illustrated portrait of American author of gothic fiction Edgar Allan Poe

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What are the three similarities and differences between the gothic characteristics of "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Raven," with examples from each?

The basic similarity among these three works is that all of them deal with death, illusion, and fear. The differences among them are rooted in the techniques Poe uses to convey these themes. The supernatural only explicitly appears in only two of the three. In each work, he uses a different narrative technique, and the perspectives from which the stories and the poem are written are different.

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Practically all of Poe's major works have in common the elements of fear and terror. In "The Masque of the Red Death," a mysterious plague is the source of the terror. In "The Cask of Amontillado " it is the ruthless vengeance carried out by the narrator,...

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Practically all of Poe's major works have in common the elements of fear and terror. In "The Masque of the Red Death," a mysterious plague is the source of the terror. In "The Cask of Amontillado" it is the ruthless vengeance carried out by the narrator, and in "The Raven" it is the supernatural appearance of a dark, talking bird in the night.

Yet in all these cases, the common thread that accompanies the theme of terror is that the reader cannot be sure how much of it is based on illusion rather than reality. Each of these narratives has the quality of a nightmare, in which the dreamer is, or could be, projecting his fears onto the outside world. For instance, we're told that the Red Death is an actual illness that stalks the country, a horrific pestilence. Yet it appears literally, as if a humanoid being, in the midst of Prospero's revelry. Of the three examples "The Cask of Amontillado" is the most "realistic," not having the trappings of the supernatural, but even here, there is something fantasy-like about the ease with which Montresor traps Fortunato and walls him up in the catacombs. And perhaps the most obvious commonality is the presence, or the menace, of death in all of these works: death in the form of a plague, death in the form of a grisly murder by asphyxiation, and death appearing as the obsessive reminder of the "lost Lenore" in "The Raven."

The chief difference among the three works can perhaps be identified in the narrative styles Poe uses. Of the three, "The Masque of the Red Death" is the only one written in the third person. In the other two, the first-person speaker is the typically unreliable narrator whose words cannot be taken at face value. They may represent a dream, a psychotic fantasy, or hallucination. The fact that "The Raven" is a poem rather than prose is significant, of course. In a poem, with its meter and rhyme, the author can convey aspects of theme and mood that prose is incapable of expressing. The sing-song melody of "The Raven" creates a background that subtly alters the story from what it would have been had Poe written it in prose. Some would say it establishes a kind of irony much more explicit than that of Poe's short-stories. Poe values verse as a kind of music in which the sound and texture of the words are seemingly as important as their meaning.

Last, the narrative technique in "Red Death" is an allegorical one, much more so than in the other two works. The plague is a punishment visited upon the immorality of Prospero, and by extension, mankind. Though vengeance and punishment are at the center of "The Cask," they are literal rather than metaphorical, but it's impossible for the reader to know the extent to which the victim deserves his fate. Though "The Raven" may be allegorical, it is the least didactic of these three works. It is much more of a vague and seemingly purposeless "opium dream" in which the ultimate meaning is the hardest to identify.

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