Fall of the House of Usher: Setting
In the short story, “The Fall of the House
of Usher,” by Edgar Allen Poe, setting is used extensively to do many things.
The author uses it to convey ideas, effects, and images. It establishes
a mood and foreshadows future events. Poe communicates truths about the
character through setting. Symbols are also used throughout to help understand
the theme through the setting.
Poe uses the setting to create an atmosphere
in the reader’s mind. He chose every word in every sentence carefully to
create a gloomy mood. For example, Usher’s house, its windows, bricks,
and dungeon are all used to make a dismal atmosphere. The “white trunks
of decayed trees,” the “black and lurid tarn,” and the “vacant, eyelike
windows” contribute to the collective atmosphere of dispair and anguish.
This is done with the words black, lurid, decayed, and vacant. The narrator
says that the Usher mansion had “an atmosphere which had no affinity with
the air of heaven.” It was no where near being beautiful, holy, or clean.
He uses descriptive words such as decayed, strange, peculiar, gray, mystic,
Gothic, pestilent, dull and sluggish to create the atmosphere. Poe’s meticulous
choice of words creates a very effective atmosphere in the story.
Another important way Poe uses the setting
is to foreshadow events in the story. Roderick Usher’s mansion is on example
of this. There is a “barely perceptible fissure” in the masonry. It is
a small crack in “The House of Usher” which the narrator defines as “both
the family and the family mansion.” This foreshadows an event that will
ruin the house and the family. The fissure divides the house. Roderick
and Madeline die, destroying the family. The narrator says there is a “wild
inconsistency between still perfect adaptation..and the
crumbling condition of the individual stones.” This is also symbolic. The
stones represent the individual people of the Usher family, and the entire
mansion stands for the whole family. The “wild inconsistency” makes the
reader aware that something later in the story will make the inconsistency”
clear or consistent. From far away, no one knows that the House of Usher
is in despair. The “fabric gave little token of instability”– or the mansion
itself did not tell of the turmoil it concealed. The story takes place
in autumn, a season associated with death. When the story’s tension is
about to reach its crescendo, a storm comes up, a “rising tempest.” This
is a symbol for the “tempest” brewing in Roderick Usher’s mind. Poe’s use
of foreshadowing is just enough to clue the reader into what will happen,
but not enough to give it away.
Character traits are displayed through
how the setting affects, influences, and reveals the characters. The narrator
is affected by the gloomy atmosphere of the Usher mansion. He is “sucked
in” to Usher’s “dream world,” the world he created after living alone in
his dismal house for years. Usher’s house itself is a symbol for Usher.
It is isolated like Usher. There are many “intricate passages,” like the
many facets of his mind. One of the rooms had windows which “feeble gleams
of encrimsoned light…served to render sufficiently distinct the more
prominent objects around.” The windows stand for Usher’s eyes, the light
is reality. He lives in his own world he created. Reality enters his brain
only in “feeble gleams of light.” “The eye…struggles in vain to reach
the remoter angles of the chamber..” The reality does not reach all of
his brain. These quotes show that Usher is only half in the real world,
half in his own world. The books Usher read, his art, and music all reveal
his personality. He played “long improvised dirges” on the guitar. The
narrator describes his painting as “phantasmagoric.” The books he reads
are about death, magic, mysticism, the occult, and torture. His favorite
is a book of vigils for the dead. All these things show that Usher is unstable
and obsessed with death.
Through the setting, Edgar Allan Poe is
able to foreshadow events, establish an atmosphere, and reveal character
traits. Although the reader may not notice all the numerous devices used,
they contribute to giving the story depth. Noticed or not, Poe utilizes
the setting to its’ full capacity to create the mood, characters and foreshadowing.