The Points of View Challenge – The Fall of the House of Usher – Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan PoeEdgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849)

American writer, poet, editor, and literary critic, best known for his poetry and short stories.

The Fall of the House of Usher, first published in Burton’s Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1839

Available to read online here

This is the first of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Memoir, or Observer Narration. Here’s how their introduction starts: “The following technique imitates first-hand reporting. The authors of these stories have neither told them in the third person nor had the main character tell them; instead they have used an observer or subordinate character as narrator. Observing is itself sometimes a profound experience, and to want to tell someone else’s story is to be involved in it.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


The Fall of the House of Usher


Fall of the House of UsherOur unnamed narrator is heading for The House of Usher – home to his boyhood friend Roderick Usher, who has written to him, asking him to visit. Roderick is obviously suffering from physical and mental torment and wants his old friend to give him some companionship and improve his mood. But as the narrator approaches the house, it appears as a picture of gloom and darkness in the distance. His suspicions are confirmed as he is shown through dingy corridors to Roderick’s room.

Our narrator is shocked at how much Roderick has changed – he has become cadaverous and anxious, and overwhelmed by a sense of fear. But he finds solace in his pictures and his music, which the narrator encourages and helps. He briefly meets Roderick’s sister Madeline, his only other companion in the house. Madeline suffers from catalepsy and falls into trances, and is extremely ill.

Some time later, Roderick informs the narrator that Madeline has died, and together the two men carry her body into the House’s family tomb. Our narrator notices that Madeline still has a fresh colour to her skin, but that is a common feature after death. One night there is a fearful storm which wakes both men; Roderick is filled with terror, and the narrator tries to placate him by diverting his attention by reading to him from his much loved books. At the moment in the tale where the narrative describes the slaying of a dragon, who emits hideous death cries, similar noises are heard inside the house.

Usher confesses that he has buried Madeline whilst she was still alive. She has broken free from the tomb and falls through the bedroom door with a final agonised death cry, which in turn causes mortal terror for Roderick. The story ends with the narrator fleeing for his life, as he looks back on the House which crumbles under the force of the storm. The House of Usher has irredeemably fallen.

This story has a well-deserved reputation for being a master example of a Gothic horror tale. Many analyses have been written, pointing out the symbolism of the House as a decaying body – the fissure in the structure of the building is like a human scar, and the windows are likened to eyes. Themes of mental and physical illness permeate the story, and its apocalyptic ending is Biblical in proportion. The narrator, in his anonymity, remains an outsider in the tale, which fortunately allows him to escape uninjured, although whether he will ever get over the mental turmoil caused by his experience is debatable.

Poe’s writing is exceptionally formal, and with incredible attention to detail. Whilst there is very little in the way of genuine action in this story, he concentrates on the sense of fear generated by everything the narrator sees and hears. So, despite the lack of action, the reader’s attention is still gripped throughout – more than 180 years since it was first published. At the end, you realise there are a number of questions that remain unanswered, including the nature of Roderick’s illness, and the nature of Roderick and Madeline’s relationship. Has Madeline really been alive in the tomb all this time, or is this a visitation by her ghostly spirit to take revenge on Roderick?

The next story in the anthology is the second of four classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, the well-known Mademoiselle Pearl by Guy de Maupassant.

The Points of View Challenge – Bad Characters – Jean Stafford

Jean StaffordJean Stafford (1915 – 1979)

American novelist and short-story writer, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford.

Bad Characters, first published in the New Yorker Magazine, December 4th 1954

Sadly I can’t find a copy of it free to read online.

This is the last of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s how their introduction sums up this story: “The amount of focus on people other than the narrator varies in these stories, but always there is some […] “Bad Characters” is about the narrator’s friend as much as about herself, so closely are we asked to associate them.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


Bad Characters


Bad CharactersEmily Vanderpool has very few friends – Muff the cat shows her the most affection. Bullied and teased, she has a strange idiosyncrasy, whereby she gets a kind of panic attack, and needs to be on her own. Life is drab until she meets Lottie Jump. Lottie is different from the other kids; she has charisma, she has attitude, and she seems happy to share her time with Emily. Emily’s first experience with her was seeing her steal a chocolate cake; this is shocking to Emily, who had been brought up to know the difference between right and wrong. But it’s also strangely exciting: “I was deeply impressed by this bold, sassy girl from Oklahoma and greatly admired the poise with which she aired her prejudices.”

Lottie is prepared to be friends with Emily, on the understanding that she is prepared to do her fair share of stealing. The demand is a hammer blow to Emily’s conscience: “I was thrilled to death and shocked to pieces […] I was torn between agitation […] and excitement over the daring invitation to misconduct myself in so perilous a way.” She also turns a blind eye to the fact that Lottie has stolen Emily’s mother’s perfume flask from her drawer and doesn’t tell her the truth when she assumes she has mislaid it somewhere.

On Saturday, the two girls go into town and spend time in Woolworths. Lottie suggests Emily undertakes some distraction techniques with the shop staff, whilst she shoplifts a number of items and secretes them under her enormous hat. All goes well at first, until Emily has one of her panic attack moments whilst she is engaging with a sales clerk. She makes a cruel remark to Lottie, who at that moment is palming a string of pearls under her hat. The assistant sees it; cries out “Floorwalker! Mr Bellamy! I’ve caught a thief!” And with that, the game is up. But it backfires on Emily, as the experienced Lottie simply plays deaf and dumb and passes the blame back on to Emily, who is unprepared to defend herself. It’s a hard lesson for Emily – and she never sees Lottie again.

It’s a beautifully written little story; the characterisations of Lottie and Emily are very well drawn and you really feel you know them well. There’s some delightful use of language; Emily’s father is friends with the local Judge, and she describes his appearance as “a giant in intimidating haberdashery”. It also builds pace nicely, as you get closer and closer to the Saturday “shopping” day; the anticipation of what’s about to happen gets quite exciting.

Of course, it’s a thoroughly moral story, reflecting Emily’s falling for the glamour of the villain, with the allure of the forbidden activity. It’s inevitable that the wrongdoer will get off scot-free, and the more innocent of the two will take all the blame. One of the longer stories in this volume, the reader can comfortably lose themselves in its gradual progress, and appreciate the characterisations and developments. A thoroughly entertaining read.

The next story in the anthology is the first of four classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, the well-known The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.

The Points of View Challenge – On Saturday Afternoon – Alan Sillitoe

Alan SillitoeAlan Sillitoe (1928 – 2010)

English novelist (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), short story writer (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), poet and essayist.

On Saturday Afternoon, first published in the collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, in 1959

Available to read online here (search for the title, about two thirds of the way through the document)

This is the fourth of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how their introduction continues: “First-person fiction, especially today, abounds in stories narrated by persons whose perspective and values are questionable for the reader. Is the speaker missing something? Can we accept his judgments? If we are not sure, we may wish the author had been “clearer” so that we would not be reminded of our own uncertainties about what we see and what we ought to make of what we see. Even after his travels, does Gulliver have the proper perspective?”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now! Also, a trigger warning, as the story deals with suicide.


On Saturday Afternoon


TheLonelinessOfTheLongDistanceRunnerOur 16-year-old narrator, whose name we never learn, remembers a time when he “once saw a bloke try to kill himself”. It happened one Saturday afternoon when he was ten, and he’d left the house because his dad was in a black mood and the best thing he could do if his dad was in one of his moods was to escape the house.

He saw the bloke in the yard – he hadn’t been living in the neighbourhood long. He had a rope with him. When the boy asked him what he was going to do with the rope, he replied, “I’m going ter ‘ang messen, lad”. Why? “Because I’m fed up […] and because I want to. My missus left me, and I’m out o’ work.” The man gets the boy to agree to kick the chair away from under his feet when he shows signs of struggling. The boy tells him that the rope around the light fitting wouldn’t be strong enough for the job, but the man won’t hear of it.

True enough, just when the man is dangling there and the boy has kicked the chair away, “he fell down with such a horrible thump on the floor that I thought he’d broke every bone he’d got.” When the policeman comes to cut him free, he tells him he’ll get six years for that, as taking your own life was illegal in those days. Taken to hospital, he gets a bed on the top floor. It doesn’t take long  for him to throw himself from a window on the top floor and kill himself that way.

For the boy it’s a memorable moment; he’s confident he will never be in a position where he wants to kill himself. He’ll never be that black. But he also finds it a thrilling memory – and much more exciting than watching Saturday morning shows at the pictures. He also realises his dad will never have that dark look in his eyes; so, for the boy, it’s quite an optimistic story.

Though relatively short, this is a delicately and finely written piece, which gets under the skin of both the boy and the man – and to a lesser extent, the boy’s father. You can hear the voice of the boy very clearly in the writing, with the use of Sillitoe’s local Nottingham dialect and speech structure.

I take two things away from this story. One is the simple, matter-of-fact determination of the man to take his own life; quietly, unsensationally, calmly. It’s not only the public school alumni who espoused the stiff-upper-lip where it comes to men’s emotions; the man’s inability to say much about his plight shows that it’s a problem that transcends the class system. The other is the undisguised thrill that the boy feels to be witnessing real life drama like this, getting an almost voyeuristic pleasure from what promises to be the man’s last act on earth. He’s not particularly interested in the man’s reasons – although he feels it’s only polite to ask; he just wants to see the final action. The man is also perfectly happy for the boy to witness it; indeed, to participate in it, by kicking the chair away. When he fails to make a clean job of it, the boy is rather disgusted with the man’s inadequacy. When he hears how the man later threw himself out of the hospital window he feels both glad and sad about it. Finally, he also realises that if he’d witnessed the act now, at the age of sixteen, he would have found it a much more horrific and stressful experience. But for a 10-year-old, it was something new to brighten up an otherwise dull Saturday.

It’s an interesting little tale; the reader has a rather curious sense of detachment to it all, partly because the narrator is so emotionless about the whole experience, partly because it took place six years ago, and partly because we learn very little about the victim himself. It’s just one of life’s little tragedies. Life moves on.

The next story in the anthology is the fifth and final of the subjective narration stories, A & P by John Updike. This is another author of whom I of course have heard but never read, so I will be fascinated to see what his style and content is like!