Fall of the House of Usher: The Mind’s Eye Essay
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Edgar Allen Poe’s work Fall of the House of Usher has long been regarded as a fine example of his many psychological writings. Largely, the criticism has focused on the interactions between characters, the doubleness factors seen in the twins, and even the structure of the house itself. I find a worthy psychology to analyze within a different ‘viewpoint’, if you will: the eyes and visions of the characters. My thesis is simple. Despite the numerous references to vision and eyes within Fall of the House of Usher, Poe is showing that none of these characters is able to see through to the mind of others.
The easiest way to examine this idea is to take out from this relatively short story the different incidences of sight related imagery. Then they can be looked into with more clarity and observed for consistency. Together these points all aim in one direction. The persons of the narrator and Usher are unable to capably read each other’s minds despite looking deeply into them.
If eyes are truly the windows to the soul, as the popular saying goes, then psychoanalytic theories would seem to infer that a sense of ‘genuineness’ would be able to be gleaned by observing another (Hutchisson).
This clue pops up immediately within the story. Not once, but twice within the very first paragraph, the narrator uses his eyes to assess the situation. He is clearly not comfortable with the summons that he has received and wants to get an idea of what it is that he is getting at. And so he uses his eyes to discern the setting. What he finds is not comforting at all! He finds that not only are his eyes looking at the house, and trying to look into the house, but that the house appears to be looking right back at him. The windows are “eye like. ” And again, the windows aren’t merely eye-like once, but twice within the opening.
The narrator can’t look into the house, can’t see what it is that might be going on. And so he can’t look into the house’s mind, psychoanalytically speaking. But we do know that Roderick Usher wants to have him visit. In fact, we read that his old friend wants to “see” him. A peculiar choice of wording for a visit. This is the state of mind of the narrator as he approaches the mansion. He doesn’t get far. By the second paragraph, the he stops his approach, feeling that there must in fact be something wrong, something to observe. He now uses his eyes to look up and down for clues.
First he looks down into the tarn, or bog. Again, it is clear that he is trying to size up the feelings around him, not just the topography. It is not enough for him to see that the bog exists; he must instead attempt to look into it. This is a very psychologically indicative statement. Why take such care as to look into the tarn, to try and find out what is in it? Why not just a subtle and quick glance? After looking down (without success) he then lifts his eyes up to the house once more. Perhaps the windows had unnerved him by this point, for it is not the windows he looks for this time around.
Now he is trying to look even closer. He is attempting to see more of the soul of the house, trying to find any deficiencies that may warn him of the mind of the mansion, and perhaps its owner. He does find a startling detail. The fissure. The very small fissure. We read that the narrator is not just browsing. He possess the “eye of a scrutinizing observer” – which is what it takes to see this “minute fissure. ” This exterior crack is the indication that should have warned of the inner workings of his setting, the inner deviance of the mind (Quinn and Rosenheim). But it is not enough to dissuade him, yet.
When he finally does enter the mansion, we encounter Roderick Usher for the first time. What is important here, psychologically speaking, is that this is an old friend of the narrator. He is not just meeting him for the first time, as are the readers. And how does one meet an old friend, a long lost friend who has personally summoned you? I would dare say that it would be warmer than merely gazing upon him. Yet that is exactly, according to the text, how he greets Usher. He gazed upon him, it reads. He does not come right up to him; he does not extend his hand, or otherwise greet him.
Clearly he is attempting to size up Usher’s intentions, his inner psyche. He doubts Usher’s intentions. That much is clear. He has had a chance to doubt the setting, the feel of the house. And so he gazes at him. He is trying to look into the soul of his friend – according to the old expression. What does he find? This is where the psychology really begins to work itself into the narrative. Despite the pallor of his friend’s skin, the almost withdrawn, deathly body, he finds that Roderick possesses “an eye large liquid and luminous. ” Is this truly so? Does anyone possess eyes of this quality?
Especially intriguing is the question, does anyone who is near death possess this sort of an eye? Or is the narrator only imagining this? Is he imagining that as he himself is looking for the mind of Usher, that he is also being scrutinized simultaneously? Are they feeling each other out, and attempting to discern where the other stands? If this were true, then it would be expected that one or the other would surely figure out that they are in some sort of deep, dysfunctional disadvantage (Silverman)! Looking forward, where we know the motives of the two, isn’t it likely that they should have sorted this out?
Could not Usher sense his friend’s apprehension? Could the narrator not discern the evil lurking behind the eyes of Usher? Apparently they could not, for both continue along the storyline. The psychoanalysis that we are privy to failed both of them. Soon during the first encounter we begin to find out that there is actually something wrong with the dweller of the house. But we are not fed the correct information. The text concentrates on the purely physical elements of sickness! We, as readers, can already tell that there is much more to this problem.
We do not trust Roderick Usher and already feel uneasy, given the facts that I have already stated above. They psychology is one of mistrust, of looking out, looking in and getting looked at. But we are beginning to find out that the narrator is not able to see what we are. Despite the ever present commentary on seeing, looking, gazing and eyes, he is not able to pick out the danger. Instead, he relates the physical problems facing his friend. Ironically, the physical problems are just as telling about the conditions he is to find. The problem begins with the eyes.
Usher explains that his eyes are “tortured by even a faint light. ” Torture is a pretty strong word. It speaks of endless suffering, of attempting to get something out of the victim by pain (Hutchisson). What is the light trying to do, what is it trying to accomplish? Light generally means truth, in literature. Is the light attempting to elicit some sense of truth, of purpose, of the inner workings of his mind? Is the light trying to open up Usher for introspection? It appears so. How does he react to this? He finds it to be “torture. ” And so he keeps things dark. He is telling the narrator to not look at him.
He does this without words, but the message is clear. I am not going to light any lanterns or candles, he is saying. And you, you are not going to look into my eyes, to discern me. He looks to his friend for agreement. Does his friend see this growing malevolence? No. He still cannot grasp this, is not able to ‘see’ his friend. And so the room is dark and the story goes on. We are beginning to see that he is trapped here. After some time, Usher reveals that he is here with the lady of the house, a sister. The lady Madeline makes one brief appearance, vaguely flowing through the room and out.
Apart from the somewhat strange talk of her upcoming death – a death that is inevitable, Usher’s story indicates (though without admitting anything), what is stranger even more is that Madeline is not talked to, or invited to stay. Does Usher not want her seen? Is he afraid of his friend looking into her eyes and seeing something uncomfortable? Why is she simply left to go her way? Certainly the narrator attempts to do some fact finding. He attempts once more to determine the psychology of the situation by looking at her. But again, Poe makes it clear: he is not just looking at her.
It is specifically his eyes that are doing the looking. He must bring the attention back to the eyes themselves (Silverman). The story reads, “My eyes followed her retreating steps. ” In other words, it is as if the eyes are separate from the body. The eyes themselves followed her steps. They almost operate independently. It is as if the author is trying to tell you that the eyes belong to the psychological realm, as opposed to the rest of the body’s physical realm. Which is, of course, the purpose of bringing up the idea of the eyes in the first place. After some time, the narrator is beginning to get it.
He is beginning to understand that there is a difference in this reality, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. All he knows is that there is something wrong with the appearances here. Again, he cannot see into the soul and inner mind of Usher. But he does point out what he is able to observe. He knows that Usher is different than he was. Something made Usher “what I now saw him. ” He is changed. There is some purposeful line that had been drawn, and then crossed. What this is remains unclear to the narrator. He doesn’t ‘see’ what is coming, can’t discern just what the change is related to.
And so all he relates it that he sees something different. Of course, this near miss indicates just how close he is to the truth. His observations find him dancing around the menacing intentions of his friend. He can sense a problem – but cannot see it. The problem, naturally, is that Roderick Usher is about to kill his twin sister. For some reason, which remains unexplained, he desires someone to be there with him until the end. But as we see, at the same time that he is trying to look into his old friend’s mind and find out if he is catching on or not, he is being observed too, for mental malady. Alas, both parties are failures at this.
The psychology of both is hidden from the other. Usher is about to murder his sibling. The narrator cannot see this. The narrator is unnerved for a host of reasons. Usher cannot see this, either. They both remain blinded to the other’s minds. They both remain in the dark, even at this close moment. The moment comes. Madeline is dead. Or at least dead enough to bury. The blindness of the narrator keeps him from even being able to see life and death for what it is. He believes the report of Roderick – Roderick who has looked long into his eyes and found no serious concern or doubt as to his knowledge.
He even goes so far as to help him to bury her. Together they carry her down to the tomb. He consoles his friend as they accomplish the deed. He is truly unseeing about this event, its morbidity, and its sheer wanton psychology. He simply cannot see through his fears. The narrator is unable to see with his mind’s eye. He does detect a change, though. Again, he is close. He does not engage Usher in discussion. They do not share stories of old friendship at any time. They hardly even discuss the death of Usher’s sister, who turns out to have been his twin. There is still this feeling out process.
They are both engaged in attempting to psychoanalyze the other; to determine motive and perhaps opportunity or advantage. What does he find of his friend Usher? Now that luminous eye is going dim. Poe writes, “The luminousness of his (Usher’s) eye had utterly gone out. ” Obviously, Usher’s friend is being watchful of him, so to speak. He is looking at his eyes. Is he trying to read his friend’s soul? I think he is. This has come directly after the death and internment of his sister. But he is not trying to comfort him. He has very few words at all for him in what should be his time of need.
He is instead looking at him. He remembers the luminousness of the eye in particular. He remembers being watched and so he is being watchful. He now finds the eye has changed. Shouldn’t this indicate something to him? And yet he seems to be contented with the thought that it is merely indicative of the timing, representative of the situation that Usher has found himself in, a situation of sorrow. And how is Usher looking? If we know now that the luminousness, the mysterious gleam is gone, then what can we see? What is it that the narrator is looking at? Usher, it seems, is looking at “vacancy” now.
In other words he is no longer interested in looking at his old friend. The deed is done. There is no longer any need to discern the internal workings of the mind, with its doubts, and intrigues. For whatever reason that Usher brought him out into the country mansion (a motivation that we are never quite certain of, as readers), that purpose has been fulfilled. No longer is Usher interested in looking at anything. Whatever had been going on in his mind is over. The psychological back and forth between the two is over. At least for one of them. The narrator is still looking.
He is really beginning to feel something is out of place here. But there is no talking. Never any talking. The eyes are what are important to this work of Poe’s. It is all about the windows expressing, or hiding the inner psychology of the person. And so Usher looks down, but his friend still is looking at him, trying to find an edge that will reveal everything to him. He has found a dying, dimming eye in Usher. No longer is there the intrigue. For a few moments in this tale, we too, are beginning to wonder just what Usher’s intent is. Is he simply done with the work he set out to do? Is he content with the ending?
Is he meaning the same thing to happen to his friend? We cannot see, like the narrator cannot, because Usher’s eye has lost its light. But then it springs back to life – and this time it is much more indicative of the inner workings. Usher’s madness now comes out. And Poe reveals it through his eyes. There is now a “species of mad hilarity in his eyes. ” Finally the eyes are opened enough for the narrator to see into. The window to his soul, so to speak is now displaying the mind of his mad former friend. It is all coming into sharp focus. The doubts which had been fermenting are now finalizing.
It is important to note something here. This has to do with the utter psychology of the work. Psychoanalytically speaking, we are led time and time again to the eyes. There is no sharp action here. Usher does not go on a screaming rampage. He does not threaten with his words, he does not cajole. There is no pleading and there is no physical threatening. All of the above, all of the feelings of morbidity and unease and fear, comes through the description of the eyes. And the description of Usher’s eyes comes from the narrator himself. He is finally able to see into Usher’s mind, but far, far, too late.
When Poe relents, when he eventually allows Roderick Usher to speak his mind, to give voice to what his eyes have been clearly showing all along, it is utter confirmation. Usher’s friend realizes that he has been right all along. In this case, hindsight was correct. Usher’s words finally give tongue to the madness he possesses. But even then, even when there is confirmation of the dementia of this man, he is obsessed, the text is obsessed, with the eyes. “Have you not seen it? ” he asks of his friend. “You have not then seen it? But stay! You shall! ” He is challenging him here. He is somehow poking at him almost in jest.
In some mad way Usher is taunting the man for not being able to have ‘seen it’ before. He chides him for not earlier seeing that his good old friend Roderick Usher had gone mad right before him. He runs over to the windows, which of course were eyes of the house, as earlier stated and opens them. They are “freely open to the storm. ” This then, is to be understood that the eyes to the soul are now open for the first time. There is no more hiding them, no more hiding the truth. Since he has done what he wanted, what he planned, and managed to do so right under his friend’s eyes, he can reveal all finally.
Now Usher’s intents, his malevolence and his mind are fully opened for his friend to see. Now he can grasp the mentality of Roderick Usher. This is the one thing that the narrator does not want to do. Now that the horrible situation has unfolded and he can clearly see what has been going on all along, he wishes it weren’t so. He wants it all to go away. He wants his eyes to be closed to this scenario, to the demented madness of Usher. We get this through the symbols of the eyes and vision once more. “You shall not behold this! ” he encourages Usher. “You must not! ” he orders him.
He then attempts to close the casements. Why would this come up? What is the big problem with the open windows and the ensuing storm? Because Poe is telling us once more that the windows, the eyes, are where the truth shall be seen and known. If only the windows were shut again, the narrator is insisting. If only I could not see what has taken place. If I can just close my eyes I can get it to go away. He does not want to face the reality that he is now seeing for the first time. And so he doesn’t try to change Usher. He doesn’t attempt to engage him in conversation of otherwise challenge him.
Instead he rushes to close the windows, to shut his eyes. It is too late. Now Usher too is blind. He has seen enough of the ugly truth. He has seen that he has pulled the wool over his friend’s eyes for just long enough. The actions have passed, and the results will invariably follow. The truth will be open for all to see. He does not care whether his ugliness is displayed now. When the narrator turns to look at him once more, he finds that Usher’s eyes were now “bent fixedly before him. ” No longer do Usher’s eyes have to be looked into for one to ascertain the truth now. It is all around him.
The narrator’s time for discovery has passed. In the end we find the narrator still attempting to make sense of all that he saw during his stay at the mansion. He doesn’t end up by pondering these things over. He does not soliloquize at all. We aren’t even treated to what is going on in his mind. We are instructed still by images – by displays of the truth itself. He turns to see where the final lights of the storms were coming from. Where was the truth all along? Why didn’t he see it earlier? With the collapse of the “mighty walls” the narrator finally sees the inner mind of truth as it “burst at once upon my sight.
” What he and Usher could not see in each other’s minds end up as “walls rushing asunder. ” Works Cited Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Poe, Edgar A. “Fall of the House of Usher. ” Essential Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe. Ed. Benjamin F. Fisher. New York: Barnes and Nobles, 2009. Quinn, Arthur H. , and Shawn Rosenheim. Edgar Allen Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.