Known in the realm of American literature as the unparalleled creator of macabre and horror, Edgar Allan Poe kept his stories both gripped and captivating by introducing a unique flair of fear into them. Building his stories on the premise of primal terror that is coded into the instincts of every human being, Poe imbued each of his short stories with a plethora of nightmare fuel for the reader. Remarkably, nowhere in Poe’s stories is it seen as evidently as in “The Cask of Amontillado.” By combining the deeply emotional sense of vengeance as the outcome of primitive rage with the terrifyingly claustrophobic concept of being buried alive, “The Cask of Amontillado” manages to draw the reader’s undivided attention due to the simplicity and emotionality of its main themes.
Although the theme of claustrophobia reaches its peak at the pivotal moment in the story, when Montresor locks Fortunato in the cellar, effectively burying him alive, the claustrophobic elements are scattered around most of the plot points and begin to surface from the moment when the story starts developing. Additionally, the novel manages to grip the reader’s attention immediately and keep it peeled to every plot development by establishing the presence of a deeply-seated and long-lasting grudge between the main characters. Although the specified nuance in their relationships is not revealed immediately, the tension is evident at a very early stage of the story. Specifically, the presence of unease and evident tension in the relationships between Montresor and Fortunato is portrayed masterfully, with tiny hints of their conflict being placed in different stages of their interactions. What makes Poe’s story especially dark and terrifying is that his representation of vengeance, it does not have a specific moral dimension. Namely, Poe never portrays it as positive or negative; instead, he depicts it as a chaotic force that guides the lead character to demolish the life of his enemy and leave him to perish a terrifying death. Specifically, Poe makes the following observation: “A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser” (Poe). As shown in the specified quote, the notion of vengeance is not characterized as an explicitly adverse and destructive force but, instead, depicts it as powerful and relentless.
The crushing and uncontrollable power of vengeance in “The Cask of Amontillado” can be paralleled with the sense of claustrophobia mentioned above as another emotion that is nearly impossible to manage due to its irrational nature. Therefore, the sense of impending doom and the complete lack of agency caused by the presence of the described unmanageable forces enhance the experience and contribute to cementing the atmosphere of dread with which the short story is drenched (Min 56).
Moreover, the described emphasis on developing the atmosphere and the background for the short story to develop it does not prevent the character arc from evolving. On the contrary, the presence of the specified environment, where overwhelming fear and nonetheless overwhelming anger define the development of the main characters, makes the conflict between them and the change that they experience all the more captivating. Allowing to build the tension slowly, the focus on vengeance sets the stage for an inevitable payoff: “I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation” (Poe). In turn, small details of the setting in which the drama unfolds indicate the grim and creepy nature of the outcome to be observed: “It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season” (Poe). In fact, the very mentioning of madness, even as it pertains to the colorful nature of the carnival, outlines the sinister denouement of the story.
Furthermore, the early introduction of the claustrophobic elements into the story serves as the next clue to the development of the relationships between the characters. When Fortunato notices the intricate structure of the vaults, he characterizes them in the following way: “’ These vaults,’ he said, ‘are extensive’” (Poe). The specified note represents a case of bitter irony, which is omnipresent in Poe’s most stories, yet particularly evident in “The Cask of Amontillado” (Akbar and Khadim 568). Therefore, Poe cements the sense of unease and creates the premise for a terrifying payoff revealed at the end, namely, Montresor leaving Fortunato to die buried alive.
Although the themes addressed in “The Cask of Amontillado” are quite a few, Poe manages to make the story immediately affecting and very nuanced by building the motivations of his leading character on the sense of primal need for vengeance and creating a deeply claustrophobic atmosphere that culminates with a horrendous reveal. Remarkably, the described themes do not overshadow the unique characters, and neither do they prevent the characters from developing; instead, the themes complement the rest of the story, creating the backdrop for the character arc. As a result, “The Cask of Amontillado” engulfs its readers and takes them to an entirely different, grim yet exciting world created by the master of the macabre himself.
Akbar, Nadia Ali, and Rawa Jawad Khadim. “Irony in ‘The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe and ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ by Mary Flannery O’Connor.” Basic Education College Magazine for Educational and Humanities Sciences, vol. 33, 2017, pp. 567-578.
Min, Y. U. “The Ironic Double of Sin and Revenge: Concept of Revenge in Edgar Allen Poe and Nathanial Hawthorne.” Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 18, no. 2, 2019, pp. 55-60.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” PoeStories.com, 1846, Web.