Edgar Allan Poe “The Cask of Amontillado” Essay
Many critics have proposed subjective interpretations of the motive of Montresor murdering Fortunato in Edgar Allan Poe’s tale of horror, “The Cask of Amontillado.” Debates arise about Poe’s use literary formulation, symbolism, imagination, and philosophic ideals, along with his application of the terms he coined such as the “Heresy of the Didactic” and the “Tale of Ratiocination” in order to determine whether the motive is rooted within family pride and the characters egotistical personas, or symbolic of conflicts between old and new money aristocrat social groups. Other arguments have been presented contrasting the effect the murder had on the Montresor’s emotions and psyche; some interpretate Montresor’s narrating commentary as a empathetic, guilty conscious, while others assume he feels no remorse in boasting his trespasses. The beginning of the story highlights Fortunato’s ‘thousand injuries’ to Montresor, and his insult that lead to Montresor’s anger and vowed revenge characterized as a form of punishment that includes impunity.
Accordingly, some critics interpret the text literally, believing the insult is the motive of Fortunato’s murder (Elhefnawy). Other scholars argue that the motive is driven by differences in social status between the characters, allowing Montresor to obtain his his social dominance again by eliminating the competition and avenge his ancestral lineage (Bennett). It is also noted that Montresor’s family lineage was of higher social status in comparison to Fortunato, thus the difference between old and new money aristocracy (Baraban). Baraban also argues that the conflict between Fortunato and Montresor originates from differences in their current social class and their ancestral wealth. Unfortunately, these are just educated guesses, as it is impossible for the reader to actually know the motive due to the fact that the narrator is untrustworthy, and Poe never shed light on the ambiguity.
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While Poe’s tale possesses a tone of confession, he provides little incite on Montresor’s feelings or motive behind the murder, and rather focuses on the dynamic of the “perfect crime.” Montresor is an avenger and a dominator to Fortunato; he exacts his perfect revenge and eliminated any possible clues that may connect him to the crime. This becomes clear when Montresor explains that no one has found Fortunato’s remains in fifty years. The lack of information provided by Poe is referred to as a tale of ratiocination; the process of rational thinking that further inclinates the rising conflict between the characters (Elhefnawy). Capuzzo also mentions Poe’s introduction of the ‘style of deduction,’ or withholding information from the reader, making the narrator an unreliable source. Likewise, in Poe’s essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” he explains that no information included within the text is including unintentionally and he extensively elaborates on the multistep process he completed when he wrote pieces of literature; essentially, while he may withhold information, Poe includes enough information in order for the reader to discern the ambiguities within the texts (Baraban).
Montresor uses Fortunato’s insult as justification to become the judge, jury, and executioner of the story; thus, creating a bias objective in aiding his motives and actions. He also retells the story fifty years succeeding the murder, rendering the account of the tale less dependable (Capuzzo). Poe’s most distinct improvement to literature as an author and a critic comes from his analytical methods he practiced. He created artistic ideals within a social environment that he viewed as high invested with the functional value of literature. He coined this term the “heresy of the Didactic” (Foundation). Heresy of the didactic and the tales of ratiocination account for a great deal of Poe’s lasting impact in literary history. Poe’s tales of chaos and darkness introduced horror in a new way of writing, making us fear an ordinary day and influenced the detective fiction genre. Edgar Allan Poe is recognized as the inventor of the detective fiction genre and one of the earliest masters of Gothic fiction and short stories; he is also credited with contributing to the development of science fiction.
Poe’s works are generally associated as part of the Dark Romanticism movement due to their melancholy tone (Capuzzo). Poe’s use of language in literary formalism helped create a visualization and sense of feeling for the reader. By doing so, Poe unleashes emotions and horror, earning him the recognition as one of the founding fathers of modern literature. His emphasis on literary formalism is closely associated with his ideals of philosophy which explain that language formulate an accurate visual interpretation of what is happening and what emotions are at play within the text (Foundation). Poe’s ability to have influence over the reader’s emotions furthered his affect as a well renowned author. Symbolism expresses itself in social, historical, and colorful aspects in The “Cask of Amontillado,” in many parts of the tale; examples include: Freemasonry and the Montresor coat of arms. Scholars have interpreted many allusions to the practices and beliefs of Freemasonry such as walking down the stairs into the catacombs. This is symbolic of Fortunato’s journey of faith as a Freemason; however, it is supposed to be an ascending staircase instead of a descending staircase. This depicts the characters voyage to hell.
Freemasonry is also used by Montresor to play against Fortunato’s ego in order to gain his trust and complete his mission (Foy). One of the interpretations of the Montresors coat of arms perceives the snake as representation of the Montresor family; others believe it symbolizes mutual destruction, making it impossible to distinguish whether or not the family is represented by the snake, or by the foot that is being bitten (Baraban). Poe used color symbolism in the characters costumes at the carnival. One interpretation of Montresor’s black mask is that it signifies his masked motives and the biased revenge concept of Gothic fiction (Foundation). Others believe the mask is symbolic of him as an executioner. This is because executioners used to wear masks while working in order to hide their faces to protect them from loved ones of the convicted (Baraban). Fortunato was described wearing a motley-colored court jester costume, which is ironic since Montresor fools him into going down in the catacombs to become the victim of Montresor’s revenge.. Fortunato’s death is also represented by the irony of the bright color scheme of his costume (Foundation). These examples of symbolism within the short story highlight Poe’s talent with literary formulation and his ability to include a plethora of information into his work, if you know what you are looking for.
There is also controversy over Montresor’s feelings about the murder when he recounts the events. Some critics believe that Montresor is confessing his heinous crime on his deathbed as a result of having to bare the guilt of his actions over the fifty year period. Other scholars have interpreted Montresor’s words and actions as pitiless and satisfactory for the killer (Baraban). Baraban quotes the narrator, “The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labors and sat down upon the bones. When at last the clanking subsided, I resumed the trowel,” and then she explains, “Montresor is perfectly calm and rational in his account. He never expresses pity for his enemy or feels remorse for what he did,” (Baraban). Considering Montresor does not address his feelings, the reader is again left to decipher these ambiguities. Part II I agree with the general consensus that Edgar Allan Poe was an excellent author of short story horror tales and poems during the Romantic Era, and will have an everlasting impact on literature for centuries to come. This is due to his literary styles and philosophies, as well as his mysteriously luring figure of a drunken, mad genius. With that being said, I believe Poe’s life choices and the traumas he endured over his forty years on Earth greatly impacted his literary works.
In the case of the short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” I believe Poem reflects his egotistical personality and arrogance, as well as his anger and vengefulness into two characters, symbolizing his internal conflict with his alcohol addiction and financial instability. Little did Poe know, when he wrote this story, he was foreshadowing his own demise. Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, in 1809, to traveling actors. His father and mother both died when Poe was three years old. A Richmond merchant named John Allan, and his wife, took Edgar into their home, but never officially adopted him. When Poe was in college at the University of Virginia, Allan refused to pay Poe’s gambling debts, thereby compelling him to withdraw from school a year after his enrollment in 1826. In 1827, he published his first poetry collection, with the second collection following two years later; neither received much attention from the public. Poe also enlisted in the army in 1827 and entered West Point in 1830, but he was dishonorably discharged a year later. From there, Poe returned to Baltimore, where he lived with his aunt Maria Clemm, and in 1836, he married her daughter, Virginia; his thirteen-year-old cousin. She died of tuberculosis a few years later.
In 1835, Poe became an editor in Richmond at The Southern Literary Messenger, which begin Poe on his career as a magnificent poetry and fiction author, a literary critic with new insight on American literature, and ascended in rank as a leading man of letters in America. Poe, however, profited little from his work (Foundation). Eventually he was engaged to be married again, but in September, 1849, Poe mysteriously went to Baltimore. On the 3rd of October, he was found incoherent on the street and clothing that was not his. Capuzzo explains that, “Poe’s death… was something the author himself might have written.” He passed away at the age of forty, four days after, not alter enough to explain what happened (Capuzzo). His cause of death still remains a mystery today. Poe suffered through many losses of loved ones and lived life trying to make ends meet by winning in writing contests and editing other literary works. He also struggled with gambling problems, which contributed to his lack of financial insecurity. On top of all that, Poe had a genetic predisposition to be an alcoholic, since his father and older brother both died due to alcohol dependency. However, contrary to popular believe, Poe was not a recreational drug abuser like most authors during the Romantic Era (Society).
During the Romantic Era, many writers and artists abused opium in order to have “experiences of depersonalization and derealization, help loosen personality and reality experiences and achieve special, altered perceptual states,” (száj). It should also be noted that writers who have been addicted to opium experience severe anxiety and irrational ferocity, as well as feelings of isolation and cognitive impairment. Many believe because of Poe’s traumatizing life, along with his own promotion of rumors to encourage people to read his works, and his narrator’s mention of opium use or drug induced illusions, proves that he was a drug addict. Readers often get the narrator confused with Poe since the narrator is speaking in a first person perspective. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore discredits this believe however explaining, “It is reasonable to presume that Poe did use some opium medically as it was a common pharmaceutical ingredient his day, but that is all. In short, it can be said with confidence that Poe was not a drug user.” They back this claim with evidence from documented letters between Poe and a friend of his who was a physician, as well as other witness accounts of Poe’s behavior. In the letters, Poe admits to never having abused opium in order to enhance his writing abilities (Society).
Regardless of other author’s actions during this time period, Poe was not a drug abuser. This furthers my argument that Poe was naturally talented in his literary efforts, As for Poe’s alcoholic tendencies, they were not chronic. He would often have periods of sobriety, but he would always relapse. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore makes a valid point when they explain how Poe could not have been as bad of an alcoholic as the public has been lead to believe due to his intricately constructed pieces of literature; non alcoholic could use create the ambiguous creativity and literary formulation that Poe did while completely intoxicated all the time. That being said, his alcohol addiction did affect his work. The Society quoted Poe’s employer from Southern Literary Messenger saying, “Poe is now in my employ — not as Editor. He is unfortunately rather dissipated, — and therefore I can place very little reliance upon him,” (Society). Poe’s alcohol addiction affected his reputation in the workplace and unfortunately made him an undependable employee, contributing to his financial instability, but it did not make him any less of a great writer, as he is attributed with helping father modern literature. In the tale “The Cask of Amontillado,” Fortunato is drunk from the beginning, when him and Montresor have a “chance meeting” on the street.
Montresor uses Fortunato’s arrogance and pride of his wine coniseriorship against him in order to trick him into further intoxicating himself, in order to become a flightless victim below in the catacombs. Poe’s alcoholism can be seen in Fortunato’s character since he is drunk beyond his limits, as well as Poe’s arrogance perspective of himself, which he displays in his writing and criticisms of others. Fortunato was lead into the Montresor family script within the catacombs, and bricked into the wall, leading to his death. I feel that this is also significant in my argument that the characters reflect Poe in some way because the Fortunato and Montresor will technically be buried in the same script. Essentially, joining the two parts of Poe’s psyche in one resting place. As for Montresor, Poe can be seen in this character as the angry half of Poe’s psyche; he is punishing his drunk self for his intoxication and irresponsible behavior, causing him to lose money and lower his accountability as an employee. As a result of his decision to drink excessively over the year, Poe lost lots of money and gained a bad reputation as an addict.
Consequently, he realized he needed to be punished accordingly, hints the tale, but knew that his own egotistical behaviors would take over, and he would inevitably resort to drinking alcohol once again, adding to the thousand injuries he induced into his own body before. The only thing that got him to stop drinking, like Fortunato, was his death. Montresor seeks satisfaction in revenge through grotesque means of murdering Fortunato. That being said, those who may disagree with many extended interpretation of “The Cask of Amontillado” would be critics who would argue the fact that Edgar Allan Poe has never committed murder, regardless of some common misconceptions of readers. With this argument, those critics would be right in their claim. However, I am not implying that the characters are completely representative of Poe, but that Fortunato and Montresor are inspired by certain aspects of the author’s life. After analyzing sources like Capuzza, Baraban, Elhefnawy, and Bennett, I agree with them in their views of Poe’s style of deductive writing in that he elaborately assembled his works to render the reader to explicate the ambiguities within the narrative, producing an emotional response within the reader’s psyche.
Bennett also argues that Poe triggers thoughts of ethical reasoning in the reader’s mind, like whether or not Montresor was justified in his reason for murdering Fortunato. This is just one of the many ways Poe used ambiguity to intrigue the reader, compelling them to dive deeper, and find answers within the context clues. This technique, along with others, made Poe a greatly influential writer, and consequently, he has left a lasting effect within the world of literature, and even broadcasting today.