Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” involves the theme of death and decay. This theme is found in Poe’s other works, such as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Masque of Red Death.” In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the death theme affects the Ushers and the unnamed narrator. The theme is most pronounced in Roderick and Madeline, and in the fall of their house. This theme encapsulates the negativity throughout the text, such as the Ushers’ deaths and the fall of their house in the end. Considering the assumption that death is inevitable in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe initially presents the House of Usher as old and decaying, but holding on so as not to fall. This thematic definition of the setting makes the plot interesting, and ties the setting with the eventual demise of the Ushers along with the crumbling of their house.
Edgar Allan Poe’s literary works typically involve death and decay or related themes, such as the theme of fear, or a foreboding that establishes the theme of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the theme of death and decay supports the Usher siblings’ decline and demise, which marks the end of the short story. This theme showcases Poe’s interest in presenting death as a process, as reflected in the process that Roderick, Madeline, and the house undergo. The theme also associates “The Fall of the House of Usher” with the literary works of other authors, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” both of which involve the theme of death or decay.
Death and Decay of and around the House of Usher (Quote #1)
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is set mainly within the house of the Ushers. The house determines the characters’ environment. Poe describes this environment as one of death and decay, making readers expect this theme throughout the short story. For example, in the following quote, the narrator describes the condition of the house and its surroundings:
- “Beyond this indication of extensive decay, however, the fabric gave little token of instability” (Poe ).
Quote #1 highlights the theme of death and decay in “The Fall of the House of Usher” through a description of the House of Usher. For example, through the narrator, Poe illustrates the house’s extensive decay. Based on the quote, the house is old. The narrator also reflects about his childhood and what he knows about the Usher family and their residence. The above quotation points out that the House of Usher appears stable, despite the theme of decay manifested in the building. Even in its crumbling condition, the house does not fall. Thus, Quote #1 creates an illusion of stability in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe gives the idea that the house is apparent stable because the Usher siblings are still alive at this point. In this thematic frame, the quote implies that the house will fall when the Ushers die.
Death and Decay in Roderick Usher’s Mind (Quote #2)
The death and decay theme influences Roderick’s behavior throughout the story. Poe’s uses the concept of death to define Roderick’s character and affect his life. In this way, “The Fall of the House of Usher” presents the process of death. The short story starts with the narrator’s recollection of a healthy Roderick, continues with Roderick with a sickness of the mind, and ends with Roderick’s death. The following quote shows the narrator’s statement about the process and theme of death and decay, pertaining to his conversations with Usher:
- “To an anomalous species of terror I found him a bounden slave. ‘I shall perish,’ said he, ‘I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost’.”
In Quote #2, Poe illustrates the decay of Roderick’s character. For example, in saying that Roderick is a bounden slave, the narrator points out how the Usher sibling has fallen into a condition that enslaves his mind and body. The quotation also explicitly shows the theme of death and decay in “The Fall of the House of Usher” when Roderick is quoted as saying, “I shall perish… I must perish in this deplorable folly.” The plot eventually leads to his and Madeline’s deaths along with the fall of their house. Ultimately, a mind that expects a future of loss and death is depicted in the quote. Roderick is correct in this regard and establishes a self-fulfilling prophecy (see The Theme of a Self-fulfilling Prophecy in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”).
Deaths of Roderick and Madeline (Quote #3)
The Usher siblings’ deaths mark the ending of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” along with the collapse of the house. The word, “fall,” in the short story’s title points to such an ending. This theme of death is captured in the last scene, when the Ushers die and the narrator flees and sees the House of Usher fall. Poe’s emphasis on the Ushers’ deaths is of significance to this thematic frame, as depicted in the following quote:
- “For a moment she remained trembling and reeling to and fro upon the threshold, then, with a low moaning cry, fell heavily inward upon the person of her brother, 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.”
Quote #3 depicts the Ushers’ deaths, which explicitly establish the theme of death and decay in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The quote shows two deaths that equate to the fall of the Usher bloodline. Poe makes this scene more compelling by making the house fall when the narrator flees. Thus, death is an explicit theme that frames the story’s climax, which is when Madeline appears by the doorway and dies with her brother. The quote illustrates that Edgar Allan Poe’s preference for horror leads to ending “The Fall of the House of Usher” with death, which is the ultimate fear reflected in Roderick’s character and prophecy.
Explanation & Importance of the Theme of Death and Decay in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”
As an explicit theme, death is an ever-present factor in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The theme is present throughout the plot and in various aspects of the story, as the analyzed quotes illustrate. For example, the narrator observes the dead and decaying trees surrounding the House of Usher. In Quote #1, Poe describes the house as a dying structure. Also, the deaths of Roderick and Madeline, as well as the physical fall of their house, are thematic indicators.
The cited quotes indicate the ubiquity of the theme of death in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” This ubiquity is important because it creates a sense of inevitable demise throughout Poe’s short story. In Quote #1, this theme is established at the beginning of the plot and supports the reader’s interpretation and expectation of death and decay as a process involving the characters, as the story progresses. In line with Poe’s usual emphasis on the macabre, death is important also because it defines the story’s climax and its meanings, as notable in the text excerpts. Even the denouement involves the death and decay theme. For example, the destruction or fall of the House of Usher indicates the death of the house and the end of the Usher family.
Works Cited and References
- Garrison, Joseph M. “The function of terror in the work of Edgar Allan Poe.” American Quarterly 18.2 (1966): 136-150.
- Poe, Edgar Allan . The Fall of the House of Usher. 1839. The Poe Museum.
- Poe, Edgar Allan . “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Edgar Allan Poe: Storyteller. 2nd ed. Office of English Language Programs, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 2013.
- Saliba, David R. A Psychology of Fear: The Nightmare Formula of Edgar Allan Poe. University Press of America, 1980.
- St. Armand, Barton Levi. “Poe’s Landscape of the Soul: Association Theory and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.” Modern Language Studies 7.2 (1977): 32-41.
- Sun, Chunyan. “Horror from the Soul – Gothic Style in Allan Poe’s Horror Fictions.” English Language Teaching 8.5 (2015): 94-99.
- Timmerman, John H. “House of Mirrors: Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.” Papers on Language and Literature 39.3 (2003): 227-244.