illustration of Fortunato standing in motley behind a mostly completed brick wall with a skull superimposed on the wall where his face should be

The Cask of Amontillado

by Edgar Allan Poe

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What are the gothic elements in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

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The gothic elements in "The Cask of Amontillado" include psychological instability, darkness, and a mysterious house with extensive underground cellars and catacombs, which are typical of early Gothic stories. The story also incorporates terror, a key aspect of Gothic literature, through the horrifying act of burying a man alive as a form of revenge. Other elements include the setting of a carnival season, ominous streaks of niter along the walls, and piles of skeletons.

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Gothic literature, also known as gothic fantasy or gothic horror, is an outgrowth of dark Romanticism that developed in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first use of the term in a literary context was in 1764 in the title of Howard Walpole's novel The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story. Other examples of nineteenth-century literature that were considered Gothic included Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Dracula by Bram Stoker.

One of the first American writers to employ Gothic elements was Washington Irving in his short story "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The acknowledged master of American Gothic literature, though, was Edgar Allen Poe.

Elements often present in early Gothic stories included castles, ancient houses, medieval backgrounds, aristocratic decadence, darkness, monsters, and the supernatural. To these elements, Poe added mental illness and psychological trauma.

Poe's famous short story "The Cask of Amontillado" contains numerous Gothic elements. For instance, throughout the story, the narrator shows the psychological instability of a person obsessed with revenge. The story begins at dusk "during the supreme madness of the carnival season," immediately setting a backdrop of darkness and madness. The narrator Montresor lives in a vast mysterious house with innumerable rooms and extensive underground cellars and catacombs.

When Fortunato and Montresor descend into the catacombs, they encounter deeper darkness lit only by flickering torches, dampness that brings on coughing fits, and ominous streaks of niter along the walls. Further on there are piles of skeletons, and the niter hangs like moss from the ceilings. These are all Gothic elements that Poe adds to lend frightening verisimilitude to the story.

Poe ends the story with one of the most horrifying of Gothic elements: a type of premature burial in which a man is chained in an utterly dark recess where he is left to go mad and then die in lonely agony.

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Another aspect of Gothic Literature is that it often aims to produce terror in its audience. The Gothic is sort of a subgenre to Romantic literature, and the Romantics believed in the primacy of feeling and intense emotion over reason and logic. In their minds, since we do not have to be taught how to feel intense emotion, it is more meaningful and fundamental to the human experience than reason, something we must learn later. And what emotion could be more intense than terror? Fear is a very powerful feeling.

Poe's story produces this sense of terror in the reader in part because of the sheer cruelty and horror of Montresor's method of killing Fortunato. It is not a quick, painless death but rather one that will be long and drawn out. Moreover, the idea that a person might resort to murder in exchange for another's mere words, however harsh those words are, is equally terrible.

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Gothic literature features dark, gloomy settings, often in a castle with secret passageways, as well as isolation, death or the threat of death, a dream-like or nightmare-like setting, and an atmosphere of foreboding or horror. Poe's story takes place in a dark catacomb as Montresor and Fortunato thread their way alone through narrow passageways, underground and far from any other living humans. A sense of foreboding permeates the tale, as we know Montresor is bent on revenge. The fact that it is Mardi Gras, a day when normally out-of-bounds behavior is allowed and even encouraged, coupled with Fortunato's drunkenness, adds a kiltered, dream-like quality to events. Gothic literature often features a vulnerable female victim. In this case, there is no female character, but there is a vulnerable victim. Finally, Montresor murders Fortunato in a horrible way, chaining him in the dark catacombs and then walling him in with bricks. A major element of Gothic literature is the revelation of the shadow side in people's psyches, the darkness humans can hide under a facade of civilized behavior, and Poe clearly reveals Montresor's darkness. All of this points to the uncanny or unhomelike quality of Gothic literature: it functions to unsettle us rather than comfort us, and this story does unsettle us.

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"The Cask of Amontillado" is a classic Gothic horror tale. Poe uses many tropes of Gothic stories, including dark imagery, underground chambers, and violent revenge. The most important element in the story utilizes Poe's longtime fear of being buried alive; although this itself is not directly indicated in the Gothic tradition, it plays well into other elements, including the underground chambers. As Montresor takes his revenge, the wine-cellar becomes almost a medieval torture chamber instead of a repository for wealthy wine collectors; the torches on the walls sputter instead of shining brightly, and the walls are not clean and dry but covered by nitre, which adds to the claustrophobic mood.

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What literary elements are in Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"?

In his essay, "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe states that he starts not with a plot but with a mood or "an effect" he wants to impress on the reader. Poe wishes to convey a mood of growing foreboding and horror in this story of a man walled up to die in a catacomb as revenge for undefined insults.

One way Poe creates this mood is through the use of the literary device of imagery, which is description using the fives senses of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.The visual description of the catacombs is one of increasing claustrophobia and dark horror that contrasts with sepulchral whiteness. Corridors are lit by a flaming torch Montresor carries that shows

the white webwork which gleams from these cavern walls

The two men pass piles of human bones and pass under a "low arch" into a "deep crypt." Montresor wears a black mask that hides his face.

But Poe does not only use visual effects. Sound was important to him, and he adds to the growing sense of terror through the use of screams as Fortunato is walled up:

A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. ... I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I re-echoed—I aided—I surpassed them in volume and in strength.

Poe also creates a mood of horror by having the story told by a mentally unstable narrator who is on his deathbed, confessing a crime from fifty years past that doesn't make rational sense. Dramatic irony adds to the sense of horror as well. We as readers know that Montresor is luring Fortunato to some sort of horrible revenge, but Fortunato remains unsuspecting until it is too late. The jingling bells of his fool's cap add to the sense that he is a bumbler being led into a trap.

Other forms of irony also add to the foreboding: Fortunato's name, for example, means fortunate when he is anything but that, and Fortunato does not understand that Montresor is speaking literally when he says he is a mason or wall builder, thinking he means only that he is part of the secret society of Freemasons.

A mood of foreboding builds relentlessly through the use of these literary elements. Imagery is an especially powerful tool that Poe uses expertly in this story.

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What literary elements are in Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"?

From the opening hyperbole, Edgar Allan Poe employs several literary elements in his macabre short story, "The Cask of Amontillado."

Hyperbole

  • The unreliable narrator, Montesor, opens the narrative discussing the "thousand injuries of Fortunato" that he has had to bear.  Yet, he never enumerates any of these injuries.

Foreshadowing

  • This opening paragraph certainly has the suggestion of Montesor's intentions to be avenged against Fortunato as he discusses how he will be avenged.
  • In the third paragraph, Montesor mentions that Fortunato has a weakness of considering himself a connoisseur of wine, thus hinting at the means that Montesor may use to lure Fortunato.
  • The setting is dusk in the time of the "supreme madness."  This approaching darkness foreshadows the darkness to which Fortunato will be subjected.  And, the noise of the celebration can cover any noise that might draw attention.
  • Fortunato's name is an ironic foreshadowing of his unfortunate end. 
  • Montesor's mention of Fortunato's drunkenness foreshadows the method Montesor will use to lure Fortunato into the catacombs.
  • Montesor has made plans for the servants to be gone by telling them that he will not return to his house until the morrow.  So, with the house abandoned, there can be no witnesses.

Mood

  • As a Gothic story, Poe's tale is dark and foreboding. 
  • Nevertheless, the mood changes from this darkness to comical at times as Montesor describes Fortunato in his tight-fitting harlequin outfit, with his cap jingling, tettering in the doorways sputtering "Ugh! Ugh!ugh!ugh!--ugh! ugh! ugh!"  He also appears foolish when he ask Montesor if he is not a mason.
  • Certainly, there is a terrifying mood at thend.  Interestingly, Poe subverts the Gothic convention by using human beings for terrible deeds.  The horror lies in what they are capable of.

Imagery

  • There is sound imagery with the jingling of Fortunato's fool's bells, as well as his coughing from the niter and the foulness of the air.  His screaming of "For the love of God, Montresor" is horrifying.
  • Sight imagery occurs with the costume of Fortunato, the niter-covered catacombs, the bones scattered about, the flambeaux, the Montresor coat of arms, and the wall to which Fortunato is tettered.

Double entendre

Montresor makes a play upon the word mason as he will lay the bricks to imprison Fortunato (bricklayer), but Fortunato means the Freemason, a secret fraternal order.

Arabesque

  • This is a technique that Poe himself named as he has a motif to which focuses upon the psychological aspect of a character.  Returning and returning to the illness of the mind in the character, certain expressions and attitudes of the character are reiterated.  For instance, Fortunato continues to berate Luchesi, he refuses to admit to the affect of the niter upon him, and he fails to perceive any threats.
  • Arabesque also refers to Poe's returning to certain characteristics or actions that are repeated.
  • Montesor returns repeatedly to the idea of not going forward because of Fortunato's health.

Irony

Dramatic Irony -

  • Fortunato mitigates his cough, saying it will not kill him "I shall not die of a cough." Also, Fortunato calls Luchesi "an ignoramus."
  • Fortunato believes he is safe when Montesor plans to kill him.
  • Fortunato says, "I drink...to the buried...."

Verbal Irony

  • So often Montresor expresses concern for the health of Fortunato
  • Montresor tells Fortunato he is a mason
  • Montresor says, "In pace requiescat!" meaning really "Good riddance!"
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What are some literary elements in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

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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What are some literary elements in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

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.

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What are some literary elements in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

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.

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