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Stories are how we learn and how we grow as a society and as individuals. Their messages cause us to reflect upon ourselves and the world we live in. Both Chopin in “The Story of an Hour” and Poe in “The Cask of Amontillado” utilize irony and symbolism in order to reveal their underlying messages. However, while Chopin focuses the message’s lesson on the oppressive nature of marriage, Poe instead highlights the futility of revenge.
Chopin incorporates dramatic and situational irony in “The Story of an Hour” to bring attention to her overarching theme regarding the oppressive institution of marriage for women– oppression that women can sometimes recognize only after they get a taste of freedom. In this story, two ironic twists take place, both of which highlight Mrs. Mallard’s unexpected reactions and reveal how important one hour of freedom is to her.
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The first twist occurs when she first hears of her husband’s death. For fear of causing Mrs. Mallard tremendous pain and upsetting her “heart trouble,” her sister and her husband’s friend take great care in breaking the tragic news (120).
However, this news was nothing short of a remedy for her malady. This situational irony brings Mrs. Mallard’s true feelings regarding her husband to attention. She realizes that finally, “she would live for herself” without her loving husband overpowering her and bending her will (122). Alas, in a second ironic twist, the “dead” Mr. Mallard walks through the door, alive and well, thus stripping Mrs. Mallard of her newfound freedom, resulting in her unexpected death. Chopin also incorporates dramatic irony, an example being the doctor’s diagnosis of Mrs. Mallard’s death. He states that she died from “a joy that kills” (123). However, readers know that she was far from joyous. In fact, because the death of her husband had given her so much life, his return signifies the loss of her life, which, tragically, is perhaps the only escape available to her.
Much like Chopin, Poe utilizes irony throughout “The Cask of Amontillado” in order to reveal the protagonist’s and Montresor’s emotions and intentions and to bring light to the futility of revenge. The story takes place during the peak of Carnival, a time of celebration and wild fun. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that this is quite an ironic setting. Montresor’s sinister plans for revenge greatly contrast with the brightest time of the year, causing them to appear even darker.
In addition to his brilliant choice of timing, Montresor demonstrates his ability to use human psychology in order to convince the poor Fortunato to accompany him into the catacombs. All the while, Montresor showers him with compliments such as, “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy as once I was,” and appears concerned about Fortunato’s health (413). The result of this excessive flattery is an insight into Montresor’s genuine opinion of Fortunato. In reality, he despises all that the latter stands for and relishes each compliment he speaks, knowing they imply the opposite. Poe, like Chopin, also includes an ironic twist. Ever since Fortunato dared to insult him, Montresor felt the crippling need to take revenge.
In this way, Montresor is much like Mrs. Mallard; both characters are being kept from realizing their emotional freedom, and in the end, they continue to be trapped. While Mrs. Mallard is restrained by the oppressive institution of marriage, Montresor lives with the stinging humiliation bestowed upon him by Fortunato. Montresor believes that as soon as he takes his revenge upon Fortunato and frees himself from his judgment, he will be free to live in peace. After he completes the deed, however, Montresor feels just as trapped as before. His “heart grew sick,” and the guilt lingers with him for over fifty years (417). This unexpected reaction is the result of the ironic truth that revenge yields no winner. Although Poe’s story revolves around the excitement leading up to revenge, it is all in an effort to emphasize the futility of it all.
The thematic statements in both stories are not only revealed through irony but also through symbolism. In her story, Chopin uses several symbols, the predominant symbol being Mrs. Mallard’s heart trouble. Although the doctors and family believe her heart trouble is merely a physical malady, it represents much more. In matters of strength, happiness, and affection, her heart is sick and neglected. Thus, in the final paragraphs of the story, it is clear that her heart gives out more than just shock. It is instead caused by the devastating realization that her heart will never be filled with the freedom it desires.
In addition to her heart, her very name, “Mallard,” a species of duck, is an ironic symbol highlighting the fact that she, like a domesticated duck, can no longer fly free. However, while in her locked room, she faces an open window facing a spring day filled with the smell of lingering rain with the sound of sparrows in the eaves. This represents her future of independence and possibility. The spring day signifies rebirth, while rain is often associated with cleansing and baptism, both of which relate back to her new life that is about to begin. The “patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds” represent hope filtering in through the dark oppression of the clouds, an allusion to the oppressiveness of her marriage that is now broken (121).
Even the sparrows in this scene point to freedom, but on a more tragic level. In much European folklore, sparrows are symbols of impending death. At the same time, they are often used as reminders that busy hands and minds make a happy life. Both of these meanings reflect ironically on Mrs. Mallard’s situation; they could be a foreshadowing of her death or an indication that she is not happy as a result of a lack of mental stimulation and freedom. Nonetheless, birds are a recurring motif in Chopin’s story and must not be overlooked.
Unlike Chopin, the symbols in Poe’s story are primarily used to focus the reader’s attention on the ominous nature of the events that unfold, providing foreshadowing as well as creating a sinister atmosphere. One symbol Poe uses is Fortunato’s attire; he is dressed in a motley and represents the fool Montresor sees him as. The setting is also very important symbolically. The evening is described as being “during the supreme madness of carnival” (411). This implies the madness of Montresor, emphasizing Poe’s belief that only someone who is mentally unsound would believe in the significance of revenge.
As the story continues and the setting shifts to the catacombs, niter, a white, web-like growth of potassium nitrate, is mentioned multiple times. The niter represents the trap that Fortunato is being led into, from which he will not escape. However, one of the predominant symbols is the wall Montresor traps Fortunato behind. Montresor is attempting to rid himself of humiliation by burying the cause of it. This represents the guilt and ‘sickness of heart’ that he has kept buried deep within him for many years. Montresor has heart trouble, just like Mrs. Mallard. He has attempted to wall them up but to no avail. All of these symbols point to the double-edged sword of revenge – no one wins.
By twisting together continuous strands of irony with various symbols, both Chopin and Poe shed light on two very dark messages. Although their stories were written over one hundred years ago, the oppressive treatment of women and our fascination with revenge continue to cause us to question the faults of our present society. We must ask ourselves if we have truly learned the lessons these stories are trying to teach us. Perhaps Kate Chopin and Edgar Allen Poe have the answer.
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