The Fall of the House of Usher
“To an anomalous species of terror, I found him a bounden slave. “I shall perish,” said he, “I must perish in this deplorable folly. Thus, thus, and not otherwise, shall I be lost. I dread the events of the future, not in themselves, but in their results. […] I have, indeed, no abhorrence of danger, except in its absolute effect–in terror. In this unnerved—in this pitiable condition–I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR” (Poe 131). This quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s “ The Fall of the House of Usher” comes from the words of Roderick Usher telling the narrator and the reader that he is not afraid of death or pain; he is afraid of fear. This element of fear and the terror of one losing his or her mind is a reoccurring theme within this short story both shown through Roderick and the unnamed narrator. Also, Poe uses “The Fall of the House of Usher” to undermine through the narrator’s development the many ways we maintain our sanity in real life (Obuchowski 407).
Fear is an important motif in this short story, which begins with the narrator’s description of his dread when the narrator first arrives at the House of Usher. We see this fear the narrator has when he says, “I know not how it was –but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit” (Poe 126). The isolation and atmosphere within this story play a major role to the theme of fear as well as insanity. I say this because the narrator is mostly alone throughout the story and excludes from a companionship that could help him to overcome his sense of fear and insanity. One could say that the narrator is not excluded from friendship to help him because the narrator travels to the House of Usher to help his friend Roderick who has become sick both physically and mentally. However, Roderick is at the stage where his fear has overtaken his mind and cannot fully return to actual reality. Companionship plays a big part in our life and is a coping mechanism for us to vent our feelings and to hear feedback from someone helps us better understand what we are going through. The narrator, on the other hand, lacks that and having no way to vent about his undefined fear he only has himself for the explanation, which leads the narrator’s attempt to give himself a rational explanation for his fear. When we do not have someone to turn to, just like the narrator, we find ways “to convince ourselves that the problem is not significant enough to devote more time to its pursuit” (Obuchowski 408). The kind of fear-inspiring experience the narrator is going through, we can cope by laughing over it with friends, but the narrator only has Roderick, who is both physically and mentally ill as the friend to laugh it over with. Overall, the narrator is unable to do that, and it makes him more “insistently aware of the mind’s inadequacy to define reality and self” (Obuchowski 408). Throughout “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the concept of fear and trying to remain sane keeps on returning for the narrator. An example of this re-occurrence appears when the narrator looks into the tarn to test his sense of reality, which Obuchowski recalls this test a “childish experiment in which the narrator revealingly tells us—and his fear returns”(408). We sometimes conduct this “childish experiment” too by looking at our reflection either in mirrors, water, or whatever has a reflective element or device within it. Looking at our reflection is just another way to help us cope and get a sense of reality to make sure that what we are experiencing is not in a sense a lucid dream.
Roderick Usher plays a crucial part when it comes to the narrator’s mind and fear. Roderick already has a personality of a man of fear and terror that is farther along the path of fear and insanity that the narrator has begun. In Obuchowski’s article he says that even though the character of Roderick might be interesting, he functions in much of the same way as other elements in “The Fall of the House of Usher” do and helps advance the significant development and effect of the tale (409). By having the narrator coming into contact with another man already in the state of fear and madness, Roderick does not help alleviate the fear the narrator has building up. The more the narrator surrounds himself around Roderick, the more he feeds off of his personality, which ultimately forces the narrator’s defenses of the mind to break down completely leading him to lose the sense of reality.
We share common characteristics that are represented in the character of Roderick. Obuchowski says that we have an “unnerving experience analogous to that of reading a textbook in abnormal psychology and alarmingly find aspects of ourselves in many of its pages”(409). This means that when we are reading texts that deal with unusual psychological behaviors, we can often find ourselves relating to some of the characteristics that are stated in the text. An example of this can be when people go online and read about symptoms people have that are health related and discover they too have some of these symptoms and self-proclaim that something is wrong with them just because they can recognize similarities from what they read about. Going back to what Obuchowski stated, we can easily cope with this in ways that are not open to the narrator. We live in a world where mostly sane people always surround us. Where as the narrator is stuck in isolation in the house of Usher with an insane man over a period of time and has no way of getting the sense of an ordinary human society. That being said, the narrator is an “observer of self, possessing that detachment from self that is simultaneously the source and burden of self-knowledge” (Obuchowski 409). That means the narrator as well, is experiencing what Roderick has been going through, which are the terrifying aspects of madness. The elements that make this madness terrifying for the narrator are the facts that he is well aware that he is helplessly going insane by being involved with Roderick as well as having a fear of losing himself.
As the narrator further attaches himself to the isolation, the atmosphere, and the insanity of Roderick he is becoming further exposed to irrational elements that hinder the narrator from remaining sane. In “The Fall of the House of Usher” narrator tells us, “Its evidence—the evidence of the sentience—was to be seen, he said, (and I here started as he spoke), in the gradual yet certain condensation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls” (Poe 136). These are the words of Roderick to the narrator describing how he feels and what he sees in and outside of the house of Usher. This description of how Roderick perceives the home to coincide with the narrator’s initial impressions of the house and its surroundings as well. The narrator has been in this isolated environment for too long and can no longer clearly distinguish between what is real and what is the cause of Roderick’s muddled mind. “The implausible increasingly becomes for [the narrator] more possible and real” (Obuchowski 410).
As the plot continues in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator is becoming more in contact with the overall madness happening inside the house of Usher. Some examples of the ways he is becoming more in touch are the effects of the painting, music, and poem “The Haunted Palace.” The books Roderick owns also play a role in the overall fear and insanity that is now growing more and more in the narrator as well as Roderick. These books primarily deal with magic and the supernatural. The narrator sees that these books have already started to play with Roderick’s mind because of his desire to hide his sister, Madeline’s corpse. Having the narrator exposed to these sorts of things is causing him to doubt his sanity, which causes his fear to grow even more. For example, if we were to walk into a group of people and start talking about the feeling we have toward a house and how one person in the group has the desire to hide his or her sister’s presuming dead body just so physicians will not be able to meddle with it, everyone may play that conversation off by laughing among one another. Then, the group comes to realize the person talking about this idea is being serious; they would react differently and say that person may need to get psychiatric help. This is the circumstance the narrator is going through when he discovers what Roderick has done with his sister’s corpse.
Roderick is becoming more insane, and the narrator is noticing this change in Roderick’s personality as well. The death of Madeline is the cause of this shift in Roderick’s self-being. Since the narrator has been in contact with Roderick over an amount of time now, Roderick’s insanity is once again invading the narrator’s mind like a virus causing the narrator not to be able to sleep at night and starts to hear sounds. There is also a storm occurring too, and Roderick’s insanity keeps on growing. The narrator is trying to calm Roderick by using a coping mechanism of rational explanation: “These appearances, which bewilder you, are merely electrical phenomena not uncommon—or it may be that they have their ghastly origin in the rank miasma of the tarn” (Poe 140). Obuchowski states “the use of the narrator’s rational explanations for the unnatural or unknown shouldn’t be taken so exclusively as an index to his essential character but rather as his attempt—a basic human attempt—to cope with the indescribable” (411). We can relate to this because we use this coping mechanism to help ourselves find some comfort when we are alone and experiencing something not normal. It is a way that helps our mind find a way to focus and maintain its balance. Roderick is at the point where his fear of fear itself has taken over his mind causing him not to have the mental capacity to help him find that focus and sense of stability. The narrator’s mind has not entirely been taken over by his fear, and that enables him to have still the mentality to act like all sane human beings would during this time and use this mechanism.
By the end of “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator loses control of his sanity by choosing to spend the night reading to Roderick. The things that are occurring within the story are unfolding during the evening at the house. The narrator is starting to be taken over by his ever-growing fear and ends up running out of the house losing all control of his sanity. In the end, the narrator is unable to keep hold of his sanity and lets his fear take total control of his mind. The same goes for Roderick, who never can overcome his greatest fear, which is not death but the burning thought of fear itself. Obuchowski states that “in the development of the narrator, [Poe] challenges our sanity by making the process of going insane, concrete through a methodical presentation of what can undermine the mind’s balance”(412). Throughout the story we have identified ourselves with the narrator and his ways of trying to make some rational sense of his experiences, we begin to experience the real terror of the story, which is making the fear of the narrator become our own.
Obuchowski, Peter. “Unity of Effect in Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’ ” Studiesin Short Fiction, vol. 12, no. 4, 1975, pp. 407-412.
Poe, Edgar Allen, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” 1930. PDF File.
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