How does Poe's setting affect "The Fall of the House of Usher"?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Without doubt, there has been much debate on the interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher" as to whether it is a tale of natural or psychological forces acting together, supernatural forces acting, or symbolic forces acting out a sort of Apocalypse. Nevertheless, in each of these interpretations, the setting plays an important role. For, as a Dark Romantic, Poe most certainly perceives nature as a force. But, while the Romantics felt that nature was in unison with the human spirit, imbuing it with knowledge and leading man to the spiritual world, in his story, Poe apparently depicts nature much as Melville does in Moby Dick as Captain Ahab perceives it as an inscrutable malice. He informs his crew, "All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks" that hide behind them "a reasoning mask," a force.

As the Dark Romantic, then, Poe skewers the Romantic idea of Nature as reflective of the soul's emotions and insights, and gives to Nature the role of destructive driving force, the inscrutable malice that permeates the home and minds of the Ushers. This fits Poe's idea of the Arabesque, a technique of repeating and louping bizarre traits. Thus, the narrator arrives at the Usher estate only to find the outside reflective of what transpires within. for, he immediately remarks upon the "insufferable gloom" that pervades his spirit as he approaches the "melancholy House of Usher":

I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth.

The narrator shudders as he gazes at the

remodeled and inverted images of the grey sedge, and the ghastly tree stems and the vacant and eyelike windows.

Later, after greeting the host of the decaying mansion, the narrator finds him in "perfect keeping" with the "character of the premises." Then, he alludes to the "equivocal appellation" of the House of Usher--

an appellation which seemed to include in the minds of the peasantry who used it both [the]family and [the] mansion.

Moreover, the mansion's atmosphere seems to the narrator to be connected by its decay and disease to the underworld. It is this force, then, that creates the fungi and decay outside as well as within the house the fissure in the walls that forms a zigzag from the roof to the wall, a fissure that widens as Roderick begins to break down. "An air of stern, deep and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded itself," the narrator observes. And, reflective of this gloom is the change in Roderick Usher because of a "family evil." Further, Roderick speaks to the narrator of a "sufferance of spirit" which is provoked by 

"...the physique of the gray walls and turrets, and of the dim tarn into which they all looked down...."

Indeed, Roderick Usher exists in a terrible and perverse connection with his surroundings, one which forms Poe's Arabesque of death for both Usher the family and the Usher mansion. Similarly, his twin Madeline suffers from a "settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person," reflective of the decay of the mansion and the surrounding area.

As the narrative continues, Roderick Usher expresses the belief that all things, living or non-living, are sentient. Thus, there is an interaction among them. He tells his friend that the waters and the walls have a atmosphere of their own. His books, the narrator observes, "in strict keeping of the phantasm" in keeping with the character of the phantasm. And, as Roderick falls prey to this interaction with his environment, his eye loses it luminous quality and assumes an empty and ghastly appearance not unlike the "vacant and eyelike" windows of the mansion first noted by the narrator in the exposition of the story. Later, when Roderick's sister dies he wanders through the house; opening the door, there is a tremendous whirlwind that sends inside vapors that "enshrouded the mansion"--a phrase mirrored by the "enshrouded figure of the lady Madeline Usher" who issues forth from her vault to embrace her brother in a death grip a final agonies for both. As they collapse in this terrible embrace, the fissure of the walls widens, and the "deep and dank tarn...closed sullenly...over the fragment of the "House of Usher." 

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