Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Adventure classics -- A woman dying to get out of the house

“The Fall of the House of Usher”

by Edgar Allan Poe


Sometimes I wonder what Edgar Allan Poe’s life would have been like if so many doomed and abused women hadn’t crossed it. From his mother, Elizabeth, dead of tuberculosis after her husband abandoned her with three small children. To his foster mother, Frances Allan, whose husband became completely estranged from Poe after her death. To childhood sweetheart Elmira Royster, succumbing to parental pressure to marry another suitor. And finally and most famously, to the child bride and cousin, Virginia Clemm, whose illness and early death poured grief-stricken fuel on Poe’s alcoholism.

Over Poe’s life, these women would give spiritual birth to a succession of literary heroines suffering at the hands of husbands and family members whose abuse ranges from hatred to physical, possibly even sexual abuse. Invariably, the cause of the women’s death is listed as some vague, nameless disease. Invariably they die while still young and beautiful -- that is, while still able to excite desire and jealousy.

And sometimes they strike back. As in Poe’s 1839 story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” whose Lady Madeline, barely glimpsed in life, literally brings the house down on the brother who buried her prematurely.

The story opens with the arrival of the unnamed narrator, on a “dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year,” at the family home of his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, and of Usher’s twin sister, Madeline. Although the narrator has not been in contact with the Ushers for years, he has responded to a letter imploring his company to combat Roderick’s progressive mental and physical illnesses. Or is the narrator responding more for the sake of Madeline than of Roderick?

It’s tempting to consider what Poe left out, wondering why Madeline managed to raise herself from what was becoming her death bed to catch merely a glimpse of the narrator. Or why even a brother as self-absorbed as Roderick could allow days to elapse without visiting his dying sister. Or exactly what the nature of Roderick’s “inexpressible agitation” was when his sister collapsed at the news that the narrator would arrive the next day.

Madeline is known have suffered from cataleptic seizures that induced almost death-like states. Following her supposed death, the narrator agrees to help her brother entomb her body in a dungeon-like crypt beneath the house. This precaution, Roderick hints to the narrator, is to protect the body from grave robbers. But considering the nature of Madeline’s illness, it seems likely he fears she may simply be in a trance, one he is determined for her not to wake from.

But wake she does, and escape -- unscrewing the lid from her coffin, bursting from the locked vault of the crypt, and finding her way to her brother’s room, “the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame.” Her advent brings about his death. Is it from terror or did Madeline find some other way to choke out her murder’s life?

As both brother and sister die, a once barely-discernable fissure in the house’s structure rapidly widens, tearing the house apart. The fleeing narrator sees “the
mighty walls rushing asunder -- there was a long tumultuous shouting sound like the voice of a thousand waters -- and the deep and dank tarn at my feet closed sullenly and silently over the fragments of the ‘House of Usher.’”

So what is it with all this violence against women, supposed grief turned to fear of a vengeful woman? From the viewpoint of the twenty-first century, it’s tempting to see such stories as inside out expressions of Victorian repression -- of the possibly incestuous jealousy of Roderick for Madeline, the insane desire to demonstrate his possessiveness of his sister to an outsider, the female sexuality symbolized by the many blood-spattered motifs. It’s also tempting to see Madeline’s quirky ability to move objects as an early version of telekinesis that would propel Stephen King’s Carrie to fame more than a century later.

Read or listen to it yourself and decide, or just get lost in Poe’s gorgeous language.  Long out of copyright, you can get free printe and audio downloads at

(Next Wednesday, speaking of wronged, vengeful women, Adventure classics looks at Stephen King’s Carrie.)

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