Queer Theory: Edgar Allan Poe – The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

First published in September, 1839, “The Fall of the House of Usher” is among the most critically scrutinized works in Edgar Allan Poe’s bibliography. The short story, ripe with metaphorical descriptions and intentionally mysterious language, is an open invitation to varied interpretations. At the high school level, most students are taught that it is a tale about extreme isolation. In academia, scholars are typically more interested in the bizarre brother-sister relationship and its incestuous possibilities.

Until recently, the idea that Poe could be in conversation with queer anxieties might have sounded absurd. Increasingly, however, critics have identified queer themes throughout his stories and poetry. In some cases, such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” it is nearly impossible to deny that Dupin and his male companion are in a romantic relationship (Novosat). So too does “The Fall of the House of Usher” benefit from a queer reading. Suddenly the curious language and enigmatic events make sense. Not vaguely or subconsciously or inadvertently, but in its entirety. It is my argument that “Usher” is, from beginning to end, about queer anxieties. Notably, the angst of sexual repression and an inability to reproduce.

“Usher” opens with the evocation of traditional Gothic imagery. The “Melancholy House of Usher” is ominous and imposing, creating a “sense of insufferable gloom” (126). Poe’s narrator is quick to clarify this description, however. When “melancholy” and “gloom” are used in a Gothic tale, readers would be reminded of Ann Radcliffe, who was fond of using both words to create atmospheres of the “sublime”—a titillating sensation coined by Edmund Burke that is part terror and part beauty. “I looked upon the scene before me…with an utter depression of soul” writes Poe’s narrator, adding that the atmosphere is thick with “an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeeming dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime” (126). With this clarification, Poe officially sets a stage of true gloom and true depression, not romanticized versions.

Our unnamed narrator reveals himself to be a boyhood “companion” of the mansion’s inhabitant, Roderick Usher (127). The two have not seen each other for “many years” and the narrator might have avoided Usher’s summons were it not for the “wildly importunate nature” of his letter (127). The scope of their relationship is left largely to the imagination. Of the scant few details Poe includes is this noteworthy sentence: “As boys, we had been intimate associates, yet I really knew little of my friend” (127). While it is certainly possible for two heterosexual boys to be “intimate associates” without the sexual connotation, an erotic interpretation of this word choice grows likely when the narrator examines his old acquaintance more closely.

Usher is first seen rising “from a sofa on which he had been lying at full length” (129). Such a position evokes sickness, but also the image of a resting nude. Or, more specifically, the subject of Henry Fuseli’s erotic painting The Nightmare, which shows a resting woman, full length on a sofa, with a demonic incubus perched atop her chest. Later, the narrator references “the reveries of Fuseli” as a way of explaining how the unusual activities of the House of Usher make him feel (133). The narrator also lingers in his description of Usher’s feeble but handsome appearance: “[His] lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve, a nose of a delicate Hebrew model” (130).

These lines alone are not sufficient evidence to prove erotic desire between the men, but once again the word choice draws attention to queer possibilities. In particular, Poe’s excessive words. Describing lips, a sensuous part of the body, as “surpassingly” beautiful with further comparisons to a “delicate” Hebrew model is an efficient way to reveal the physical intimacy of their relationship. Certainly it would have been just as possible to analyze more neutral parts of Usher’s body, or to use less romantic language. It is nearly impossible to imagine that Poe, whose narrative belief was that every word should contribute to a “singular effect,” did not deliberate over these words and choose them carefully.

The narrator reveals that the House of Usher is so-named because there has always been at least one heir capable of continuing the family line. There are no genetic “branches” reaching out to extend the Usher lineage, thus the responsibility to usher in future Usher generations always falls on one individual. The depressive mood clouding the ancient family home is a metaphorical weight caused by Roderick’s realization that this oddity (curse?) has occurred once again. His sister is fatally ill, and Roderick—“with a bitterness which I can never forget,” observes the narrator—will become “the last of the ancient race of the Ushers” (132).

For a “beautiful” man of wealth, the simple solution would be to find a bride and get busy. For Roderick Usher, however, this responsibility is crippling and depressive. Rather than calling on women, he prematurely buries his sister and devotes his entire attention to who we can assume is his boyhood male lover—but more on all that soon.

While heterosexual men and women who suffer from infertility can relate to Roderick’s inability to produce an heir, it is a singularly queer dilemma to be capable of reproduction while having no desire to perform the necessary act. If it can be assumed that Roderick was expecting his sister to fulfill the role of extending the family lineage, then his anxious mental state aligns with a common queer experience of disappointing one’s parents. Of course, Roderick’s situation is more extreme than simply not giving Mother a grandbaby. Given how ancient and stately his family line is, there would be tremendous pressure on his shoulders. As a lover of men, the opposing pressure to remain true to himself would be just as strong. And thus the depressive atmosphere which surrounds the House of Usher, as an internal battle weighs heavily upon Roderick.

Roderick explains his internal dilemma in vague terms, saying “‘I dread the events of the future’” and “‘I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together’” (131).  The narrator describes these mysterious confessions as “hints” and “terms too shadowy” to be understood (131). No doubt nearly two centuries of Poe readers have likewise debated over the meaning of these lines. A common theory suggests that Roderick and his sister are in an incestuous relationship and her death represents the loss of a lover (Allison).

Approaching the story through a queer lens, however, reveals a clearer meaning. Roderick is terrified by the prospect of his sister’s death because he will then have to “abandon” his life as a homosexual and pursue a heterosexual obligation to continue the Usher lineage. The unforgettable “bitterness” that Roderick uses to explain his sister’s illness sounds little like the emotion of a mourning lover and more of a frustrated sibling forced to take up a burdensome chore.

Roderick also informs the narrator of his “earnest desire” to see him and “the solace” he hopes he will be able to provide. While this too is not spelled out precisely to the reader, the boys proceed to engage in a number of activities with erotic subtext: “We painted and read together; or I listened, as if in a dream, to the wild improvisations of his speaking guitar” (132). These dreamy serenade sessions result in a “closer and still closer intimacy” that “admitted me more unreservedly into the recesses of his spirit” (132). Still, Roderick does not divulge his “oppressive secret” for which the narrator suspects he lacks the “necessary courage” to reveal (138).

A queer reading invites an obvious solution to the secret, that Roderick is constricted by his repressed same-sex desires. Such a confession would be difficult even if he and the narrator had sexual experiences in their youth. Not limited by the fact that the word homosexual did not yet exist. Even if Roderick had the courage to “come out” to his sympathetic friend, the confession would be complicated by a lack of social understanding.

Roderick’s increasing anxiety is compounded by the inevitable death of his sister. With such a dire atmosphere about the house, the narrator finds himself similarly infected by the oppression. Fuseli’s The Nightmare is again referenced in subtext when the narrator describes feeling as if “there sat upon my very heart an incubus of utterly causeless alarm” (139). The “under surfaces” of a “rising tempest” is seen beyond the lung-like breathing of draperies as anxiety is felt “creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees” (138-140). A “visible gaseous exhalation” literally “enshroud[s] the mansion,” clearly signifying ominous events are soon to come (140).

Sensing impending doom, the narrator attempts to reverse or delay disaster. “‘You must not—you shall not behold this,’” he exclaims, leading Usher away from the windows (140). He then picks up one of Roderick’s “favorite romances” so that they can “pass away this terrible night together” (140). The selected romance, “The Mad Trist” by “Sir Launcelot Canning” is an invented volume by Poe (Poe 613). As a fictitious book, it should certainly be examined for thematic clues. Though the romance describes the adventures of “Ethelred, the hero of the Trist” it does not require much imagination to see a double entendre in the title. A “mad tryst” invites the reader to imagine an unusual sexual rendezvous, which is how earth nineteenth century society might view homosexual activity (Neuman). This is consistent with other Poe stories involving queer characters. In “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” the leading two men also appear to be in a queer relationship, and the narrator reveals that society might regard their relationship as “mad[ness] of a harmless nature” (241).

Also consistent with Poe’s plots, this book is precisely the one thing that can make a terrible situation even worse. As the narrator reads passages, it is as if the words themselves conjure horrific events into existence. The sound of cracking hollow wood reverberating “throughout the forest,” as described in the romance, coincides with the exact same sound echoing in a “remote portion of the mansion” (141). Then, as Ethelred strikes a dragon with his mace and the creature emits “a shriek…horrid and harsh” a likewise shriek is heard in the House of Usher (141). Roderick admits to hearing the curious sounds and confesses that he has heard them before. He suspects that he buried his twin sister alive and dared not report the possibility. The sounds are the “iron hinges of her prison” and her subsequent “struggles within the coppered archway of the vault” (143). Climax occurs as the bloodied, dying sister falls upon Roderick, killing him too. The narrator flees the scene and is aghast to find the House of Usher itself is literally falling into a watery fissure, and there’s understanding too that this is the fall of the Usher family.

A queer interpretation of these final events is complicated, not because of lacking textual evidence but because the finale of Poe’s tale is inherently complex. For many years, readers have interpreted the siblings’ final embrace as an incestuous romantic tragedy (Weisheng). This interpretation does not, however, account for Roderick’s bitterness toward his sister in tone, or his bitterness in action by burying her prematurely. Even if we can presume the alive burial was by accident, he confesses to not helping her after days of suspecting the error and hearing sounds of her entombed struggle. If the sister has incestuous desire for her brother, there is no evidence to suggest those feelings are reciprocated. Rather the opposite. Roderick’s rejection of his sister is, even more broadly, a rejection of women in general.

Yet the relationship between Roderick and Madeline Usher is more complicated than that. They are twin siblings and the narrator notes that they are nearly identical (137). In the universe of Poe’s writings, this doubling of the characters calls to mind a number of the author’s other tales. Notably, “William Wilson,” where a doppelganger torments the protagonist at every turn of his life. At the finale of “William Wilson,” the protagonist becomes so frustrated with his doppelganger that he stabs him—only to discover that he has actually slain himself.

Using Poe’s logic of doubling, Madeline may in fact be seen as the doppelganger of Roderick himself. When he buries her alive, he is essentially burying the feminine part of himself—the side which desires men—in attempt to live a heteronormative life. This does not solve his problem, of course. Roderick hears her shrieks and pounding, the beating of her heart, and is unable to suppress this side of him. In the end, she emerges from the grave and collapses onto him—rejoining both halves of his life. His death is the grim result of the reality that he can neither live the homosexual life he wants, nor force himself to become something he is not. Thus seals the fate of the Usher family and, as a symbolic response, the house itself crumbles.

Such an interpretation might be readily accepted in a “death of the author” space, where authorial intent is irrelevant and the reader determines meaning. Still, with such plausible evidence that Poe was indeed writing about queer anxieties, however veiled by metaphor, it naturally leads to questions about Poe himself. Which character might Poe most identify with? Roderick, the suppressed homosexual, or the narrator who fled the scene in horror? Perhaps both?

As with almost every scrap of Poe’s creativity, there are biographical echoes in this story. The most obvious connection to Usher is that Poe never fathered a child. He did marry a woman—his unusually young first cousin, Virginia—but their ten-year marriage did not yield offspring. Of course there are unlimited possibilities for why the two never had children. It’s possible that Poe—who already lived in tragic poverty and had seen more than his share of tragedy—wished to avoid added responsibility. It’s possible he was infertile. Then, of course, Virginia was deathly ill with tuberculosis for several years, making pregnancy not just be a bad idea but suicidal. And yes, it is possible the two never consummated their marriage.

If Poe was a repressed homosexual in a marriage of social convenience, as was common for queer persons during that time, he might associate himself exceedingly closely to Roderick Usher. There is no concrete evidence for this theory, but of course there wouldn’t be. After Virginia’s death, Poe exchanged romantic letters with a number of women, dedicated poetry to them, and even found himself almost married to one (Meyers). While these letters seemingly contradict any notion of queer desire, they are also frivolous, without heart, and likely feeble attempts at financial stability. In other words, Poe’s dating history actually does more to suggest a queer experience in the mid-1800s than they confirm a completely heteronormative existence.

If Poe was what we now consider homosexual, he likely foresaw the reality that he would not bear children when he wrote the story. Furthermore, his brother Henry was already in the grave and his sister Rosalie was handicapped—she did not develop mentally past the age of twelve (Meyers). Precisely like Roderick, pressure to extend the family line fell squarely on Poe’s shoulders. It is wholly possible that “The Fall of the House of Usher” is a metaphorical horror story that, like so much of Poe’s work, contains the secrets of his own anxiety.

Regardless of authorial connections or intentions, however, the significance of this masterful short story as a work of queer fiction cannot be understated. Nearly two hundred years since his literary debut, Edgar Allan Poe continues to prove himself among the world’s most enduring and recognizable authors (Hao). The queer implications of “The Fall of the House of Usher” reveals that, at the very least, Poe’s powerful connection to the human experience is more broad than we originally thought. Whether the queer aspects of his writing was personal or not, its relevance elevates his work to new heights.

Works Cited

Allison, John. “Coleridgean Self-Development: Entrapment and Incest in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’” South Central Review, vol. 5, no. 1, South Central Modern Language Association, 1988, pp. 40–47, https://doi.org/10.2307/3189432.

Hao, Ruijuan. “Edgar Allan Poe in Contemporary China.” The Edgar Allan Poe Review, vol. 10, no. 3, 2009, pp. 117–22, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41506373. Accessed 3 May 2022.

Jones, Paul Christian. “Resisting Reproduction in Edgar Allan Poe’s Family Fictions.” Studies in American Fiction, vol. 45, no. 2, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018, pp. 165–89, https://doi.org/10.1353/saf.2018.0008.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy. Cooper Square Press, 2000.

Neuman, R. P. “Masturbation, Madness, and the Modern Concepts of Childhood and Adolescence.” Journal of Social History, vol. 8, no. 3, 1975, pp. 1–27, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3786713. Accessed 4 May 2022.

Novosat, Courtney. “Outside Dupin’s Closet of Reason: (Homo)Sexual Repression and Racialized Terror in Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’” Poe Studies, vol. 45, no. 1, 2012, pp. 78–106, https://www.jstor.org/stable/48599425. Accessed 4 May 2022.

Poe, Edgar Allan. The Portable Edgar Allan Poe. Edited by J. Gerald Kennedy, Penguin Publishing Group, 2006. 

Weisheng, Tang. “Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic Aesthetics of Things: Rereading ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’” Style, vol. 52, no. 3, 2018, pp. 287–301, https://doi.org/10.5325/style.52.3.0287. Accessed 4 May 2022.

Zimmerman, Brett. “Phrenological Allegory in Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’”

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