"The Fall of the House of Usher" Teacher's Guide
Lesson Plans For This Poe Classic
During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on the janitor's electric cart, through a singularly dreary hall of the school; and at length found myself, as the shades of the morning drew close, within view of the melancholy Classroom of Usher. I knew not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the room, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit.
I now understood how my students felt, for I am he, the doleful Usher and I was about to teach the story that shared my name. I vowed this time would be different, so I gathered up my lesson plans, notes, and summary for "The Fall of the House of Usher" and vowed better lessons from now on.
- The opening of the story is one of Poe's more memorable. Reread the opening and have students imitate Poe's style by writing their own opening with a different location--such as a classroom. The first paragraph in the introduction of this page serves as an example. The opening can be imitative or a parody.
- Poe establishes a dreary, ominous mood throughout the entire story. How? Instruct students to create a web. In the center circle, write the mood of the story--dreary or sullen, for example. Create 20 circles connected to the middle one and write a word in each circle that contributes to the mood. Depending on how deeply you wish to explore the importance of word choice, you could do the following: (1) write a separate story using the twenty words; (2) complete another web diagram, but change the mood in the center circle and change the connecting words. Create a parody of "The Fall of the House of Usher."
- A careful reader may be suspicious of the narrator and his sanity. Try this point of view lesson plan and see what happens.
- Teach suspense by adapting this "Black Cat" lesson plan.
- Make "The Fall of the House of Usher" a part of a unit on Edgar Allan Poe's short stories. Try these lesson plans, made specifically for Poe's short stories.
- Poe is one of the few authors who was successful writing short stories and poetry. Take advantage by comparing the theme of Poe's poems with the themes in his short stories.
Before you teach "The Fall of the House of Usher," you should make sure you understand it. I've included a summary of "The Fall of the House of Usher" just in case you need reminding. I probably don't need to remind you that reading a summary of "The Fall of the House of Usher" is not actually the same as reading the actual story. For example, Poe is the master of suspense. I am not.
The narrator receives an odd letter from an old friend, Roderick Usher, requesting his presence. The contents of the letter reveal that Usher is suffering from numerous illnesses, both mental and physical. As the narrator arrives, he is confronted by a "dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, through a singularly dreary tract of country within view of the melancholy House of Usher."
Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline are the last two Ushers in a long line of Ushers whose family tree has never branched. The phrase "House of Usher" refers to both the house and the family. Roderick excitedly welcomes the narrator. They talk. The narrator learns that Roderick's sister is near death. The narrator spends several days attempting to cheer up Roderick, but is unable. Roderick suggests it's the house that's making him sick, something which the narrator already suspected.
Madeline dies. Roderick puts her in a temporary tomb underneath the house, not wanting doctors to examine his dead sister. Over the next few days, Roderick's agitation grows. Unable to sleep, he approaches the narrator's room late at night. The narrator tries to calm Roderick down by reading to him. As he reads, the narrator hears sounds that correspond to the story he is reading. Roderick claims to have heard those noises since Madeline's burial, and she is standing at the door, bloodied after struggling out of her tomb.
Roderick dies from fear. The narrator escapes. The house crumbles into the tarn.
Use the following information if you decide to give "The Fall of the House of Usher" notes. These notes include a bit on symbolism, mood, characters, American Romanticism, and foreshadowing.
- American Romanticism - American Romantics--Poe, Hawthorne, Melville being the most prominent--were fascinated with death and the supernatural, Poe especially.
- Gothic Story - The labyrinthine house, the dreary landscape, and the myriad allusions to other gothic tales establish "The Fall of the House of Usher" as a Gothic story. Throw in a mysterious illness, the existence of doubles (Roderick and Madeline; the house and the house's reflection), and a supernatural environment and Poe's story embodies most of the elements of Gothic literature.
- Setting and Mood - Poe establishes the story's mood immediately and never lets up. The house and its surroundings take on a life (or death) of their own.
- Symbolism - The most prominent symbol is the mansion itself: The fungus on it represents the sickness of the Usher family; the collapse of the house symbolizes the end of the family line. There also seems to be a moral decay, incest, for example, that makes the house rank and sickly. The tarn outside the house adds to the symbolism: just like Roderick has a twin, so does the house--its reflection in the tarn. The upside down reflection reflects Roderick's misperception of the world.
- Foreshadowing - the dismal setting is a sledgehammer of foreshadowing. Madeline's disease, which causes her to look dead for extended periods of time and the rosiness of her cheeks (see Romeo and Juliet Act V for the most famous rosy cheeks in literature) as she's entombed, foreshadow that she's actually alive.