Is the narrator insane or is Roderick Usher insane?Please provide direct evidence from the story by citing passages. "The House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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While Edgar Allan Poe's narrators are often unreliable, the narrator of "The Fall of the House of Usher" seems at first acutely sensitive to his environment, rather than mentally disturbed.  In the exposition, for instance, he reveals that he experiences a "dull, dark, and soundless day" in which the "melancholy House of Usher" enters into his view; this house seems pervaded by "an insufferable gloom" that reaches into his own soul.  As he approaches the house, the narrator feels a terrible foreboding:

What was it--I paused to think--what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?  It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered.  I was forced to fall back upon the unstaisfactory conclusion, that...there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

Thus, the narrator seems rational, albeit extremely aware of the preternatural atmosphere around him.  Beforehand, when he received a letter from his old "boon companion" of his youth, the narrator was so moved by the "apparent heart that went with his request" that he has decided to visit Roderick Usher.  Aware that Roderick has been extremely reserved, the narrator describes his friend as having coming from a "very ancient family" with a peculiar

sensibility of temperament, displaying itself, through long ages, in many works of exalted art...as well as in a passionate devotion to the intricacies...of musical science.

With a bloodline that has become very thin, the Ushers have developed some genetic deficiencies; Roderick has a condition causing his intolerance for bright light, certain scents and peculiar sounds. Likewise, his sister Madeline is terminally ill, suffering from catalepsy. Because the other relatives of the siblings are gone, the narrator begins to associate the House directly with the family, as though they are in oneness.  As he mentions this, the narrator apologizes somewhat,

...but mention it to show the vivid force of the sensations which oppressed me.  I had so worked upon my imagination as really to believe that about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves....

Then, the narrator says that he has to shake off from his spirit what "must have been a dream."  Interestingly, here as in other passages, the narrator stresses a word, as though he is trying to convince himself.  As the story progresses, the narrator becomes more involved with the deteriorating conditions of the siblings, the narrator mentions the "sentience of all vegetable things" that Roderick possesses:

I lack words to express the full extent, or the earnes abandon of his persuasion.

Then he speaks of Roderick's destinies of his family..."which made him what I now saw him--what he was."  At this point it appears that the narrator's perception may have become rather distorted.  Certainly, he perceives Roderick as suffering from "mere inexplicable vagaries of madness" as Usher neglects his usual occupations.  Roderick is also of a "more ghastly hue" and his eyes are dull, he says.  Yet, he also narrates,

I felt creeping upon me, by slow yet certain degrees, the wild influences of his own fatastic yet impressive superstitions....I struggled to reason off the nervousness which had dominion over me.

He feels the gloom of the furniture, the dark of the tattered draperies, which "tortured into motion by the breath of a rising tempest..." and cannot sleep.  The narrator dresses and hurries to answer the sounds of Roderick's footsteps, sighting the "restrained hysteria in his whole demeanor."  At this point, the narrator exerts control over Roderick preventing him from witnessing the storm as he himself now hears the house creaking.  As the narrator leaps to his feet, Roderick shudders at his touch, and gives him a sickly smile.  He jumps up and declares,

Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!

Significantly, these words uttered by Roderick are all italicized, just as the others are that the narrator would attribute to Roderick Usher.  This fact and the extraordinary sensitivity and imagination that the narrator displays seem to indicate his own mental disturbance., more so than Roderick's.  Therefore, he may, indeed, been involved in the death of Madeline, or certainly have been unreliable in his retelling of incidents.  These events could be hallucinatory, just as he may imagine the House of Usher collapsing.

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