What are some literary elements in "The Cask of Amontillado"?
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Setting: The story takes place during "supreme madness" of carnival season. The free flowing wine and the costumes suggest a great deal of revelry and celebration. The horror which befalls Fortunato this evening is a clear contrast from the mood established by the carnival atmosphere.
As Montresor takes Fortunato into the catacombs, the details of the setting serve to build a suspenseful mood and to foreshadow Forunato's fate. Poe describes the coldness, darkness, the dampness of the nitre, and even the bones found strewn throughout. Too bad for Fortunato that he has partaken of too much drink to pick up on the clues!
Point of view is also a key element in this story. We know from the first-person account that Montresor seeks revenge on Fortunato, but no further details are divulged. I think Poe did this on purpose because by explaining Montresor's need for revenge the author would be humanizing and justifying Montresor's motives. By omitting such information, however, Poe offers a horrifying observation that such innate evil and malice exists in people; their purpose, just like Montresor's, is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Cleverly, Poe's use of the first person narrator - with such carefully selected information about his motives - also makes the reader feel more for pity for poor Fortunato.
Irony, the contrast between appearance and reality, is another important element. Montresor chooses the carnival season, a time of celebration, to carry out his revenge. He uses reverse psychology to make sure his servants will not be home. We are aware of M.'s deceit between what he's thinking and what he says to Fortunato. "Come, we will go back; your health is precious." He toasts F.'s good health and long life. Perhaps the best example of irony is in M.'s requirements for successful revenge: he must not be punished for his crime, and F. must realize why he's being killed. M., confessing his crime fifty years later to repent for it, takes too much pleasure in retelling it, so he violates the rules of confession. F. never knows why M. kills him, and he dies too quickly. M. doesn't get successful revenge in either case.
Foreshadowing and symbolism are other elements. Montresor's coat of arms is "A huge human foot d'or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel." His family motto expresses that no one will harm me without punishment. Both are great clues as to how M. will seek his revenge later and symbolize the kind of man M. is. The catacombs is a perfect place for M. to carry out his act, providing us with dark, horrific images.
The ultimate effect of irony and symbolism is to give us a grotesque tale set in the mind of an evil narrator.
Two other literary terms that can be used in discussing this story are allegory and motif. An allegory is an extended metaphor; it is a story that makes sense on the literal level, but also, through the totality of its plot, characters, and conflict, provides another, figurative meaning. There are two possible allegories in this story: one, the eternal conflict between the unimaginative man (Fortunato) and the creative artist (Montresor); and two, the descent of the mind from the light of knowledge, hope, and order into the darkness of despair, ignorance, chaos, and even hell. Here, motif becomes important, for it is the motif of light and darkness that carry this allegorical meaning. It might seem strange that a man planning revenge by murdering another man in such a gruesome way represents the creative mind, but for Poe, no subject was more poetic than death.
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