“There are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us”

I’ve always enjoyed the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and last night I dipped into my mystery/horror/gothic month with one of my favorites, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” For whatever reason, I had not re-read it in a very long time, but it gave, as I remembered, the perfect sense of the atmosphere I am looking for.

Poe’s foreshadowing is perfect from the very first paragraph. When the narrator approaches the house, his sense of gloom begins.

I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.

In other words: this is not going to be a Romantic, even-the-awful-is-awesome story. It is only desolate and terrible, and not poetic, despite the artistic bent of the ancient House of Usher. And from the very first description of the house, it is personified with “vacant eye-like windows.”

The narrator doesn’t let us down. He tries his best to remain rational in the face of this desolation and the mysterious illness afflicting his host. “Superstition—for why should I not so term it?” “What must have been a dream.” “Exciting and highly distempered ideality…over all.” And of course, during the final storm scene, he explains scientifically to his fragile charge: “These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon—or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn.” And then he offers to read—wait for it—a romance!

After this reading, I am left with a question I had never considered before. It’s explained that the House of Usher has only ever had one direct line of descendants, never branching off. But when Roderick speaks of his sister, also mysteriously ill:

“Her decease,” he said, with a bitterness which I can never forget, “would leave him (him, the hopeless and the frail) the last of the ancient race of the Ushers.”

In a family with only a direct line, no branches, “there can be only one,” as it were. In no case would an Usher and his sibling have both gone on to continue the line—or is there something I’m misunderstanding about these direct lines that would exclude any relatives coming from female Ushers?

9 comments to “There are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us”

  • I too find his writings inspirationsl. there is a wold about his, that seems to be viewed only from his special point of view…

  • I came up with a theory that much of the effectiveness of Poe’s vocie is that the narrators seem to be traumatized, permanently damaged by the event.

    The way I imagine the Usher descendants question is thus: generation after generation, regardless of the number of siblings, it always turns out that only one ever has any children. There’s just one path of DNA. Note that I said “imagine”!

  • I was talking to ma femme about this story and came up with another theory.

    For a variety of strange and unlikely reasons, there have been nothing but only sons for the entire history of the family. It’s the existence of the sister that finally destroys the family. The family’s “vital forces,” weak to begin with, are now split between the brother and sister, dooming them both. And also dooming the actual physical house somehow.

    Crazy, crazy story.

  • I like it!

    One thing I was thinking is, why lock the dead sister up in a vault so thoroughly secure? Of course Roderick seems to know that she is not dead, but does he feel afraid and guilty for making a mistake, or for purposely locking her away there because he knows only one of them can live (to reproduce)? And terrified of her return because it will mean his certain death—and apparently, since he cheated somehow, the fall of the house?

  • I should have also said that: the whole idea for me is that one house–>one Usher, and the fissure’s existence from the beginning relates to the unbalanced presence of two Ushers in the single house. We can’t know if the fissure is healed when the sister is sealed up, but it’s when she confronts Roderick that the house breaks up, half for each of them–but half a house is no way to live, and so they don’t.

  • John Wright

    If I understand your question, the line simply means that, when his sister dies, he will be the only living Usher–the last of them–which would not be inconsistent with the absence of lateral family branches.

  • John,

    Right. My point is that Roderick is embittered and, it would seem, surprised and saddened by the fact that his sister is going to die. But she must needs die to continue the single family line, and he shouldn’t think it unusual to be the only Usher—all Ushers are the only Usher.

  • John Wright

    Well, I’m not sure Madeline needs to die or that all Ushers are quite the only Usher.

    The absence of lateral branches need indicate nothing more than the family’s insularity.

    Incidentally, there’s a fine article by J.O. Bailey, called “What Happens in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher'”. If you’re still interested in the story, you might enjoy Bailey’s speculation.

  • The “there can only be one” is an interesting concept and it makes sense. I always thought when he said he’d be the last of his family it meant he didn’t expect to have children.

    It strikes me that Roderick is witholding some information about his family history, but it’s fun to think of the possible explanations.