A Summary of "The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe

by Erik Arvidson

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is a short fiction story, written in 1839 by American author Edgar Allan Poe, which tells the chilling story of the deterioration and eventual death of Roderick and Madeline Usher, along with the disintegration of the Usher House. The story is one of the most famous works by Poe, who was known for his stories combining mystery and terror. The story has been heavily analyzed in the years since it was published.


The story has three characters: the unnamed narrator, and Roderick and Madeline Usher. Roderick and the narrator are boyhood friends who have not seen each other since childhood. Both Roderick and Madeline are suffering from mysterious illnesses. Roderick's illness is described as a "morbid acuteness of the senses," while Madeline is suffering from a "gradual wasting away of the person" and frequent "affectations of a partly cataleptical character" which causes her to lose consciousness and sensation. Roderick and Madeline are revealed to be twins, with a "striking similitude between brother and sister," and who seem to sense what is happening to the other twin. Roderick and Madeline are the last remaining members of the "time honored" Usher family. Roderick appears to feel that the Usher mansion controls his activities, and ultimately his fate.


Roderick writes his friend, the narrator, asking him to visit the Usher house in hopes it will revive his spirits. The narrator arrives on horseback at the Usher House, which is enveloped in an atmosphere of gloom, death and decay, and he notes Roderick's "cadaverousness of complexion." For several days, the two men read and paint together. Then, one evening, Roderick informs the narrator that Madeline has died, and shares his plan to temporarily entomb the body in a vault beneath the narrator's sleeping chambers. As the two men carry the body to the vault, the narrator notices a "faint blush upon the bosom and the face" of Madeline, along with a lingering smile on her face. In days following, Roderick seems to become even more agitated, with his pallor assuming "a more ghastly hue," as he seems to be in "extreme terror."


Seven or eight nights after Madeline's death, as a storm rages outside, the narrator is reading the novel, "The Mad Trist," to Roderick, when he notices "a distinct, hollow, metallic, and clangorous, yet apparently muffled reverberation" coming from the vault. The two men realize they have buried Madeline alive. Suddenly, a gust of wind blows the doors open, revealing the "lofty and enshrouded figure" of Madeline. With a moaning sound, she falls on top of Roderick, and they both turn into corpses. The narrator escapes the mansion, which splits into fragments.


In an analysis of the tale, Terry Heller, a professor of English at Coe College, wrote that an important element of the story is Roderick's fear of being transformed and that his mind will disintegrate, becoming a mirror of the decaying Usher house. Both Roderick and the Usher house are "living corpses," according to Heller, each about to collapse.