Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” is known for themes like fear and death and decay. Excerpts also indicate the implicit theme of sex discrimination in the short story. Sex discrimination against women is exhibited in the dynamics among the narrator, Roderick Usher, and Madeline Usher. Even the status of Madeline relative to the house points to this theme. In this regard, this 1839 macabre short story reflects the social experiences of women, at least during Poe’s time. The persistence of various forms of sex discrimination in current societal conditions makes this theme and “The Fall of the House of Usher” relevant. Madeline’s experiences in the house, along with her eventual fall and death, point to this sexist theme. In addition, “The Fall of the House of Usher” represents the perspectives of the male characters, Roderick and the narrator, and exemplifies society’s sex discrimination against women.
Sex discrimination against women is an implicit theme throughout the plot of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The themes in Edgar Allan Poe’s literary works typically revolve around death, horror, and fear, such as in the cases of “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” However, the sex discrimination theme in “The Fall of the House of Usher” reflects the social conditions and Poe’s possible effort in pointing out the ills of society. This thematic depiction relates “The Fall of the House of Usher” to other literary pieces with the same theme, such as William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Women as a Disconnected Subject in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (Quote #1)
At one point when the narrator converses with Roderick Usher, Madeline passes by. In this scene, Poe highlights the Usher sister’s appearance, but does not allow her to directly interact with the two men, even though she is “The Lady” of the House of Usher. Thus, the theme of sex discrimination in “The Fall of the House of Usher” shows how women are disconnected from society. The narrator refers to this event in the following quote:
- “While he spoke, the lady Madeline (for so was she called) passed slowly through a remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared” (Poe ).
In Quote #1, the narrator becomes aware of Madeline’s presence. By referring to her as “the lady,” he recognizes her significance in the House of Usher. The sex discrimination theme is implied because, despite such significance, Madeline remains disengaged throughout most of the plot of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” For example, the quote shows that she does not notice the narrator. Her location in the “remote portion of the apartment” emphasizes such disconnection. In making her disappear in this scene, Poe makes her insignificant and minimizes her role in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The quote also shows that Roderick and the narrator do not engage her. Similarly, Madeline does not pay attention to them. Based on Quote #1, the implicit theme of sex discrimination in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is reflected as the disconnection of women in society. This disconnection is recognized in both ways, from men’s perspective and from women’s perspective.
Women as Victims in Poe’s Short Story (Quote #2)
The theme of sex discrimination against women is strengthened through the response of Roderick and the narrator to Madeline’s supposed death. Their actions victimize the Usher sister, as she is entombed alive. Considering Poe’s setting of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Madeline’s supposed death (or fall) is thematically framed as victimization. In the following quote, the narrator describes the events of this scene:
- “The disease which had thus entombed the lady in the maturity of youth, had left, as usual in all maladies of a strictly cataleptical character, the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and the face, and that suspiciously lingering smile upon the lip which is so terrible in death. We replaced and screwed down the lid, and, having secured the door of iron, made our way, with toll, into the scarcely less gloomy apartments of the upper portion of the house.”
The theme of sex discrimination against women is implied in the victimization of Madeline in Quote #2. In this way, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is partly an exploration of women’s victimization. For example, in the quotation above, the narrator notices the faint blush on her skin, which implies she is still alive, but he continues to help entomb her in the Usher house. This victimization indicates misogyny and the implicit theme of sex discrimination or sexism against women in “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In the quote, the male characters’ effort to close the lid and secure the iron door represents sex discrimination. The narrator is a passive follower of Roderick’s request to entomb Madeline Usher. Ultimately, Madeline, a representative of women in society, becomes a victim who is isolated in the darkness of the tomb. Based on the above quotation, Edgar Allan Poe uses the theme of sex discrimination against women to portray Madeline’s character’s victimization and fall and, consequently, the fall of the House of Usher.
Women’s Struggle and Fall in the House of Usher (Quote #3)
At the climax of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, the theme of sex discrimination defines Madeline’s suffering and struggle. For example, the narrator describes the physical condition and suffering of the Usher sister upon appearing by the doorway. The narrator relays the events of this scene of “The Fall of the House of Usher” in the following quote:
- “It was the work of the rushing gust –but then without 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. 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.”
In Quote #3, Madeline’s condition makes the text of “The Fall of the House of Usher” partly a representation of the suffering of women in society. This suffering points to sex discrimination against women as a theme that revolves around Madeline’s character. The quote shows that the events in the House of Usher make Madeline experience a “bitter struggle.” Even prior to the climactic scene of the above quotation, her disease makes her struggle as the lady of the house. Quote #3 shows the implicit sexist approach of the male characters, especially in her entombment and consequential death. At the end of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the physical condition of Madeline concretizes her suffering. For example, in the quote, the narrator notes blood on her robes as evidence of her struggle. In her fall and death, she exhibits violent death-agonies. Thus, Quote #3 depicts the theme of sex discrimination against women through Madeline’s struggle. The ultimate result of this struggle is her death, which is also a theme in this short story (see The Theme of Death and Decay in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”).
Explanation & Importance of the Theme of Sex Discrimination against Women in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”
Sex discrimination against women is evident in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The cited quotes establish sex discrimination against women as an implicit theme. For example, Madeline Usher’s entombment shows that she is discriminated even in her house. Also, the quotes illustrate that her passive role makes her disengaged and disconnected from society. This condition strengthens the thematic frame that implies how females are discriminated in society, in communities, and even in their homes.
Based on the text quotes cited above, the implicit theme of sex discrimination against women is important because it defines and gives meaning to the dynamics among Madeline Usher and the other characters in Poe’s short story. For example, this thematic situation creates a communication barrier between Madeline and the male characters. The analyzed quotes also show that the theme is linked to maintaining the horror and macabre nature of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” This nature necessitates her isolation and death. Also, from a reader’s point of view, the theme makes Madeline more interesting for interpretation by keeping her character mysterious.
Works Cited and References
- Athitakis, Mark. “Edgar Allan Poe’s Hatchet Jobs.” Humanities, Fall, 2017. National Endowment for the Humanities.
- Bailey, James O. “What Happens in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’?” American Literature 35.4 (1964): 445-466.
- Kot, Paula. “Feminist ‘Re-Visioning’ of the Tales of Women.” A Companion to Poe Studies, edited by Eric W. Carlson, Greenwood Press, 1996, pp. 388-402.
- 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.
- Sun, Chunyan. “Horror from the Soul – Gothic Style in Allan Poe’s Horror Fictions.” English Language Teaching 8.5 (2015): 94-99.