Critical Analysis of "The Cask of Amontillado"
In "The Cask of Amontillado,"
Edgar Allan Poe uses several different artistic choices in the construction of the story. He manipulates the story to be the way he wants it to be by using the point of view of the narrator, the setting, and a common monotonous sentiment throughout. Poe is successful in maintaining a "spirit of perverseness" that is prevalent in most of his works.
The point of view plays a very important role in influencing the reader's perception of the story. The first line of the story is a good example of how the narrator attempts to bring the reader to his side right from the start. "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge" (231). Montresor, the narrator of the story, immediately tries to win the reader to his side by telling him that Fortunato has "ventured upon insult," and apparently crossed over the line. This attempt is clever, but the reader never gets a sense of what Fortunato has actually done to the narrator. This fact alone raises the question in my mind as to whether Fortunato has really insulted Montresor, or whether Montresor is creating it in his own mind.
The point of view of the story can also affect the emotional attachment that the reader gets, or fails to get in this case, for a given
character. When a reader is involved in a story, the point of view from where the story is being told is crucial to the feelings the reader has. In this story, Montresor dominates the progression of the story in every regard. In other words, the reader only knows what Montresor tells him, or what he can infer from the story. This being the case, it is difficult for the reader to develop any liking for another character unless Montresor describes him or him in a favorable way. Fortunato never stands a chance.
Montresor begins putting down Fortunato in the reader's mind with the first line of the story, "when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge" (231). Even his most prized skill, wine tasting, is described as "a weak point." This puts Fortunato at a major disadvantage in the fight for the reader's liking, and ultimately the fight for his life.
As in most Poe stories, the narrator tries to steer the reader away from seeing the perverseness of his actions. In "The Cask of Amontillado," Montresor tries to convince the reader that walling up Fortunato is his way making himself "felt as such to him who has done the wrong" (231). In reality, Poe tells the story from Montresor's point of view in order to increase the astonishment and perverseness that the reader feels when reading the story.
Edgar Allan Poe uses the setting in many different ways in his various works. There are two primary settings in "The Cask of Amontillado," the carnival and the catacombs. There are several reasons that make the carnival the ideal setting for Poe to lure Fortunato away. "It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend" (231). This sentence contains two important details as to why the carnival is a perfect setting for Montresor's undertakings. The first is that it is dusk, which makes it harder for people at the carnival to notice what is happening, and also adds some gloom to the story. The second and most important detail, is that the carnival is a scene of "supreme madness." Fortunato, along with most others at the carnival, has likely been drinking most of the day, is relaxed, and more likely to disappear with Montresor on a quest into the dark catacombs than he would be on a normal day. The "excessive warmth," that Fortunato greets Montresor with even further proves his intoxication and relaxed state.
Poe's descriptive setting is an asset to the appeal of the story, particularly when the story proceeds to the catacombs. "We came at length to the foot of the descent, and stood together on the damp ground of the catacombs of the Montresors" (233). Descriptions such as this, are a very distinct characteristic of Poe stories, and are one of his greatest strengths. His descriptions allow the reader to put themselves in the story and get the same feeling as the characters. In this example, the reader subconsciously puts himself in Fortunato's position, walking along with a madman in the catacombs of Montresors, not knowing your fate. The only difference in this case is that the reader has a better sense of Fortunato's fate than he does.
Besides using it as appeal to continue reading a story, Poe also uses the setting in symbolic ways as well. "The drops of moisture trickle among the bones" is symbolic of what Fortunato's bones will someday look like after he is walled up in the catacomb. Also, when the narrator walls up Fortunato with the Amontillado, it is symbolic of Fortunato's pride for his wine tasting ability that he is walled up with the wine.
The scene where Montresor walls-up Fortunato is by far the most perverse scene in the story. The scene is particularly effective in my opinion because of the cordial manner maintained by the narrator up to the point where he is nearly finished. There is no struggle or resistance put up by Fortunato: "He was much too astonished to resist" (235). If Poe had Fortunato put up a struggle or had the narrator shown any anger, it would have destroyed the consistent mood of the story up to that point. Instead, Poe has Fortunato remain intoxicated right up until the point where it is too late for him to struggle.
The immediate sobering-up of Fortunato when he is near death also adds to the effect of the scene. "It was not the cry of a drunken man" tells the reader that Fortunato now knows fully well what is happening to him (236). It is followed by a yelling match and then silence, which creates such a sinister atmosphere that even Montresor is trembling and hastening to finish.
It seems as if Montresor almost has a sense of humor in his madness to punish Fortunato for his so-called wrongdoings. His constant insistence that Fortunato leave the catacomb with him provides even further ‘insult to injury' for Fortunato. "Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough..." (234). Montresor says this because he knows that Fortunato's pride in his wine tasting ability is too great for him to turn back, so he makes remarks such as this one simply for his own amusement. The comments aren't necessary in helping Montresor achieve his goal, they are said simply to raise a smile in his own mind. The fact that the narrator finds enjoyment out of killing someone, supports Poe's common theme of perverseness in his stories.
In addition to Montresor's sense of humor, Poe's uses irony in a humorous way a few times. The manner in which Poe dresses Fortunato, as a clown, is ironic because Fortunato is being virtually made a fool of by following Montresor into the catacombs. Also, when Fortunato says "I will not die of a cough," and Montresor responds "True-true," it shows a perverse sense of humor in the irony of Montresor's response.
Poe's theory of the short story is very important on influencing the way he writes "The Cask of Amontillado." A major component of his short story theory is that the stories are brief and engaging. "The Cask of Amontillado" achieves both of these goals. Poe merely devotes three paragraphs on setting the scene before he gets right down to his endeavor to "not only punish but punish with impunity" (231). This artistic choice is crucial to keeping the reader's interest. Poe gets right to the point, wasting no time for giving examples of Fortunato's wrongdoings or for giving any justification for the degree of punishment that Fortunato is to be submitted to. Not wasting the reader's time is very important to Poe, and that is even more obvious after reading "The Cask of Amontillado."
The story complies with Poe's other components of a short story as well. Everything in the story is written for a reason and leads to a final event. Poe does not add any miscellaneous details. He simply explains his intent to get revenge on Fortunato, and then shows how he gets it. Every part of the story affects the story as a whole. Finally, Poe's story leaves the reader somewhat in awe, with an undercurrent of suggestion wondering what has happened to Fortunato, after he has finished reading.
"The Cask of Amontillado" is similar to Poe's other short stories in many ways. For example, the narrator walls up Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado," just like the narrator walls up his wife in "The Black Cat," and the old man in "The Tell-Tale Heart." Another parallel between "The Cask of Amontillado" and other Poe short stories, is the basic layout of the story. First, the narrator starts off trying to justify or explain his actions. Second, the narrator tells the story, and finally there is always a twist or surprise at the end. In "The Cask of Amontillado," this twist occurs when the narrator calls Fortunato and he doesn't answer.
The is a certain uniqueness, though, that this story has that separates it from other Poe short stories. This uniqueness is, in my opinion, found at the end of the story. While other Poe short stories are narrated from a jail cell or from death row, the narrator of "The Cask of Amontillado," Montresor, tells his tale over fifty years after its occurrence. He is not in jail, and has seemingly served no time for his crime. Montresor, unlike many of his short story narrator counterparts, has apparently gotten away with his crimes. He doesn't break down and confess his actions to the authorities as Poe's narrator's often do. Instead, Montresor goes on with his life and waits until he is of old age to pass on his tale. "In pace requiescat" is more than just a traditionally saying for the narrator, it is a phrase of triumph. The triumph of the narrator, and ultimately perverseness, over justice, makes "The Cask of Amontillado" one of Poe's most unique works and is an example of Poe's perversity at its best.
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