The story opens with a description not of Roderick but of his house and its surroundings, which are gloomy, depressing, and ominous. This sets up a mood of looming horror, enhanced by the initial description of the narrator's memories of Roderick, which emphasize his reserve and portray him as a somewhat mysterious figure, even as a child. The letter which summons the narrator to the house gives an impression of physical and mental distress. This and the imposing and yet gloomy nature of the house prepare readers for the narrator's first view of Roderick as an adult. The physical description of Roderick is as follows:
A cadaverousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely moulded chin . . . hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten.
The narrator emphasizes not so much Roderick's physical appearance as how that appearance reveals his mental state. Roderick's hair is messy and his mental instability, which seems to alternate between depression and nervous energy, shows in his voice and gestures. The narrator suggests that Roderick's appearance is like that of an alcoholic or opium addict.