The narrator of "House of Usher" is passing on horseback through a dull part of the country on a grim day, when he comes across the House of Usher. The sight of the house fills him with dread for some reason. He calls this feeling “unsufferable” because it is not accompanied by the romantic feeling that sights of desolation often produce. Looking upon the bleak walls and windows is like waking up to horrible reality from an opium dream.
The Gothic style is apparent from the beginning of this tale, the weather and atmosphere mirror the narrator’s dismal mood as if the physical world is connected to him or somehow aware of his presence. This is typical of Gothic literature. The bleak horror of this scene is bound to correspond to greater horrors within.
The narrator of "House of Usher" tries to explain to himself how the house has this effect on him, but it is beyond him. He thinks that perhaps if the parts of the scene were to be rearranged, their effect would be different, so he rides over to the “tarn”, an area of dark water around the house, and looks at the inverted image of the house in the water, but this image is even more hideous.
The narrator tries to use reason and science to explain the sensation that the house causes, but the scene’s horror is greater than the sum of its parts. This leads the reader into thinking that something unexplained, even paranormal, is afoot.
Despite all this, the narrator of "House of Usher" is planning to stay at this very residence. He has received an urgent letter from the owner, Roderick Usher, who is suffering from a nervous illness and desires the narrator's company urgently. The narrator remembers them being close friends in their childhood but that Usher always had a reserved temperament. But he also remembers that the Usher family is famous for its strange temperaments, and for creating in these moods wonderful works of art, deeds of charity, and contributions to “musical science."
Like the house that shares his name, the character of Usher carries with him an inherent peculiar quality. This quality is exaggerated by the narrator’s memory and the fact that he only knew Usher as a child—all he knows of this man is through the lens of childhood memories and rumors of his nervous disorders.
Another illuminating fact about the family is the purity of its lineage – it is one direct descent, with no branches into other families – so the name the House of Usher, has come to refer to both the building and the family itself.
The isolation of the Ushers and their fateful connection to the physical property of the family are ominous details. The setting and characters here are some of Poe’s most Gothic.
The narrator of "House of Usher" describes looking down into the water and feeling his superstition about the house increase within him. He explains that feelings of terror often increase the more one becomes conscious of them. He thinks it might be this phenomenon that causes the scene to appear even ghastlier and stranger when he lifts his eyes to it again. He tries to shake off the feeling and examine the house properly.
The narrator tries to reason out his sensations. But though it can be comforting to attribute a strange phenomenon to a trick of the mind, here, it adds another psychological element of horror to the tale, and ultimately suggests that the mind can't in fact be trusted.
The narrator of "House of Usher" notices the extreme age of the property, but that some parts are crumbling and others are fine. The overall structure seems to be holding up against its age though, apart from a single crack going from top to bottom of the façade. The narrator travels on to the house and is greeted by a servant who takes him to Usher’s studio.
Poe uses architecture to portray mystery. The degradation of the house, its fraying surfaces, represent the corresponding suffering of its inhabitants, just as the instability of the building's interior and foundations suggests the Usher's psychological frailty.
On the way, the narrator of "House of Usher" passes many striking objects and images on tapestries and carvings, and he feels again that haunting sensation. Then he meets the family’s physician, who has a half cunning, half confused expression. He is led into a huge room, whose windows were so high that they could not be reached. The narrator struggles to see everything inside the room because of the light, but sees that it is generally filled with tattered furniture and books and musical instruments. The room fills him with gloom.
Each vision that the narrator passes on the way to see Usher creates a recurring sensation of dread. The images on the walls, the warped height of the room, the objects from the past make a list in the narrative and create the feeling that the narrator has stepped into another world. The familiar is distorted in this house – and the menace of the doctor, a traditionally kind figure, makes the narrator vulnerable.
Usher rises and greets his old friend eagerly, which the narrator of "House of Usher" can tell is very sincere, but he can see that the man is completely changed, has become very pale and thin and his eyes have a strange luster. Usher's features are so fearful that the narrator doesn’t even recognize him. He also finds his friend’s manner worrying. Usher seems to be acting to cover up his extreme nervousness, though the narrator had expected as much based on Usher's letter and what he remembers of Usher's temperament.
A change has come over the narrator’s old friend that goes beyond what he has heard about a “nervous disorder”. Usher’s eyes (remember that Poe uses eyes as a symbol of the soul and the menace of the supernatural) are very noticeable. Lustre is an interesting quality, both shining and unclear, it veils Usher’s true expression.
But Usher’s condition is severe, at times incomprehensible, one minute full of energy, the other depressed. In this mania, he tells the narrator of "House of Usher" about his illness. He says it is a family complaint. He describes his symptoms as unnatural sensations, like aversions to light and food and a general feeling of terror. He thinks that this terror will kill him. It is not that he fears danger, but the condition of fear itself.
The House of Usher and the Usher family are attached by name. The concept of the family lineage and the building is one and the same, but this connection goes further than the narrator first suspects and seems to have taken over Usher’s mind.
Usher also suffers from a superstitious nature, especially related to the House of Usher – he feels that he cannot leave the building, and that the dilapidation and ugliness of its features has somehow affected his own condition, the physical rotting of the structure corresponding to his own rotting spirit.
A symptom of the characters’ psychological disorder, in fact the main symptom, is their dependency on each other and to the house itself. As the building appears to rot and age, so do the characters.
But Usher also explains that his symptoms can be attributed to a more comprehensible cause, the long term illness of his beloved sister, his only remaining relative and companion. He talks about her with unbearable dread, and just at that moment, the lady Madeleine passes through the room, and the narrator is filled with a similar sensation of horror. As soon as the lady has gone, the narrator looks to her brother and sees him weeping.
Though Usher explains his condition as largely caused by a kind of extreme sympathy and sadness for his sister, there is something more disturbing at work in the connectedness of these two conditions. As Madeleine enters the room, her presence has a physical effect on him.
The lady’s disease is unexplained. She seems to be gradually wasting away. She had been able to walk around but on this day, she finally takes to her bed and the narrator of "House of Usher" knows he will probably never see her again. Over the ensuing days the narrator tries to cheer Usher up. But as they get closer and the narrator knows him more intimately, he realizes how useless these attempts are. Usher’s spirit is beyond help.
There is a sense of reason and hope associated with a diagnosis of a physical problem—because then maybe it can be cured. But Madeleine’s condition seems purely spiritual – Poe uses the horror of the unknown to enlarge and mystify Madeleine’s sickness. It is an illness beyond reason.
The narrator of "House of Usher" and Usher paint and read together. These hours stay in the narrator’s memory, but he struggles to describe the spirit of Usher’s artistic efforts. An air of distemper and supernatural energy controls his artistic spirit. His songs are played wildly, and his paintings are devoid of realistic subject but their abstractions fascinate and terrify the narrator for some reason. Only one painting can be described in words. It presents a long underground room, with no ventilation at all but strange rays of light passing through it. Usher's musical performances use only stringed instruments, as all other sounds terrify him, but his abilities are astounding. The narrator thinks it must be his increased concentration because of his illness that allows him to play such fantasias.
The talented side of Usher is a theme that lies out of the spotlight while the narrator concentrates on the sickness of the family and the plot spirals towards its fated end. But it is well described in the narrator’s introduction of his childhood friend and seems to form an inherent feature of the character of Usher. The fact that Usher’s talent does not leave the house adds a note of tragedy to the story, and the unexplained origin of his special abilities enhances the mystery of the Usher genes.
The narrator of "House of Usher" distinctly remembers one example of these songs, and perhaps it is the truth of its words that have put it so forcibly in his memory. It is called “The Haunted Palace” and tells the story of a King in a glorious palace who is tortured by evil spirits, and the palace remains as a haunted shell of the family home it once was.
This song echoes the details of Usher’s own life and the mention of this haunted, tortured character brings a spooky doubleness to the scene. The melodious quality of this story also makes it linger and float around the house.
This recitation reminds the narrator of "House of Usher" of a strange belief that Usher held about his house: that the objects in it and the house itself are sentient, that they feel and perceive things. Usher thinks the stones of the house and the water of the tarn contain a remainder of his ancestors and senses a destructive atmosphere in the house. He believes that this is what has doomed his family to have such awful illnesses and what dooms him now.
This revelation is made more terrible by the fact that we saw evidence of this phenomenon earlier in the story. Even the narrator, who is not part of the Usher family, felt a change in him as he approached the house and felt its gruesome atmosphere affect his mood. He has also already witnessed the similarity in the conditions of the house and its residents, the wasting away, the aging.
The books that Usher adores are in keeping with this superstition. Usher’s favorite is a “manual of a forgotten church.” The narrator considers the rituals described in this text to have aggravated Usher’s state of mind. One evening, while they are engaged in reading, Usher suddenly tells the narrator that Madeleine has died and it is his plan to keep her body preserved for a fortnight in one of the house’s vaults. The narrator, remembering the feeling of doom that her presence had caused him, understands that this might be a wise move. Her illness was so strange that the physicians would want to investigate her body before taking her out to the open air to the family burial ground.
Literature is an important feature of this narrative and several others of Poe’s collection, like Ligeia. It serves the mystery and horror of the story in several ways. For example, by creating another world, a literary world, into which we delve every so often, Poe increases the sense that Usher’s world in the real one. It also gives us an idea of Usher’s impressionable mind, which is worsened by the secrecy and airlessness of the house and his inability to move beyond the house, even when his sister has passed away.
As Usher’s closest companion now, the narrator of "House of Usher" helps him to move the lady’s coffin into the dark, musty vault. This particular room is directly underneath the narrator’s sleeping quarters, and historically, was used to store explosive powder and so the interior is completely coated in copper and has a massive copper door.
The narrator deliberately provides these particular details that give an impression of the vault as an impenetrable fortress, so that it can only be a paranormal, spiritual being that would be able to escape it.
When they have placed the coffin, they remove the lid and the narrator of "House of Usher" is surprised to find a striking resemblance between the sister and brother. Usher tells him that they were twins, and shared a bond that can’t be comprehended from the outside. But they don’t look for long at Madeleine’s body. Death has put an unnatural blush on her cheeks that is awful to behold. They shut up the vault and return to the upper floors.
Usher and Madeleine are something more than twins, they are halves of the same person – so to find out this doubleness at the moment of entombing Madeleine gives an added punch to the sight of the body and implies that Usher’s grief will be more complicated than first thought.
After this deed is done, Usher’s mood changes. He spends all his time wandering, purposeless. His paleness is even worse and his voice takes on a permanently terrified tone. It often seems to the narrator of "House of Usher" that Usher is burdened with a terrible secret that he wishes to tell. He also hears imaginary sounds and the narrator often finds him staring vacantly ahead.
Now separated from his sister, Usher is diminished, he is unable to concentrate and unable to free himself from his lingering fears and superstitions. It is as if their bodily connection has continued after death, and that Madeleine’s descent into the tomb and into a decomposing state is pulling Usher in the same direction.
The mood is so overpowering that the narrator of "House of Usher" finds himself changing a little too. He feels this way especially one night about a week after they have entombed Madeleine, when he goes to bed and cannot sleep. He tries to believe that it is just the gloomy room and the swaying of the draperies that makes him feel like this, but he starts to shake with fright and, sitting up, has the urge to peer into the darkness, and he hears some low sounds that don’t belong to the storm outside. Fear comes over him and he gets out of bed and paces around.
One of the ways that Poe exaggerates the horror of the House of Usher is by making its effect unclear. Though we have been led to believe that it is a genetic, inherited disorder, passed between building and family, sometimes it seems that if the narrator were to stay long enough, he too would succumb to the sickness – he already feels a change in mood which resembles Usher’s nervous condition.
As the narrator of "House of Usher" does this, he hears a footfall outside the room and knows that it is Usher. The next moment, Usher enters, pale as usual but with in a higher state of mania, but the narrator welcomes any company on this gloomy night. Usher asks the narrator if he has “seen it”, and finding that he hasn’t, comes in to the room and opens the window, letting a gust of stormy air in. Outside, a beautiful, terrible storm is raging, with rapid winds that change direction suddenly and thick clouds. There is no moonlight, but instead an aura of some kind of gas surrounds the building.
True to Gothic form, at the height of the mystery, the weather corresponds with the psychological turmoil of the characters, but Poe puts an interesting twist on the traditional storm, making it electrical and beautiful—much like Usher's art—and its effect ambiguous.
The narrator of "House of Usher" wants to shield Usher from this sight, which he explains is nothing more than an electrical phenomenon. He suggests reading from one of their favorite volumes, called “The Mad Trist”. In fact, it is a bit of a joke to call this book one of their favorites, but the narrator hopes it will be different enough from his spiritual fantasies to distract him – he thinks right.
The narrator’s idea to read to Usher is a reminder of the childlike Usher, described earlier by the narrator, who had a passion for stories and a big imagination. So at first, the image of the narrator reading to Usher is a sweet image, the narrator taking a kind of mother-like role and comforting him.
The narrator of "House of Usher" comes to the point in the book where Ethelred, during a storm, comes to the Hermit’s dwelling and breaks down the door. As the narrator reads these words, he imagines he hears an echo from somewhere in the mansion that fits perfectly with the sound described. He assures himself it must have just been the strange storm and carries on. But again as Ethelred beats the dragon, the narrator pauses again at a sound very like the shriek that he imagines the dragon making. Though this second coincidence scares the narrator, he keeps calm in front of Usher.
But as the storm rages, the house becomes the antagonist again and seems to act against them. Imagination is a dangerous thing in this house, and it is not yet clear at this point how much of this atmosphere is imagined and how much is real. But, again, using lists and patterns of three, Poe gradually builds the suspicion that these interruptions are real and not imagined.
Usher’s behavior, as the reading progresses, has altered from being intent on the reader to now watching the doorway, and rocking back and forth. The narrator of "House of Usher" carries on, but again as Ethelred drops his shield, a metallic sound reverberates through the house and the narrator can’t help but jump up from his seat. Usher stays where he is, still rocking. As the narrator touches Usher's shoulder, Usher shudders and begins murmuring. He says he has heard it all, and he knows that Madeleine has been buried alive. Even days ago, he heard the first movements from deep in the vault.
Usher is so in touch with the imagined world of the book and with the sounds of the house that he seems oblivious now to the narrator’s presence. He is experiencing something in his mind that has come to possess him and now he is fixed in this posture of madness. As he describes his sister’s movements through the house, he is so intent on the door that his nerves and the mood of the house seem to be acting as one.
Usher describes Madeleine coming up the stairs, the sound of her heart, and then, in an absolute frenzy of terror, he cries that she is standing outside the door. As if his energy had made the idea come true, they see the massive door of the room start to open and the lady standing in the threshold, enshrouded and bloody. For a moment, she stands, trembling, and then with a terrible moan falls into her brother’s arms. Usher falls down dead.
In a terrible progression of Madeleine coming closer and closer and Usher getting more and more frantic and the storm raging, the Usher nightmare finally concludes and it becomes clear that the genetic connection really was fatal – Madeleine literally dragged Usher down to his rightful place with her, in death.
The narrator of "House of Usher" flees from the house, and through the storm. He sees a flash of light and turns back around. It is the blood-red moon shining through the crack in the wall, which now begins to widen and rip, and with the force of a whirlwind and a thunderous sound, the house collapses into the earth, and the still waters of the tarn are all that’s left.
The spiritual connection between the Usher lineage and the House of Usher is complete – the building physically cannot stand now that the last of the Usher breed has died.