Unreliable Narration in Poe’s 'The Fall of the House of Usher' - The Narrative Creation of Horror

Term Paper, 2009
11 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1 What is unreliable narration?

2. The unreliability of the narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher”

3. Is the terror caused by the unreliability of the narrator?




Edgar Allen Poe is certainly one of the most famous writers of Gothic fiction of the nineteenth century. His tales are known for dark settings and characters with diseased or deluded minds[1]. Moreover, in Poe’s fiction it is often the case that “the boundaries between reality, illusion and madness remain unresolved”[2]. These are undoubtedly factors that contribute to the terror created in his works. However, are those to be considered the prime reasons for the terror in Poe’s fiction? There are other factors which are not as easily detected but which might still be the chief reasons and can be related to the above mentioned ones, such as the unreliability of the narrator. In order to further examine this thesis “The Fall of the House of Usher”[3], one of his most widely known short stories, will be looked at in the following with regard to the question whether the terror is caused by the unreliability of the narrator or whether there are other reasons mainly responsible for it. However, prior to dealing with this question a definition of unreliable narration will be given and the narrator of “The Fall of the House of Usher” will be examined concerning his reliability.

1. What is unreliable narration?

At first glance, the phenomenon of unreliable narration appears relatively easy to define. This, however, has proven to be a wrong assumption. Many narratologists have tried to find a valid definition and have often been contradicted by their colleagues. On account of that, I will confine myself to Ansgar Nünning’s approach. Taking works of other narratologists into account, he has developed a more recent concept of the unreliable narrator relating it to cognitive linguistics and the frame theory. Nünning claims that the unreliable narrator cannot be defined by means of the textbase only, but that extratextual information has to be taken into account as well, meaning that the conceptual premises or the world-model that a reader applies to a text have to be included[4]. Whether a narrator is unreliable or not then depends on whether there is a discrepancy between the reader’s world-model, also including norms and values, and the narrator’s world view[5]. If there is a discrepancy, the reader relates the text to his world-knowledge and textual inconsistencies can be connected to various frames of references so that the inconsistencies fulfil a certain function. For instance, a frame of reference might consist of literary reading experience or merely life experience[6]. By relating inconsistencies to frames of reference and to certain functions the reader “naturalizes”[7] a text and constructs meaning. However, since the readers’ world-models and the conceptual premises can differ quite fundamentally, the narrator can be unreliable in the opinion of one reader of the text whereas another one is convinced that the narrator is completely reliable[8].

2. The unreliability of the narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher”

Having finished reading Poe’s short story “The Fall of the House of Usher”[9], the reader is left wondering if any of the narrated facts were actually real. As Punter claims in his essay on The Literature of Terror, they might also have been the “fabrication of the narrator’s deranged mind”[10]. Whether this assumption is true and whether the narrator can be considered unreliable will be examined in the following. Doing so, it has to be taken into account that it is typical of deceptive short stories, such as Poe’s, that the deception is only gradually hinted at but never explicitly mentioned. On account of that it is necessary to find several hints, connect them and eventually consider whether the narrator is in fact unreliable or not.

First of all, it has to be investigated if the first-person-narrator may have suffered from depression or some other sort of causeless melancholy from the very beginning[11] and was therefore easily influenced by the gothic setting. If one has a look at the opening scene, one comes across several negative and depressing utterances. Before he even reaches the House of Usher, the narrator calls the day “dull, dark, and soundless” and describes how the clouds “hung oppressively low”[12]. Once he encounters the “melancholy of the House of Usher” an “insufferable gloom”[13] pervades his spirits. The narrator even mentions an “utter depression of soul”[14]. Taking this into consideration, one could claim that the narrator already arrives utterly depressed and melancholic. The reader’s world-knowledge would, thus, make the reader doubt in how far the narrator was actually capable of depicting an accurate image and giving a precise account of events. The narrator himself admits that his superstitions increase and that he imagines an oppressive atmosphere peculiar to the house until he realises that he must have dreamed. Only then does he describe the “real aspect of the building”[15] for apparently his state of mind previously hindered him from perceiving the actual surroundings. When later on it is said that Usher had “certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling”[16] one wonders whether it was not the narrator who put these thoughts into Usher’s mind[17]. The increasing superstition and the already depressed state of mind hint at the high degree of emotional involvement. The narrator often describes his feeling and his mental state, for instance describing his “excessive nervous agitation”[18].

Furthermore, the narrator mentions Opium twice. Firstly, he compares his “depression of soul” to the “after-dream of the reveller upon Opium”[19] and secondly, he compares Roderick Usher’s voice to the one of a “lost drunkard, or the irreclaimable eater of Opium, during the periods of his most intense excitement”[20]. This detailed description of the effects of Opium conveys the impression that he must have experimented with this drug or might even be addicted to it. Nünning mentions cognitive restrictions[21], which also imply a limited point of view, as a sign for the unreliability of the narrator. Since a drug addiction or merely experiences with drugs can lead to cognitive restrictions and since the reader’s norms and values would probably differ from the narrator’s in his usage of drugs, the unreliability of the narrator is once again hinted at. In addition to that, cognitive restrictions can be found in several other parts of the story. The narrator often even articulates his restriction, as for instance in “(…) I shuddered knowing not why (…)”[22] and in the opening stages of the story, facing the House of Usher, the narrator cannot “grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowd[…] upon”[23] him. If he cannot even grasp his own condition, how is he supposed to perceive Usher’s illness?[24] Moreover, the narrator doubts who he speaks to when he meets Usher[25], although Roderick Usher and the narrator were companions in their childhood. It is certainly not to be expected to find a friend in boyhood unchanged after many years and the narrator should have been prepared to find his friend aged. In short, the narrator often doubts his own perceptions and feelings and is often even unknowing.

In addition to the cognitive restrictions, Nünning mentions many other signals that indicate an unreliable narrator. For instance, it is also typical of an unreliable narrator to implicitly characterise himself or herself by explicitly characterising others[26]. This kind of parallelism can also be found in FHU. As mentioned above, the narrator tends to doubt his perceptions and feelings. Equally, Roderick Usher is also depicted as a feeble man with a “mental disorder”[27] who is seldom fully conscious. However, suddenly the narrator can easily remember a poem with six stanzas that Usher improvised by himself. At the same time, he states that he also experienced “a full consciousness on the part of Usher”[28] for the first time when the very same character created the poem. This indicates a certain parallelism in the states of mind of the two characters and also presents a textual inconsistency which the reader is confronted with.

Further inconsistencies are found in Usher’s characterisation. On the one hand, the narrator describes Usher’s “mental disorder”[29] and on the other hand he calls him a “hypochondriac”[30] and even grants him “wordly reason”[31] when Usher decides to preserve Lady Madeleine’s body for a fortnight. This inconsistency makes the reader wonder whether Usher is actually the one who has a deranged mind or whether the narrator, who even admits that Usher’s condition infected him[32], is mentally ill and either tends to inflate situations of fear[33] or even fully imagines them. The night when Madeleine escapes from the tomb the narrator’s condition worsens. The nervousness has dominion over him and he is overpowered by an “intense sentiment of horror”[34]. When he decides to read out Mad Trist to Usher in order to calm him, which is hardly a calculated decision, one cannot but notice the similarities between the “actual” events and the story. Whenever Mad Trist contains prominent sounds they do appear in the exactly same character[35]. This is a coincidence which is hardly imaginable and thus it might also be the case that the narrator, reading the story, imagines certain events in the house. Since Madeleine’s tomb is directly beneath the part where he sleeps and since the tempest creates a frightening atmosphere which leaves him in a state of utmost terror, the following events might just be products of his imagination. Moreover, the frequent use of “to and fro”[36] also hints at a connection between the events. First the furniture moves “to and fro”[37], then the narrator paces “to and fro through the apartment”[38] and eventually Madeleine reels “to and fro upon the threshold”[39] so that the narrator could have gradually constructed an imagination of Madeleine’s resurrection or escape from the tomb. When Usher eventually calls the narrator “Madman!”[40], it could then mean that he has seen the madness in his companion[41]. In this case one could talk about an underlying story that “inverts or negates the surface-level narrative”[42].


[1] cf. Botting, Fred. Gothic. (London: Routledge 1996) 120-121.

[2] Botting, 120.

[3] Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Fall of the House of Usher”. Tales and Sketches. Ed. Thomas Ollive Mabbot. (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2000) 317-336.

[4] Nünning, Ansgar. Unreliable Compared to What? Towards a Cognitive Theory of Unreliable Narration: Prolegomena and Hypotheses. (Gunter Narr Verlag, 1999) 66.

[5] Nünning, Ansgar. Unreliable Narration: Studien zur Theorie und Praxis unglaubwürdigen Erzählens in der englischsprachigen Erzählliteratur. (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier 1998) 25.

[6] cf. Nünning, Studien 29.

[7] Nünning, Studien 26.

[8] cf. Nünning, Studien 22.

[9] from now on FHU

[10] Punter, David. The Literature of Terror. (New York: Longman 1996) 177.

[11] cf. Punter, 178.

[12] Poe, 317.

[13] Poe, 317.

[14] Poe, 317.

[15] Poe, 319.

[16] Poe, 321.

[17] cf. Punter, 179.

[18] Poe, 323.

[19] Poe, 317.

[20] Poe, 322.

[21] cf. Nünning, Studien 28.

[22] Poe, 324.

[23] Poe, 317.

[24] cf. Punter, 178.

[25] cf. Poe, 321.

[26] cf. Nünning , Studien 18.

[27] Poe, 318.

[28] Poe, 325.

[29] Poe, 329.

[30] Poe, 328.

[31] Poe, 328.

[32] cf. Poe, 330.

[33] cf. Punter, 179.

[34] Poe, 330.

[35] cf. Poe, 332-333.

[36] Poe, 330.

[37] Poe, 330.

[38] Poe, 331.

[39] Poe, 335.

[40] Poe, 335.

[41] cf. Punter, 179.

[42] Martin, Terry J. Rhetorical Deception in the Short Fiction of Hawthorne, Poe, and Melville. (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press 1998) 14.

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Unreliable Narration in Poe’s 'The Fall of the House of Usher' - The Narrative Creation of Horror
University of Hamburg  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
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unreliable, narration, poe’s, fall, house, usher, narrative, creation, horror
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Kirsten Hinzpeter (Author), 2009, Unreliable Narration in Poe’s 'The Fall of the House of Usher' - The Narrative Creation of Horror, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/187482


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