In the Fall Of The House of Usher, how does Edgar Allan Poe lend the Narrator the qualities of a character like the others? To what extent is he reliable as a narrator?
In the “Fall Of The House of Usher”, how does Edgar Allan Poe lend the Narrator the qualities of a character like the others? To what extent is he reliable as a narrator?
A characteristic of short stories is the omission of introductions. We, as the Reader, are dropped right into the middle of the story and expected to deduce parts of the story and make assumptions for ourselves. In ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, the reader is tossed into the Narrator’s world and has to find his/her way around. We are given very little or no information about the Narrator, not even a name. This vagueness adds to the uncertainty of the story, hence enhancing its Gothic, ‘gloomy’ and ‘myster(ious)’ qualities. The ‘desolate’ ‘landscape’ brings about a sense of loneliness, and we find ourselves forming a bond with the narrator, as no one wants to experience a horrific tragedy alone.
The Narrator finds ‘the House of Usher’ a ‘mystery all insoluble’ and nor could he ‘grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon’ him. We are drawn along with the Narrator into the mystery of the House of Usher, which acts as a hook to lure us in. From the beginning, there is a sense of an atmosphere of ‘decay’ and ‘insufferable gloom’ and even the Narrator is not entirely sure why he is there, except for the heartfelt plea from his childhood friend. The house is described as having ‘vacant eye-like windows’, this personification creates the impression that the house is living. Roderick has developed a theory that all inanimate things are in fact, sentient. The house can be said to be sentient then, and controls the fate of its inhabitants. Roderick admits that for ‘many years, he had never ventured forth--in regard to an influence whose supposititious force was conveyed in terms too shadowy here to be restated’. The belief of ‘the sentience of all vegetable things’ was connected ‘with the grey stones of the home of his forefathers’, in other words the House of Usher, as the Narrator notices.
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The Narrator is the only viewpoint we have into the world of Usher. We, as the Reader, are positioned behind him, and we learn to trust in his voice and see through his ‘eye’. It is his ‘eye’ that alerts the reader’s attention to ‘a barely perceptible fissure, which, extending from the roof of the building in front, made its way down the wall in a zigzag direction, until it became lost in the sullen waters of the tarn’. This crack represents the significantly widening gap between twins Madeline and Roderick, who form two halves of one whole. Roderick, being male, represents the rational and the intellectual. Madeline, as a female, denotes the irrational and the senses. When we are first introduced to Roderick, we are told that he ‘suffer(s) from a morbid acuteness of the senses’. The ‘disease’ consuming Madeline has led to a ‘gradual wasting away of the person’, and with it, a ‘gradual wasting away’ of Roderick’s senses, to the point where eating, feeling, smelling and seeing were daily battles. What his ‘malady’ is exactly is not revealed, but he is described by the Narrator as a ‘hypochondriac’. He found him ‘a bounden slave’ to ‘an anomalous species of terror’. While Lady Madeline is being consumed by a physical illness, Roderick is simultaneously suffering from a disease of the mind and starts to mentally breakdown. As lady Madeline slowly starts dying, the fissure between them widens.
However, ‘the Fall of the House of Usher’ is a bit fantastic. The repetition of words such as ‘fancy’ and ‘imagination’ plants the seed of doubt in the reader’s mind of the Narrator’s reliability. How much of what we are being told is actually reality? In the story, there is a very blurred line between sanity and insanity, between reality and imagination. There are times when Poe even seems to be mocking the reader, for example when the Narrator picks up an inappropriate copy of “Mad Trist” as an attempt to calm Roderick. The whole atmosphere of death, ‘decay’ and ‘horror’ and ‘bleak’ ‘landscape’ is similar to that of being caught in a bad dream. As Edgar Allan Poe said himself, ‘all that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream’. Is seeing really believing or is the Narrator’s experience simply a cruel trick of his imagination? Many critics argue over whether the appearance of Madeline at the end is her ghost or her actual physical self. After all, it is so to say impossible for one to survive eight or nine days without nourishment.
As the Narrator escapes for his life, he looks back to see the House of Usher imploding upon itself, and ‘the fissure rapidly widened’ until the entire house cracked apart. In death the twins have been reunited, and the house sinks into the tarn, the underworld. The ‘entire orb of the satellite burst upon (his) sight’, which sounds fanciful and a little unrealistic.
Nonetheless, we feel attached to the Narrator and give him the benefit of the doubt as he is just as shocked as we are. We have followed the Narrator to the very brink of madness, and have almost fallen in, if the Narrator were not to escape with his life. Having been drawn into the ‘mystery’ together, it is easy for the reader to lay his trust in the Narrator and in his ‘eye’.