Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767

When it appeared in the monthly magazine Godey's Lady's Book in 1846, "The Cask of Amontillado,'' like most short stories published in locally distributed magazines, attracted no special critical attention. A year earlier, Poe had published a collection of Tales, which had been widely reviewed. Most of these reviews were favorable, praising Poe's powers of imagination and control of language. George Colton's review in the American Whig Review was typical in heralding the volume's "most undisputable marks of intellectual power and keenness; and an individuality of mind and disposition, of peculiar intensity.'' A few were not only negative but scathing, including Charles Dana's review in the Brook Farm Harbinger in which he describes Poe's stories as "clumsily contrived, unnatural, and every way in bad taste.'' Significantly, the collection of tales was read and reviewed in all parts of the country, and helped bring Poe to a much larger audience than he had previously enjoyed.

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After Poe's death in 1849, his literary executor Rufus W. Griswold wrote an obituary in the New York Tribune, in which he slanderously exaggerated Poe's weaknesses. He described Poe as a ‘‘shrewd and naturally unamiable character'' who "walked the streets, in madness or melancholy, with lips moving in indistinct curses.’’ The following year, Griswold published an edition of Poe's Works. In response to the two Griswold projects came a flurry of writing about Poe, much of it praising the writing but condemning the writer. Typical was an unsigned 1858 review in the Edinburgh Review: "Edgar Allan Poe was incontestably one of the most worthless persons of whom we have any record in the world of letters.’’ Over the next fifty years, negative writing about Poe focused on his moral character, as presented by Griswold, more than it focused on his work. Critics seemed unable to move beyond the general observation that Poe led a troubled life and wrote troubling stories. Although critics and scholars continued to read and examine Poe's short stories, and although French and German writers continued to admire Poe, his reputation and importance declined throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the public's distaste had worn off, and critics were able to write more objectively about Poe's achievements. In the early third of the century, Poe was widely praised for his poetry, but Gothicism had fallen out of favor and his stories were dismissed by such writers as T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden. Though the poem "The Raven'' had been examined individually from its first publication, "The Cask of Amontillado'' had to wait until the 1930s to have critical articles devoted to it. In the 1930s and 1940s, critics focused on tracing Poe's sources, arguing that Poe borrowed his plot from other nineteenth-century writers, a murder case in Boston, a literary quarrel from his own life, or other sources. Writers in the 1990s returned to the question of sources as a way of revealing Poe's intentions. Richard Benton is among those who suggest that the story can be read as historical fiction, based on real historical figures and addressing social class issues of interest to nineteenth-century Americans.

Other critics at mid-century were concerned with exploring the significance of details in the story that readers might not be expected to understand without explanation. Kathryn Montgomery Harris in Studies in Short Fiction (1969) and James E. Rocks in the Poe Newsletter (1972) analyzed the conflict in the story between the Roman Catholic Montresor and Fortunato, a Mason. Rocks concluded that Montresor kills Fortunato because "he must protect God's word and His Church against His enemies.’’ Other writers in the same period explored the significance of the names "Montresor,'' "Fortunato," and "Amontillado."

The largest body of criticism of the story has examined Montresor's remorse or lack or remorse for his crime. Daniel Hoffman, in his Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe agrees with many others that Montresor is consumed by guilt."Has not Montresor walled up himself in this revenge? Of what else can he think, can he have thought for the past half-century, but of that night's vengeance upon his enemy?’’ Others find no hint of guilt in Montresor, leading some early readers to reject the story as immoral. Bettina Knapp places "The Cask of Amontillado’’ among Poe's ‘‘shadow tales,’’ which do not ‘‘offer values. No judgmental forces are at work. Crime is neither a negative nor a positive act. Poe's psychopaths do not distinguish between good and evil, nor do they usually feel remorse or guilt.'' This issue has become the central critical question for ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado.’’

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