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 [the masonry's] 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.