To fully understand and analyze a text it is difficult not to look at the author, in this case Edgar Allen Poe. Although Poe once claimed that his short stories are in no way about his personal life or about him, it is hard to imagine an author writing about something that they know nothing about or haven’t experienced at one point or another. Reading “The Fall of the House of Usher” through a Freudian lens helps us understand and analyze Poe as a person and as an author whether he saw it within himself or not. In this essay I will be analyzing Poe’s personal life through a Freudian lens and drawing connections between Poe and the four characters in “The Fall of the House of Usher”. The four characters in the story that I will bring attention to are: the narrator, Roderick, Madeline, and the house itself. Within this essay I will also argue that Poe’s story is actually a dream state in which Poe himself is the narrator and his surroundings and events that take place are part of his subconscious.
Let’s begin with a backstory on Edgar Allen Poe. According to The Edgar Allen Poe Society of Baltimore, Poe was born in 1809 and just a year later his parents separated. His mother, Elizabeth Poe, took her three children with her after the separation and died in 1811 leaving Edgar, William, and Rosalie Poe motherless and separated from each other to be sent to live with other families. Poe’s new family, John and Frances Allen, took him in but Poe never had a good relationship with John. As Poe got older and struggled to make ends meet at a time when authors were paid closed to nothing, he reached out to John Allen to ask him for financial help but John ignored him. When John Allen died he left Poe out of his will, leaving everything to an illegitimate child he had never met. Frances Allen who was another mother figure in Poe’s life also died early on in his life when Poe was just 20 years old. Poe continued to live in poverty and as an alcoholic simultaneously losing those he loved due to various diseases and illnesses. Poe died in 1849 at just 40 years old.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is obviously filled with “uncanny” like descriptions and imagery. Within the first line we see that this story is somewhat of a gothic or horror story due to the tone it sets. It is also a story of melancholy, as Poe mentions numerous times throughout the text. The story itself can be taken as a fiction horror story about a man who goes to visit an old friend and is exposed to the uncanny of the Usher family and the Usher house. However, as literary analysts, we want to look at why Poe wrote this story and what does it say about him or in other words, what could have led him to write such an odd tale? Looking at the story through a psychoanalytic lens tells us two important things: what this story says about Poe and what the story says about the reader. Each reader will interpret this story in different ways depending on their state of mind and their surroundings. For example, the first time I read this story was in high school English. At the time it was just a horror story with no significant meaning to myself as a reader except its use for leisurely reading. More than a decade later and the story reads much different. Freud would psychoanalyze not only Poe, but also himself and what reactions arose from his reading and interpretation of the story, so I will do the same.
The story begins with “a dull dark and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens” where the narrator, who remains anonymous, arrives on horseback at the Usher home. He describes it as “the melancholy House of Usher” which is an interesting way to describe a house. From the beginning the narrator is affected by the melancholy of the house before he even enters it. He says, “a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit…vacant eye- like windows…decayed trees–with an utter depression of the soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream”. There is another reference to dreams later on the story which makes us think, could this all be a dream? We will look at this story like a dream and use Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” to really analyze the story and its meaning.
Freud claims that when you dream of something it works as like a metaphor or a displacement of something going on in your subconscious mind, he also claims that in the unconscious anything is possible, which is why we have scary and sad dreams. Additionally, Freud also claims that everything that occurs in our dreams is about ourselves, even if the dream isn’t about you it actually really is about you. So far we’ve been introduced to two characters: the narrator and the house. We then meet Roderick Usher, a childhood friend of the narrator who has lost touch with him and was actually never really close to the narrator. Roderick asks the narrator for help in a letter and asks him to come visit him. It seems as though Roderick and the narrator both believe that he could be some kind of help to the Usher family, but we never find out what his credentials are and if he is some type of doctor or licensed professional. What we do know is that the narrator went with some intention of helping or figuring out what was troubling poor Roderick, and like us and Poe he will serve as some kind of psychoanalytic figure.
Once we meet Roderick and his strange illnesses, which from my point of view appear to be hypochondria, anxiety, and hysteria, we see that most of these arise from the declining health of his beloved sister and only companion Madeline. Although anxiety was not mentioned as one of Roderick’s symptoms in the story, it is the interpretation I, as a person who has suffered with anxiety for years, instantly noticed in his demeanor. Previously mentioned was the effect that stories can have on the reader and what that psychoanalytically says about that reader, so from time to time my own experience will be included to further prove Freud’s views. Also as mentioned before was Poe’s issues with money and substance abuse. Although, we cannot say whether he suffered from anxiety or not, we do know that he struggled to make ends meet, even leaving his then sick wife while he went to New York to find work. It seems that Poe projected many of his subconscious (or conscious) troubles onto Roderick. Ironically Roderick says that the house is conscious and it is the reason for decline in mental health. So while Roderick is the subconscious, the house and the narrator are the conscious part of Poe’s brain.
Madeline is barely seen or heard of in the story but that doesn’t mean she is not a crucial character, in fact she may be the most important character. Madeline is physically sick from the beginning of the story and “dies” shortly after. Roderick asks for the narrators help in putting her body in a coffin in the deep lower parts of the house. The narrator however, notices that Madeline has a slight smile on her face and rosy cheeks, not something that would be common on a deceased body. Later on in the story Madeline makes a very important and impactful reappearance. For now, if we are looking at these characters as part of Poe’s subconscious, we get the feeling that Madeline is controlled and oppressed by her brother Roderick. Madeline in this story serves as what is repressed. She is not dead, but Roderick almost wants her to be, prematurely burying her. Madeline is also mentioned as being “cataleptic” which is “a medical condition characterized by a trance or seizure with a loss of sensation and consciousness accompanied by rigidity of the body” according to the dictionary definition, making it more obvious that she is meant to be repressed and silenced. Madeline will take the role as the id. Because Roderick is the one dealing with anxiety and trying to repress the id, he serves as the superego, leaving the narrator to serve as the ego.
The longer the narrator stays in the house, the more it becomes part of him. He too starts feeling anxious and nervous, much like Roderick. He describes being in the house as an “overwhelming feeling of entrapment” which could explain the mental state of Poe at the time. The windows of the house are described twice as “eye-like”, so anatomically speaking if the windows are the eyes, then the head is the house itself and everything in it is part of the mind. This is why Madeline is buried deep within the lower levels of the house, being pushed to the darkest corners of the mind to remain repressed and out of sight for the conscious. The longer the narrator stays inside the mind and the deeper he ventures, the more his inner most thoughts and realizations affect him mentally.
Although being in this house affects the narrator in ways he cannot describe he choose to remain there and keep an eye on Roderick. “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. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. I shudder at the thought of any, even the most trivial, incident, which may operate upon this intolerable agitation of soul. I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect—in terror. In this unnerved—in this pitiable condition—I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR” writes Poe. Here we learn that Roderick’s biggest fear is fear itself, fear of the unknown. Some of the clear indicators of anxiety include fear of the future and the unknown, which relate back to the instability in Poe’s personal and work life.
As the story comes to an end, Roderick’s paranoia and hypersensitivity becomes true and Madeline awakes from the dead to grab him and kill both of them instantaneously. Roderick’s obsession with fear and constant clues of his demise, such as one of the verses in the song he sang:
“But evil things, in robes of sorrow,
Assailed the monarch’s high estate
(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow
Shall dawn upon him, desolate!);
And, round about his home, the glory
That blushed and bloomed
Is but a dim-remembered story
Of the old time entombed” show signs of wish fulfillment within the dream. In other words, although Roderick was scared of death and claimed to love his twin sister and not be able to live without her, his obsession with the fall of his family and home and the premature burial of his sister touch on subconscious wishes within Poe’s mind. As we mentioned, Poe had a self-destructive kind of personality with his excessive drinking. The loss of so many people, mostly women and mother figures around him led to him drinking more and more heavily. If we look at Freud’s psychosexual stages we see that a life-changing event occurred in each one of the stages in Poe’s life leading to overall issues with anger, desire, and fear. More importantly, the Oedipus complex talks about the Phallic Stage, which is the “stage of development ages (3-6) in which the source of libido (life force) is concentrated in erogenous zones of the child’s body” (McLeod). This is also the stage when a child starts having unconscious sexual feelings for the opposite sex parent and jealousy towards the same sex parent.
The Oedipus Complex is important to understanding the story regardless of there being no mother or father figures. In this story, Roderick cannot live without Madeline. Once she falls physically ill he starts becoming more and more emotionally and mentally ill. Their relationship is a complicated one, but one that can be understood through a Freudian lens. Madeline, along with being the id, is also a symbol of all the mother figures Poe lost in his life: his biological mother, Frances Allen, and his aunt and mother of his first wife and cousin Virginia. Through Roderick, he tries to keep the terminally ill mother figure repressed in the deep vaults of his unconscious. However, like most things we try to forget, they keep coming back making appearances in our conscious mind. This is why at the end of the story Madeline comes back and finally takes down Roderick with her.
The repressed can only stay repressed so long, and Poe knew this. At the time of his writing “The Fall of the House of Usher” his last mother figure had already died and the father figures in his life had also abandoned him and passed away. The loss of so many parental figures could have had a severely negative impact on Poe and left him in a melancholy state, much like his character Roderick. Whether Poe knew it or not, he projected many of his troubles and subconscious worries about his future within these characters. He finished the story with the death of three of the main characters: Madeline Usher, Roderick Usher, and the Usher home. The narrator gets away but as he looks back a crack on the house that he noticed at the beginning of the story seems to get bigger and finally the house breaks in two, resulting not only in the fall of the physical house of Usher but the fall of the last remaining Usher family members, which is an amazing use of language on Poe’s behalf.
Lastly, as mentioned before Poe was one of three children who were all separated when their mother died. Unfortunately, all passed before they could have any children, much like the Usher children. “The Fall of the House of Usher” was the foreshadowing and possibly unconscious wish fulfillment of the future fall of the House of Poe, with the bloodline ending with Poe’s sister, Rosalie, in 1874. Poe was found unconscious, intoxicated and delirious one day in October 1849, he had boarded a train for New York City but somehow ended up in Baltimore. It was said that he never came to his senses and was not able to tell anyone how he got there or what had happened to him. What we can see are the similarities in the self-destructive personalities that led to his death and the death of Roderick Usher, his superego, just 10 years prior.
- Gay, Peter. The Freud Reader. W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.
- Mcleod, Saul. “Oedipal Complex.” Oedipus Complex | Simply Psychology, https://www.simplypsychology.org/oedipal-complex.html.
- Poe, Edgar Allen. Fall of the House of Usher, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/poe/fall.html.
- “The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore.” Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore – The Life and Writings of Edgar Allan Poe, https://www.eapoe.org/index.htm.