conditions are all relative to two types of mental illnesses: the sensory overload of hyperesthesia and the excessive preoccupation of hypochondria.
Roderick’s other illness, hypochondria (also known as Somatic Symptom Disorder or SSD) is when he has unrealistic worries about his own health. They could be very worried about contracting or currently being in the possession of a disease, with denial towards the acceptance of medical examinations that would say otherwise (“Mental Health”). People with this illness also often seem to misinterpret minor health problems or normal bodily events as a serious disease. This could also explain the letter that was mentioned by the narrator at the beginning of the story as Roderick had requested his attention in his time of great illness and need.
There is also how Roderick seemed to be very sluggish, which is another symptom of SSD that can cause tiredness in some subjects due to the mental strain it takes on their mind.
In a deeper focus of his hypochondria, Roderick’s illnesses could have also created what can be described as a self-fulfilling prophecy. As mentioned previously, Roderick requested the narrator’s presence due to his feeling of illness, however since he has been having his symptoms of hyperesthesia for year now it can be assumed that his sensitivity is not what the letter was referring to. It can even be believed that the letter was relating to an undefinable illness that Roderick mentally created for the sole purpose that he was expected to be ill based upon his own family’s history and background of disease. Another instance happens when Roderick tells the narrator that his sister, Madeline, is dead and how he proceeds to then bury her alive. The reason once again is because Roderick is trying to accomplish his own self-created self-fulfilling prophecy. There are heavy relatable aspects between Roderick and the unnamed main character of The Tell-Tale Heart especially in the aspect of his guilt in trying to kill someone of which they have a close bond to but also affected their psychological quirks, this could also mean that Poe based both of these two characters off somewhat of the same premise.
Madeline Usher, the other resident of the House of Usher, was on the other side of the spectrum and is in a far more serious mental and physical state. The reason being because Madeline has been known to fall into cataleptic trances.
“The disease of the lady Madeline had long baffled the skills of her physicians. A settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person, and frequent although transient affections of a partially cataleptically character, were the unusual diagnosis.” (1232)
But what is catalepsy? Catalepsy is a mental condition usually indicated by traces or seizures along with a loss of sensation and consciousness. Some of the symptoms of her suffering from catalepsy are: rigid body, rigid limbs, limbs retain position when moved, no response or recognition, loss of voluntary muscle control. All of these symptoms can also be related to a person like Madeline, who is dead or having dead-like experience, even related to the stiffening body symptoms of rigor mortis (“Symptoms of Catalepsy”). This is also what aids in the narrator believing for Roderick’s beliefs of his sister being true, noticing how Madeline’s rosy cheeks which is a sign within a freshly dead body.
A House Without an Usher Cannot Stand
One belief is that Madeline and Roderick are both the same person. This theory can be aided not only by their borderline incestuous relationship, but their closeness in cohabitation. The idea of cohabitation is reflective of the house in itself where both the Ushers and the House of Usher cannot stand if divided into two pieces. (Womack, “The Fall of the House of Usher”.) When the two Ushers pass nearing the end of the story, the narrator sees the mansion as the cracks that were previously visible take over the entire mansion as it sinks into the ground.
“I have before spoken as extending from the roof of the building, in a zigzag direction to the base. While I gazed, this fissure widened- there came a fierce breath of whirlwind- the entire orb of the satellite burst at once upon my sight- my brain reeled as I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder- there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters –and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the HOUSE OF USHER” (1240).
Poe was very well-versed in attempting to allow his readers to jump into the minds of his characters, however what made The Fall of the House of Usher so unique amongst Poe’s works was that the story was not narrated by the character of whom the lens of psychological study mainly focuses upon. Instead in this tale, Poe used a narrator that was perfectly sane but slowly descend into madness the longer that he stayed within the Usher household. This shows that there is a reflection and more to related to between the reader and the narrator since both are entering into this story with a sane mindset but experiencing the strange on-goings of the Usher’s.
Bausch, Richard, and R. V. Cassill, eds. “Edgar Allan Poe.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. 8th ed. New York City: W.W. Norton, 2015. 1227. Print.
“Hyperesthesia. Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatments and Causes.” RightDiagonsis.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2015.
“Mental Health: Somatic Symptom Disorder.” WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2015.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Ed. Richard Bausch and R. V. Cassil. 8th ed. New York City: W.W. Norton, 2015. 1228-240. Print.
“Symptoms of Catalepsy.” RightDiagnosis.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2015.
Womack, Martha. “Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”” The Poe Decoder. Christoffer Nilsson, n.d. Web. 05 Oct. 2015.
Womack, Martha. “Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’” The Poe Decoder. Christoffer Nilsson, n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2015.
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