The fallen narrator in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'

Term Paper, 2009
9 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Narrator’s Identity and Purpose of His Voyage to the House of Usher

3. Rationality under Pressure

4. The Role of the Narrator

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography
6.1 Primary Literature
6.2 Secondary Literature

1. Introduction

With close reference to Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher”, the interpretation will be put forward that the tale’s key issue is not, as the title suggests, the collapse of the family mansion, but the ‘fall,’ with its connotation of ‘failure,’ of the narrator’s rational ability to account for his experiences at the Ushers’. In order to justify this reading of the story, the narrator’s identity and the purpose of his stay at the House of Usher will be clarified first. It will be illustrated that rationality is the narrator’s key method of analysis used to analyze the observations he makes at the protagonist’s home. Additionally, instances of the narrator’s frustration to rely upon scientific knowledge will be demonstrated. After having paid attention to the growing psychological impact of the proceeding events on the narrator, the question of which message Poe wants to portray to the reader will be addressed.

2. The Narrator’s Identity and Purpose of His Voyage to the House of Usher

The first character the reader encounters is the first-person narrator, who, in response to a “wildly importunate” (Poe 149) letter from his childhood companion Roderick Usher, has proposed to himself a “sojourn of some weeks” (Poe 149) with his friend even though they have not met for many years (Poe 149). The protagonist, Roderick Usher, requested help from “his best, and indeed his only personal friend” (Poe 149), hoping that the presence of a sane, balanced mind will help to alleviate his physical and mental malady (Poe 149). As far as the introductory paragraphs of the story are concerned, one may go along with Gale’s characterization of the narrator, as being a “sensible, friendly man who tries to aid Roderick Usher but cannot” (155).

Apart from the information concerning the purpose of the narrator’s stay with Usher and his relationship to him, Poe leaves the question of his identity unanswered. Therefore one may agree with Leverenz, who suggests that in this case “another of Poe’s many anonymous white male narrators” (112) relates his experiences.

3. Rationality under Pressure

While drawing close attention to the opening paragraph, it becomes clear that the rational narrator encounters a strange, if not even supernaturally charged scene, which leads him to reflect on what it was in “the contemplation of the House of Usher” that so “unnerved” him (Poe148). Poe’s technique, which is to let the reader experience this sight through the eyes of the subjective first-person narrator rather than a more objective third-person narrator, intensifies the uncanny. One could argue that due to the following analytic approach[1] of the narrator, the rational reader does not give in to this supernatural atmosphere. However, the contrary occurs because “there is no overstepping of the real” as Thompson terms Poe’s procedure (Explained Gothic 145). The effort of the narrator to explain rationally the effect caused by the vision of the mansion and its surroundings leads the reader to associate the force of the scene not primarily with the narrator’s imagination, but with the mere scene itself. Thus, this apparent rationality heightens the irrational (Thompson Explained Gothic 146).

The narrator’s “unsatisfactory conclusion” (Poe 148) concerning the root of this atmosphere and the effect it has upon his mental state causes him to look down into the “black and lurid tarn”, whereby he experiences “a shudder even more thrilling than before” (Poe 148) as he is deeply effected by the so-called doppelgänger motif (Thompson The Face in the Pool 4). Subsequently, the narrator’s attempts to explain the cause for his admittedly growing “fancy” (Poe 150), convincingly demonstrate his determined effort to rely upon his factual knowledge. As a result, he shakes off his spirit “what must have been a dream” and scans “more narrowly the real [emphasis added] aspect of the building” (Poe 150). In doing so, he does not give a lot of “architectural specifications” (Quinn 153) but leads the reader’s attention to the “wild inconsistency” (Poe 150) of the family mansion. At this point, the building’s inconsistency parallels the narrator’s instability in terms of his confidence in reason.

The “barely-discernible fissure” (Poe 163) in the dwelling appears to be equally relevant for this argumentation, not only because the narrator mentions it twice in the tale, but also for the reason that it gives rise to further interpretations. The first mention occurs, as stated above, when the narrator pays close attention to the appearance of the house. In the closing paragraph of the story, he refers back to it in order to describe the collapse of the mansion. The significance of the narrator’s observation manifests itself in the assumption that he might have inserted it while reporting past events. Lammers’s observations concerning the narrator’s varied usage of grammatical moods may support this argument (33). In contrast to the remaining report, which is in the indicative mood, the sentence about the “barely perceptible fissure” (Poe 150) that “the eye of a scrutinising observer might have discovered” (Poe 150), is in the subjunctive mood (Lammers 33). According to Lammers the narrator thus creates a “false déjà vu” (28). The reason to do so might be that the narrator feels subconsciously the urge to embed some sort of rational indication in the beginning of his story that might on the one hand foreshadow the upcoming destruction of the building and on the other hand offer a plausible explanation for it (Lammers 28).

At the time when the narrator enters the house in order to meet Roderick Usher, his rationality is, as has been discussed above, certainly morbid. Nevertheless, he clings to it in the form of a “detached, clinical report of the symptoms of Roderick’s madness” (Viswanathan 28). At various instances, however, the narrator voices his emotional response to the interior of the house and the presence of the Usher twins. Shortly before he encounters Roderick, the narrator states: “I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow.” (Poe 151) and the appearance of his boyhood friend “startled and even awed” (Poe 151) him. These discomforting emotions culminate in a “habitual trepidancy – an excessive nervous agitation” (Poe 152). So, one may conclude with Thompson that the narrator’s phantasms soon match the ones of his host and that these are “heightened by Usher’s own phantasms” (Explained Gothic 147).

Given the fact that Roderick believes in “the sentience of all vegetable things” (Poe 156) in the broadest sense, it is likely to observe the interior and exterior appearance of the dwelling with its surrounding as a “psychological landscape” (Johnson 143) of the Usher family. At that point, Usher’s further explanation of his strong opinion serves as evidence, since he believes that the atmosphere “had moulded the destinies of his family” (Poe 157). It is precisely this atmosphere that also evokes sensations in the apparently well-educated narrator, for which he lacks convincing scientific explanations even though he “believes that the mind can use common sense and rational explanation to keep sensations from getting sensational” (Leverenz 112).

Then again, one finds further evidence not only for the emotional reactions of the narrator, which might be justified taking into account the power of the human subconscious, but also for his actions, which generally underlie the consciousness. It has to be admitted that no other situation in this short story causes as much distrust of the narrator’s rational judgement as his involvement in Madeline’s entombment. One wonders how the narrator could rely on Roderick’s judgement after he has witnessed himself the apparent fancies of his friend’s malady (Magistrale 66). It is questionable that he would trust Roderick’s statement concerning his sister’s death without proving to himself that she is indeed dead.

The days following Madeline’s burial are marked by her brother’s increasing distraction (Poe 158) and by a growing apprehensiveness of the narrator, who feels contaminated by Roderick’s terrifying condition (Poe 159). The story teller confesses: “I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.” (Poe 159). Roughly a week after Madeline’s entombment the narrator’s sensations are at their highest pitch. He acknowledges that he “experienced the full power of such feelings” (Poe 159) and that these emotions leave him sleepless. By saying, “I struggled to reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me” (Poe 159), he proves once again that his rationality takes upper hand. However, he soon admits to himself and the reader, “But my efforts were fruitless.” (Poe 159). This confession leaves no doubt about the narrator’s growing frustration to rely upon scientific knowledge. The growing psychological impact of his experiences reveal the fall of his confidence in the “infallibility of reason as a shaping power” (Frank 333).

Although the inner conflict of the narrator with regard to his rational mindset is apparent to the reader as a continuous struggle against the overwhelming supernatural atmosphere, the narrator will not yet surrender even if one expects him to do so soon. This expectation is due to impending events such as the rising tempest (Poe 159-60), which parallels the rising action of the story.


[1] “… there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression;” (Poe 148).

Excerpt out of 9 pages


The fallen narrator in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'
University of Wuppertal
Grundlagenseminar B: Amerikanische Literaturwissenschaft
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Fall, House, Usher
Quote paper
Bianca Müller (Author), 2009, The fallen narrator in 'The Fall of the House of Usher', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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