E.A. Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher"

I just re-read this classic horror tale…and it still makes no senes. The victim (Roderick) buries his sister alive…she comes to, breaks out of the coffin, breaks out of the vault, and nails her brother-why does the guy wait around for this? And why (if he knows she is alive) does he interr her in the first place.
Was this tale ever made into a movie? Doe people ever get buried alive, by mistake? How long can you survive in a coffin? :eek:

I read this story in a lit class in college and I can remember at least a couple of thematic interpretations.

First, the house and the sister are mirror representations of Roderick himself. The story is about the psychological decay that is taking hold of Roderick’s mind because of his constant self-obsession and his dangerous reclusiveness. When the visitor goes to visit Roderick it is as if he has stepped into Roderick’s mind. The decaying house, the feelings of death and confusion, and even the bizarre episode involving the sister (who is discovered by the visitor to be Roderick’s twin) are all outward manifestations of Roderick’s dive into insanity.

Second, (and perhaps questionable) is that the story represents the dying culture of the American Fuedal Slavery system. Roderick is the last of a dying breed of Southern aristocrats, and his home represents the eventual deadly fruits that are reaped by such a system. Year after year the home began to crumble but Roderick (and his sister if she really existed) kept trying to hold on to the past until they were eventually completely isolated from all that was good, productive, and constructive. They were truly a dying breed – their inability to evolve led to their isolation from society and community – and eventually to their horrifying death.

Indeed it was, several of them in fact. The best is probably the one with Vincent Price as Roderick Usher.

In college we studied Poe with a Freudian perspective. His stories deal with the conflict between the ID and the ego or the conflict between the rational and the irrational. In a Poe story, you typically have a character who represents reason (reads a book by a bust of Plato) and a character who represents passion (involved in the arts and wearing red clothes). Anyhow, these two forces try to entomb, or repress, each other. Like repressed feelings, an entombed character can be buried for a short period and then come back to muck things up later. If the two forces can’t live together, insanity typically occurs. The passion character kills off the reason character, and, in this story at least, the house (the mind) collapses.

There’s also a follow-up novel by Robert McCammon. It’s not at all the same in tone, but it’s still a mighty good read.

Hm, in the words of the Big Fraud hisself…sometimes a ceegar is jist a ceegar…

Now, maybe I am wrong, though I know a couple of authors who will agree…sometimes an author is just writing a cracking good story without deep inner meaning. Then they get the hysterical chuckles when they talk to lit majors with wild @ss theories about the message in their fiction…

Couldn’t Poe simply have been writing a gasp horror story using the conventional literary techniques of his time? No deep inner meanings about slavery, just a spiffy creepy story.

It’s a creepy story because of the deeper themes. Poe has some motifs and themes that he returns to constantly in his horror stories…obsessions, if you will. Sometimes that involves pre-mature burial, and protagonists that are their own antagonists. Why is pre-mature burial so frightening? Why is the thought or Roderick burying his own sister alive so bloody frightening? Why does his sister come back to get her brother? Why was she sick? If your answer to all of these questions is simply “because it’s a horror story!” then I think you are really missing out on what a great story it is, and doing a great disservice to one of the best authors in American history.

Do you believe The Raven is really about a bird?

Do you believe The Black Cat is really about a black cat haunting the poor level headed protagonist, and the man in the Tell-Tale Heart killed his landlord because of his eye?

Poe was an extremely educated man and an incredible writer. He had more to offer than the just the superficial story.

Well, writing stories with “deep inner meanings” was the conventional literary technique of his times. There were damned few writers in the 19th century who didn’t laden down their stories with as much subtext as humanly possible, and then some. Mostly because they were writing for a far, far more literate audience than exsists today, and knew that such an audience wouldn’t be interested in a story that was all surface and no depth. Poe himself was a literary critic, and when he wasn’t writing his own multi-layered stories, he was picking apart other author’s stories in the same manner he expected his own to be dissected.

On a personal note, I don’t think a story without subtext could possibly be a “cracking good story,” but that’s entirely a personal judgement. Stephen King (to pick the most obvious example) goes on and on about not writing with any deeper message in mind, and his work suffers because of it.

As to the other half of the OP’s question, about the fear of being buried alive, the Victorian era saw the birth of a cottage industry of coffins equipped with all sorts of gadgets to let people know if the person in the coffin wasn’t quite dead yet. Usually along the lines of a bell mounted in the headstone, attached to a string placed in the probably-deceased hand when he or she was interred, although there were a few other techniques. So far as I know, none of them were ever put to their intended use, although premature burial in general was not wholly unknown. It was, thankfully, still extremely rare.

For an excellent, creepy and sometimes hilarious answer to that question, pick up Jan Bondeson’s Buried Alive.

I studied Poe for a semester in high school. Based on what I learned in that class, Poe seldom “just wrote a story” Take The Raven for example.

“Once upon a midnight dreary” – Midnight is “the witching hour”, when preternatural things happen.

“Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,” – As will be seen later, the Narrator was reading magickal books in order to bring Lenore back from the dead.

“Ah, distinctly I remember, it was in the bleak December” – December, Winter. A time of death (as opposed to Spring, which is a time of rebirth).

“And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.” – "Dying and “ghost”. Keywords in the theme.

“silken sad uncertain rustling” – Alliteration to set the mood. He chose these words on purpose.

“Darkness there, and nothing more.” – “Darkness”? Or “DARKness”?

“saintly days of yore” – By using “saintly”, Poe imparts a mystical quality to the Raven.

“Perched upon a bust of Pallas” – Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom. Implies the Raven has secret knowledge.

“nightly shore” and “Night’s Plutonian shore” – The “other world”. Pluto is the god of the underworld; thus, Poe implies that the Raven is from the underworld.

I could go on, but the laundry is done and I need to take it to the laundromat to dry. But just a quick mention of The Black Cat: “The wall fell bodily”. Sure, the wall came down as a unit – but there was a body behind it. Damn, Poe was great!

More faithful to the story was a short film scripted by/costarring/with commentary by Isaac Asimov. I don’t find it on imdb, though, so it may only be available through scholastic suppliers, if it’s even in print any more.

But when the author pauses in the middle of the story to say, “This is not a cigar!”, it’s worth listening to him. The story includes the poem “The Haunted Palace,” which makes the metaphors of reason and insanity explicit.

Also note Roderick’s paintings, paintings of thought divorced from the physical world.

But I’m surprised no one has mentioned incest yet. “The stem of the Usher race, all time-honored as it was, had put forth, in no period, any enduring branch; in other words, that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and had always, with very trifling and very temporary variatons, so lain.”

Roderick’s flight into the world of abstract reason is an attempt to deny the family “curse”. His sister’s mysterious illness is a symptom of their denial of their destiny. Even the tomb is not strong enough to save them, however, and in the end she, in the words of the OP, “nails” him.

It’s not the only interpretation, but it’s not out of the question. Writing for respectable publications in the 19th century, Poe would be expected to approach the topic of incest in a very circumspect fashion, if at all.

Nobody’s mentioned incest because Poe wasn’t talking about incest. What he is talking about is that no branches of the family descending from second sons or daughters have ever survived; while they have occasionally reproduced, the only branch of the family that has endured is that which runs through the heirs of the house.

It Poe’s world they do. Read The Cask of Amontillado.
For the love of God, Montresor!

Yes! For the Love of God!

And you can survive a very long time in a coffin. There’s enough air in there to last for a long while.

And recall that she wasn’t, IIRC, buried - only placed in the family tomb.

Being buried alive was a pretty big phobia for a lot of folks in the Victorian era. There were all sorts of inventions so that someone coming to in a coffin could communicate his plight to the outside world and (hopefully) get rescued. Since he died in 1849, Poe would be at best, in the beginning of the period. Perhaps his stories were what triggered the phobia?


I suppose I could go a number of directions with this one.

To begin with, premature burial was relatively common until the 20th century and if you read many old newspapers you find quite a large number of individuals who had been pronounced dead only to get up and walk home. So one can only wonder how many ended up in the ground.

While in university, I read an excellent study discussing Roderick’s malady in light of possible Laudnam addiction. The over-sensitivity to touch, sound, taste and light, the paranoia and the flights of irrationality. It was pointed out that in fact well over 50 percent of the population of Poe’s time could have been addicted to the patent medicine basically made up of opium, alcohol, water and possibly food coloring. There was even some suggestion that both Poe and his beloved wife while she was so ill were were using it since there was little else available.

When one thinks of Fall of the House of Usher or for that matter most of Poe’s more macabre works (yes, even The Raven) as an opium dream, it does take on new legs. This is not to slight the works just to give a point a view that might not have been considered.

Regarding Roderick’s reasons for doing what he did…What was the reason the woman in Texas drown her own children in the bathtub, what was the reason the fellow in Connecticut killed his entire family and lay them out in neat little lines. Poe likes investigating that mindset.


Nah. It’s about the fact that everything and everybody we care about will decay and die. And that if there’s a god or an afterlife, we have no proof whatsoever.

Well, yeah. The narrarator is also profoundly insane (Rather than risk making noise, he takes an hour to open the door and another hour to uncover the lantern). He had no reason to hate the old man. It was that loathsome, vulture eye.

Yes, on an an obvious and superficial level that’s all it says. But when someone says a family tree has no branches, it certainly can suggest something else. And when a man hastily entombs his “tenderly beloved sister, his sole companion for long years, his last and only relative on earth” with whom he shares “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature” and, despite the fact that he hears her moving in the coffin, leaves her there for days, doesn’t it suggest some seriously conflicted emotions? Perhaps he’s pulled between what he sees as two horrible, unnatural alternatives. Perhaps he overcompensates by turning to abstract art and music in denial of the fleshworld, but like his ancestors before him becomes ever more sensitive to physical sensation. Perhaps also he has something to hide, which explains his aversion to a doctor examing the body. But she will not be denied. She comes to him, dressed in white, and claims him once and for all, body and soul.

I don’t know, the story got a lot better for me after I read yellowcakesolid’s quote.

In The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury includes a chapter called “Usher II” that was about a man who rebuilds the House of Usher, invites a group of the people who banned all the books on Earth to the house, and then kills every one as people had died in Poe’s books. The house collapses in the end as well.