The doubled narrator. Uncanny doubling in "The Fall of the House of Usher"

by N. Felicissimus (Author)

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2014 16 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of contents

1 Introduction

2.1 Doubling and its effect on the psyche
2.1.1 Doppelgangers and literary doubling
2.1.2 Psychological dimensions
2.2 The effect of the narrative structure
2.3 Narrator as therapist and patient
2.3.1 The house as a mirror
2.3.2 A doubled relationship to Roderick

3 Conclusion

Works Cited

1 Introduction

The Fall of the House of Usher is a short story full of ambiguity, uncertainness and uncanniness. According to Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition”, a good story needs “the totality, or unity, of effect” (Poe 7). This unity is created through the use of dualism.

Oppositions and literary doubling are the fundamental frame of this tale. Thus, it is explicable why there are still so manifold interpretations to various themes and motifs today (Cf. Thompson, “The Face” 16). The aim of this paper is to elaborate the effects of doubling on the homodiegetic narrator. It will be made the attempt to support the thesis that the narrator could be seen as a doubled person himself.

Firstly, it is necessary to point out important psychological concepts and per- spectives concerning doubling and so-called doppelgangers. Apart from the psycho- analysts Jentsch and Freud, who have made basic contributions to the term Doppel- gängertum, also the results of Webber and Thompson will be helpful to find an appro- priate frame to own interpretations and text work. After having analyzed the effects of a doubled narrative structure in the text, the narrator will be observed as a personified duality of a therapist and a patient. This thesis will be part of the next chapters, which focus on the doubling relationship between the narrator and the house respectively Roderick.

The intention of this paper is not to restrict on a single issue of doubling, but to encounter narrative structures, effects of uncanniness, a therapist-patient role and the dualism of reason and madness. By covering so many fields, it will be shown that doubling itself is the essential and unifying effect of the tale.

2.1 Doubling and its effect on the psyche

2.1.1 Doppelgangers and literary doubling

Man is never alone: self-consciousness means that there are always two of you in the room (qtd. in Webber 56).

The German romantic author Jean Paul Richter coined and elaborated the phrase Doppelgänger in his work Siebenkäs by defining the term as “Leute, die sich selber sehen” - ‘people who see themselves’ (Jean Paul 25). This is supposed to be taken rather literally since he illustrates his theory by a child’s eye lying on a woodpile while contemplating the child and therefore seeing himself (Webber 57-60).

There are parallels to Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, in which the old man’s vulture eye could be interpreted as a mirror the murderer is looking at. Also Roderick Usher’s “large, liquid, and luminous [eye]” (Baym 656) might be such a mirror for the narrator and the “eye-like windows” (Baym 654) of the house can in fact represent his own consciousness and mind. This interpretation will be dealt with later on in a more detailed way.

Webber introduces several characteristic principles of Doppelgänger constel- lations. First of all, there are often physical manifestations or embodiments of the self as for example Roderick and the house in relationship to the narrator. This implies a “power-play between ego and alter ego” (Webber 4), which can be observed when Roderick’s “condition terrified - it infected [the narrator]” (Baym 663). As a natural consequence, the narrator becomes more and more Roderick’s object and not vice versa. He loses control and is heavily influenced by the mental disorder of his friend.

Moreover, characters who develop this special autoscopic perspective and their own self-identification are also auguring their imminent death (Webber 60). In The Fall of the House of Usher Roderick’s luminous eye indicates a Doppelgänger pair and can be interpreted as a foreshadowing of the twins’ death. All of these doubling motifs will be analyzed with respect to the narrator, who is in many respects a doubled figure.

2.1.2 Psychological dimensions

In his essay “Das Unheimliche” Sigmund Freud points out the origins of terror in human mind. Citing the psychoanalyst Ernst Jentsch, one of the most successful devices for easily implying uncanny effects is to create “doubt as to whether an apparently living being is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate”(Jentsch 11).

This intellectual uncertainness is like a seed that is planted in the narrator’s head right at the beginning of the story and steadily grows throughout the story. His mind is confused by Roderick, who is convinced that “all vegetable things” (Baym 661) are sentient and the reason for this can be seen in “the general yet certain conden- sation of an atmosphere of their own about the waters and the walls” (Baym 661). Poe visualizes the uncertainness as a fog that gives life to all things in the surrounding of the house. Interestingly, the narrator responds on Roderick’s deliberations: “Such opinions need no comment, and I will make none” (Baym 661). Does he agree or dis- agree with Roderick? Why is he so ambiguous in his way of expressing his opinion on this matter? In each case, the reader is left uncertain as well, which intertextually evokes a feeling of uncanniness in the reader, as well. This doubled point of view, the dualism of inanimate and alive as well as conviction and uncertainness is a fundamen- tal structure of the text. All of these doubling themes are only present in the narrator’s mind, which makes him a doubled narrator.

For Freud, the uncanny is anything we experience in adulthood that reminds us of “earlier psychic stages, of aspects of our unconscious life, or of the primitive expe- rience of the human species” (Freud 81). Thus, he is contradicting Jentsch by stating that we do know the origins of terror and uncanniness since they are rooted deeply in our childhood memories. However, “this knowledge does not lessen the impression of uncanniness in the least degree” (Freud 82).It is a knowledge about experiences which seem now forgotten, but can be recalled when somebody recognizes events or objects, which were actually only covered in the subconscious. The narrator is confronted with memories from him and Roderick when they were children all the time in the story. That is the reason why the house itself and all its items begin to make an impression of animate beings that have an influence on the people in the house.

Moreover, “death and the re-animation of the dead are typically represented as uncanny themes” (Freud 82). Poe adopts this strategy when Madeline resurrects from her tomb and kills her brother. This, along with the fall of the house does not give any single answer to the questions the narrator poses throughout the tale. Freud gives a possible reason for Poe’s ending:

Towards the end of the book the reader is told the facts, hitherto concealed from him, from which the action springs; with the result, not that he is at last enlightened, but that he falls into a state of complete bewilderment. The author has piled up too much material of the same kind. In consequence one’s grasp of the story as a whole suffers, though not the impression it makes. (Freud 83)

The reader is told far too many supernatural explanations for the mysterious events that are going on in the house of Usher other than that he could only believe in a rational point of view. This uncanny ending emphasizes the doubling structure of the complete text since the dualism of reason and madness remains unsolved.

“The German word 'unheimlich' is obviously the opposite of 'heimlich', 'heimisch'; the opposite of what is familiar; and we are tempted to conclude that what is 'uncanny' is frightening precisely because it is not known and familiar” (Freud 85). This ambiguity is best expressed in the term Doppelgängertum because so-called dop- pelgangers share a special connection with each other: “This relation is accentuated by mental processes leaping from one of these characters to another — by what we should call telepathy —, so that the one possesses knowledge, feelings and experience in common with the other” (Freud 86). Literary scholars have taken sufficient account of the double relationship between Roderick and his twin sister Madeline.1 This paper widens the range of possible double figures to the extent of the narrator. Abel describes the narrator as “a mere point of view for the reader to occupy” (177) and excludes him from any Doppelgängertum between Roderick and him. It will become clear that both have certain “knowledge, feelings and experience” in common and therefore meet sev- eral requirements for being labeled as doppelgangers.

In this context, the narrator itself will change his role frequently. While he ap- pears once as a therapist willing to help his friend Roderick, he sometimes finds him- self in a disastrous state of mind wondering as to whether he has become a madman. Fernandez-Santiago names such frequent changes of the homodiegetic narrator a “du- ality of mood […] which sometimes manifests itself in fluctuations of tone” (Fernan- dez-Santiago 73). For her, an essential element of doubling is that “the reader often faces the uncanniness of suspecting the double’s actual usurpation of the narrative per- spective” (Fernandez-Santiago 74). This means that the narrator is sometimes highly influenced, even usurped, by his host Roderick. At the end of the tale the narrator reads from the “Mad Trist” and involuntarily mirrors Madeline’s resurrection, which seals Roderick’s fate in the end.

2.2 The effect of the narrative structure

The majority of Poe’s Gothic tales are narrated from the first person perspective and The Fall of the House of Usher is no exception to that. We perceive the whole story through the eyes of the narrator, who we consider to become gradually infected by the madness of his host Roderick. When we are told of supernatural events like the incubus sitting on the narrator’s chest, the resurrection of Madeline or the catastrophic fall of the house in the very end, the report of the homodiegetic narrator is our only evidence for their existing. It is the subjectivity of this narrative structure that contributes a lot to the effect of doubling in the text.

Thus, we assume everything in the tale as both supernatural and realistic since we “are subjectively involved in and detached from” (Thompson, Poe's 89) the narra- tor’s experiences. As Gary Thompson points out, this is a “mockery of the ability of human mind ever to know anything with certainty, whether about the external reality of the world or about the internal reality of the mind” (Thompson, “The Face” 17). He argues that according to the archetypical American Gothic tales, metaphysical inci- dents are explained ambiguously throughout the story.


1 A very conclusive discussion on this matter can be found in Fagin “The histrionic Mr. Poe”, in Hendershot “Domesticity and horror in the house of usher and village of the damned” as well as in Abel “A key to the House of Usher”.


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Edgar Allen Poe Poe uncanny psychoanalysis freud usher the fall of the house of usher literature romantic romanticism dark dark romanticism roderick doppelganger doubling schitzophrenic


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    N. Felicissimus (Author)


Title: The doubled narrator. Uncanny doubling in "The Fall of the House of Usher"