“The Fall of the House of Usher” centers on Roderick Usher and his twin sister Madeline, the last surviving members of the Usher family.
The setting of “The Fall of the House of Usher” plays an integral part in the story because it establishes an atmosphere of dreariness, melancholy, and decay. The story takes place in the Usher family mansion, which is isolated and located in a “singularly dreary tract of country.” The house immediately stirs up in the narrator “a sense of insufferable gloom,” and it is described as having “bleak walls,” “vacant eye-like windows,” and “minute fungi overspread [on] the whole exterior.” The interior of the house is equally dreary, with “vaulted and fretted” ceilings, “dark draperies hung upon the walls,” and furniture that is “comfortless, antique, and tattered.” Roderick is also disturbed by the setting, believing that the house is one of the causes of his nervous agitation. The narrator notes that Roderick “was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence, for many years, he had never ventured forth.”
Point of View
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is told from the point of view of the unnamed narrator, who, being skeptical and rational, doesn’t want to believe that there are supernatural causes to what is happening around him. Although he tries to tell the reader that Roderick’s anxiety and nervousness are simply symptoms of the latter’s mental anguish, the narrator, and therefore the reader, becomes increasingly disturbed as the story progresses. By telling the story from the point of view of a skeptic rather than a believer, Poe increases the suspense as well as the emotional impact of the story’s ending.
Poe uses symbolism—a literary technique where an object, person, or concept represents something else—throughout “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The Usher mansion is the most important symbol in the story; isolated, decayed and full of the atmosphere of death, the house represents the dying Usher family itself. The narrator emphasizes this when he notes that “about the whole mansion and domain there hung an atmosphere peculiar to themselves and their immediate vicinity—an atmosphere which had no affinity with the air of heaven, but which had reeked up from the decayed trees, and the grey wall, and the silent tarn.” The fissure in the house is also an important symbol. Although it is, at first, barely visible to the narrator, it suggests a fundamental split or fault in the twin personalities of the last surviving Ushers and foretells the final ruin of the house and family. Other notable symbols of death and madness are Roderick’s lyric, “The Haunted Palace”; his abstract painting, which is described as a “phantasmagoric” conception by the narrator; and the “fantastic character” of his guitar playing.
Poe uses imagery to create a foreboding atmosphere and to advance his themes in the story. An image is a concrete representation of an object or sensory experience; images help evoke the feelings associated with the object or the experience itself. For example, when the narrator briefly sees Madeline, he states:”The lady Madeline passed slowly through the remote portion of the apartment, and, without having noticed my presence, disappeared…. A sensation of stupor oppressed me, and my eyes followed her retreating steps.” Such images contribute to the perception that Madeline is ghostlike and mysterious. When the narrator sees the physician on the stair at the beginning of the story, he notes:”His countenance, I thought, wore a mingled expression of low cunning and perplexity. He accosted me with trepidation and passed on.” This image of the doctor is much more effective than a mere literal description; it underscores the fear and anxiety pervading the Usher home.
“The Fall of the House of Usher” is considered a preeminent example of Gothic short fiction with its focus on such topics as incest, terminal illness, mental breakdown, and death. Gothic fiction generally includes elements of horror, the supernatural, gloom, and violence and creates in the reader feelings of terror and dread. Gothic fiction also frequently takes place in medieval-like settings; the desolate, ancient, and decaying Usher mansion is ideally suited for this story. In addition to creating an atmosphere of dread, Poe, some critics have suggested, incorporated into his story aspects of the vampire tale. J. O. Bailey, for example, contended in American Literature that Madeline is a vampire and that Roderick is fighting her powers “with all he has.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Edgar Allan Poe, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.