Themes of addiction and substance abuse cannot be avoided when reading the works of Edgar Allan Poe. While it is a long held belief that his death may have been hurried along by the influence of drugs or alcohol, it cannot be most certainly proved. What cannot be denied, however, is Poe’s interest in employing the influence of alcohol as a facilitator for character choice and motivation in his written works.
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Many of his characters make poor choices after the consumption of alcohol, and it is addressed as a thing of power throughout his texts. Two of Poe’s short stories specifically analyze this complex, emotionally-charged response to alcohol use in their narrators: a man proud of his success in overcoming his addiction in “The Cask of Amontillado and a man who ultimately succumbs to his vices in “The Black Cat.
“The Cask of Amontillado is a story told by the narrator, Montresor, and it is his death-bed confession of a long-ago murder. This murder took place while the victim was very drunk, and the narrator kills him by walling him up deep in a crypt where he will eventually suffocate. The narrator makes his death-bed confession without remorse or in hopes of penance as one would expect of a murderer. Therefore, in light of his lack of regret, even in light of his apparent pride in his deed, the murder of Fortunato may be read as a metaphor for Montresor’s attempts to figuratively wall-up his alcohol addiction. Montresor, while dying, addresses his story to “one who knows the nature of my soul (415). This listener is privy to the confession of a man proud of his defeat of an enemy, and the listener, according to Montresor, should not be shocked by this information due to the nature of their relationship. This person is close to Montresor as they, according to him, know his true self. He begins his story by justifying the actions to come.
Montresor says, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could (415). If the metaphor holds up, and Fortunato is in actuality Montresor’s addiction, then the story begins with his acknowledgment of his problem. He admits to his addiction and opens up about the curse of alcohol’s “injuries against him. The name Fortunato is of Italian origin and translates as “lucky or “fortunate” but it also has similar sounds with the word “fool. Fortunato is dressed as one when Montresor devises to kill him. Alcoholism is the fool in this case. The name is ironic. Montresor calls his addiction “lucky” when he may simply be commenting on his feelings of being lucky for overcoming it and living a long life. His motivation in walling-up Fortunato is patriotic in a sense, as his family is his political unit; he is a nobleman, so it is within his rights to invoke revenge on one who wrongs him, and he has his family, and their political history to back up his actions and choices. Montresor invokes his family crest which reads, “Nemo me impune lacessit (418) or “No one attacks me with impunity. Fortunato is the embodiment of Montresor’s addiction, and this family motto encourages and fuels his ability to succeed against his alcoholism, his ultimate foe.
The use of the pronoun “me in the family motto is something that would also point to Montresor’s use of it to fight a personal demon. Lastly, Montresor speaks of the killing of Fortunato as an “immolation (415), a religious task in which a priest kills a sacrificial victim to give to a higher power. Fortunato, Montresor’s addiction, must die in order for Montresor to be avenged. He is a sacrifice. Montresor enjoys his victim’s demise. He does not feel remorseful, and this story does not sound like a confession seeking penance. Montresor is proud of his deed. As the metaphor suggests, his pride, rather than a morbid gratification from committing a murder, is in fact, a legitimate sense of achievement in overcoming his alcohol addiction. Another of Poe’s short stories, “The Black Cat” is a dark tale about the perverted nature of man, specifically while under the influence of alcohol. This unnamed narrator, like Montresor, acknowledges his problem. He calls his addiction a disease (350), and the violent acts he commits against his pet cat while drunk haunt his mind and follow him. The unnamed narrator outright blames his addiction as the root of his problems. His temperament changes when he is drunk.
While drinking he “grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable he even abuses his wife (349). He calls his addiction, or the alcohol itself, “The Fiend Intemperance (349) and moans about his disease, saying it is like none other (350). This man’s dependence on alcohol is a “fiend to him; it is an unfriendly power in his life. Yet, his demonization of alcohol does not involve the agency he has in choosing to consume it. In fact, he is quick to place blame for his actions on anything but himself. He blames the perverse nature of man, and asks “who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? (350). It is evident, through his blame-placing that the narrator cannot face his addiction to alcohol. He blames the actions of the cat for forcing him to murder it, (352) and he blames the drink for taking over his actions. He even blames his wife for her own death in the way in which he tells of the murder. She tries to stop him from killing their second pet cat. She tries to temper his perversion. But she gets in the way, and he blames her actions for her death. He says that he was “goaded, by this interference, into a rage more than demoniacal, I withdrew my arm from her grasp and burried the axe in her brain (353). It should be noted, however, that he does acknowledge the murder as murder. He does not deny that he killed both his first black cat and then his wife.
As soon as the deed is done, he calls it a “hideous murder (354) that must be hidden. Poe employs personification to discuss the narrator’s correct, alcohol-free state of mind. “When reason return[s] with the morning (350) he begins to understand the ramifications of what he had done, in this instance, gouging out the eye of his pet cat Pluto. The narrator realizes the mistakes he made while under the influence of alcohol, but he has no desire to truly repent and change his ways. In fact, he states that while he “experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse his “soul remained untouched (350). To feel better, he turns back to drinking, a sign of a true addiction. This then leads him down the path of his even more dastardly and violent deed of murdering his wife, hiding her body, being discovered, and ultimately being “consigned to the hangman (355) for the murder. This narrator succumbs to his alcohol addiction in the most ultimate way possible, his own death. Edgar Allan Poe was no stranger to the effects of alcohol, though it would be pure speculation to deem him an alcoholic. He did write letters of response or apology for specific instances of public intoxication, and he went through a time of desperation during the events leading to the death of his wife Virginia.
He was driven to drink excessively. According to the E.A. Poe Society, he wrote a letter to his friend George W. Eveleth about these struggles. He confessed to turning to alcohol while Virginia struggled with her illness: “During these fits of absolute unconsciousness I drank, God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity. I had, indeed, nearly abandoned all hope of a permanent cure when I found one in the death of my wife (Poe to George W. Eveleth, January 4, 1848 qtd. by E.A. Poe Society). By writing about addiction to alcohol and illustrating the power it can have over a person through the narrators of both “The Cask of Amontillado and “The Black Cat” Poe has created a body of work in which his readers may learn a moral lesson about alcohol. Montresor, through the metaphorical Fortunato, overcomes his addiction, and lives a long life after abandoning drunkenness. The narrator of “The Black Cat dies as a result of his addiction and the actions he committs while under the influence of alcohol. Both stories show two outcomes a person may have if they suffer from alcoholism. How their story ends is up to them.
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