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The Conflict in “The Cask of Amontillado”, Essay Example

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Essay

In the, “The Cask of Amontillado” Edgar Allan Poe takes the reader into a world where the story is told by a seemingly normal, well-respected man who happens to be a psychopath.  The story relates a horrible revenge made even more horrible by the fact that the vengeance is being taken when no real offense had been given. The confict in “The Cask of Amontillado” is straight forward man vs. man and man vs. himself.

The plot of the story is a simple one. Montresor tales revenge on his friend Fortunato by luring him into the tunnels under the family estate. There he leads Fortunato into the depths of the catacombs where he buries him alive by walling him into a niche. The story is told in first person from the point of view of Montresor himself. The exposition of the story occurs when Montresor tells the reader that he wants to take revenge on Fortunato because “he ventured upon insult.”

Montresor plays to Fortunato’s love of wine–even Montresor himself describes Fortunato as a wine connoisseur, or expert and lover of the elixer. He knew that a cask of the rare and well sought-out Amontillado would be enough to drag Forunato down the damp stairs, and into the catacombs of Montresor’s own family.

It is interesting to note the period in which this story was written. In 1846, wine cellars were very popular amongst old, and especially wealthy families, especially in Italy where the story takes place. This was also true for personal catacombs, where one’s entire lineage was all buried in the same underground chambers, often very large. The wine cellar and the catacomb, being in the same location, would naturally have not thrown much caution to the wind for Fortunato, especially because a “friend” was deceiving him.

Edgar Allen Poe was adopted into wealthy family as a child, specifically in Virginia, and would have been widely aware of this culture himself through leftover European-Southern values. It is clear that he draws from these childhood references in this short story in particular. The description of the wine cellar and the catacombs is just one of these very apparent details.

Montresor’s intention on taking revenge was based on nothing more than a personal insult or wrong he felt Fortunato had done him. This culture, where conflicts are generally avoided out of manners, was very reflective of the views of the South in the era. The idea of entitlement, family money, and especially a more rigid caste system left over from old British, and really European, ideals were much more apparent in the South than in any other place in the country. Although Montresor himself was clearly going to the extreme in this situation, and the story takes place in Italy, it is reflective of Southern values, and especially the differences in culture taking place on both sides of the Atlantic in the middle of the 19th century.

Edgar Allan Poe definitely uses this story to critique old, outdated values that are reflective of Montresor as a whole. Poe uses dialogue to critique this time period, and truly to tell most of the story, which is an interesting tactic, considering how the story opens. Montresor, as the narrator, almost immediately informs the reader that they know so well the “nature of his soul”, when no previous information is given about him at all.

Instead, Poe uses the dialogue to illustrate more about the character of Fortunato. When Montresor finds his target, he is already clearly intoxicated, and dressed in traditional Italian “carnival” gear, which would have literally made him look like a clown by today’s standards, and even by the standards of the mid 19th century. Poe purposefully casts Fortunato as the fool right from the beginning; a beautiful bit of foreshadowing, which is really paradoxical considering the build-up of suspense in the dialogue.

Not only is Poe making a statement about foolish customs, but perhaps indeed foolish people as well—more specifically a group of people called the Freemasons. There is an awkward scene of dialogue while the two characters are descending and Fortunato, at this point drunken, foolish, and at the will of Montresor, makes a hand gesture that Montresor does not recognize. Fortunato then asks Montresor if he is a Mason, and concluding he was not. Montresor replies with a joke regarding masonry, rather than Masonry, which further lead to Fortunato concluding he “could never” be a Mason. This further infuriated the character of Montresor–pushing the psychopath even further to the edge of disaster. This was also a bit of a laughing matter for Montresor, considering the end of the story.

It was Fortunato’s final slight against Montresor that foreshadowed his own death. The entire way down the long and damp catacombs, Montresor continued to insist that Fortunato drink more and more alcohol for the cough that was so apparent in the dialogue. Montresor was easily able to lure Fortunato into what would be his final resting place, and was seemingly the location of the so sought Amontillado. By the time they had descended the stairs, a combination of Fortunto’s drunkenness and health had overwhelmed him, clearly a product of Montresor’s so well executed, and diabolical plan to wall the man up behind a wall while living.

There are two ways to interpret this ending with regards to Poe himself. On one hand, there is the widely held belief that Poe himself was an alcoholic. It is very possible that this story is a reflection of a man walled up inside his own alcoholism, identifying himself with Fortunato–a man who met his demise pitiful and drunk. There is a very big possibility that this is in fact the case. Poe has been very widely speculated to be an abuser of alcohol, opium, and particularly the elixir absinthe, which is alcohol infused with a hallucinogenic chemical in wormwood.

On the other hand, modern literary theorists note that many accounts calling Poe’s substance abuse problem arose after his death, and was widely circulated to discredit his name by authors he was very harsh on during his almost life-long job of an outspoken literary critique and essayist. Recent evidence has arisen that Poe himself actually had very adverse reactions to alcohol, and was unable to drink at all. By this perspective, it is very possible that this short story is a critique on Poe’s feelings on alcohol–victimizing Fortunato as a slave to alcohol that eventually resulted in his demise. During the Industrial Period of the mid 19th century, many turned to alcohol to escape problems. This could very well have been a social critique as a whole on alcohol use.

In either case, Poe clearly draws from his past experiences when he constructed the short story The Cask of Amontillado.

Works Cited

http://www.eapoe.org/geninfo/poealchl.htm

http://www.biography.com/people/edgar-allan-poe-9443160

http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/POE/cask.html

 

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