Dualism in Edgar Allen Poe‘s “The Fall of the House of Usher“
„I cannot understand the mystery, but I am always conscious of myself
In 19th century literature, whether it be prose or poetry, there is a central idea, a certain motif that can be found in many works - the concept of dualism. Many Victorians believed that there was an essential duality of life that was not only found in nature, but also constituted the very, dual nature of mankind. This concept has long before been discussed by the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes who coined the term “Cartesian Dualism“, which approaches the idea that the self is divided into body and mind and that the two, while always conﬂicting, are intimately related (Skirry). In terms of literature, this conﬂict and idea of fragmentation of the human mind was often “expressed with the character‘s self-division or self- duplication“ (Krehl 1).
In this paper I will discuss the concept of dualism and the twin nature of existence in Edgar Allen Poe‘s The Fall of the House of Usher
(House of Usher) and its use to address the dual and conﬂicted nature of the self. I will also argue that through the use of opposites, mirror images, the doppelgänger motif, and the omnipresence of transitoriness in The House of Usher, Poe creates a story that obliterates the lines between the real and the surreal. The idea of duality will be ampliﬁed by discussing the dichotomy that Poe presents in the setting and the character relations of the story.
The transitoriness and ﬁrst obvious contrast that is established in the story can be found in the ﬁrst paragraphs that set the scene. The narrator steps into an almost apocalyptic scenery - a “dull, dark and soundless day...when clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens“ (Poe 199). He ﬁnds himself “as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.“ This part of the story is ﬁlled with motifs of transitoriness. First of all, the story is set in the fall, a time that rings in the end of the year - a time between summer an winter, similar to the twilight and the end of the day. Twilight is also what the narrator perceives as he approaches the House of Usher for the ﬁrst time. While images of darkness and uncanny elements constitute many of Poe‘s short stories and poems, this particular setting in The House of Usher is not only of a descriptive importance, but also of a symbolic, for it foreshadows that the mansion and also the Usher family will be perished by the end of the story.
Everything about the Gothic house is eerie and makes the narrator feel uncomfortable: “There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart- an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no
goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime“ (199). It is not only the dead surroundings and the way the house, with its “eye-like windows“ (199), seems to stare down at the narrator and his horse - but also its dreadful and accurate reﬂection in the sedge that surrounds the Usher mansion. The insight into the narrator‘s thoughts makes us, as readers, feel the uncomfortableness, too, especially because the narrator is presented to us as a rational and sensible person that cannot rationally explain what it is about the house that makes it seem so mysterious and sinister (199).
Poe paints a picture of a living house that stands in great contrast to its decayed surroundings. Personiﬁcations, such as “eye- like windows“ and the vapor that later in the story is referred to as “exhalation“, as well as the fact that “minute fungi overspread the whole exterior [of the house], hanging in a ﬁne web-work from the cave“ (Poe 201) underline the idea that the house seems to have living features and suggest that there is a strong contrast of life and death covering the framework of the story. “Such ﬁgures of speech associate the inorganic with the organic or even human worlds, and condition the reader to accept an even closer and closer relationship between the two“ (Robinson 70). Also, the almost invisible crack that runs down the masonry of the house suggests that the following story will be about a particular separation (Poe 202). Robinson also suggests that this diagonal crack signiﬁes that the “order of the mansion still functions but obviously is threatened with instability and collapse“ (70).