Free sample essay on Vampirism in The Fall of the House of Usher:
Originally written in 1839, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” has been the object of many literary questions and criticisms. One of the most interesting questions ever raised would undoubtedly pertain to the illness that Madeline Usher suffered. Many theories have been put forth about “the disease of Lady Madeline [that] had long baffled the skill of her physicians”. (Poe 786). The most obvious conclusion on this disease is that Madeline Usher suffered from vampirism. Although Poe never actually said outright that this is what affected Madeline, he did give enough evidence throughout the story for it to be a possibility and when paired with the society-of-the-time’s view of death and gothic literature, vampirism is the most logical answer.
Most of the writing of Poe’s literary works occurred in the middle of the 1800s. “At the heart of nineteenth century romantic cult of the dead, lay a profound ambivalence towards the dead body” (Pike Par. 2). This enabled Poe to do many stories that dealt with the dying or deceased. It was a “hot” topic. “The Fall of the House of Usher”, however, is slightly different. The “dead,” that America loved at the time, had a new side. Since, according to Kendall, “Both male and female vampires abounded in literature by the time [Poe] published his contributions to the genre in 1839” (Par. 2) the backbone, the popularity of vampirism, was already in place for the short story to be accepted in the society. In short, by afflicting Madeline with “living” death, Poe not only appealed to the audience of those infatuated with death in general, but he was also able to target those that were interested in the darker, more gothic side, as well. There are many characteristics to look for when deciding if one is a vampire or not. Roxana Stuart’s Stage Blood: Vampires of the 19th Century Stage explains the traits of vampirism. For example, “Vampires can be either victims of a contagious disease, similar to rabies, or they can be a separate species from man; they are not necessarily connected with Satan and the powers of hell” (Qtd. in Ashley 15). This is a possible solution of how the vampirism first got into the family. Poe makes it clear throughout the story that Madeline’s condition is not a new one to the family and the disease is something of a family condition. Roderick Usher, Madeline’s twin brother, states that the illness is “a constitutional and family evil, and one for which he despaired to find a remedy” (Poe 767). This allows the first connection between vampirism and the Ushers. Vampirism, as previously stated, can be a race entirely different from humans, which can be taken to mean that the condition is a family flaw. Obviously, through Roderick’s explanation, it is clear that Madeline is not the first of the Usher to suffer from this strange malady.
Later in the story, Poe leads the reader to another possible solution on how the condition arrived into the family. This explanation is given cryptically through the recital of a favored poem of Roderick’s, which states: “But evil things, in robes of sorrow,/Assailed the monarch’s high estate;/(Ah, let us mourn, for never morrow/Shall dawn upon him, desolate!)/And, round about his home, the glory/That blushed and bloomed/Is but a dim-remembered story/Of the old time entomed” (Poe 770). Obviously, Poe is telling the reader that at some time during the history of the Ushers, vampires entered the house and attacked its inhabitants, thus leading to the disease that affected the later generations.
Another trait of a vampire is that “They have superhuman strength, and are most powerful at night” (Ashley 15-16). As Poe’s short story neared the end, we find Madeline, who was encrypted several days earlier, breaking free from her burial chamber. Poe describes this vault as being “entirely without means of admission for light” and with a “door of massive iron” (Poe 772). He goes on to say that this door was difficult for even the men to close because of “It’s immense weight” (Poe 772). How could it be possible then for this woman to not only break free from her confinement of her coffin, but also open the huge and heavy weight of the door? Take into consideration as well, that her disease caused a “gradual wasting away” and that she had not eaten in several days (Poe 768). These facts make it abundantly clear that something much more was occurring within Madeline. One could say that the ability to open the door came from the fear of being “buried” alive, but desperation can only add so much to one’s physical strength. Her being able to open the door obviously demonstrates that she had strength that was superhuman.
Although it is unclear if Roderick was actually afflicted with the disease, or merely afflicted by Madeline, it is clear that Madeline exuded a strange and eerie presence. As the narrator talks to Roderick, he catches sight of Madeline passing through another room: “I regarded her with utter astonishment not unmingled with dread” (Poe 768). This type of reaction is actually quite common when a normal person is in the presence of a vampire. Although variations of the reaction can be found, vampires incense feelings of things askew, eeriness and spookiness, akin to what people would call the feeling of their grave being walked over, within the normal person, especially if the vampire is unaware of being watched, as in the case with the narrator and Madeline. Normally however, a vampire will wrap a psychic “shroud” around itself so that the normal person is unable to detect anything out of the ordinary.
At one point in the story, Roderick states that the cause of his illness can be traced to his sister, saying “much of the peculiar gloom which thus afflicted him could be traced to a more natural and far more palpable origin—to the severe and long-continued illness—indeed to the evidently approaching dissolution—of a tenderly beloved sister” (Poe 767-768). While this can be taken sarcastically, it is much more likely that it should be taken for face value. What Roderick’s message reveals here is that the cause of his illness can be traced to his sister. Apparently, her appearance affects him just as it does the narrator and it is highly likely that Roderick is her sole food source. This contributes to the symptoms of Roderick’s illness, which included “cadaverousness of complexion” and “ghastly pallor of the skin” (Poe 766). However, this does not necessarily mean that she was literally feeding off his blood, which is the most common thought in association of vampire food. In the case of the Ushers, it is much more likely that Madeline was feeding off Roderick’s psyche. She was draining him of life through a “vampiric exchange of energy [that] occurred between the siblings” (The Vampire Book 527). However, this was draining was also starting to occur on the narrator as well, as shown later in the story. He began to develop some of the same mental symptoms as Roderick, saying at one point that he could almost feel the change in himself, wondering if it was not merely the atmosphere of the house that caused Roderick to carry such an illness.
In conclusion, Poe’s vampire motif in “The Fall of the House of Usher” is not just hypothetical—it is provable. Of course, many would argue that since it does not follow all traditional means of vampirism, then it could not possibly be true.
However, it can be reasoned that Poe was not looking to meet all the regular vampire requirements or even create a story that follows basic and traditional vampire lore. Instead, it can be safely understood that the vampirism in this story was used to reach a deeper level—a more advanced reader, if you will. One must take into consideration that during the nineteenth century, many literary works were being produced in this genre. After all, the population loved the dead. Poe, being who he was, wanted to not only “jump on the bandwagon”, but make it his own as well. In creating the characters found in “The Fall of the House of Usher”, he did just that.