Text: Colin Martindale, “Archetype and Reality in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” from Poe Studies, vol. V, no. 1, June 1972, pp. 9-11


[page 9, column 2:]

Archetype and Reality in
“The Fall of the House of Usher”

University of Maine

The parallelism at the climax of “The Fall of the House of Usher” between “The Mad Trist” of Sir Launcelot Canning and the return of Madeline from her crypt is often taken merely as a somewhat clumsy literary device which, as Allen Tate(1) implies, rather spoils the effect of the tale. Similarly, the narrator is usually consigned to the residual category of literary device. But a careful analysis of what seems to be the symbolic theme of “Usher” shows that both narrator and “The Mad Trist” are not only integral parts of the tale but that their interpretation in terms of myth and depth psychology is essential to a full understanding of it. In his “Philosophy of Composition” Poe enunciated the doctrine of the unity of a work of art: nothing should be superfluous, the individual elements should all resonate with each other. Even if Poe was, as seems likely, not fully conscious of the symbolic implications of his tales, we may expect this unity to operate below the surface as well as on it. Thus, the meaning of the two elements for which an explanation is sought should follow from the central theme of the tale and should, moreover, enrich our understanding of this theme.

Richard Wilbur has written a persuasive explication of “Usher” as an allegory of regression.(2) He shows a great deal of insight into regressive phenomena, but his interpretation of “Usher” as a symbolic voyage toward comparatively healthy creative or poetic withdrawal and regression seems to be only very approximately correct. Regression is indeed central to “Usher,” but the tale seems really to be one of an unsuccessful attempt to escape from a regressive state of consciousness, to reach a more mature or differentiated level of ego development. Wilbur argues that the physical house of Usher serves as a symbol of a human personality, and he introduces a good deal of evidence to support this contention. Poe invites us on a fairly explicit level to make such an equation by his injection of the poem, “The Haunted Palace,” with its systematic comparisons between palace and human head and mind. The movement from rule by rational thought to madness described in the poem, paralleled by the constant downward movement of descriptions in “Usher,” as well as the decayed quality of the House of Usher and the desolate “atmosphere” it exudes, supports [page 10:] the notion that the house symbolizes a psyche in the process of disintegration.

If the House of Usher stands for the personality as a whole, we may see the occupants at least partially as different aspects of this personality.(3) Jung argues that the two basic aspects of the self — conscious and unconscious — tend always to be symbolized as male and female figures respectively, often as brother and sister or mother and son.(4) The characteristics of the pair and of their relationship are dependent upon the level of ego development or regression which they symbolize. At the most mature level of development the unconscious is symbolized as a benevolent “anima” figure which aids a strong and independent hero. At a less mature level, where the ego is still weak and subject to being overwhelmed and dominated by the unconscious, the latter is symbolized by “Terrible Mother” figures which on some level seduce and destroy a vulnerable hero such as Hippolytus, Pentheus, or Oedipus. Madeline, as evidenced by the inexplicable, numinous awe she engenders, is clearly such a symbolic figure; she seems to be a proto-anima figure rather closer to the Terrible Mother than to the anima per se.

If we move to the personal, as opposed to the archetypal, level in order to analyze Usher, this interpretation of Madeline makes sense; the former exhibits a number of traits which suggest existence on a regressive level of consciousness where a great deal of dominance by what is usually called the Unconscious could be expected. His situation resembles that of subjects in sensory deprivation experiments where social isolation and stimulus restriction induce regression.(5) Significantly, we are informed that Usher has not left his house for a number of years. He shares with such subjects both hypersensitivity and a tendency toward physiognomic perception. These are good indices of regressive states of consciousness, and we may assume that this is what they indicate in Usher’s case. Given this, he could be expected to be in close contact and even confusion with usually unconscious processes as concretely symbolized by the image of Madeline.

The arrival of the narrator introduces an opposite force into the unitary regressive atmosphere of the house. On his arrival he passes on the staircase a “sinister” physician and thus replaces him on the upper floor. We are indeed informed that he had been summoned to serve as a sort of proto-psychotherapist in Usher’s attempt to cure himself of his “nervous affliction.” His very presence breaks the isolation which we have suggested induced or at least supported Usher’s regressive state of consciousness. But for Madeline he is, indeed, a sinister physician. On the day of his arrival, she takes to her bed for the last time. On the symbolic level, we may interpret this as an indication that the narrator has succeeded to an extent in bringing Usher out of his regressive trance, in allowing him to escape unconscious domination. This impression is supported by the fact that Madeline soon “dies” and the narrator aids Usher in placing her in her temporary crypt, an interment which may be interpreted as a symbolization of repression not only because of the geography of the house but also because of the extraordinary precautions taken — the placement of the body in a dungeon made for “highly combustible” material [column 2:] and the careful locking of the heavy iron door.

The very fact that Madeline dies — or seems to die — shows that “Usher” is not simply a tale of progressive psychic disintegration; if it were, Madeline (the unconscious) should grow stronger as Usher (consciousness) grows weaker. That she wastes away and lapses into a state where she may be interred (repressed) suggests Usher’s movement toward recovery or maturation. But with Madeline buried, he grows listless and neglects his ordinary occupations. Presumably, these are creative activities: since the artist depends upon unconscious processes for inspiration, he cannot by his nature engage in massive repression of the sort Usher attempts.

Usher has not only interred Madeline too soon, but he has also interred too much of her.(6) If Usher’s wish to mature is to be successful, the unconscious must be conquered so that its vital and beneficent aspects may be salvaged. In the terms of psychological symbolism, the Great Mother must be differentiated from the anima a process which is, according to Jung and Neumann, depicted by the dragon fight. This mythic pattern involves the hero (consciousness) entering a valley, cave, or other symbol of unconsciousness, fighting and slaying a dragon (destructive aspects of the unconscious, the Terrible Mother), recovering some sort of treasure, and saving an anima figure which he almost invariably marries. The dragon fight may also be seen as symbolizing creative regression — the temporary union which produces “treasure” in the form of the work of art.

This is, of course, almost the precise content of “The Mad Trist” which the narrator reads to Usher. Paralleling it is the escape of Madeline from her crypt. Where Ethelred breaks down the hermit’s door with his mace, Madeline somehow opens her coffin; where he kills the dragon which emits a fearful scream, Madeline forces open the iron door; where he obtains the symbolic treasure, she makes her way through the copper passageway. Real and ideal coalesce when Madeline falls upon Usher, the hieros gamos being transmuted into a ghastly death for the pair. Rather than conquering the unconscious and emerging with its treasure, the repression does not hold — as it almost never does in Poe’s tales (see note 6) — and Usher is overwhelmed and destroyed by the unconscious. With the union in death comes the dissolution of the whole personality and its sinking into the unconscious as symbolized by the sinking of the house into the black tarn. Thus, the climax of “Usher” juxtaposes an ideal pattern (the ego’s conquest and “taming” of the unconscious) with an actual one (the ego’s destruction by the unconscious).

Significantly, it is the narrator who reads “The Mad Trist” to Usher. Here again he operates as a purveyor of the ideal. Unfortunately, Usher’s personality is not strong enough either to maintain its repressions on the one hand or to grow by controlled regression — to follow Ethelred — on the other. Several twists in Poe’s telling of the dragon fight fill out the picture. It will be remembered that Ethelred, under the influence of alcohol seeks refuge from a tempest in the hermit’s cave. That is — allowing for the displacement of elements — he seeks refuge from reality in the regression induced by alcohol. Where he should be conquering the unconscious, he is fleeing into it. Of course, when ideal crosses over into [page 11:] real, when Ethelred becomes Usher, we see that this hope for refuge is a false one. It is also significant that there is no anima figure in “The Mad Trist.” Neumann’s comments on one who fails to rescue the captive in the dragon fight are relevant: “He is the victim of his own isolation and seclusion. . . . The nonliberation of the captive expresses itself in the continued dominance of the Great Mother under her deadly aspect, and the final result is alienation from the body and from the earth, hatred of life, and world negation.”(7)

In summary, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a story of an attempt to escape from a regressive state of consciousness on the part of Usher. By breaking the latter’s isolation, the narrator allows him to do so to an extent; this is symbolized by Madeline’s burial. When Usher attempts to modulate his all-or-none repression of the feminine, unconscious components of his personality, the narrator reads out, in the form of “The Mad Trist,” the pattern he must follow in this modulation. However, Usher’s personality as a whole is too weak to support such a movement toward maturation, and the tale ends with the catastrophic breakdown of his repressions and the overwhelming of the ego by the unconscious. The narrator and “The Mad Trist” — which seem at first to be mere devices — turn out to be integral parts of the unfolding of this symbolic meaning of the tale.



(1)  Allen Tate, Collected Essays (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1960).

(2)  See “The House of Poe,” in Poe: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Robert Regan (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1967).

(3)  One could see Roderick, Madeline, and narrator as symbolizations of ego, id, and super-ego in Freudian terms or of conscious, unconscious, and shadow in Jungian ones. Although valid, such a mechanical approach obscures richer levels of meaning.

(4)  C. G. Jung, “Concerning the Archetypes, with Special Reference to the Anima Concept,” in Collected Works, IX, Part 1 (New York: Pantheon, 1959). Jung’s views are expanded and systematized in Erich Neumann, The Origins and History of Consciousness (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962).

(5)  See Peter McKellar, Experience and Behaviour (Baltimore: Penguin, 1968), pp. 78-85.

(6)  The theme of burying too much is a recurrent one in Poe and is always connected with a disastrous “return of the repressed.” Thus, in “Berenice,” which is structurally analogous to “The Mad Trist,” the hero must exhume Berenice in order to retrieve her teeth. In “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” things not meant to be buried bring about disinterment and discovery of the crime committed. Significantly, in “The Cask of Amontillado,” where nothing superfluous is interred, the symbolic repression holds.

(7)  Neumann, p. 206. Cf. D. H. Lawrence’s views on Poe’s personality in Studies in Classic American Literature, rpt. in The Shock of Recognition, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1955).


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