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Ian Sullivan
Professor Karen Thompson
English 343
14 December 2014
The Oppressive Patriarchal Systems in The Fall of the House of Usher and The Legend of
Sleepy Hollow
In both Edgar Allen Poes 1839 short story The Fall of the House of Usher and
Washington Irvings The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from 1820, there is a strong sense of a
somewhat oppressive patriarchal system and commentary opposed to it as both stories display
characters who fall victim to binding status-quos. In Poes work there is Madeline Usher, the
sister of Roderick Usher who is entombed in the walls of the creepy Usher estate only to escape
and enact revenge, but also other symbols including the house itself and the very appearances
and behaviors of other characters.. Irving gives us Ichabod Crane, the goofy and gangly main
character who never can live up to the storys antagonist, Brom Bones, in a simple story of boy
wanting girl but failing to get her. On the surface, both of these stories are worthy and important
for their entertainment value alone. But with deeper analysis and contemplation, its reasonable
to consider perhaps the most famous works from both Poe and Irving as ahead of their times,
packed full of social analysis as well as critique and begging for reflection and awareness.
The majority of scholarly discussion on Poes work focuses on the progression of the
narrator and Roderick as they act out in the eerie psychological thriller. The claim that Madeline
Usher is the most important and complex character in The Fall of the House of Usher is not
controversial, though. Although the story revolves much more around the actions of the narrator
and Roderick, Madeline is the foundation of it all; shes the thread holding it together and with

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her tragic ending comes the entire storys. Shes an embodiment of the House itself. Her role in
the story is vital and essential, and it goes far too unnoticed that she is both symbolic of and
literally an oppressed woman, and her actions tell a larger metaphorical story of challenging the
status-quos and rising up against an oppressive system.
From Madelines introduction in the story, the oppression is evident in the way she is
portrayed. In the scene, she slips in and out, but allowing Roderick to adequately observe her:
As he spoke, the lady Madeline (for so she was called) passed slowly through a remote portion
of the apartment, and, without having notice my presence, disappeared (Poe 658). Shes gone in
an instant, perhaps a comment on the feminine role in the household as two other men meet.
While the men conduct their business, maybe it is not appropriate for her to even be seen.
Furthermore, its plausible that her physical appearance was intentionally displeasing to broaden
the gap between the narrator and Madeline, or man and woman, as the narrator regarded her
with an utter astonishment not unmingled with dread (658). Not only was Madelines physical
appearance described in a negative manner, as she almost had ghost-like qualities, surely a
foreshadowing technique but also some disrespect to the gender, but also her mental and
emotional states were less than appealing. As the narrator describes, she had fallen victim to a
settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person (658). Simply put, at this point in the
story the reader only knows Madeline to be both a an ugly person on the inside and the outside, a
woman with a dreadful appearance and a lack of interest in life. She is struggling inside both a
world dominated by man, but more importantly, in the home that restrains her.
If Madeline herself is to be considered as a symbolic figure of an oppressed woman, then
it is important to consider how the narrator approaches and describes the House of Usher to look

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for foreshadowing of the dramatic events throughout the story as well as a deeper comment on
the system:
I looked upon the scene before me- upon the mere house, and the simple landscape
features of the domain- upon the bleak walls- upon the vacant eye-like windows- upon a
few rank sedges- and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees- with an utter depression
of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the alter-dream
of the reveler opium- the bitter lapse into common life- the hideous dropping off of the
veil. 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.
(654)
As the narrator studies the appearance of the House, he refers to its characteristics as features,
which would more often be the choice of words when discussing human attributes. Therefore,
from early on the narrator is personifying the mansion, and when the events of the story are taken
in to consideration, it makes sense that the House is another character which the oppressed
woman, Madeline, must overcome.
Ultimately, Roderick Usher is all who the narrator has to rely on, but Rodericks
characterization is just one more clue in to the eventual shattering of the storys system, and
more specifically, a triumph of femininity that plays in to the larger theme. Roderick is another
man, therefore its worthy to assume that the narrator seeks some comfort in having a masculine
partner as doom impends. In other words, if Madelines resurrection is to represent her breaking
the metaphorical shackles, then maybe Roderick was some sort of ally-figure that the narrator
hoped for. But on the contrary, Roderick is not a strong man. He is weak, both physically and
mentally, and he too is victim to the system. I gazed upon him, the narrator tells, with a

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feeling half of pity, half of awe. Surely, man had never before so terribly altered, in so brief a
period, as had Roderick Usher! It was with difficult that I could bring myself to admit the
identity of the wan being before me with the companion of my early boyhood (656). As was his
sister, Roderick is simply in bad condition, and if the House is looked at as an embodiment of the
patriarchal restrains, then Poe is surely clarifying in Roderick that not only do woman suffer.
As the narrator and Roderick plan to stow away Madelines body within the very walls of
the House, it is a shockingly disturbing development in the story, with possibly the most
alarming aspect of the plan being the narrators willingness to assist in the disgusting act. He
dismisses any precautionary feelings towards it with how he witnessed Madeline the night he
arrived at the house, as if that was some sort of validation because she didnt please: I will not
deny that when I called to mind the sinister countenance of the person whom I met upon the
staircase, on the day of my arrival at the house, I had no desire to oppose what I regarded as at
best but a harmless, and not by any means an unnatural precaution (662). But this plot event is
not merely to add shock-value, but has much more significant implications. Two men just do
away with a woman, or deposited our mournful burden (662) as the narrator puts it. But at this
moment is where the storys utter importance surfaces, as what happens after her entombment
reigns as the grander thematic message. It can be assumed to be guilt what happens to Roderick
in the following days after him and the narrator entomb his sister, although exactly what
possesses him to feel how he does is more important than the feelings themselves. There are
clearly some supernatural occurrences within the walls of the House at this point: I felt creeping
upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influence of his own fantastic yet impressive
situations (663).

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Suspense carries on the last few pages of the story, as the Houses demise draws closer
and closer, and eventually the culmination of the plot itself and the thematic commentary occur.
That Her (Madelines) emergence from the grave is more than a resurrection, R. Beck writes in
Generation and De(generation) in Poes The Fall of the House of Usher. It is literally the
return of the repressed. As such, she represents a "cryptic" figure for this text in several senses.
Madman! Roderick exclaims to the narrator, I tell you that she now stands without the door!
(666). In dramatic fashion, Madeline breaks out of her own entombment within the house, which
can be interpreted on numerous levels. Obviously, its the climactic event in the story and to take
it on face value is nonetheless entertaining. But as Roderick and the narrator were the ones who
placed Madelines body within the walls of the House, then it as well can be interpreted as a
womans fight back against the masculinity of the time. She is once again not pleasing to the eye
at this moment, but while earlier in the story her appearance could just be taken as lackluster and
apathetic, she is now shockingly and utterly terrifying with blood upon her white robes, and
with a low moaning cry (666) kills her own brother in a perceived act of vengeance. Chaos and
madness continues, and as the narrator seems to narrowly escape his own terrible fate, he stands
back and witnesses the entire House crash to crumbles. With the fall of the House of Usher
comes the rise of the oppressed woman and her shattering of patriarchal hegemony.
Washington Irvings work in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow reflects the oppressive
patriarchy as well, although while Poes focuses mostly on a victimized woman, Irvings victim
happens to me a male. In a seemingly much more light-hearted story that The Fall of the House
of Usher, Ichabod Crane is no less oppressed and marginalized by status-quos in The Legend
of Sleepy Hollow. As Hanieh Vahabi summarizes so perfectly in Troubled Masculinity in
Washington Irvings Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in the Historical

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Context of Antebellum America, Ichabod the post-war American man who, being
impoverished, failed to achieve the autonomy claimed by hegemonic masculinity.
Just as Madeline Ushers initial introduction was less than satisfactory, Ichabod too is
characterized as below societal standards from the get-go:
He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that
dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole
frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears,
large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock,
perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding
along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about
him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or
some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield. (Irving 43)
With this brutally honest description, Ichabod can only be regarded as inadequate, especially
when compared against the characterization of Brom Bones, who is the antagonist to Ichabods
status as protagonist in the story:
Among these the most formidable was a burly, roaring, roystering blade, of the name of
Abraham, or, according to the Dutch abbreviation, Brom Van Brunt, the hero of the
country round, which rang with his feats of strength and hardihood. He was broadshouldered and double-jointed, with short curly black hair, and a bluff, but not unpleasant
countenance, having a mingled air of fun and arrogance. From his Herculean frame and
great powers of limb, he had received the nickname of BROM BONES, by which he was
universally known. He was famed for great knowledge and skill in horsemanship, being
as dexterous on horseback as a Tartar. (49)

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The two men are basically polar opposites, and at the time, even a simple skill such as horseback
riding was in high regard, which Brom Bones excelled at while Ichabod was described as lacking
the skill. Brom Bones had social status, financial wealth, and was intelligent, the ultimate desired
male, with his physical attributes just as impressive, while Ichabod was a lesser being in every
way. Poverty was not necessarily a crime committed by Ichabod, however it might as well have
been as it cast him an outlaw, someone who couldnt fit in where he lived.
That said, Brom Bones is essentially the patriarchal hero. With all his positive attributes,
he excels in life and becomes a worthy adversary for Ichabod as the two men clash for the highly
regarded Katrina Van Tassel, who for great reason was the daughter of the regions most wealthy
man. This makes evident that the patriarchal system breeds patterns which victimize all too
many. But while marriage was a desired status at that time, for its validation of sorts as
successfully conformity, it is something Ichabod was destined to not achieve due to his poverty.
The oppressive patriarchal system demands of men success, familial values, and accountability,
and it can be assumed that Ichabod saw Katrina as his way out from his current despicable social
standing, however paradoxically he didnt ever stand a chance because of just those societal
expectations. While Ichabod may possess a positive attitude and perseverance, Irving perhaps
comments in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow that the oppression is too strong. There are certain
expectations of man that society has, for better or worse.
As the story of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow tells, Ichabod eventually disappears, his
status as an outlaw being cemented. The events that transpire are shocking and suspenseful, as
the headless horseman pursues him in the climactic scene, eventually knocking Ichabod off of his
horse and the rest is history. But while this plot event is clearly to add vagueness and mystery to
the story, its also important to consider its larger symbolic implications: The next morning the

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old horse was found without his saddle, and with the bridle under his feet, soberly cropping the
grass at his masters gate. Ichabod did not make his appearance at breakfastdinner-hour came,
but no Ichabod (60). What happened to Ichabod is without doubt a curious case of a missing
person, but perhaps his disappearance represents the final banishment of a failed man from a
society in which he could not live up to the expectations of masculinity. And when perceived at
such, its worth noting the ambiguity in the storys ending, which possibly hints at Brom Bones
role also as the headless horseman: Brom Bones, too, who shortly after his rivals disappearance
conducted the blooming Katrina in triumph to the altar, was observed to look exceedingly
knowing whenever the story of Ichabod was related, and always burst into a hearty laugh at the
mention of the pumpkin; which led some to suspect that he knew more about the matter than he
chose to tell (61). Brom Bones can be perceived as not just the formidable rival of Ichabod,
but also the personification of the hegemonic masculinity conquering the weaker, as if Ichabod
never stood a chance at all and was destined for banishment.
Poe and Irving alike present interesting tales full of challenging ambiguity, but as both
The Fall of the House of Usher and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow are worth enough for
consideration at face value alone, it is important to consider their larger implications and
intentions. Madeline Usher and Ichabod Crane are both victims of a binding and restricting
patriarchal system, although for different reasons, and the events that transpire in both Poes and
Irvings work dictate such. Both authors insert commentary into these stories worthy of reflection
and begging for awareness.

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Works Cited
Beck, R. "Generation and (De)generation in Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"" (1990).
Web. 2 Dec. 2014. <http://www.angelfire.com/ab8/burkepage/usheressay.html>.
Irving, Washington. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The Norton Anthology of American
Literature, Volume B. Fifth Edition. Nina Baym. New York, W.W. Norton & Company,
Inc., 2012. 41-61. Print
Poe, Edgar Allen. The Fall of the House of Usher. The Norton Anthology of American
Literature, Volume B. Fifth Edition. Nina Baym. New York, W.W. Norton & Company,
Inc., 2012. 654-667. Print
Vahabi, Hanieh. "Troubled Masculinity in Washington Irvings Rip Van Winkle and The
Legend of Sleepy Hollow in the Historical Context of Antebellum America." (2010).
Web. 5 Dec. 2014.
<http://www.divaportal.org/smash/get/diva2:519041/FULLTEXT01.pdf>.