In “The Fall of the House of Usher” Poe explores such topics as incest, terminal illness, mental breakdown, and death. As is typical of the gothic genre, the story is set in a dark, medieval castle, and uses a first-person narrator to introduce a sense of dread and terror in the reader. Visual and aural imagery are key elements in “The Fall of the House of Usher” and give the reader a noteworthy experience. Gothic imagery is the exceptional key in the story and helps set the tone for the entire tale. In this short story, a man will visit a childhood friend who is suffering from a strange illness. Strange events will occur under his host’s mansion. In this narrative, Poe uses conventions of gothic literature to push the story’s protagonists into a state of constant distress of the mind and eventually drive them into madness. Gothic conventions such as the gothic setting, death and the supernatural will slowly bring fear upon his characters.
The author uses the gothic setting to create a frightful gloomy mood and atmosphere that inspires fright to the narrator. At his first arrival at the Usher domain, the narrator describes his feelings of the house saying “with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded [his] spirit.” (263) The house looks dreary, the innumerous use of symbolism throughout the tale has led others to suggest that “Usher” addresses the nature and causes of evil.
The descriptions of the Usher family home and of Roderick and Madeline create an atmosphere of evil and dread that pervades the narrative from the very beginning. The house itself is referred to as a “mansion of gloom” that seems to cast its shadow over its occupants, both Roderick and Madeline have a ghostly pallor, arousing feelings of unease in the narrator. Many renderings of the story have explicated the evil behind the curse Roderick speaks of as the outcome of a long history of incest and inbreeding in the Usher family. According to this interpretation, the brother and sister are suffering the physical and emotional consequences of the guilt linked with such commonly condemned behavior. Yet others see the evil and sense of foretelling in the story as something of a purely supernatural nature; this interpretation characterizes Roderick’s behavior as a natural response to the transcendental forces that are haunting his home. Roderick speaks several times about the mysterious illnesses from which he and his sister suffer. His progressively unstable mental condition and ultimate emotional breakdown at the end of the story have led many to view “The Fall of the House of Usher” as an exploration of the themes of madness and insanity. Madeline’s illness, a condition that causes extreme muscle rigidity and periods of unconsciousness, is quite possibly misunderstood or even purposely interpreted as death by her mentally unstable brother, whose irrationality steers the story.