Lesson Plan: The Skeptical Narrator of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”
“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was–but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.”
Thus begins Poe’s menacing Gothic tale “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). Of course many very smart things have been written about this story, and it’s an excellent introduction to standard elements of the genre. For our lesson today, though, I want to talk about the narrator.
The narrator of this story is a skeptic. Poe alerts us to this immediately, though the deliciously creepy descriptions of the scene may distract readers from picking up on it. Over and over, the narrator provides detailed descriptions of emotions and sensations created by the dreary environment in which he finds himself, confessing to their influence on him, never attempting to deny that such experiences are real and, in fact, part of being human. However, instead of succumbing unquestioningly to those sensations–or deriding them as ridiculous nonsense–he immediately begins to analyze them, so that he moves from description of the scene to its emotional effects and then to an analysis of those effects, using his own experiences as data for scientific speculation.
Unlike the more common straw skeptics who ponce through supernatural tales poo-pooing the evidence in front of their faces because of their closed-minded naturalistic biases, this character shows no interest in dismissing his friend Usher’s anxieties; on the contrary, he does all he can to help him while he is in his home. He enjoys art, admiring Usher’s paintings and musical accomplishments, and even reads aloud from a swashbuckling dragonslayer romance in an attempt to calm Usher during a panic attack. In short, he’s a fine character to exemplify objectivity at its best–not the purveyor of some parched joyless existence, but enriching and deepening. We should remember that Usher begs this man to travel to his home in the first place because he hopes his “cheerfulness” will alleviate Usher’s melancholy.
This narrator has no arrogant sense of himself as above all foolishness; he continues to note and honestly assess the effects of the Usher estate on his mood:
“I have said that the sole effect of my somewhat childish experiment–that of looking down within the tarn–had been to deepen the first singular impression. There can be no doubt that the consciousness of the rapid increase of my superstition–for why should I not so term it?–served mainly to accelerate the increase itself. Such, I have long known, is the paradoxical law of all sentiments having terror as a basis.”
How cool is this little moment? Not only does our hero make no attempt to shrug off his fears, he purposely intensifies them so he can think about them more, draw some conclusions, compare his experience to established theories of terror. I love him. I don’t even know his name, but I love him.
Speaking of naming in fiction, one reading of a nameless character’s function is as a place holder for readers; in other words, a character with no name gives you more leeway to imagine yourself, your name, in the role. Poe’s well-established fascination with human psychology suggests that he may have used this character as a model for rational objectivity, for how to deal with fear and superstition as unavoidable aspects of life. Sometimes things really are scary, and the phenomenon of getting creeped out is not illegitimate. If you use this story in your classes, leave some time after you talk about tone and mood and incest to ask your students why Poe might have placed this particular narrator in between us and the scary bits.