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  #1  
Old 03-15-2005, 02:02 AM
Aankh Aankh is offline
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Poe: The Fall of the House of Usher.

Why is this story supposed to be about incest? I'm unable to see why everyone says that Usher and Madeline were sexually involved.

Also, what was the point of the story? For instance, The Cask of Amontillado has the revenge motif going for it. But for TFotHoU? I can't feel the thread that should be holding the narrative in place.

Story in brief:
Protagonist responds to a call for help from an old friend. Comes to friend's spooky home, finds him overwrought, his sister half-dead. The sister 'dies', is buried. She claws her way out of her coffin, comes for Usher, and we find out that Usher knew she was alive when he placed her in the casket. He collapses from shock, our protagonist regains his wits enough to run away, and the whole physical structure of the Usher estate collapses in his wake.

What am I missing here, folks? Help me appreciate this much-vaunted story, please.
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  #2  
Old 03-15-2005, 04:47 AM
Sublight Sublight is offline
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I've never heard the incest angle, but then I've never studied the story too closely. One thing to consider is that according to Roderick, an only child would be perfectly fine; only when there was more than one Usher child in a generation would the curse go into effect. Tthe question of whether the offspring must be brother and sister, or if children of the same sex would suffer in the same way, is never explored.

Beyond that, I've got nothing.
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  #3  
Old 03-15-2005, 04:53 AM
Dunderman Dunderman is offline
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If you're trying to look for anything beyond the general feeling of eerieness and creepiness (Poe was good at eerie and creepy), I think you're trying too hard. Poe was seriously morbid, and this story is just one of the ones where his morbidness is all there is to it. In my little opinion.
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  #4  
Old 03-15-2005, 05:09 AM
Aankh Aankh is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Sublight
I've never heard the incest angle, but then I've never studied the story too closely.
A google search on "house of usher incest" comes up with more than 36,000 references to theme. Problem is, no one approaches it directly or explains why they feel it is present. There are links to 'model' essays that purport to analyse the issue, but I'm not paying $$$ to look at some kid's half-assed paper!

Quote:
Originally Posted by Priceguy
If you're trying to look for anything beyond the general feeling of eerieness and creepiness (Poe was good at eerie and creepy), I think you're trying too hard.
Would that this were so!

While we're at it, could someone explain the whole "curse" thing to me too? My reading comprehension seems to have left the building.
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  #5  
Old 03-15-2005, 06:37 AM
snorlax snorlax is offline
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Could it be the case that the morality and/or law of the day only allowed deviant behaviour to be referred to in an extremely indirect or coded manner?

I know of one example in contemporary literature. In Dickens' David Copperfield there is a subplot involving a "fallen woman" whose supposed misdeeds are never explained. She presumably had had some sort of affair, but there are zero clues as to what her sins may have been. It seems the subject was too horrible to even mention but everyone in the novel seems to understand exactly what the situation is.

On that basis I would guess that Poe was concerned about censorship or worse if he made any direct reference to incest that he could not easily refute.
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  #6  
Old 03-15-2005, 07:51 AM
Aankh Aankh is offline
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It is more than possible that Poe was circumspect about his allusions owing to the standards of morality prevalent in his day. However, hordes of people seem able to penetrate his veil. I am unfortunately not one of them.
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  #7  
Old 03-15-2005, 04:34 PM
kushiel kushiel is offline
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I wrote a whole essay predominantly on the theme of incest in the story. Basically, there is this quote: I had learned too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period any enduring branch, in other words that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent. Meaning, of course, that the whole family was inbred. So there is a history of incest, which already puts Roderick and Madeline in suspicion.

Then there is this quote: "He admitted, however, although with much hesitation, that much of the peculiar gloom which this afflicted him could be traced to a more natural and far more palatable origin to the severe and long continued illness indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution of a tenderly beloved sister his sole companion of long years, his last and only relative on Earth." Sole companion? Tenderly beloved? Sure - it could very much being just familial love, but they already have one strike against them in the incest department.

The entire point of the story is to display the utter insanity of the unfortunate Usher family. The whole family descended into madness due to illnesses (both mental and physical) and incest and were just totally screwed up. It is a look into a family not like many of our own (or is it? Dirty little family secretssssss...).
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  #8  
Old 03-15-2005, 06:51 PM
The Scrivener The Scrivener is offline
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The story probably also reflects Poe's own unease, however repressed and subconscious, about his marriage to his much younger cousin, Virginia, when he was about 26 and she was 13, in 1835. ("Usher" was penned several years later.) Not to mention his own emotional troubles...
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  #9  
Old 03-15-2005, 08:30 PM
Yllaria Yllaria is offline
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Um, I'm afraid that:
Quote:
had put forth, at no period any enduring branch
doesn't refer to incest. It means that in each generation, only one child went on to have children of their own. There were no cousins and second cousins and third cousins.

I'm guessing that the lack of vigor in the family line would be interpreted, in Poe's time, as a sign that the bloodline had become over-refined to the point of weakness. That is the curse of the Ushers.

As to the sister not leaving home and being a dear companion, that, too, was common to the time. What was uncommon was that she was attending to a brother who had no wife and children. Again, this would be a sign of lack of vigor.

The horror of the House of Usher is of getting enough of what everyone is pining for to make a blessing a curse. In a world of dirt roads and outdoor privies and untreatable disease and no birth control, there was a yearning for gentility and refinement. Vigor is rude and so up to its elbows in offspring that you can't get ahead because resources must be so divided.

Refinement and Gentility is nobler than Vigor, and wiser and finer, and more likely to amass resources, but there's a price. Vigor is needed to keep things from crumbling. Get too refined and a family can get too weak to regenerate itself.

The modern equivalent would be saying that too much money will kill you, mysteriously and horribly.
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  #10  
Old 03-15-2005, 08:39 PM
DocCathode DocCathode is offline
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Scrivener everything I've read about his marriage indicates that it was for legal purposes. He wanted to protect his cousin and marriage made him her next of kin. Friends described their relationship as (non-incestuous) brother and sister.
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  #11  
Old 03-15-2005, 08:44 PM
Exapno Mapcase Exapno Mapcase is offline
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Check out this thread for more commentary about the subject.
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  #12  
Old 03-15-2005, 08:51 PM
DocCathode DocCathode is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Yllaria
I'm guessing that the lack of vigor in the family line would be interpreted, in Poe's time, as a sign that the bloodline had become over-refined to the point of weakness. That is the curse of the Ushers.
This is certainly supported by Roderick's inability to tolerate the taste of alcohol, the smell of flowers, or many musical sounds.
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  #13  
Old 03-18-2005, 08:06 PM
kushiel kushiel is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Yllaria
Um, I'm afraid that: doesn't refer to incest. It means that in each generation, only one child went on to have children of their own. There were no cousins and second cousins and third cousins.
Then apparently my English proctor, and my two professors that have been teaching university English for over 30 years are wrong.

The direct line of descent gives the impression that incest was involved.
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  #14  
Old 03-18-2005, 10:41 PM
duffer duffer is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Yllaria
As to the sister not leaving home and being a dear companion, that, too, was common to the time. What was uncommon was that she was attending to a brother who had no wife and children. Again, this would be a sign of lack of vigor.
Thanks for bringing up Poe. I hadn't read him for years and just found my book of his works. I'll have to re-read them.

Having said that I can't remember the brother's past with regards to marriage or children. Is it possible that he was gay? Given the time Poe wrote it in, that could be seen as a curse.

Again, it's been well over 10 years since I've read the story. Correct anything I've gotten wrong here.
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  #15  
Old 03-18-2005, 11:45 PM
AveDementia AveDementia is offline
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It's available online, if you would like to refresh your memory.

Having just re-read it, I would like to theorize that the incest idea came about because there's no apparent "moral" to the story. Its just sickness, insanity, and decay.
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  #16  
Old 03-19-2005, 07:29 PM
Cosmopolitan Cosmopolitan is offline
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I re-read it for a class a couple of years ago, but not since then. As I recall, my professor's take on it was that it was an allegory for the Civil War; the house, dying - the siblings, victims of their cursed heritage.

Is that what Poe intended? I have no clue, but it's an interesting thought.
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  #17  
Old 03-19-2005, 08:02 PM
Johnny L.A. Johnny L.A. is offline
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Big Poe fan here; but Usher is not one of my favourite stories and I'll have to re-read it.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Cosmopolitan
I re-read it for a class a couple of years ago, but not since then. As I recall, my professor's take on it was that it was an allegory for the Civil War; the house, dying - the siblings, victims of their cursed heritage.

Is that what Poe intended? I have no clue, but it's an interesting thought.
Poe died in 1849.
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  #18  
Old 03-19-2005, 09:19 PM
ChoosyChipsAndCeilingWhacks ChoosyChipsAndCeilingWhacks is offline
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I never suspected this angle in Fall of the House of Usher either. Nor did I ever hear it posited in any class I took that included the story on the syllabus. But I have to say...I LOVE covering stuff like this one my own, as an adult. Thanks for the creepy tip...I'm going back to read this again.
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  #19  
Old 03-19-2005, 10:28 PM
zweisamkeit zweisamkeit is offline
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I haven't read this since I was... 13? (So it's been about a decade). Even back then, I had automatically read that there was incest in there. I can't recall many of the details to explain why, but kushiel's first quote (the latter part) is probably a good one.

Or maybe I was just a very twisted child.
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  #20  
Old 03-19-2005, 11:40 PM
Cosmopolitan Cosmopolitan is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Johnny L.A.
Big Poe fan here; but Usher is not one of my favourite stories and I'll have to re-read it.

Poe died in 1849.
Yes, I know - I misspoke. I shouldn't have said an allegory for THE Civil War - as in, a specific one, but a civil war, small "c", small "w".

I think that I was thinking of the American Civil War as an example & got carried away.
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  #21  
Old 03-20-2005, 01:04 AM
Walloon Walloon is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kushiel
I wrote a whole essay predominantly on the theme of incest in the story. Basically, there is this quote: I had learned too, the very remarkable fact, that the stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, at no period any enduring branch, in other words that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent. Meaning, of course, that the whole family was inbred.
As a professional genealogist, I have to ask how could any descendants of the Usher branch not be direct? Branch/descendants = direct descendants.
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  #22  
Old 03-20-2005, 01:25 AM
dropzone dropzone is offline
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I don't look at it all that deeply. My interpretation of Poe is that he was trying to make a living writing and threw together whatever crap he thought would sell, but that sort of attitude is one reason I changed my major to anything besides English.
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  #23  
Old 03-20-2005, 11:22 AM
ianzin ianzin is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by kushiel
Then apparently my English proctor, and my two professors that have been teaching university English for over 30 years are wrong.
There is nothing even remotely implausible about this. I have a degree in Eng. Lit. and I'd say it's perfectly possible for supposedly 'learned' professors to stick to, or offer, interpretations which are wholly arbitrary or even dead wrong. The point is not whether someone has seemingly important credentials. The point is whether the position they put forward is based on good evidence and sound reasoning. (People offering bogus arguments often use a lame 'appeal to authority' which shouldn't deflect sound reasoning.)

If your professors can put forward a good case for the theory / interpretation that incest is a key theme of the story, that's fine. But it may well be that they can't, and that they are simply re-hashing the interpretation that they were told was 'correct', when in fact it may be wrong, or when a different interpretation may have just as much merit.
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  #24  
Old 03-22-2005, 06:36 AM
Aankh Aankh is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by duffer
Having said that I can't remember the brother's past with regards to marriage or children. Is it possible that he was gay? Given the time Poe wrote it in, that could be seen as a curse.
This is an interesting interpretation. However, the curse is supposed to have been in the family for generations. If every male Usher was gay, well, there wouldn't really be any Ushers then.

On the whole, I guess the incest interpretation can be supported.

Anyone want to try a take at Walloon's post?
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  #25  
Old 03-22-2005, 11:12 AM
Walloon Walloon is offline
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Well, I'll take a wack at it. Poe may have been writing carelessly. I think what he meant to say that was that each generation of Ushers had only one son, and no daughter, who had offspring. Sublight and Yllaria had this interpretation above.
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  #26  
Old 03-22-2005, 12:15 PM
Ukulele Ike Ukulele Ike is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by snorlax
In Dickens' David Copperfield there is a subplot involving a "fallen woman" whose supposed misdeeds are never explained. She presumably had had some sort of affair, but there are zero clues as to what her sins may have been. It seems the subject was too horrible to even mention but everyone in the novel seems to understand exactly what the situation is.
Steerforth, the bounder, seduced Li'l Em'ly. Seemed perfectly clear to me.
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  #27  
Old 03-22-2005, 06:14 PM
snorlax snorlax is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ukulele Ike
Steerforth, the bounder, seduced Li'l Em'ly. Seemed perfectly clear to me.
I agree that the case of Emily is clear enough, and she is the major "fallen woman" character in the book. I was referring to Martha, whose situation foreshadows that of Emily. She's introduced towards the end of Chapter 22.
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  #28  
Old 03-22-2005, 07:01 PM
duffer duffer is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by aankh
This is an interesting interpretation. However, the curse is supposed to have been in the family for generations. If every male Usher was gay, well, there wouldn't really be any Ushers then.
Heh. See what happens when to take a WAG about a story you haven't read in a decade?
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  #29  
Old 03-26-2005, 05:13 AM
Aankh Aankh is offline
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Maybe Yllaria is right after all?

Lovecraft's Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his family contains the following lines:
Quote:
Madness was in all the Jermyns, and people were glad there were not many of them. The line put forth no branches, and Arthur was the last of it.
If you read the story - and you should because Lovecraft rocks - you will see that the lack of branches in the family tree has nothing to do with incest. The author makes open references in the story to various Jermyns marrying outside the family and to only one Jermyn within a generation reproducing, the rest being physically or mentally unfit to do so.

So did Poe use the phrase 'putting forth branches' in the same sense? I don't know. If he did, it negates the incest interpretation, I would think, and gives credence to what Yllaria said in his/her post.

Any further ideas, or should I let this dog lie already?
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  #30  
Old 03-26-2005, 08:39 AM
Carm6773 Carm6773 is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by aankh
A google search on "house of usher incest" comes up with more than 36,000 references to theme.
I did a paper on this very subject my sophomore year of HS. Specifically, I stated that they were in an incestuous relationship, and that the destruction of the mansion was a symbolic representation of the end of the family.

Quote:
Originally Posted by AveDementia
Its just sickness, insanity, and decay.
The decay of the mansion represents the decay of the Usher family. This is represented by the crack in the wall that grew steadily as the relationship between Roderick and Madeline progressed. There were no heirs, and due to their relationship, the family line would not be continued. No family=no house. Since the reason of the family "death" was because of flaw in the family, the house eventually succumbed to the foundation weakness and crumbled inward on itself.
IIRC, Poe was in an incestuous relationship himself (married his cousin, or something like that). He got a lot of flak, so the story could have been his subconscious way of venting.

The teacher refused to give me anything higher than a B on the paper because she didn't believe in my topic. I hope she sees this thread.
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  #31  
Old 03-26-2005, 01:44 PM
HPL HPL is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by aankh
Lovecraft's Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his family contains the following lines:

If you read the story - and you should because Lovecraft rocks - you will see that the lack of branches in the family tree has nothing to do with incest. The author makes open references in the story to various Jermyns marrying outside the family and to only one Jermyn within a generation reproducing, the rest being physically or mentally unfit to do so.
Though one of the reason Jeymen's ancestors were not reproducing because they kept being distracted by.....other things.
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  #32  
Old 03-27-2005, 06:47 AM
Cuckoorex Cuckoorex is offline
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Nitpick:

Quote:
Originally Posted by aankh
A google search on "house of usher incest" comes up with more than 36,000 references to theme.
Not to be a party pooper, but "bill clinton incest" came up with 93,300 references to theme, and "donald duck incest" gave me 45,200 hits; Google doesn't give you only pages that have all of the search terms together in a related article.
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