From the very first line of the story, we get the sense that the narrator’s a bit on the arrogant side.
"I can assure you," said I, "that it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me." And I stood up before the fire with my glass in my hand. (1)
Come on, he's just asking for it, isn’t it?
Throughout his conversation with the old custodians at the start of the story, the narrator seems eager to make a point that he’s not going to be scared by the red room. And what gives him his confidence? The fact that he knows better than to believe in ghosts. He’s lived all of 28 years and "never has he seen a ghost yet" (3).
Sure, he claims to approach the situation with an "open mind" (5), but we know better. Once he’s on his own he gives his real feelings about the custodians and their superstitious beliefs:
They seemed to belong to another age, an older age, an age when things spiritual were different from this of ours, less certain; an age when omens and witches were credible, and ghosts beyond denying. Their very existence was spectral; the cut of their clothing, fashions born in dead brains. (28)
The narrator’s young age suits his self-image as modern fellow with up-to-date beliefs and a healthy sense of rational skepticism. By contrast, he believes that the old custodians believe in ghosts and magic because they have "dead brains" (28). And for the narrator, there’s something worthy and admirable in trying to fight superstition. Although he never explicitly announces that he’s come to the castle to prove it is not haunted (he just says he’s there to stay the night in the red room), that's what we gather from his comment about the ill-fated young duke who tried the same thing:
That had been the end of his vigil, of his gallant attempt to conquer the ghostly tradition of the place, and never, I thought, had apoplexy better served the ends of superstition. (31)
The narrator admires the duke’s attempt to dispel the myth of the haunted red room. He also ascribes his death to "apoplexy," which could mean any number of things, from a panic attack, to a stroke, or brain hemorrhage. What’s for certain, though, is that the narrator doesn’t think anything supernatural killed the duke, and finds it unfortunate that the duke’s death should be used to continue the superstition. That’s why he, the narrator, will try to dispel the idea that the red room is haunted on his own. Is he up to it?
As we’ll see, in his character, the narrator plays out a more fundamental conflict between the force of reason and the power of fear. This conflict is really the central theme of the whole story.
The narrator values "reason" both as a means of keeping oneself under control and as a way of looking at the world (i.e., taking account of facts only as they are). As he says leaving the custodians’ room, he wants to keep himself "at a matter-of-fact phase" (28) – no vague imaginings or "irrational" superstitions (even though he lets his own mind contrive some pretty fanciful things about the custodians after saying this). He’s very precise in his descriptions, and approaches his surroundings with an analytical frame of mind. Take the moment when he enters the red room, for instance:
I resolved to make a systematic examination of the place at once, and dispel the fanciful suggestions of its obscurity before they obtained a hold upon me. (33)
"Systematic examination"? (Later in the paragraph, he again emphasizes that it is a "precise" examination). The narrator seems to be just like a scientist, doesn't he? He approaches an environment by determining what is actually there as precisely as he can. Why? Because he figures that if he knows what’s there, he’ll know whether or not there’s anything to fear. If there’s not, he can dismiss any fear he feels, or any superstitious belief he might hold. (Note that he assumes that he’ll be able to see whatever is "there.")
The narrator’s rational approach to is connected to the imagery of lightness and darkness. (See "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this theme.) Light reveals, and makes one aware of what’s there in the first place. In so doing, light can eliminate fear by revealing that there is nothing to fear. On the other hand, darkness conceals or "obscures" objects. In the dark, one can’t tell if anything is actually there. That’s why the narrator uses light, literally, as a weapon against his fear. He wants to reveal whatever objects are in the room in order to prove to himself that there’s nothing he need fear.
In spite of his confidence and his resolution to be rational, the narrator gives us various indications that he doesn’t have his own nerves under the best of control. Even before he’s in the red room, he’s starting to think he hears or sees things.
First, there’s the "rustling" (28) he hears overhead when climbing the spiral stairs, which disappears when he stops to listen. Then, in the hallway, he’s jumpy enough to take the Ganymede statue in the dark for somebody crouching, lying in wait for him. And then there are the shadows in the red room. Once he enters it and makes his rounds, he admits, "By this time I was in a state of considerable nervous tension, although to my reason there was no adequate cause for the condition" (34). The narrator is starting to become aware that his fear doesn’t always respond to his reason or his will. Fear can operate on its own, and grab hold of him despite his best intentions.
As the night wears on, things begin to unravel. The light of the candles has kept his nerves under control. Once the first candle goes out after midnight, all other candles begin to do the same. All of his assurances that there’s nothing to be afraid of and his systematic examination of the room prove useless. When the fire goes out, his fear conquers him completely, and his reason deserts him:
…as I thrust the candle between the bars darkness closed upon me like the shutting of an eye, wrapped about me in a stifling embrace, sealed my vision, and crushed the last vestiges of reason from my brain. (45)
His confidence, it would seem, is misplaced.
The narrator at the end of the story is a humbled version of the narrator we meet at the beginning. Regardless of the reason behind one’s convictions, and regardless of whether there’s really anything to be afraid of in a given situation, he recognizes that fear is a concrete force to be reckoned with. It’s not clear that a person can do anything about it, try though they might. Perhaps now he’s more sympathetic to the old people. He does admit, when he awakens to the old woman, that she looks "no longer abstracted" (47). He’s also willing to admit the room is haunted. Though at the end of the day, he still doesn’t believe in ghosts.The Narrator Timeline