Text: John L. Marsh, “The Psycho-Sexual Reading of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” from Poe Studies, vol. V, no. 1, June 1972, pp. 8-9


[page 8, column 1, continued:]

The Psycho-Sexual Reading of
“The Fall of the House of Usher”

Edinboro State College

The idea that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is in part an investigation into sexual motivation and sexual guilt complexes has often been hinted at but never critically pursued as the dominant theme in the tale. But such a reading is at least prepared for in important essays by D. H. Lawrence and Allen Tate which make the essential recognition that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a “love” story.(1) Lawrence and Tate, however, mistakenly attempt to purge the love concerned of all physical meaning. What they see Usher wanting is possession not of Madeline’s body but her very being (Lawrence, p. 86). Theirs is essentially an anti-biological reading of the tale in which the Poe hero tries in self-love “to turn the soul of the heroine into something like a physical object which can be known in direct cognition” (fate, p. 115). But if “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a drama of cognition, its cognitive impact is not circumscribed by “metaphysical speculation on the identity of matter and spirit”.(2)

In this connection, Patrick F. Quinn’s suggestion that Usher is a criminal merits attention.(3) He is, in a biological reading of the story, a sexual criminal, and a critic like Richard Wilbur, who suggests that the poetic soul is out to “shake off this temporal, rational, physical world and escape . . . to a realm of unfettered vision,” lifts us out of rather than urges us into the depths which humanity in the person of Usher has touched.(4) Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate are closer to the truth when they call [column 2:] Usher “a ‘Gothic’ character taken seriously” and when they view “The Fall of the House of Usher” as “a serious story of moral perversion.”(5) Certainly perversity and maladjustment are central to a reading of Usher’s character; and if this is a story of moral (sexual) perversion, its locus, Usher’s morbid fears, express themselves overtly and covertly on the level of the erotic.(6)

In this view, then, the letter from Usher to the narrator takes on a new meaning. The nervous agitation, the acute bodily illness, the oppressive mental disorder which he hints at are no longer ambiguous or unexplainable. They rise from and are the aftermath of a longstanding, deliberately incestuous relationship with his sister, the Lady Madeline, in which she no less than he is a participant. Poe prepares us when he remarks on the extreme sensitivity of the family, their susceptibility to musical vibrations and other curious stimuli and when he reviews the weakness of the family’s loins. Intermarriage has been a household tradition; the line has lain in direct descent; the moral fiber is extinct. Usher’s chin, finely moulded though it is, bespeaks in its “want of prominence” this absence of moral tenacity.

What better explanation can be offered of the family physician’s expression, a blend of “low cunning and perplexity,” than that he too suspects the true nature of Lady Madeline’s strange illness? It would account for the cunning and the perplexity as well. For what country doctor of the times would have been prepared to meet and treat a disorder beyond the physical, a sickness with its roots in the unapproachable moral fiber of the patient.(7)

Usher’s terror, which reduces him to a pitiable condition, his premonition of a coming struggle with the “grim phantasm FEAR,” is not simply a reaction against being the last of his line. Rather, it is the terrified wanderings, the macabre fancies of a man who knows he has committed an unpardonable sin; and, with the death of the Lady Madeline, this sin cannot be atoned for. No wonder he dreads the “approaching dissolution of his tenderly beloved sister.” Usher’s sexual impulses have in Darrel Abel’s words made him “a symbol of isolation,” and of a concentration of vitality “so introverted that it utterly destroys itself.”(8)

No better indication of this concentration of vitality can be found than Usher’s paintings. Exactly what these depict we are not told, but their sexual symbolism is perhaps inherent in Poe’s reference to one painting on which he comments in some detail. It purports to show the interior of “an immensely long and rectangular vault and tunnel, with low walls, smooth, white, and without interruption or device.” Is it not possible to suggest that this is the region of a woman’s sexual organs — a region without outlet or source of light yet through which (in an act of copulation) rolls “a flood of intense rays”? Abel makes reference to the symbolic nature of this particularly abstract painting which he calls “an impromptu expression of the evil which has mastered f Usher’s] sensibility” (Abel, p. 56). Ascendant evil has encroached on decadent good. Abel’s opposition of Life-Reason to Death-Madness is categorized in an erotic symbolism intensifying the introverted sympathies of brother and sister that are hastening them down the road to mutual destruction.

And with Madeline’s presumed death, Usher buries [page 9:] her beneath the house. Does he fear grave robbers, or has he more sinister designs upon her body? Certainly the setting in what is presumed to be a medieval torture chamber suggests the latter. Is he bent in his inordinate lust on violating her dead body? While scarcely pleasant to contemplate, this possibility would account for Poe’s final description of the Lady Madeline: “There was blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame.” This possibility is the ultimate and grisly culmination of the “sympathies” that Usher admits between Madeline and himself. Such wanton and abandoned urges may account for his roaming from chamber to chamber “with a hurried, unequal and objectless step.” He is nerving himself to the deed or steeling himself to resist subsequent promptings. At times the narrator senses that Usher is laboring under “some oppressive secret.” It is the guilty knowledge of his gross immorality. Like Sir Launcelot Canning’s hero, Usher is destined to keep a “mad trist” in the basement of the keep which is no less frightening than the former’s joust with the dragon.

That he keeps it is all too evident from the guilty terror with which he greets the reappearance of the corpse. It is in his mind that she has come back to take vengeance for the violation of her defenseless body. He has no answer, no defense; there is only the inevitable judgment — death. Absolute evil has triumphed in the story. Madeline may or may not be a Gothic vampire but in the final embrace of brother and sister there is implied not a reunion with supernal beauty but a final meeting of those dark and irrational forces that have conspired to destroy the last of the Ushers. Sexual guilt complexes have led to this particular moment; and Poe, groping through a Gothic milieu, has grasped reality at its darkest and most terrifying. If Usher is an archetypal hero, if this is a drama of fatal cognition, it rests in the discovery by Poe, through the perverse sensuality of the Ushers, that man dwells in the dark rather than the light. Man, a creature of hitherto unimagined vulnerability, has come into a legacy of degeneration, desolation, and moral ruin. And this not because he failed to grasp the world of Israfel, but because he could not refute his own body chemistry.



(1)  See D. H. Lawrence’s chapter on Poe in Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Doubleday, 1951); and Allen Tate’s two essays, “The Angelic Imagination” and “Our Cousin, Mr. Poe,” rpt. in The Man of Letters in The Modern World (New York: Meridian Books, 1955).

(2)  Norman Foerster, et al., Eight American Authors (New York: Norton, 1963), p. 9.

(3)  See Patrick F. Quinn, “Poe: That Spectre in My Path,” rpt. in Psychoanalysis and American Fiction, ed. Irving Malin (New York: Dutton, 1965), p. 67.

(4)  See Richard Wilbur, “The House of Poe,” rpt. in The Recognition of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. Eric W. Carlson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966), p. 267.

(5)  Caroline Gordon and Allen Tate, The Ho?’se of Fiction (New York: Scribner’s, 1960), p. 53.

(6)  See Albert Mordell’s comment on the tale and Usher in The Erotic Motive in Literature, rev. ed. (New York: Collier Books, 1962), p. 173: “As we learn from psycho-analysis, morbid fear is inhibited sexual desire; it is reaction against the libido.” [column 2:]

(7)  The editors of The Literature of The United States (Chicago: Scott-Foresman, 1949), p. 317, note 17, favor the more familiar explanation which links the doctor with a gang of body-snatchers. Thus Usher chooses to entomb his sister in the vaults of the house rather than in the family graveyard.

(8)  Darrel Abel, “A Key to The House of Usher,” rpt. in Interpretations of American Literature, ed. Charles Feidelson, Jr. and Paul Brodtkorb, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 53.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PSDR, 1972]