6 November 2006
Dreams of Revellers
If someone – a death row prisoner and confirmed alcoholic, perhaps – were to describe events involving murder, demonic house pets and
beyond- the-grave visitations, would anyone be inclined to believe him? What if the person's story revolved around the antics of a sickly, hysterical
friend who found himself haunted by his recently deceased sister? Would this person seem credible? Unlikely, especially without corroborating
witnesses to these excessively outrageous tales. Poe intentionally undermines the reliability of his narrators in "The Black Cat" and "The Fall of the
House of Usher" by introducing reoccurring themes of substance abuse and the supernatural.
In "The Black Cat," the narrator fully admits to being an alcoholic, citing his drinking as the reason behind the complete change in his personality.
While he claims to have once loved animals and his wife, he demonstrates sadistic tendencies toward both when he murders a beloved pet and, while
attempting to kill another pet, his wife. Of course, he also claims to have committed these atrocities for nothing more than the pure enjoyment of the
act; by maiming his first cat, he gains some sort of gratification, thereby inciting him to go one step further and kill it. "Who has not, a hundred times,
found himself committing a vile or silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?" (110) This quote speaks to his
underlying, violent motives behind the slaying of the animal he once loved. Does this imply that alcohol wasn't a factor in the narrator's deeds after
all? No, in fact, he is only able to commit this sort of violence at first when under the influence, providing evidence that alcohol merely alleviates his
inhibitions and allows him to act on his internal struggles.
The narrator's drinking brings his hidden feelings of aggression and self-hatred to the surface, causing him to harm those who love and depend on
him. When he finds the second cat – which he refrains from naming as he did the first – the beast is resting upon a cask of unidentified
alcohol as he sits at the bar. Since the cat appears atop the liquor, the reader is given evidence that the narrator is haunted by his own inner demons
rather than actual phantasms. The cat is almost a perfect replica of his original cat, save for a splotch of white fur, making it possible for the narrator
to transfer his previous hatred onto this new animal, which takes an immediate fancy to him. Unfortunately, as he states previously, he killed the first
cat, "because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offense," proving that the narrator pathologically lashes
out at those who love and depend on him, which perhaps stems from the internal conflict within himself (110). He later murders his wife with no more
remorse than he felt when he killed his cat, thus destroying one more being that made the mistake of caring for him.
The substance abuse in "The Fall of the House of Usher" is less obvious in that neither the narrator nor Roderick Usher, the only other speaking
character of the tale, directly states that consumption of either alcohol or drugs takes place during the time line. However, there is evidence that
supports assumptions of substance abuse by both the narrator and Roderick within the text of the story. In the first paragraph, the narrator describes
the atmosphere surrounding the grounds and house of Usher as, "an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more
properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium," insinuating that drugs may be required to duplicate the same effect (14). The fact that
this topic is brought up within the first paragraph of the story, long before anything strange can occur, may imply that the events to follow are illusions
or simple confusion procured in the mind of the narrator.
Of course, the impressions of the narrator might also be altered by the actions of Roderick Usher, who may be under the influence of something
himself after he buries his sister. In an effort to calm both his and Roderick's obviously frayed nerves during the climax of the tale, the narrator
proceeds to read his host a story that oddly parallels the events taking place around them. Both in and out of the story, a storm rages,
strange noises are heard over the din of rain and wind, and the protagonist is overtaken by a mystical being. The hero of the story, Ethelred, is drunk
– "who was now mighty withal, on account of the powerfulness of the wine which he had drunken" – making it more than plausible that Roderick,
too, was intoxicated during these events (26). His countenance beforehand further suggests that Roderick has been influenced by something; he's
pale, stumbling and spouting gibberish when he arrives at the narrator's door in the middle of the night. Roderick's intoxication is diagnosed by the
narrator as "an evidently restrained hysteria," giving the reader a false impression of the true nature of his friend's condition. Thus, the narrator is
unreliable by reason of misinformation rather than willful deceit.
The supernatural elements in "The Black Cat" are derivative of the narrator's drinking problem, but also of superstition ingrained into him by his
wife through "frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise," (109). Though he admits that she
was never terribly serious about her assertions, the fanciful notion of black cats being evil and bewitching remains in the back of his subconscious and
manifests in his delusions of supernatural influence over his actions. Though he admits freely to killing his wife and a once dearly beloved pet, he
blames these brutal undertakings on the cat, which he believes has risen from the grave to torment him. The narrator is, thus, driven into a state of
madness in which he is unable to decipher between reality and fantasy, making him unreliable by reason of temporary insanity.
The narrator in "House of Usher," however, cannot be classified as insane, making him unreliable through no fault or hallucination of his own. He
tells the story exactly as Roderick Usher would have him believe it, right down to the supposed death of Madeline. Instead of conducting his own
investigation into the events occurring within the walls of the house of Usher, the narrator passively relates the story as he is meant to
see it, thanks to the intervention of Roderick, who appears to be hiding something beneath his nervous assertions regarding the death
of his sister. Thus, when Madeline appears as a "ghost," the narrator incorrectly assumes that she is haunting Roderick for some sort
of otherworldly vengeance. However, one must wonder: what, if anything, could make Madeline want to haunt her beloved brother if
they were, indeed, as close as Roderick described? According to Roderick himself, she was "...a tenderly beloved sister – his sole
companion for long years – his last and only relative on earth," (19). So, why should her soul long to pester him after death if she was
such a beloved relative and friend? He must have wronged her in some way – perhaps even killed her – to cause her restless spirit to
torment him post-mortem. Unless, of course, Madeline was still living and enacting revenge upon her brother for attempting to murder
There are no truly supernatural elements in "House of Usher," despite the assertions of the narrator, who is simply an outside party watching
events unfold without truly participating in anything that occurs. Everything known of the situation is provided secondhand by the narrator, who first
receives the information from Roderick, a "dear friend" whom he has no reason to doubt. Roderick was the one who called for his friend, out of the
blue, and claims that he and his sister are both afflicted with some dreaded family disease (and, despite constantly accusing Roderick of being a
hypochondriac, the narrator allows himself to believe that the family disease exists, at the very least, in the sister). Roderick was the one who
announced Madeline's death. Roderick was the one who insisted upon placing her body in the dungeon, screwing the lid to her coffin closed, and
trapping her (supposedly lifeless) corpse behind a heavy iron door for "safekeeping." Roderick was also the one who claimed to have buried his
sister alive; "We have put her living in the tomb!" (28). How convenient that Roderick was so well-informed of all of this for the sake of the
narrator and the reader's clarification.
Additional proof that supports the fact that Madeline was alive when she was buried lies in the physical evidence that the narrator unwittingly
provides. Before sealing her within her coffin, the narrator notes, "the mockery of a faint blush upon the bosom and face," indicating that she still had
blood circulating within her body (24). Elementary knowledge of human anatomy dictates that, for blood to circulate, a beating heart is needed. If her
heart continued to beat, that would negate her death. Also, when she appears at the end as a "ghost," the narrator describes her as thus: "There was
blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame," which signifies a struggle to free
herself from her tomb (28). Unless she were still alive when she escaped, there would be no evidence of blood on her clothing as a person only
bleeds when their fluids are still circulating. Nor would she appear to have suffered some sort of struggle because, traditionally, only a person's
physical body can suffer injury. Additionally, Madeline's "emaciated frame," which could potentially be attributed to the disease that supposedly took
her life, is likely a symptom of being trapped in a tomb for several days without proper nutrition. Thus, Madeline would have to have been alive for
the narrator's description to be plausible.
In any court of law, a witness' inebriation would be grounds for incredulity toward their story. Allegations of any sort would be open to suspicion,
but those of a supernatural element would be passed off as nothing but pure fiction. Why would anyone rely on these intoxicated, delusional sources
to explain anything? Quite simply, no one would. By making his narrator's tales so outlandishly ridiculous, Poe intentionally casts doubt upon the
events that they relay to the reader.
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Authors Notes: Here's a better copy of my essay, professor. I attempted to embolden everything that I highlighted in my hard copy, but I may have forgotten something; I apologize if this is the case. Also, this site doesn't allow me to indent my paragraphs, so I apologize for that, too. Still, it's a better copy than the one I printed from the library.
You can feel free to submit you additional comments in the review box (drop down menu below) if you like or simply wait until class. Either way is fine by me.
Sorry for the inconvenience,