Homosexuality in the Fall of the House of Usher

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Edgar Allen Poe’s famous short story The Fall of the House of Usher is known for pitting the rational against the irrational. Many interpretations of this piece see the Narrator as a representation of saneness that is tempted and eventually nearly killed due to his curiosity of insanity, embodied by Roderick Usher. However, The Fall of the House of Usher has a much more specific theme than just rational vs. irrational; this story is speaking to the perceived irrationality, or abnormality, of homosexuality and the inability to have control over sexuality. Allusions to homosexuality are presented multiple times throughout the text. Some examples of this are: the unusual closeness of Roderick Usher and Narrator, the leisure activities of Roderick and Narrator, and the physical burial of the feminine. The fact that homosexuality was viewed as a mental disorder during the time setting of the story, as well as when Poe was writing, along with these pieces of evidence create a clear connection between the homosexuality and The Fall of the House of Usher.

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The intimacy of Roderick and the Narrator’s relationship goes far beyond that of friendship. The Fall of the House of Usher begins with the Narrator dropping everything to attend to a man, Roderick Usher that he hasn’t seen or heard from in multiple years. He does this because of a letter expressing Roderick’s earnest desire (Poe, 5) to see him. This seems a bit extreme of a long lost childhood friend however, it seems believable for long lost lovers. The text even describes the previous friendship as intimate (5), a term often associated with the physical aspects of a romantic relationships. From the beginning of the narrative, readers can see that there is something deeper than friendship between Roderick Usher and Narrator.

The romantic nature of these men’s relationship is intensified upon Narrator’s arrival at the House of Usher. As the two men see each other for the first time, Narrator details the vivacious warmth (7) with which he was greeted before giving readers an in-depth analysis of Roderick’s once remarkable (7) face. First, he notes Roderick’s eyes as luminous beyond comparison (7), which is interesting because eyes are often times referred to as a window to the soul. It is no coincidence that this sounds a lot more romantic than it does friendly. Next, he addresses Roderick’s lips, the body part used for kissingromantic, physical affectionas having a beautiful curve to them (7). Narrator goes on to describe Roderick’s finely-molded and prominent chin and jawline (7). Prominent chins tend to be associated with masculinity and having a defined jawline is a troupe of rugged male love interests. The great detail in which Narrator describes the aesthetically pleasing nature of Roderick’s chin suggests his physical attraction to the male form. However, after this extremely intensive analysis of Roderick’s unforgettable face, readers are told that this is no longer what Roderick looks like, but how Narrator remembers him. These vivid memories suggest that Narrator has spent a lot of time committing Roderick’s face to memory, something friends do not tend to do. The romantic tones to their relationship amplify as the two men begin to spend extended periods of time together.

This intimate relationship between the Narrator and Roderick is solidified by the leisure activities they engage in together. The two are often described as reading together late at night by the fire in the den. This clearly has intimate undertones that suggest an increased level of comfortability between the two men. However, it is not only the behavior they engage in, but the books they read that clues reader into the homosexual relationship between Roderick Usher and Narrator.

All of the texts the two men read depict women unfavorably or highlight male sexuality. One of the books specifically mentioned is Machiavelli’s Belphegor. This novel is about the Devil marrying a woman, becoming terrified of her, and denouncing the concept of marriage and women in general (5). The idea of men turning away from women, when sexuality is an innate human desire, suggests that they should turn to other men. Additionally, Roderick is noted to especially like, and even dream about, passages in Pomponious Mela, a novel about the old African Satyrs and ?“gipans(6). Satyrs come from the Greek culture, which is known in part for its open-minded approach to sexuality, and are traditionally portrayed as hedonistic goat-men with permanent erections (Hubbard). It is not only his desire of men, but his disinterest in women that hint to Roderick Usher’s homosexuality.

In addition to the intimate relationship between Roderick and Narrator and their interest in homoerotic literature, the removal of the only feminine character in The Fall of the House of Usher, Madeline Usher, suggests a male homosexual relationship between the two main characters. After a few days with Narrator, Roderick claims that his sister has passed away and that they need to bury her under the house. However, the audience is left to question of Madeline Usher is really dead. Upon her burial, Lady Madeline is has blush upon the bosom and face and a lingering smile according to Narrator (Poe 12). Since the dead can neither blush nor smile, this suggest that she is still alive. However, despite noticing these signs of life, Narrator continues to participate in the burial. Obviously, there is a strong reasoning for these two men to bury a women alive and the insanity of homosexuality is clearly the answer.

Madeline Usher must be disposed of in order for Roderick and Narrator to be together. A large portion of the text highlights the fact that Roderick and Madeline, both eligible, are the last in the direct line of decent for the Usher family (6). Clearly, in their incestuous family, it would be completely normal, and even expected, that Roderick and Madeline reproduce together. The only explanation for why they would not have a child, since it is the norm in their family, is a lack of physical attraction between the two. The instincts to have children that Roderick would have naturally possessed accompanied with a completely disinterested sexual attitude towards his sister and secret lust for men would have undoubtedly created unbearable pressure for Roderick Usher. It is entirely possible that this pressure led him to burying Lady Madeline alive. In addition to his sexual disinterestedness in his sister, Roderick also would have wanted to bury his sister to remove the possibility of Narrator being with her rather than him.

Seeing as Roderick and Madeline are twins whom share a striking similitude (12), readers can assume Madeline represents a version of Roderick that the Narrator is socially allowed to love. She would have been the much easier choice for Narrator to be with. In burying her alive, Roderick hides the temptation from the Narrator, whose eyes follow her retreated step (8) the first time he sees her before looking back eagerly (8) to Roderick who has buried his face in his hands. Clearly Roderick is upset at the thought of the Narrator paying mind to Madeline rather than him. Therefore, it can then be inferred that Roderick may feel that his sister could possibly steal the Narrator’s attention. With Madeline out of the picture, and the homosexual tensions rising, the mens’ insanity, and therefore homosexual tendencies, continue to rise.

The time period in which Poe wrote this piece allows the reader to assume that the deteriorating mental health of the Narrator and Roderick would have been connected to their homosexual tendencies. The Fall of the House of Usher was originally published in 1839, well before gender and sexuality rights existed and freedoms existed. In fact, during the 19th century, being a homosexual was actually considered a mental disorder (Herek), something we know to be false today. During the 1800’s, mental disorders associated with insanity were treated very differently than today. Many people with mental disorders were shamed by their communities and feared by nearly everyone; this could be one of the reasons that Roderick seems to have little to no contact with the outside world. At the time, even writing about homosexuality could have been bad news for Poe, which explains why he chooses to leave Roderick’s illness unspecified in the text and instead heavily hinted at it for close readers. Just like any other untreated disease, the homosexuality continues to spread as The Fall of the House of Usher continues.
After spending time with Roderick, Narrator starts to see and hear things. He is becoming just as irrational as his host.

Narrator’s adoption of Roderick’s symptoms represents his return to homosexuality but, this does not seem to be a choice for Narrator. One night, after about a week of being completely alone in the house with Roderick, Narrator has trouble sleeping. Overwhelmed and nervous, Narrator feels that there is an incubus (12) on his heart, which causes him to get up, put on some clothes, and go for a walk around the house to calm down. This is particularly interesting because while the common definition of incubus is a distress, religious and mythological scholar Jeffery Russel describes an incubus as a male sex demon which is known for having paranormal intercourse with their victims (Russell, 145). Interestingly enough, Stephen Walter, professional novelist, presents the traditional belief held that repeated sexual interactions with an Incubus can cause one’s health to deteriorate, and can even result in death (Stephens, 23). By having the homosexuality caused through a supernatural being, Poe highlights the fact that sexuality is not a choice. This is obviously a metaphor for the inability for humans to control their sexuality regardless of its social status as good or bad. This is Poe’s way of suggesting that despite being socially undesirable, homosexuality is not a choice.

Although homosexuality and the idea that it is not a choice would be a very modern and forward thinking idea for Poe, it is not impossible for his work to address this issue. There are far too many homosexual references in this text to be ignored. Poe uses diction and references that suggest an intimacy between Roderick Usher and the Narrator, directly references literature the negatively depicts women and positively representing the sexuality of men, while giving both Roderick and the Narrator attributes suggesting their questionable sanity. While the traditional sane vs. insane is an easy way to interpret The Fall of the House of Usher, it is clear that the true meaning is much more specifically referencing the mental illness, or insanity, that is homosexuality and the lack of control humans have over it.

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Homosexuality in The Fall of the House of Usher. (2019, Aug 08). Retrieved December 3, 2022 , from

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