Text: Renata R. Mautner Wasserman, “The Self, the Mirror, the Other: ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’,” Poe Studies, December 1977, Vol. X, No. 2, 10:33-35


[page 33:]

The Self, the Mirror, the Other:
“The Fall of the House of Usher”

Wayne State University

Over the years, a considerable body of criticism on Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” has clustered around the theme of incest. D. H. Lawrence declares brother and sister to “love each other passionately and exclusively” (1); Allen Tate wonders mildly that critics and readers have not been shocked that “Roderick Usher is in love with his sister” (2); more recently, John Marsh has it that Usher not only suffers from guilt about the “unpardonable sin” of incest but also violates Madeline in the tomb (3). Daniel Hoffman is more moderate, recognizing that the “incestuous attachment” is only hinted at (4). Although one has to sympathize with Floyd Stovall’s indignant statement that “there is no evidence whatever that [the relation between Roderick and Madeline] was . . . of an incestuous nature” (5) because in this, as in other of Poe’s tales, sexuality appears diffused and disguised (6), yet incest is an apt metonymy for the central theme of the tale: the House’s isolation from the rest of the world, and Roderick’s incapacity to establish relations with a true Other, with what is not Usher.

Like so many tales of parents who impede marriages between their children and those of others, of love between brothers and sisters who only at the last moment turn out not to be blood relations, of all-consuming friendships between two men or two women, “The Fall of the House of Usher” records the difficulty of accepting the necessary and true Other in preference to what simply reflects one’s own self. In it Poe gives fictional form to the fundamental conflict between reluctance to give up oneself and what is most like and most familiar to oneself, and the social cultural necessity for doing so. The absolute refusal to enter into relations with the Other is death, the fear of which haunts Roderick and prompts him to call the narrator in a last effort to avoid his fate. The necessity for relation and exchange is expressed most strongly in the incest taboo which so many critics feel Roderick has violated.

According to Claude Levi-Strauss, the incest taboo constitutes the pivot upon which Nature turns to culture; it is at the same time a social rule and universally enforced, thus combining in its definition two attributes mutually contradictory in all other cases: it is the only social (cultural) rule which is also universal (natural) (7). In his words: “for man, all that is universal stems from the order of [column 2:] nature . . ., and all that is linked to a norm belongs to culture and has the attributes of being relative and particular” (p. 9) .

The meaning of the incest taboo, however, does not lie in the prohibition it imposes: the interdiction of sexual relations with a mother, sister, daughter, or any other woman the group defines as forbidden, is established only to “guarantee and determine an exchange” (Levi-Strauss, pp. 64-65). Thus the incest taboo is translated into a positive injunction by means of which the women of a group are set aside as the basic instruments through which reciprocal relations of exchange are engaged in between members of a social group, or between groups. The rule that reserves the women for exchange preserves the existence of the social group as such and “furnishes the means of linking men to one another” (Levi-Strauss, p. 594). Since it also “furnishes the only means of maintaining the group as a group, of avoiding the atomization and involution . . . which the practice of consanguineous marriages would entail” (p. 593), its violation, by breaking up the system of obligations that bind members of the group to one another, eventually threatens the very survival of the group and of its individual members. The practice of reciprocity, which is also founded on the observance of the incest taboo is, according to Levi-Strauss, “one of the basic mental structures tending to resolve the opposition between self and others” (p. 108).

In most cases this need for resolving the opposition between self and others is strong enough to override the individual’s desire for self-containment, for a retreat from relation, which is the generalized meaning of incest. For it should be noted that incest is neither biologically impossible nor psychologically abhorrent. On the contrary, “psychoanalysis has discovered a universal phenomenon, not in repulsion toward incest, but . . . in its pursuit” (Levi-Strauss, p. 20). Thus the incest taboo is universally imposed to counter the equally universal desire for incest Only the latter universality is truly an index of the operation of a natural inclination. In the former the variety of forms taken by the taboo demonstrates that the rule against incest has indeed a cultural dimension (though all groups recognize and enforce such a taboo, the definition of the forbidden partner differs widely from group to group). But man is a cultural being by definition — “there is no natural behaviour of the species to which an isolated individual can go back through regression” (Levi-Strauss, p. 4) — so that when he transgresses a rule which defines him culturally, he jeopardizes his very existence.

Several of Poe’s tales, notably those in the so-called marriage group, show that for him the relation between [page 34:] self and Other is a highly problematic matter. The very aura of sexual perversity about them may come from his uncertainty that there can be a relation which does not result in a total domination, or even annihilation, of either the self or the Other.

In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe sets up an alternative to the deadly (in his view) relation with the Other, a situation in which exchanges take place between mirror-images only, while the rest of the world, that which is other, is shut out. The main character, that is to say, either engages in pseudo-relations or refuses all relations. Though in this manner he avoids the dangers of an encounter between self and Other, he is in the same process erasing the line that, by marking the difference between the natural world and the society of men, defines him as human. At the last minute, in an effort to reestablish relations with another and redraw the line, Roderick summons his childhood friend, the narrator. But the process apparently has gone on for too long, for it proves to be irreversible.

The description of the House of Usher stresses its isolation. From the inside, the windows in the room where Roderick spends most of his time are “at so vast a distance from the black oaken floor as to be altogether inaccessible from within” (8) and do not fulfill the usual function of allowing even the most elementary of exchanges between Usher and the world: a look from within and light from without (only “feeble gleams of encrimsoned light made their way through the trellised panes,” pp. 277-278). From the outside, the house is enveloped in an atmosphere “which had no affinity with the air of heaven” (p. 276) and surrounded by a tarn which, like a moat, separates it from the rest of the world. The tarn itself becomes a strong note in the motif of isolation if we trust Poe to have intended the meaning of the word given in the QED: “a small mountain lake, having no significant tributaries,” that is, a body of water that does not participate in the exchange of waters and keeps itself to itself.

The tarn also reflects the House and is the first of a series of mirror images: Usher’s face is like the facade of the House that is mirrored in the water; the poem Usher composes, “The Haunted Palace,” describes a house whose facade is like Usher’s face and the whole of which is, in fact, Usher’s head; finally, the face of the Lady Madeline shows “a striking similitude” (p. 288) to Usher’s. In his House, with his sister who has been “his sole companion for long years” (p. 281), Usher is surrounded by reflections of himself and establishes relations only with a pseudo-Other, with another 50 like him as to be practically indistinguishable from him (9).

It is indicated, however, that this extreme isolation is the result of a long process, that Roderick feels the imminence of a crisis, and that in order to avert it he calls the narrator, a representative of the non-Usher world, into the closed system he has established.

Within the plot, the narrator functions as a mediator between the House of Usher and the world on the other side of the tarn. Characteristically, his speech wavers between acceptance of the phenomena in the House and explanations that try to account for them in terms of what [column 2:] lies outside it. He is “unnerved” (p. 274) on first seeing the House; despite “shadowy fancies” (p. 274), he insists on pondering upon the causes. He decides that the “arrangement of the particulars of the scene” (p. 274) is responsible for its strangeness, and in a sense he is right, because when he sees those particulars in another arrangement, upside down in the tarn, they do make a different impression — worse than the first. The incident is an early indication of the inadequacy of the instruments the narrator brings to his task of rescuing the House of Usher. His position during the incident — at the edge of the tarn and presumably reflected in it, as is the House — is an early indication that mediation, at least on the level of action, is not possible. As the tale progresses, the narrator is drawn more and more into the atmosphere of the House, into “closer and still closer intimacy” (p. 282) with Usher, feels “creeping upon [him], by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of [Usher’s] own fantastic yet impressive superstitions” (p. 290), and recognizes the “futility of all attempt at cheering” (p. 282) Usher’s mind (10), which is how he conceives of his task.

The hopelessness of the narrator’s endeavor is shown most dramatically in the last scene, when he tries to soothe the distracted Roderick by reading to him from “The Mad Trist.” The story, which apparently has nothing at all to do with Usher and his troubles, it turns out to reflect in every paragraph and with every sound effect the slow and fatal ascent of the Lady Madeline from the bowels of the House where she has been entombed. The narrator fails because in the House of Usher everything turns into Usher; nothing from the outside is allowed to remain unassimilated.

Those aspects of the outside world which are not like him and which do not become like him, Usher cannot bear to have near him. His eyes, ears, nose, palate, and sense of touch can stand contact only with the most attenuated stimuli from the outside. This “morbid acuteness of the senses” (p. 280), as the narrator calls this disturbance of Usher’s capacity to receive signals from the world, has its counterpart in a disturbance of Usher’s capacity to send out effective signals. The last such signal is the letter that brings the narrator to the House. After that, even though Roderick is an artist who should therefore be engaged in exchange by means of his art, what he creates are works that either constitute mirror images of himself (“The Haunted Palace”) and the House (the weird painting the narrator describes) or are not transmittable by the only channel he still has open for communication with the rest of the world, the narrator, who thrills at Usher’s paintings for example, but “would in vain endeavour to educe more than a small portion which should lie within the compass of merely written words” (p. 283). Usher’s art serves to allow him to hold converse with himself, rather than to establish any relation with another.

But while the barriers separating Usher from what is human and non-Usher rise and become stronger, other barriers between Usher and what is non-human are being eroded. Roderick feels threatened and weakened by this process. He calls it sentience and judges that it arises from the stones of the House — “the order of their arrangement” (p. 286) — from the fungi on the House, from the broken [page 35:] trees around it, and from the reflection of all in the tarn. The sequence starts with the arrangement of the stones, that is, with the human contribution to the budding, the part that, once lost, cannot be recovered, the part that has endured despite the fact that the stones themselves are crumbling, the part immediately threatened by the fissure in the facade. Sentience extends also to the fungi, the trees, and the tarn, elements of nature which, together with the crumbling of the stones, surround the House and its inhabitants, ready to destroy them (12). The intensification of sentience in the course of the tale shows, as E. A. Robinson points out (13), the inexorable approach of Usher’s doom. But it may be that the growing disorganization of Usher, Madeline, and the House indicates not the general operation of “inevitable cyclic laws in the universe which govern the growth and decay of all things” (Robinson, p. 79) but, more specifically, the disorder Usher introduced in the social fabric. By refusing to enter into relations of exchange and reciprocity with the world of others (or by being incapable of such exchange), by engaging only in pseudo-exchange with mirror-images (14), the Ushers have attempted to escape the process of resolution of the opposition between self and others: they have interrupted the chain of obligations that binds men among themselves and transgressed the rule that defines them as human and, incidentally, guarantees their survival. The end result is not, as Usher thinks, a humanization of nature, but the destruction of culture.

In the final catastrophe, the themes of the fatal mirror-image and the disappearance of culture into nature are brought together. Usher dies as his mirror-image Madeline arises from the vault into which he had locked her (in a desperate effort to escape just this fate?) and falls upon him. The House then cracks and begins to fall into its mirror image in the tarn. The moon, which had been hidden by the House, shines fully through the widening breach in its walls. Thus the House of Usher (both the family and the structure), which had seemingly imposed its own atmosphere upon its surroundings, is swallowed up by them. The Usher twins, makers and bearers of culture; their House, shelter from raw nature; their lineage, in which presumably, up to then, the rules of exchange had been observed (there had been no collateral branches, but the family’s fame and deeds of charity as well as its existence “through long ages,” p. 275, imply interaction); the art they had created — all are taken over by nature when the Ushers disobey the rule of reciprocity and exchange which defines them as cultural beings. With the transgression, the work of generations of men, the work of culture, sinks back into nature, into the tarn which, after the collapse, presents the same flat, unbroken, unmarked surface it had always had.

It is here that the narrator, who had failed in the attempt to avert the catastrophe, finally achieves a measure of success. He escapes the crumbling House and, by means of language, turns the fall of the House of Usher into “The Fall of the House of Usher,” bringing Roderick and Madeline, the House, and their destruction back into the culture and the society of men. Ultimately, then, it is only through the mediation of the narrator that Roderick Usher assumes the responsibility of exchange and gains reintegration into the world of culture.



(1) Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Thomas Seltzer, 1923), pp. 114-115.

(2) ‘Our Cousin, Mr. Poe,” in Poe, A Collection of Critical Essays ed. R. Regan (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1 967), p 42.

(3) “The Psycho-Sexual Reading of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ ” Poe Studies, 5 (1972), p. 8.

(4) Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe ( London: Robson Books, 1973), p. 297.

(5) Edgar Poe, the Poet: Essays New and Old on the Man and His Work (Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1969), p. 258.

(6) Tate notes, as Baudelaire had done before him, that Poe’s tales are, on the surface, chaste, pp. 42-43.

(7) Les structrures elementaires de la parente ( Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1949), p. 9.

(8) “The Fall of the House of Usher,” in The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1965), 11, 277. Page numbers in parentheses refer to this edition.

(9) Lady Madeline is often read as simply an aspect of Roderick. See for instance, Edward H. Davidson, Poe, A Critical Study (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1957), p. 197, who sees Madeline as “the sensual or physical side of [Usher’s] psyche”; Jeff Davis “The Lady Madeline as a Symbol,” Annotator, 2 (1954), 8-11, for whom she symbolizes Roderick’s insanity, Colin Martindale “Archetype and Reality in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’’ Poe Studies, 5 (1972), 9-11, who claims that Madeline is the feminine, unconscious component of Roderick’s personality; W. B. Stein, ‘The Twin Motif in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ “ Modern Language Notes, 75 (1960), 109-111, who asserts that Madeline’stands for the . . . instinctive side of her brother’s personality.”

(10) G. R. Thompson, in “The Face in the Pool: Reflections on the Doppelganger Motif in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ “ Poe Studies, 5 (1972), 16-21, notes that in the initial episode of the tale, when the narrator looks into the pool, he too is reflected in its waters. Thompson argues from this, and from the effect the House has upon him, that in the end Usher and narrator become one another’s doubles. I find this viewpoint convincing but would like to stress, in my own reading, the fact that in the end the narrator escapes “the final collapse into that void which is both the self and the universe” (p. 20) and turns back towards the world, away from the self.

(11) See Darrel Abel, ‘A Key to the House of Usher,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 18 (1949), 176-185, for the view that the “Trist” is irrelevant.

(12) Maurice Beebe, “The Fall of the House of Pyncheon,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 11 (1956), 1-17, says that in Poe’s cosmology “there is no real distinction between animate and inanimate matter” (p. 3) and that “throughout the story the distinction between matter and spirit is broken down” (p. 6). 1 agree that the tale is about the breakdown of distinctions but would like to draw the lines of distinction somewhat differently.

(13) “Order and Sentience in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’” PMLA, 76 (1961), 68-81.

(14) See J. Lacan, “Le stade du mirroir comme formateur de la fonction du Je,” in Ecrits (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1966) for a discussion of the importance of the mirror-image in the establishment of the ego, and of the importance of becoming free of one’s mirror-image for the development of the personality.


Associated Article(s) and Related Material:

  • None


[S:0 - PS, 1977]