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Horror is omnipresent. It is physical, psychological, or manifests as a combination both, where the mental flow of irrationality bleeds into reality, creating a somewhat-tangible, yet somewhat-abstract convolution of fear that surrounds us, as well as our psyches. The notion is sometimes difficult to grasp. And it is because of this unsettling emotion, that theme of horror has become such an integral element in many novels and stories, falling into the realms of literary and psychological criticism. One particular short story that elevates horror to such criticism is Edgar Alan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”, a twisted tale based on the narrator, Montresor, seeking vengeance against Fortunato, the man who “had laughed at his proud name, Montresor, the name of an old and honored family”. The story takes place fifty years after Montresor had sought his requital, burying Fortunato alive, deep within the walls of his family’s wine catacombs. The narrator’s motive centralize on the radical notion that retribution is justifiable through death – an “eye for an eye,” given Fortunato’s final resting place: within the dark walls of the Montresor family manor, whose name he had wronged. As the reader dissects the story, they may find that the narration becomes introspective, as they, too, fall inside the shoes of both Montresor, the perpetrating narrator, and Fortunato, the victim. The emphasis on murder questions the horror that resides deep within the human unconscious: why did Montresor, without a solid argument, seek such hatred against an insult? What was Fortunato’s biggest weakness that would lead to his downfall? And how does this transpire in society? The answers lie within the psychoanalytic duality of Sigmund Freud’s Id vs. the Ego – separate parts of the human unconscious – that drives each character to do, in short, exactly what they did.
The story is first told “during the supreme madness of the carnival season,” where the narrator meets Fortunato, dressed in a jester costume. This analysis foretells of the “joke” that Montresor is about to make of Fortunato’s upcoming demise. There is a definitive confession for murder, setting the mood of terror. Moreover, what’s truly unnerving as the casualness where the narrator speaks of the situation; it’s easy, yet foreboding, creating apprehension for the worse that is to come. The narrator speaks of Fortunato as he would a friend, conscious of the man’s societal status and strengths, even as far as knowing his biggest weakness: “ had a weak point… although in other regards he was a man to be respected and feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine” . Montresor takes a stance very similar to the popular doctrine from Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”: “To know your enemy, you must become your enemy.” He is blinded with greed, the thirst to satisfy his innate need for vengeance – though, he would not consider it a crime, as he “must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is undressed when retribution overtakes its redresser”. Thus, the first layer of the unconsciousness – the Id – unfolds in the form of Montresor’s lack of morality.
How it works
The Id is described as “the source of all out aggressions and desires. It is lawless, asocial and amoral. Its function is to gratify our instincts without regard for social conventions, legal ethics, or moral restraint”. Being said, what can this suggest about the human condition? That overstimulation of the Id leads to impulsivity and destruction, even self-destruction, without a regard to result, all for the sake of satisfaction. Namely, it is the truest horror that the human condition can experience, because it is self-driven, uncouth and volatile. The narrator perfectly shows a lack of control, driven by instinctual gratification rather than sensibility, when he chooses to lure Fortunato inside the manor through the exploitation of Fortunato’s weakness. Montresor’s evident imbalance between Id and ‘conscious thinking’ derives fear from the unexpected, creating tension as the darkening tone of the narrator’s intentions takes the reader deep in the darkness, straight into the heart of the murder. With stern instructions to his ‘attendants’, Montresor clears his manor to create the perfect space, for the perfect crime. And with some easy coaxing, and with Fortunato’s drunken head in the clouds, the duality between the two characters reveals itself.
The narrator strokes Fortunato’s Ego with delicate ease, mocking his knowledge on wine with feigned acclaim: “I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not around, and I was fearful of losing a bargain”. While this speaks volumes of Montresor’s manipulative and spiteful nature, it also reveals plenty about Fortunato’s biggest weakness: his ego. The fact that Fortunato can be manipulated so effortlessly reflects his own faulty ego.
The Ego’s “function is to make the id’s energies nondestructive by postponing them into socially acceptable actions, sometimes by finding a proper time for gratifying them”. The Ego, in short, regulates the id, and protects the individual with reasoning backed by a “conscious” mindset – though still remaining largely part of the ‘unconscious’. While the Ego does safeguard against the Id, Fortunato, however, falls victim to his own overelaborate ego, which is described as excessive and gullible, focusing too much on the ‘self’, and easily swayed by his desire to avoid discomfort or pain. Fortunato allows a gluttonous appetite for wine and backhanded compliments to overpower his ability to consider the narrator’s motives to make a fool out of him – the jester. Disillusioned and lacking logical inquiry of the situation, Fortunato is easily baited by Montresor into the catacombs. Montresor jabs at Fortunato’s ego by first suggesting that he take another fellow – a man by the name of Luchresi – to taste the amontillado, as opposed to Fortunato, warning him of the “severe cold which I perceive is afflicted”. Fortunato, fed by his own ego, disagrees, and insists that Montresor bring him, as he cannot have another but himself boasting about the Amontillado: “Luchresi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry… [The cold] is nothing”. Unable to expose the wolf in sheep’s clothing, Fortunato blindly follows Montresor deeper into the catacombs, falling for the same cheap tricks, that would lead to him shackled in chains, and unable to retaliate with a level head as the narrator seals him away behind the walls.
Fortunato’s death is classified as a horror in such that the readers don’t understand what is happening, until the events actually unfold in front of them. Much like Fortunato’s inability to look beyond the state of pleasure – the overstimulated “Ego” – the human condition, too, falls into such a state when it cannot grasp the reality principle, when the “inner and outer world” cannot be mediated consciously – a cognitive distortion that Freud would describe is ‘Rationalization’:
“Rationalization… ‘the facts’ to make an event or impulse less threatening. We do it often on a fairly unconscious level when we provide ourselves with excuses. But for many people, with sensitive egos, making excuses comes so easy that they never are truly aware of it. In other words, many of us are quite prepared to believe our lies”.
As told by history, society will often push aside detrimental issues and facts before realization hits, and it is too late to reverse the outcome, in the same regard Fortunato overlooks his demise – especially without heeding the warnings – through empty promises. Fortunato can thus be pegged as a one-sided character with an underdeveloped and unrefined ego, rendering him practically useless from reading between the lines of the narrator’s ulterior motives. And so, what could be taken from this?
Perhaps the biggest display of irony in “The Cask of Amontillado” is within Fortunato’s name itself. Italian for the “fortunate one,” Fortunato experiences anything but fortune, rather an untimely death, when his lack of incompetence collides with another’s insatiable greed for revenge. While the harrowing events that transpire between Fortunato and Montresor are prime examples of a classic, gothic horror story, it is the complexity of the human mind that materializes into the true horrors of reality, where chunks of the enigmatic mental processes remain submerged in dark waters of unconscious thought, much like an iceberg. It is only the tip of the iceberg that remains conscious, while the rest is driven by the what Freudians call ‘psychic zones’: Id and the Ego. An imbalance of the two could reflect upon the very nature that drove the Montresor, the narrator, into an Id-driven craze for revenge; or, on the opposite end, Fortunato to allow his hyperactive Ego to distort the basis of reality. What this story implies about the nature of society is that humans, unconsciously, can have a dark potential, and that the psyche is a force to be reckoned with. And so, to seek an equilibrium that would minimize that prospect, Id and the Ego must coexist in balance – not just within the mind, but also the heart of society.
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