Commentary by Karen Bernardo
In the “Fall of the House of Usher,” Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator goes to visit his old school friend Roderick Usher at the decaying and spectral mansion which has housed the Ushers for centuries. There we meet not only the wan and excessively nervous Roderick but Roderick’s twin sister Madeline. Madeline and Roderick clearly have an extremely unusual bond, transcending the flesh; Madeline is, indisputably, the other half of Roderick’s soul.
We might be surprised that Roderick’s twin sibling, to whom he is so intimately and yet unwholesomely attached, is a sister rather than a brother, and yet there is a good reason for this. Roderick is trying to set himself free from his physical self, a desire manifested in his abhorrence of strong smells and tastes, and his painful sensitivity to light and sound. His body struggles to free itself of the sensations of real life, until his ties to earthly existence are represented by his doppelganger, Madeline, who, as a woman, represents physicality. Unlike men, women cannot forget they are physical creatures; they are reminded of it every twenty-eight days.
However, Roderick’s subconscious efforts to become a creature of pure spirit have a wasting effect, not only on himself, but upon Madeline as well. Roderick has some form of intellectual work that occupies him, but Madeline does not; having been symbiotically drained of the capacity to function as a real living being, she drifts like a ghost through the halls of the House of Usher. Roderick believes that when she dies, the small and trivial cares of daily life on earth will trouble him no more. That is to say, he expects to still be living; but he expects to function in a sort of right-brained state similar to that aura of holiness often observed in Tibetan monks.
But at last Madeline is reported to be dead, and Roderick makes the unusual request that her coffin be temporarily entombed within his house, rather than buried right away. Within days of her demise, Roderick begins to grow thinner, paler, and more vacant, demonstrating the tenacity of the connection between Roderick Usher and his sister. When the undead Madeline finally blasts out of her coffin, however, Roderick is scared to death she will avenge herself on him because he has buried her alive. One reading of the story (and there are several) holds that he wants to get rid of her because he feels that is the only way to free himself, but he is also terrified that with her death he will die as well. Poor Roderick does not realize there is no death for the undead, just as Edgar Allan Poe’s own specters will never be dead to him.
But most horrifying of all is Roderick’s confession that he has heard her knocking in the coffin for days, and “dared not speak.” Why did he dare not speak? Who would knowingly allow their twin sister to die a horribly agonizing death, when she could have been rescued? Obviously, only a person who saw his sister as the living embodiment of everything he wanted dead in himself. Roderick thought he had killed his doppelganger to save himself—but he thought wrong. When at last she manages to free herself and make her way upstairs to confront her brother, the shock and strain kills them both.
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