The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] Why ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ now?

By Korea Herald

Published : March 23, 2022 - 05:30

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Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which was originally published in 1839, begins as the protagonist receives a letter from his close friend, Roderick Usher, who urges him to come to his house to help him as he suffers from a strange illness. Responding to his old friend’s distress call, the protagonist travels to a distant part of the country where his friend lives. Metaphorically, it is a summons from the past.

Arriving at the Roderick Usher’s fungi-covered, decaying mansion, the protagonist feels a strange atmosphere. He writes, “The whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity -- an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the gray wall, and the silent tarn.” Then, he continues, “The discoloration of ages had been great. Minute fungi overspread the whole exterior, hanging in a fine tangled web-work from the eaves.”

Reuniting with his dear friend, the protagonist finds that he is indeed suffering from acute physical and mental illness. Roderick is pale and extremely sensitive to noises and changes around him. The protagonist also notices that his friend is obsessed with old daydreams and fantasies, unable to cope with the present reality. He does not know that the times have changed and still lives in the past. Moreover, as the last descendant of the Usher family, Roderick clings to the idea of preserving his family legacy.

The protagonist finds that Roderick has a twin sister named Madeline. When Madeline dies of a strange illness, Roderick decides to bury her temporarily in the basement. Later, however, he thinks that he has buried Madeline alive by mistake because he hears his sister coming up from the basement. He shudders at the horror and comes to the protagonist for comfort. As Madeline appears in a shroud and falls over Roderick, the terrified protagonist escapes the mansion. As he hurriedly flees from the haunted place, the old mansion collapses to the ground under the ominous light of a “setting blood-red moon.”

One way to take “The Fall of the House of Usher” is to interpret it as Poe’s suggestion that if we want to have a future, we cannot cling to the past. Otherwise, the specter of bygone times will haunt us until we ruin our lives. Roderick Usher is completely detached from the present reality and lives in hallucinations of the past. His discolored, overgrown mansion embodies his deteriorated mental state, burdened by his preoccupations with the past.

The name “Usher” is meaningful because Roderick Usher summons his childhood friend, shows him the inevitable outcome of one’s obsession with the past, and thereby “ushers” the protagonist into the present and the future. It is also noteworthy that the title of the story is “The Fall of the House of Usher”; it implies both the breakdown of the Usher’s old mansion and the downfall of the Usher family.

Poe was one of the pioneers in the American Renaissance movement in the 19th century, through which American writers called for independence from the burden of European cultural and literary heritage, which belonged to the past. For American writers, the new continent America was the present and the future. Therefore, clinging to the past was no longer needed or valid.

Reading “The Fall of the House of Usher,” we cannot but help think about our political leaders who are also obsessed with the past, disparaging and even denouncing the present accomplishments of their country. They do not seem to realize that, like Roderick Usher, they are suffering acute mental illness and seeing only hallucinations of the past. Metaphorically speaking, they are living in a crumbling, haunted house that resembles Roderick Usher’s cracked, decayed mansion.

Preoccupied with the past, our anachronistic politicians naturally do not have a vision for the future. Instead, they contend that they should investigate the past, claiming that our country’s past is all wrong from the beginning. However, such an attitude is likely to degenerate into paranoia and make the country mentally ill. The “past is past,” as is said, and we should let bygones be bygones. The important thing is not to repeat the mistakes and wrongdoings of the past, not to be vindictive about the past. If you continue to live in the past, your fungi-ridden mansion will eventually collapse, and your clan will perish as well, just as Roderick Usher’s house and family did.

The protagonist’s return to the past and sojourn in Roderick Usher’s gloomy mansion has enabled him to realize the deadly consequences of renouncing the present. He escapes imminent death in the crumbling mansion in order to warn us of the danger of losing ourselves in the past.

Likewise, our politicians, too, should stop fixating on the past. Instead, their journey should take them to the future, searching for a new vision, so that our country can be healthy and prosper. Poe’s masterpiece illustrates the inevitable downfall of the people obsessed with the past.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.