Edgar Allan Poe, renowned as the foremost master of the short-story form of writing, chiefly tales of the mysterious and macabre, has established his short stories as leading proponents of Gothic literature. Although the term Gothic originally referred only to literature set in the Gothic (or medieval) period, its meaning has since been extended to include a particular style of writing. In order for literature to be Gothic, it must fulfill some specific requirements. Firstly, it must set a tone that is dark, somber, and foreboding.
Next, throughout the development of the story, the events that occur must be strange, melodramatic, or often sinister. Poes short stories are considered Gothic literature because of their eerie atmosphere and atypical plot developments. Consequently, in The Fall of the House of Usher, Poe is distinguished as an author of unique, albeit grotesque ingenuity in addition to superb plot construction via his frequent use of the ominous setting to enhance the plots progression and his thematic exploration of science versus superstition.
In the beginning of the story, with an extensive and vivid description of the house and its vicinity, Poe prepares the scene for a dreadful, bleak, and distempered tale. The setting not only affects Poes narration of the story but influences the characters and their actions as well. Both the narrator and his boyhood friend, Roderick Usher, question whether the house and its surroundings are naturally unhealthy. After all, in much of the Nineteenth Century, many doctors still affirmed their belief that a marshy or ancient area of land may have the potential to physically sicken an individual.
Hence, Poe appropriates a setting that seems to contaminate the characters. Just as the atmosphere and landscape seem translated into the characters, the house, as another primary feature of setting, functions as a symbol for the Usher family. The narrator even mentions initially that House of Usher had come to represent both family and home. Therefore, the house itself can be seen as an embodiment of the family. Poe emphasizes this symbolism by personifying the house, providing it with the anatomy of humans: eye-like windows and clothing: a veil.
Moreover, the house is deteriorating just as the family is. The Ushers, Roderick and his sister Madeline, have no relatives, only themselves, and both are suffering with unusual illness. Finally, after Roderick and Madeline die, likewise the house completely breaks apart, characterizing the fate of the family. Family is a prevailing theme in this story. The tale essentially documents the demise of a family name. The Ushers have been a significant and reputable family: their house is of considerably large size, they are apparently well educated, and they have servants.
On the other hand, they have not produced enough offspring in order for their lineage to persevere. Furthermore, Roderick claims that the nervous exhaustion he continually suffers is hereditary. Therefore, not only is this generation unwell, but other previous generations have been diseased as well. Poe seems to be suggesting, then, that families pass on and acquire faulty traitssuch as illness and the houseas well as beneficial ones. Beyond that, families can either deliberately or inadvertently kill off their own kind.
Roderick did not intend to harm his sister, it seems, but he did so regardless. The illnesses in this short story, as well as some of the instances of natural phenomenon, explore the theme of science versus superstition. Poe plays with this opposition in much of his work, questioning the amount of odd occurrences in life that can be explained away by science. Generally speaking, the narrator represents a scientific standpoint: he believes that the house may produce illness and dismisses his own superstitious thoughts as a dream.
Contrarily, Roderick acts as one who believes in the supernatural: he hears noises and is afraid that he will eventually die as a result of his fearfulness. The two characters often clash in these beliefs. The narrator merely dismisses Roderick as a hypochondriac, and he seems to be taking on the position that people are only sick if they can be proven so scientifically. Yet Roderick ultimately dies from what he superstitiously believed he always would: fear.
And, when Roderick hastens to the narrators room on the night he dies, he is frightened of the dismal mist surrounding the house, which the narrator rationalizes as just a natural weather phenomenon. The science-versus-superstition question remains open-ended because it is difficult to know without a doubt whether Madeline actually struggled her way from within the tomb alive after several days of being trapped or whether she is an apparition that both men see.
The physical collapse of the house allows, then, for the reader to ponder the possibility of the story as being either an unsettling, paranormal phenomenon or a mere tale of (scientific) coincidence. As a result of short stories such as The Fall of the House of Usher, through his grim yet descriptive imagery and settings and elaborate plot construction, Poe separates himself as a truly epochal Gothic writer.