The Cask of Amontillado Criticism
by Edgar Allan Poe

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The Single Effect, Section 1

"The Cask of Amontillado" and the Single Effect

A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided. (1)

The way to analyze a story by Poe—and possibly to analyze any modern short story, since Poe is credited with being the father of the genre—is by starting at the very end with a consideration of the story's "single effect." A single effect is not necessarily a simple effect. The complex effect of "The Cask of Amontillado" is not easy to describe, although most readers probably experience it in a similar way. Since Montresor interprets and relishes his victim's feelings, the preconceived effect might be described as a combination of shock, horror, pity, delight, satisfaction, compassion, and closure.

Adhering to his rationale, Poe combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. For example, Montresor lures Fortunato underground with a cask of Amontillado. It would have to be an imported wine to tempt Fortunato, since excellent domestic wine would be readily available to a wealthy Italian. Both men refer to the cask as a "pipe." It would not have seemed unreasonable to Fortunato that he should have to accompany his host a considerable distance to reach a space large enough for a cask containing 126 gallons of wine.

The Single Effect, Section 2

Why Did Poe Choose Amontillado?

The word Amontillado appears no less than sixteen times in Poe’s story. One reason for that choice may have been to keep reminding the reader of Fortunato's motivation. The reader him- or herself would like to see a pipe of the finest Spanish sherry and perhaps even savor a glass in imagination. No doubt many people over the years have actually purchased a bottle of Amontillado to satisfy their curiosity or to pay homage to Poe. The story originally appeared in Godey's Lady's Book in 1846, and sherry was one of the few alcoholic beverages genteel ladies in that distant era allowed themselves to drink.

Poe's choices were limited. The wine could not be Italian because it would not tempt Fortunato. French wine is famous, but Montresor is French himself. He could hardly pretend ignorance on that subject. He twice offers Fortunato gourmet French wines in his vaults. The only other possibility was Spain, a country noted for exporting fine Sherries, the finest of which is Amontillado. Poe had yet another good reason for choosing Amontillado, as will be explained later.


The Single Effect, Section 3

Why Did Poe Give Montresor a French Name?

Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity, to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack, but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. (2)

Poe emphasizes Montresor's foreignness early on. Montresor does not consider himself an Italian. But why French, when the Montresors, judging from their accumulated bones, have been living in Italy for centuries? The narrator is an outsider. He may be able to trace his lineage in Italy back for generations but is...

(The entire section is 7,999 words.)