“The Fall of the House of Usher (1939)”, arguably Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous short story, is a tale centered around the mysterious House of Usher and its equally indiscernible inhabitants. These subjects are plagued with physical and mental degradation – the Usher siblings suffer from various abnormal ailments and unexplained fears, while the house itself seems to be tethering on the edge of collapse. The gothic elements in the story are distributed generously, and the plot is increasingly ridden with the supernatural as it progresses. Lady Madeline, Roderick Usher’s twin sister, is a key element in the story. She suffers from a disease much like catalepsy, a disease that subjects her to seizures and insensitivity to various stimuli. Roderick himself, on the other hand, suffers from an “acuteness of the senses” and a strong belief that the house is somehow alive and conscious of its surroundings.
Roderick has not parted from the house in years, and has instead elected to keep himself inside to pore over literature and art, rather than threaten his sanity by overwhelming his senses. The siblings are very similar, not only in their appearance, as they are twins, but in their problems as well. They are both suffering from similarly mysterious diseases, and are both aware of the underlying sexual tension in their relationship. Early in the story, the readers are made aware of the age-old Usher tradition that has kept the Usher family ‘pure’.
In other words, incestuous relationships were the norm for them. However, by no means was Madeline and Roderick’s relationship condoned by the rest of society. This essay will examine the story from a feminist perspective, focusing on understanding the narrating styles of the male author, and the actions of the characters in the book. It will also look specifically at the ways that women have suffered from social conventions throughout the years, and compare it to Madeline’s struggles in the story.
Women & Poe
Males are the dominant gender in the text, both in terms of dialogue and in description. The complete absence of a female voice in the text, save for several moans and groans from Madeline scattered throughout the story, is pointedly apparent. Throughout the story, Madeline never utters a single word – what the readers know of her is severely limited by the vague descriptions given of her and the way she is treated. Not only do males dominate the text in terms of their presence, but there is also a greater sense of regard among the male characters themselves than there is between Madeline the the male characters.
They seem to regard her ailments less seriously than they do of Roderick’s, giving Roderick’s much more detail and explanation than that of Madeline. Roderick’s description, on the other hand, seems to go on an on, reaching into Poe’s treatment of Madeline after her apparent death is a representation of the author’s strangely violent attitude towards women. Like in a number of his other works, women are subject to strange and horrific treatment after their deaths. Berenice was buried alive, and had all her teeth pulled. Ligeia sees the death of two women, and a perverse return of one of them. One could conclude that Poe had misogynistic tendencies, though the fact that Madeline did rise up in power could be seen as support for an opposing perspective.
Women in Victorian Society
Understanding the circumstances behind the treatment and portrayal of Madeline also demands an understanding of how women were expected to act, especially as reflected in nineteenth century literature. At that time, women were expected to adhere to certain well-defined virtues, centered around the virtures of submissiveness and domesticity. To some extent, a woman’s value depended quite largely on her physical attributes. This refers not only her physique, but also to her abilities in carrying out household tasks. Women were traditionally seen as homemakers – people in charge of matters in the household, not outside. Men, of course, were seen as the mind and intellect of the household, and the one qualified to receive an education and work in the outside world.
A woman’s mental ability was regarded as essentially limited to superficial sensing, while a man would have been seen as the one responsible for complex thought and reflection in a household. In a way, Madeline’s suppression by her twin brother and the way she generally presents herself reflects this. Madeline does not speak, and simply obeys the orders of everyone else in the house. Roderick, on the other hand, always has the final word. This is exemplified once again the Roderick’s live burial of Madeline, in which Madeline could not do anything to change her fate. In the nineteenth century, the female daughter is seen as a critical supporting element of the family. She was expected to keep her aspirations and motivations rooted in maintaining and upholding the family and its name, from within the household.
The way Madeline was buried, “half smothered in its oppressive atmosphere”, reflects the way she was smothered in Victorian society. The nature of their illnesses also reflect the gender roles of the era. While Roderick’s illness amplifies his senses, Madeline’s disease, described as “a settle apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person”, dampens hers, reducing her into an ‘barely-there’, almost ghostly, individual. Roderick is able to isolate himself from the outside world to spare him from the torture of his oversensitivty, however, Madeline is helpless towards hers. Madeline’s illness subjects her to physical degradation. On a mental level, she is suppressed by the gender roles and expectations of the time.
Relationship between Madeline and the Other Characters
Madeline’s burial represents the suppression she is subject to under Usher tradition, and under the ideals of her brother. She cannot truly be herself or express herself fully, because of the expectations she has to fulfill. Even from the start, she is trapped in the house, trapped under the shadow of her ancestor’s expectations, and trapped under the realization of what she and her twin brother would have to do to continue their family line in the traditional Usher fashion. Madeline has no freedom, both in life and in “death”. It is a feminist victory, then, to see Madeline emerge from the depths of her suppression to exact her revenge and exert her power over those who have suppressed her all her life. He then says that his sickness can be “traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin”—namely, to his “tenderly beloved sister—his sole companion for long years—his last relative on earth.”
Madeline’s display of power and ability to induce fear is an abrupt change in the dynamic among the characters. Instead of the silent, unregarded character she has always been portrayed as thus far, Madeline is finally clearly seen as a powerful figure, capable of breaking out of her constraints, both physical and mental, and exacting justice on her own. It is interesting to see that Madeline only manages to struggle out of these constraints after her apparent death. Perhaps in only allowing Madeline to break free after her death signifies that for women, stepping out of the very well-defined social conventions of the day is as difficult as death itself. Furthermore, Madeline’s new appearance as a strong character over her brother’s meekness represents how women actually have the capability to rise up and over society’s expectations for them, when given the chance.
In that final scene, while Roderick is “a victim to the terrors he had anticipated”, Madeline is fearful and intimidating, with her “lofty” appearance and the blood on her clothes displaying the kind of struggles she has experienced and conquered. Perhaps this point offers insight into why this invoked fear in the readers of the era – to see a woman assume such a powerful role would have seemed abnormally threatening. Another notable fact is that Roderick’s condition visibly deteriorates after the departure of Madeline from his daily life. It signifies that despite Madeline’s apparent weakness and low value, she does play a fundamental role in the Usher family.
It suggests that she may have been a strong character from the start – but the readers just cannot immediately see it as it is shrouded by the lack of attention on her and descriptions of her. In essense, a feminist criticism of “The Fall of the House of Usher” reveals much about the nature of the characters and their relationships, as well as the reasons behind the circumstances and the characters’ subsequent actions. A prominent theme stems from the context of the story, the Victorian era. By knowing how women were expected to act, we see the reasons why she was treated a certain way, and why her response was far from active. Madeline’s final actions, however, reflect a different side of the female role, adding a very interesting twist to the story.
“Early Nineteenth Century Attitudes Toward Women and Their Roles as Represented By Literature Popular in Worcester, Massachusetts.” Teach US History |. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2012. <http://www.teachushistory.org/detocqueville-visit-united-states/articles/early-19th-century-attitudes-toward-women-their-roles>.
“‘Sympathies of a Scarcely Intelligible Nature’: The Brother-Sister Bond in
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