Aspects and Analysis of Edgar Allen Poe’s ” The Cask of Amontillado” and the “Black Cat”
What makes literary works considered great, and furthermore what makes the greatness of the work withstand the test of time? The answer to both of these questions is the same. Greatness of literary work that withstands the test of time is due to the fact that their meaning is still seen and identified with by people today, and still evokes interest in the reader, even though these works were written decades, sometimes centuries earlier. When works of literature have with stood the test of time, and are still considered great, these works are analyzed as to why they are so. One author’s work that has come under much critical analysis to what aspects of his work make them so great is Edgar Allen Poe. Two works in particular that have come under analysis are “The Cask of Amontillado”, and the “Black Cat”. Under analysis, it has been determined that there are three aspects of Poe’s writing that make his stories literary classics. These three aspects of his writing are style, theme and use of irony. What are these three aspects, and how are they used in Poe’s work?
Edgar Allen Poe’s literary style has been analyzed in many different ways. It is believed that it is the style and the view that the reader is given that make his short stories so compelling. His style is made up of two closely connected parts that influence the structure of his stories greatly. The first part of his style is the perception that Poe gives the reader. The perception that the reader gets can only be achieved by the
second part of his style which is the use of the first person narrative that both “The Cask of Amontillado”, and the “The Black Cat” posses. These two connected parts, the perception and first person narrative, give the stories a sense of realism. Although by pure critical analysis of the story, a reader may determine that the central characters of the stories “The Cask of Amontillado, and “The Black Cat” are insane, not only for there actions, but there thinking as well. As readers, we should not look at Poe’s stories objectively. “There is no possible way to obtain from any of Poe’s gothic tales an objective viewpoint because every word is relayed to the reader directly though the narrator”(Saliba 70).We believe in all the narrative that the central character gives, not only on what he sees and does, but also about what he is thinking. “the dramatic action of all the stories is directly created by the narrative voice”(Saliba 70).This is precisely Poe’s intention. As readers, if we believe that the characters are insane, and there perception of the world is clouded, we would not believe that what the characters see and feel is not really happening, then we miss Poe’s intentions entirely:
What is important is that the reader give credence to the idea that the narrator believes in his own perception; that what he perceives is surely more true to him than whatever objective reality the reader might think he sees, or as Poe’s intended underlying reality of the situation. It is far more important that the reader trust
the narrator as far as the narrator’s perception is concerned than that he skip him mentally to reassure himself of Poe’s sane artistic control the whole time the reader is pursing the story; otherwise he will be missing the opportunity of enjoying the artistic experience Poe has intentionally provided (Saliba 68)
As for the style of the first person narrative, it gives the story a totally different perception and feeling, not found in most short stories.With most short stories, the plot is told from the outside looking in, in the third person form. As readers, besides the occasional description, we never get to really determine the true feeling of the central character. However with Poe’s first person narrative, as readers look from the inside of the main characters head to the real world as Poe’s character sees it. “The intended function of Poe’s narrator is to captivate the reader’s conscious mind and mesmerize his senses to the extent that he cannot help identifying with the narrator to some degree”(Saliba 70).With this style of character portrayal, we as readers know at all times what the central character is thinking and feeling, and how it influences their actions. In order for a reader to fully appreciate Poe’s art, the reader must willingly fully participate in the story (Saliba 70).
Theme is the second part of Edgar Allen Poe’s writing that makes his stories so intriguing. The theme of all his works has been described has grotesque and arabesque.
“The grotesque suggests more strongly a yoking of the chaotic, fearful and the comic; the arabesque suggests more strongly a sense of ironic perspectives in the midst of confusion
and ominoisness. Both suggest the struggle to understand the incomprehensible, neither term meaning anything absolutely exclusive of the other, both focused on the tension between conscious control and subconscious fear and delusion”(Thompson 109). The types of themes that are present in the “The Cask of Amontillado”, and “The Black Cat”, are premature burial, which is only seen in “The Cask of Amontillado”, although wall in the main character’s victims is seen in both stories. The premature burial was brought about as a result of an act of revenge, however the motivation of the main character in “The Black Cat” is different. He is driven to madness by the cat, which in the end becomes his own downfall, but both characters are seeking to commit the perfect crime. “What the narrator describes is what he would call a “flawless plot”, that is, a plot to commit a crime and get away with it. But it is precisely the plot or the pattern that gives it away”(May 78). Theses themes greatly influence the characters involved in the plot as they pertain the story line.
The use of premature burial as a way to enact Montresor revenge on Fortunado in “The Cask of Amontillado” has many uses. “The reason that premature burial is so appealing to Poe is that it embodies the idea of an awareness or a perception of one’s lack of control. Such an awareness engenders fear”(Saliba 79). The time period in which the “The Cask of Amontillado takes place, premature burial was a common way of fulfilling revenge. The reason for this is simple.The idea of premature burial as a means for
revenge either by walled in or being buried alive victims still leaves room flaw.This flaw is known and intended by the person acting out the revenge. Divine intervention is the flaw that exists in the almost perfect scheme. This divine intervention comes as an outlet for which the person seeking revenge could escape to. For example, if a person is buried alive or walled in as a result of revenge, then if the revenge were injustice, then God would step in as divined intervention and save the person from death. If the revenge were justified, then the person’s death as a result of being buried alive or walled in would only be right, and just. Also the use of premature burial, and or walling in someone, as a use of revenge is near flawless, except for divine intervention. When burying someone alive, or walling someone in, all evidence is concealed, and natural death is the actual cause of death. This method of revenge destroys motive for killing rendering it impossible for a person to be convicted of his or her crimes.
The theme and motive are direct influences on one another in “The Black Cat”. On the surface, the motive appears to be his common household black cat, his hatred for this animal drove to madness and the final ironic conclusion, but the black cat posses much more meaning then that. “The Black Cat”(1843) carries the same themes further and details more clearly the irrational desire, almost ultimate irony, to act against oneself, with an ambiguous conclusion suggesting the agency of malevolent fortune at the same time that it suggests subconscious self-punishment”(Thompson 172). We as readers can also see, his obsessive tendencies in the story, for example he abuses and kills his first cat, and yet he gets another one just like it, even with only one eye. “The “cause” of the
image of the cat is the obsessive nature of the narrator that has been translated into the obsessive unity of the story – a unity that demands the plaster image of the cat, just has it
demands the reappearance of another cat that reflects the first – a cat that, like the original one, has lost one eye and has the image of the gallows around its neck”(May 75). The narrator has no sense of guilt for his actions, yet he is happy, filled with glee, that his wife’s body rots behind the wall that he built (May 75). His guiltlessness and obsessive nature towards the cat is seen in full effect at the climatic end of the story. “It did not make its appearance during the night; and thus for one night at least since its introduction into the house, I soundly and tranquilly slept – ay, slept even with the burden of murder upon my soul”(Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination 346)! “To embody both agony and exultation at once is the essence of the paradox that makes up his obsession – his motiveless motive.”(May 75). There seems to no apparent reason the reader can detect for the main character’s obsession and hatred for the cat that causes his own demise.
Lastly, how the motive and theme tie together, which is seen in both stories “The Cask of Amontillado”, and the “The Black Cat” is the flawless plan, which in both cases results in main characters downfall. There is no such thing as a perfect crime. No matter how hard one tries, there will always be some kind of evidence to convict someone of his or her crimes. In both stories, the attempt to pull off a perfect crime results in the main characters ending conflict. In “The Cask of Amontillado, Montresor’s plan is only flawed by the fact that he confesses his murder in the end of the tale. However in “The
Black Cat” he overlooks the fact that he walls the cat with his murdered wife, which causes him to get caught.
The last and most easily seen aspects of Poe’s writing is the heavy use of irony. This use of irony is very present in both stories “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Black Cat”. It is this use of irony that makes the story so great. The difference between the two uses of irony in both stories is that in “The Cask of Amontillado” irony seems to be subtler, which sets up and strengthens the ending, whereas in “The Black Cat”, the only use of irony is the ending. In the “The Cask of Amontillado”, there are basically two types of irony present. The first is the irony, which Montresor uses on Fortunado to enable his revenge to take place, and the second is, the irony that follows the pattern of the story (May 79-80). For example, in “The Cask of Amontillado” the first and most obvious use of irony in the story is the fact that Montresor had explicitly ordered for his servants to stay home, so that that he could enact his revenge (May 79). This use of irony is directly engaged by Montresor. It is seen again to lure Fortunado into his catacomb grave. “Montresor creates and controls the irony, – such as urging Fortunado to leave the dangerous catacombs, knowing that the more he urges him to leave the more he will want to stay”(May 80). The last and most prolific of all the ironies set up by Montresor is the comment that he makes to Fortunado:
Among the ironies created and sustained by Montresor are the verbal ironies of telling Fortunado he is “luckily” met, agreeing
with him that he will not die of a cough, and drinking a toast to his long life. Such remarks are understood by the reader as ironic, of course, only after the story has ended and one understands its overall pattern; however, because Montresor has already constructed his plot and thus predetermined its end, he can engage in ironies that give pleasure to him both as he utters them in the past and he tells the story in the present (May 80).
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On the other hand, the other use of irony is created and sustained by the pattern of the story. For example, Fortunado believes that he is a wine expert, which is used as the lure for him enter the catacombs. Also, Fortunado is wearing the cap and bells of a fool, a fool who is ironically about to be buried alive (May 80). The last, subtlest, and the greatest of the ironies in the story, is the confession. If we analyze the way the story is written, it starts of telling the story in the first person present, but in the last paragraph, turns to telling the story in the past tense. This change in tense has brought about many hypothesis and theories as to why there would be a change in tense. “We legitimately hypothesize that the listener is a priest and that Montresor is an old man who is dying and making a final confession”(May 80). Yet this perfect revenge brings about two ironies, both closely related. The first is that, as Montresor is telling the story, and though the climatic ending, he feels that his revenge is just, and feels no remorse for his actions, yet as he describes, after a half century he is confessing to his crimes, which would show sorrow, and forgiveness of his sin. “”The thousand injuries of Fortunado I had borne as
best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge”(3:1256). The reader has no way of knowing what these “thousand injuries” and the mysterious insult are and thus can make no judgment about whether Montresor’s revenge is justifiable”(May 79).
Although this is true, telling the story brings about the second irony.”Thus, Montresor’s plot to murder Fortunado so delights him by its perfection that in the very telling of it he undercuts its nature as repentant confession and condemns himself in gleeful boast”(May81). This confession of his crimes and enjoyment of the perfection from which the crime was committed, undermines and negates that fact that he is even confessing to repent his sins. This is the final and ultimate irony:
“The Cast of Amontillado” (1846), on the surface a tale of successful and remorseless revenge, we have seen to be Montresor’s deathbed confession, to an implied listener, of a crime that has tortured him for fifty years. At the conclusion of the tale, the apparently remorseless Montresor recounts the sudden sickening of heart he felt at the end ” – on account of the dampness of the catacombs,” he hastily supplies. But ironically his “revenge,” as Montresor himself defines it, has failed on every count (Thompson 174).
The use of irony in “The Black Cat”, however is not purposefully set up by the main character, but by the pattern of the story. Unlike “The Cask of Amontillado”, where
irony is seen from beginning to end in two forms, there is only one use of irony that exists in “The Black Cat”. This use of irony is not seen until the very end of the story. The main characters obsession that builds through the story, which brings about the hatred for the black cat that he owns, makes for the irony. In the end as described in the story, he tries killing the cat with an ax, and is stopped by his wife. In is obsessive hatred for the cat, and rage that enthralled him by being almost tripped down the stairs by the cat, and because his wife stopped him from killing the cat, the main character buries the ax in the head of his wife. Here is the first part of the irony that exists. The cat with which he is so obsessed with and hates, has brought him into killing his wife, and because of his obsession and hatred for the black cat, the narrator feels no remorse or guilt for his crime. In an attempt to flawlessly hide his crime, he not only wall in his wife’s carcass, but also the hated black cat. This is the set up for the second, and most climatic irony of the story. After investigation into the missing wife, authorities search the narrator’s home, and eventually venture into the basement where both the cat and his wife are walled in. In an attempt to mock the authorities in their fruitless search, the main character knocks on the wall commenting on the well-constructed house. “That the cat embodies this very image of paradoxical perverseness is suggested by the narrator describes the sound it makes when he raps on the wall: “a howl – a wailing shriek, half of horror, half of triumph, such as might have risen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damnation”(3:859)”(May 75). The black cat, which he overlooked and buried with his wife, has yet again comeback to haunt him. The black cat’s cry alerts the police that
there is something behind the fake wall, and upon investigation the body of his murdered wife is discovered:
In the next, a dozen stout arms were toiling at the wall. It fell bodily. The corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with
gore, stood erect before the eyes of the spectators. Upon its head with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb (Poe, Tales of Mystery and Imagination 349)
After analyzing the three aspects of Poe’s writing, style, theme and use of irony, we as readers have a better understanding of not only how to read Poe’s tales, but also the meaning that goes much deeper then the surface of the story. The unique perception that that Poe’s gives his stories enables the reader to identify with the main characters’ thoughts, actions and feeling. Also, the themes he uses, although at times are grotesque, are original, and entice the reader, showing the darker side of the human soul. Lastly, the use of heavy irony gives Poe’s stories an unpredictable edge that keeps the reader coming back again and again to read his Gothic tales. These three aspects of Poe’s ingenious writing make them the literary classics that they are today.
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Poe, Edgar A. Tales of Edgar Allen Poe. New York: Books of Wonder, 1991.
Poe, Edgar A. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. New Jersey: Castle Book
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Saliba, David R. A Psychology of Fear: ” The Nightmare Formula of Edgar
Allen Poe.” New York: UP of America, 1980. 69,70,79.
Thompson, G.R. Poe’s Fiction: ” Romantic Irony in Gothic Tales.”
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