To celebrate Halloween, we evaluate one of Edgar Allen Poe’s greatest pieces.
Edgar Allen Poe has often been hailed as the greatest horror writer in literature. Born in 1809, his life was brief and marred by his alcoholism and abuse of drugs. His most famous poem, “The Raven” is most remembered for its simplicity. However, within his simplicity, Poe is an expert at conveying mood and affecting the reader with literary devices, including setting. In The Cask of Amontillado, Montresor has been offended and insulted by his friend Fortunato. He vows revenge, and deceives Fortunato to come with him to a tomb to sample some Amontillado, the finest wine there is. Once there, he shackles Fortunato to the wall, and traps him in the tomb, where he is left for dead. Poe uses many literary devices to convey contrast and mood in this story. Poe uses the simple settings of the story excellently in his literary masterpiece to convey images and moods of darkness, evil, and impending doom to the reader. However, Poe also has many aspects of the setting mimic the relationship between Montresor and Fortunato.
One important use of the setting device is the carnival taking place during the story, which stands as a contrast to the grim nature of the tale, but allows the author to establish mood and story quickly and efficiently, as well as an important metaphor. “during the supreme madness of the carnival” (Poe 1389). The carnival is referred to by its supreme madness. While a carnival is supposed to be a joyous event, it is introduced as a mad, crazy event, implying that the times the characters are set in is a mad and crazy world. The carnival is also used to stand as an event of merriment and distraction and primarily as a diversion for the characters so they do not perceive the impending evil. This can be illustrated by the fact that Fortunato is in a state of merriment and distracted intoxication, so he is unable to observe Montresor’s true intentions. Another way that Poe uses the carnival is that it distracts the other characters in the story, so they are unaware of the evil that is about to take place. When Montresor returns home he finds his servants have left. “they had absconded to make merry in honor of the time.” (Poe 1390). Even the servants who have been given strict orders to maintain their posts have left for the all-consuming carnival. They are distracted by the happy setting of their world, and cannot see the truth. Poe also uses this opportunity to use a piece of syntax to express the mood. The servants have not just left; they have absconded, which means specifically to flee. This has a double meaning, inferring that Montresor is about to become a criminal and a villain. He is about to do evil, and uses the carnival to slip subtle lines in. Overall, Poe uses the carnival and vaults as a metaphor for the relationship between Montresor and Fortunato. With the happy and joyous carnival on top, and the disgusting vaults underneath the city, it shows that on the surface, the relationship between the two is a cheerful and strong one, but underneath it is soiled and the two have animosity for each other, as shown by the disgusting nature of the vaults. “The carnival world, then, inverts and grotesquely parodies the actual world.” (Gargano 313). The metaphor is used to show that in this world that there may be a pleasant happy image on top, but underneath, there is a world of grotesque horror.
One aspect that Poe uses is the representation of light and dark to show the presence of good and evil. In the story, the evil activities occur after sunset, in the gloom of night, because night has the mood of dark evil activities. The first information the reader is given about the setting is that it is sunset. “It was about dusk one evening” (Poe 1389). The first fact, that the story is taking place during sunset is a sign that darkness and evil is approaching, because the darkness of night represents the forces of darkness and evil intentions. This is comparable to what Montresor has planned for Fortunato. Another use of setting is the way that Montresor does not complete the act until midnight, which is an allusion to the evil of midnight. “It was now midnight, and my task was drawing to a close.” (Poe 1393). The fact that he accomplishes his goal at midnight is an allusion to the evil nature of this act. Midnight is often claimed to be the Devil’s hour, which Poe uses to make the reader see how dark and depraved the act is.
A sign used by Poe of Fortunato’s downfall is the fact that the vault where the Amontillado is located is among dead corpses and bones. The first observation made about the vaults is that they have many cobwebs. “observe the white web-work which gleams from these cavern walls.” (Poe 1390). The vault is old and filled with many spiders who have woven cobwebs in the peaceful and undisturbed tomb. The spider in this case is a sign that the vaults are undisturbed and abandoned. They have overtaken this area from the good humans and made it dirty and corrupt. This is an allusion to the old saying, “’Come into my parlor’ said the spider to the fly.” Also in the vaults there are the rich bottles of wine. However, they are covered in dirty and disgusting mould. “Here I knocked off the neck of a bottle which I drew from a long row of its fellows that lay upon the mould.” (Poe 1390). The fact that these bottles of excellent wine have mold growing over them is a sign that the goodness of humanity has been overcome by something grotesque in these vaults. It is also a foreshadowing of Fortunato’s fate. It is also a personal link to Fortunato. Earlier in the story, the reader learns that Fortunato is a connoisseur of wine, and also the finest in the village. His great passion for wine is also accompanied by a great arrogance in the knowledge that he is the best connoisseur in the village. The mould growing over the wine bottles is another sign that Fortunato’s greatest strength will be his downfall, because he originally went into the vaults to sample Amontillado. Finally, when Fortunato makes a toast, he makes it to the dead corpses around him. “’I drink,’ he said, ‘to the buried repose around us.’” (Poe 1391). He does this with arrogance, not knowing that he will soon join them. “Fortunato, on his way to certain death, ironically drinks a toast” (Gargano 313). The toast to the skeletons around him is a foreshadowing used by Poe to inspire an eerie mood.
Poe uses many literary devices to convey contrast and mood in his story, primarily the setting, not only to convey mood, but relationships as well. One important device is the carnival taking place during the story, which stands as a contrast to the grim nature of the story. A sign used by Poe of Fortunato’s coming doom is the fact that the vault where the Amontillado is located is among dead corpses.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Making Literature Matter. Ed. John Schilb and John Clifford. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 1388-1393.
Gargano, James W. “The Cask of Amontillado’: A Masquerade of Motive and Identity,” Short Story Criticism: Volume 35. Ed. Anna Sheets Nesbitt. Detroit: Gale Group. 1998. 311-314.
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