In The Fall of the House of Usher most people say that the narrator is insane. Is that true?
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Arguments that Poe’s narrator is mad usually call attention to the fact that even at the beginning of the tale he is oppressed by “a sense of insufferable gloom” and“an utter depression of soul.” Such words suggest that we may from the start be dealing with a disturbed mind. However, it is not quite fair to offer these quotations as evidence, since they exist in the following context:
I know not how it was—but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense ofinsufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. . . . I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few ranksedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul. . .
Another passage often cited as evidence of the narrator’s madness is his confessionthat Roderick’s condition “terrified” and “infected” him:
“I felt creeping uponme, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fantastic yet impressive superstitions.”
The unnamed and undescribed narrator of “Usher” is, or presents himself as, a rational man; early in the story he attempts to give a rational explanation for the influence the house exerts on him, and later he seeks to explain away the storm as “merely electrical phenomena not uncommon.” Readers who emphasize the narrator in the story see the irony of a rational mind yielding to the irrational;for readers who emphasize Roderick and the house, the narrator supports the truth of the strange narrative, i.e., since a rational mind reports these mysterious experiences,they gain in authenticity.The chief argument that the narrator is mad usually rests on the narrator’s report of what finally happened. How, one can ask, could the emaciated Madeline possibly have the strength to break through a coffin lid and push open a door of “massive iron” and “immense weight”? How, indeed, could she have even survived in the coffin,which was placed in a room with so little air that the torches were half smothered?