The self-fulfilling prophecy is an explicit theme in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” This theme influences the behaviors of Roderick and the narrator, and leads them to contribute to the death of the Ushers and the physical fall of their house. The theme is explicit because the story’s title directly refers to the prophecy’s fulfillment (the fall), and the story establishes Roderick’s false beliefs about his own fall. The narrator’s belief in the darkness and horror of the situation sets the self-fulfilling prophecy as a thematic frame for “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe integrates this theme as a major influence in the short story. This thematic lens exposes false beliefs and behaviors as contributors to the Ushers’ death and the fall of their bloodline. The theme provides a foundation for the interpretation of the climax and ending of “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story illustrates a self-fulfilling prophecy about the death of Roderick and Madeline, and the corresponding fall of the House of Usher. This theme indicates that Roderick and the narrator are under the influence of their false beliefs, which lead to behaviors that lead to the death and fall of the Usher family. Thus, “The Fall of the House of Usher” highlights the significance of beliefs, no matter how false, in influencing one’s actions. The theme also links “The Fall of the House of Usher” to other works that involve death as part of the story’s ending, such as William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Poe’s “The Masque of Red Death.”
Roderick Usher’s Prophecy of His Death (Quote #1)
Upon arriving at the House of Usher, the narrator meets Roderick in a dark and gloomy room. This setting relates the self-fulfilling prophecy to the theme of death and decay, which is common in Poe’s literary works. In this story, the narrator determines that his friend suffers from an illness of the mind that pervades the body. The theme of a self-fulfilling prophecy in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is expressed when the narrator describes his meeting with Roderick, as in the following quote:
- “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.’” (Poe )
Quote #1 presents the theme of a self-fulfilling prophecy through Roderick’s perspective. This quote lays down his prophecy, which affects the plot — the events that lead to “The Fall of the House of Usher.” For example, he expects that his condition will lead to his fall, and that he will perish and be lost. The quotation points to a false belief and implies this theme. Roderick Usher’s pessimistic belief is not based on a strong rational foundation. The quote also describes the narrator’s perspective about Roderick and his situation in the House of Usher. For example, the narrator thinks that his friend is enslaved in his own terror. Such enslavement strengthens the case for the theme of a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads to death and the fall of the House of Usher. Poe later reveals the fulfillment of this prophecy through the deaths of Roderick and Madeline Usher and the fall of their house.
Madeline Usher’s Supposed Death (Quote #2)
The narrator eventually learns from Roderick that Madeline has died. This event is a premise for the theme of a self-fulfilling prophecy in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The assumption that Madeline has died creates a chain of events that lead to the siblings’ deaths and the fall of the House of Usher. In the following quote, the narrator refers to this event:
- “[H]aving informed me abruptly that the lady Madeline was no more, he stated his intention of preserving her corpse for a fortnight, (previously to its final interment,) in one of the numerous vaults within the main walls of the building.”
A self-fulfilling prophecy involves false beliefs or assumptions that become true because of the prophecy’s influence on the believers’ behaviors. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the Quote #2 manifests this theme in the behaviors of Roderick and the narrator. For example, the quotation shows that they believe that Madeline has died. This belief leads them to entomb Madeline in the House of Usher. In this thematic context, the men’s assumption of her death is false. This quote tells the reader how the theme defines the short story’s plot as it progresses toward the Ushers’ deaths and the fall of the House of Usher.
The Ushers’ Deaths and The Fall of the House of Usher (Quotes #3 & #4)
The deaths of Roderick and Madeline are the fulfillment of the self-fulfilling prophecy in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” This theme is presented through Edgar Allan Poe’s depiction of the horror of Madeline’s reappearance in the room and the consequential deaths of the siblings. The narrator describes this event in the following quotes from the text:
- “[W]ithout those doors there DID stand the lofty and enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline of Usher. There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame. . . . [She] 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.”
- “I saw the mighty walls rushing asunder (…) and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the ‘House of Usher’.”
The excerpt above depicts the climax of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where the narrator, Roderick, and Madeline meet face to face. This scene points to the theme of the self-fulfilling prophecy, the narrator’s premonition upon his arrival at the House of Usher, and Roderick’s bleak expectations about his own demise. In the above quotations, the theme is manifested in “The Fall of the House of Usher” through the fulfillment of an initially false assumption or belief. For example, Quote #3 fulfills Madeline’s death, which is falsely assumed in Quote #2. Also, Quote #3 fulfills Roderick’s belief about his own fall, which is stated in Quote #1. Thus, Quotes #1 and #2 establish the false beliefs that serve as the foundation of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Quote #3 shows the prophecy’s fulfillment, and presents the theme to the reader. Quote #4 depicts the narrator’s flight, along with the destruction and fall of the house. Poe uses the story’s last phrase, “House of Usher,” to indicate this fall and the end of the Usher bloodline. This quote solidifies the theme of the self-fulfilling prophecy in “The Fall of the House of Usher.”
Explanation & Importance of the Theme of a Self-fulfilling Prophecy in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”
Edgar Allan Poe integrates the theme of a self-fulfilling prophecy in “The Fall of the House of Usher” through the Ushers and the narrator. As the cited quotes illustrate, this prophecy is about the death or fall of the Usher siblings, and the physical and symbolic fall of the House of Usher. The prophecy about the Ushers’ fall is initially false, but the end of the short story fulfills the fall. This fulfillment is a result of a series of events involving Roderick and the narrator. Poe explicitly presents the theme through Roderick’s aim to keep Madeline entombed, and the narrator’s agreement to help entomb her.
The importance of the theme of the self-fulfilling prophecy in “The Fall of the House of Usher” rests on how the theme streamlines the reader’s thought process in connecting the scenes of the short story. For example, aside from the foreboding meaning of the text’s title, the theme prepares the reader to expect the possible fulfillment of Roderick’s prophecy, as shown in the cited quotes. This thematic guidance eases transitions from scene to scene. The theme also enables the reader to understand the significance of the story’s climax and denouement relative to the setting and the previous scenes (see Quotes #1 and #2). Moreover, the self-fulfilling prophecy in “The Fall of the House of Usher” reminds the reader of the theme of death, which is common in Poe’s other literary works, such as “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat.”
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.
- Merton, Robert K. “The self-fulfilling prophecy.” The Antioch Review 8.2 (1948): 193-210.
- 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.
- Robey, Molly. “Poe and Prophecy: Degeneration in the Holy Land and the House of Usher.” Gothic Studies 12.2 (2010): 61-69.
- 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.