The Art of Subtlety

Category: Literature
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American author, Edgar Allan Poe was a prominent figure in nineteenth-century literature. Famously known for his versatile tales of macabre horror, Poe compels readers to consider the mental status or sanity of the characters portrayed in some of his short stories. Audiences find themselves asking if certain characters are acting on impulse in which they perhaps later regret or if the characters lack a conscience and remain truly unrepentant. Similarities between two of Poe’s short stories, “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” are evident, but the narrator’s delivery encourages readers to contemplate whether the crime committed is justified and if the narrator feels remorseful. While both narrators are mentally disturbed, the approach in “The Cask of Amontillado” is far more subtle and controlled with the regret more contemplated than that presented in “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

“The Cask of Amontillado” is a story of revenge narrated in the first person. The protagonist, Montressor, seeks vengeance on his friend Fortunato for an unspecified insult. An arrogant Fortunato is lured into the catacombs on Montressor’s estate under the guise of tasting a rare wine. Bantering back and forth, the two characters eventually make their way deep into a vault that houses not only the wine but the skeletal remains of Montressor’s ancestors. After arriving at the end of the crypt, Fortunato steps into a smaller cavern in search of the Amontillado. Montressor promptly chains and secures the inebriated Fortunato. Without hesitation, Montressor begins to stone up the wall essentially entombing the victim.

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The narrator begins the short story with little background information. Capturing the audience’s attention, Montressor states, “I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself as such to him who has done the wrong” (Poe 866). The narrator’s determination to cause harm is seemingly cold and calculated. The above quote can be interpreted as a guide on how to commit a perfect murder. Montressor insists on Fortunato being aware that revenge is being brought upon him intentionally, otherwise the crime would be unjustified. The emotionless premeditation hinders readers from associating Montressor with subtlety or regret thus far.

As the short story progresses, small hints arise that may indicate that Montressor is hesitant. His cool, confident demeanor dissipates. While leading Fortunato toward the vaults, Montressor states, “we will go back; your health is precious” (Poe 868). By offering his Fortunato the opportunity to leave after questioning his victim’s health, readers are forced to consider if Montressor’s conscience is getting the better of him. While some may think Montressor is looking for a way to abandon his plan, others interpret the offer as a sarcastic way to manipulate and goad Fortunato into continuing on.

When researching “The Cask of Amontillado,” readers can find numerous subjective interpretations of the text. In the article “The Art of Dissimulation. The Good Christian vs the Loyal Freemason,” author Codrin Liviu Cu?itaru captivatingly writes about Montressor’s “confession-like” narrative. Cu?itaru explores a third character in his supposition:

He has been addressing someone from the very beginning. This is how he starts: “You, who so well know the nature of my soul…” Who might be the silent listener? From the symbolic invocation made by the narrator, we could presume that the listener is God himself. Only He can know so well the nature of a sinner’s soul. Nevertheless, we should adopt a more pragmatic view on things here and say that the listener is not necessarily God, but maybe his spiritual substitute, the priest. Considering that the tale indicates a gap of half a century between facts and their presentation (between the time of action and the time of story, as it were), we may infer that the old Montresor (the storyteller as opposed to the action taker, i.e. the young Montresor) lays on his deathbed and has his last confession in front of his confessor. (Cu?itaru 206)

When considering this alternative viewpoint, readers can sense regret and empathize with Montressor. The now older man has unburdened himself of the guilt he has been suffering from for the past fifty years. In the final scene, Montressor realizes his friend is no longer responsive and states “[m]y heart grew sick” (Poe 870). He follows that statement with an excuse for his heartache. Readers can assume he is already experiencing remorse, yet he fails to admit it because that means he would fail to “punish with impunity” (Poe 866). The narrator exudes self-reproach in this interpretation with his understated revelation.

In contrast to “The Cask of Amontillado,” the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” epitomizes insanity. The story opens with an unsettling declaration:

True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story. (Poe )

The narrator who is admittedly nervous tries to convince the reader that he has maintained his sanity while confessing to the brutal murder of his roommate. He details his obsessive behavior by describing the eight days of stalking his victim with a boastful attitude. The narrator claims it was not the man himself but his eye that provoked the murder. After startling his prey awake on the final day, he smothers the man before dismembering his body and disposing of the remains beneath the floorboards of their house. Later, the police arrive to investigate a noise complaint. He proudly invites them in. Certain there’s no evidence, he continues to make casual conversation with the officers. Suddenly he begins to hear what he thinks is the beating of the victim’s heart. Convinced the police officers are mocking him by acting as if they don’t hear the noise, he breaks. The narrator shrieks his confession and tells the men to pull up the floorboards.

In a critical analysis titled “The Tell-Tale Heart,” author Charles May writes, “Although some critics have suggested that the eye is the “evil eye” of superstition, which the narrator feels threatens him, there is no way to understand his motivation except to say the narrator must be mad” (May ). He became so fixated on the eye that he seemingly dehumanized the old man which allowed the murder to occur. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” states,

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture—a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell upon me, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees—very gradually—I made up my mind to take the life of the old man, and thus rid myself of the eye forever. (Poe 279)

His dedication to murder without motivation or provocation is disturbing. No sense of hesitation or regret is present in the narration. He knowingly sets out to cause harm, yet the narrator retains an unbridled enthusiasm in his delivery:“ But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work!” (Poe 279). The narrator attempts to convince the audience of his sanity by trying to rationalize his behavior; however, his actions and words suggest the opposite.

In Charles May’s literary criticism “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the author comments on the frequent mention of time in the short story. His corresponds the theme of time with that of the beating heart in the following explanation:

The beating of the old man’s heart sounds like the ticking of a watch wrapped in cotton; the old man is said to listen to death watches (a kind of beetle that makes a ticking sound) in the wall; time seems to slow down and almost stop when he sticks his head in the old man’s chamber. To understand this obsession with time and its association with the beating of a heart, the reader must relate it to the title and ask, what tale does a heart tell? The answer is that the tale every heart tells is that of time — time inevitably passing, every beat of one’s heart bringing one closer to death. As in many other Poe stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart” suggests that when one becomes aware of the ultimate destiny of all living things — that humans are born only to die — time becomes the enemy that must be defeated at all costs. (May )

Here readers are introduced to a new perspective. Is the narrator showing mercy on the old man by killing him before he suffers? May alludes to the “eye” meaning “I” ( ) in his text. By suggesting thist hypothesis, the narrator is essentially destroying himself and not the old man. In reality, he succeeds in that goal by confessing to the murder.

Before confessing to the crime, the narrator calmly chats with the officers citing he was “singularly at ease” (Poe ). The confession occurs after the narrator becomes frantic and paranoid. He hears the beating of the heart gradually getting louder and louder. Meanwhile, the police officers act as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening. Thinking they were taunting him, he hysterically confesses: Villains!” I shrieked, “dissemble no more! I admit the deed! –tear up the planks! here, here! –It is the beating of his hideous heart!” (Poe ).

The narrator’s behavior in “The Tell-Tale Heart” can be described as having characteristics of schizophrenia. The calmness before the frenzied pacing, the obsession, paranoia, and suspiciousness are frightening traits of a mental disorder. Poe is disturbingly accurate in his portrayal of a madman in that particular short story. No evidence of remorse, regret or guilt is displayed by the narrator. The approach in “The Cask of Amontillado” is dramatically different. Despite being a murdered, the reader can identify and empathize with the main character, Montressor. Oddly, revenge is more relatable than an emotionless motive. The narrator’s delivery in “The Cask of Amontillado” is clearly more sophisticated and subtle. In conclusion, the manner in which the context surrounding the plot of a story is presented can aid readers in establishing an emotional connection to the narrator.

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The Art of Subtlety. (2020, Mar 07). Retrieved from