The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado: A Comparison of Two of Edgar Allan Poe’s Greatest Short Stories
The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado:
A Comparison of Two of Edgar Allan Poe’s Greatest Short Stories
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Edgar Allan Poe, an American writer, introduced and explored the concept of short-stories mostly in the genre of horror. He probed into the macabre in his narrations which earned him a label of one of the greatest horror writers of American Literature, inspiring the likes of Stephen King and H.P - The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado: A Comparison of Two of Edgar Allan Poe’s Greatest Short Stories introduction. Lovecraft who are also considered masters of the modern horror genre. (www.eNotes.com)
Poe earned his fame through his poetry such as the infamous The Raven and the woeful Annabelle Lee. Several Poe enthusiasts who have provided biographies for the writer have asserted that Poe’s first interest was poetry and his prose only came about due to financial necessity(Microsoft Encarta). However, this did not stop Poe’s imagination to take on a new level which catapulted him into fame.
Edgar Allan Poe’s personal life was as interesting as his stories. The events of his life have been also cited as a source of his unusual choice of topics while others attribute this to his habitual drinking and alleged use of drugs which led to his untimely death on October 7, 1849.
In 1843, one of Poe’s most famous stories was published in James Russell Lowell’s The Pioneer. The Tell-Tale Heart is a story of an unnamed narrator who comes up with a plan to murder a man under his care, the nature of the relationship remaining unspecified throughout the story. The narrator does not give any specific instance which might have awakened his murderous tendency except by describing one of his victim’s eyes, which he calls “the evil eye,” much like a vulture’s which misses nothing. Poe succeeds in adding the eye as a third major character in the story, being the cause of the madness which consumed the narrator.
Throughout the story, the narrator insists that he is not mad but only wants to rid himself of the evil eye which he is unable to separate from the old man, whom he claims to love very much. He does not provide details on how he first thought of killing the man but rather focuses on the fact that it has turned to an obsession. He spends seven days planning the murder, each night observing his victim through an opening, the whole time bragging about his shrewdness and insisting that a madman would not go through such meticulous measures. Further pride in his handiwork is shown by the first few paragraphs of the story, asking the reader to observe how calm the narrator is in telling his tale:
Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded—with what caution—with what foresight—with what dissimulation I went to work! (Poe 3)
The narrator then proceeds to kill the old man on the eighth night by smothering him with what is presumably a mattress or a pillow, eliciting only a single scream heard by a neighbor. The authorities, viewed by the narrator as villains, were alerted and entered the premises (with the narrator’s consent) to search for anything suspicious. The narrator, initially remaining calm and personable, arrogantly leads the policemen through the house and seats them in the very room where he has hidden the dismembered corpse of the old man. As the minutes pass, the narrator then hears a sound very much like the sound of his victim’s fearful heart just before his death and gives rise to paranoia, leading to his confession of the crime. It has been said that the sound that the narrator actually hears is that of his own heart, expressing its guilt over the heinous act he committed.
Poe is able to capture the mood and assist the imagination during the murder scene, where the old man’s heart thumps with fear of an unknown danger masked by darkness. Poe described the sound of the heart as one “such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton.” This description will prove to be significant during the search of the police of the house as this is the same line used by Poe to indicate the sound which the narrator eventually hears and pulls at his conscience.
The idea of a “senseless crime,” a concept used at the present, was also explored. The murder of the old man lacks any reasonable motive and suggests that the smallest things can push a man to cross the line that separates lucid thoughts from insanity. The story also brought to life the consumption of paranoia which eventually led to the narrator’s confession of the crime.
The story itself is bare of any dialogue but more of an essay which can be mistaken for the ramblings of a diabolical mind. However, this lack of dialogue sets the mood of isolation of the narrator from his true feelings for the old man. It also focuses on the inner workings of his mind, allowing the reader to glimpse into the emergence of the conscience of a murderer.
Poe showcases his ability to tap into the reader’s imagination and emotions through the use of words that would best describe the sounds and visions of the story and allows the reader to think as the narrator would through the use of a first-person narration. (Womack)
Another of Poe’s more famous short stories is The Cask of Amontillado, which is themed on revenge and pride (Ross). Also told from a first-person perspective, this story is set fifty years before the time of its narration, where the narrator Montresor recites his recollection of the events of a night when he murdered his friend, Fortunato. The story itself is very subjective as it is Montresor who relates the facts as he perceived them fifty years ago. Not only is his memory doubtful, as it occurred a long time ago, but there is also the obvious bias of Montresor against Fortunato. (SparkNotes)
The story begins with Montresor’s justification for the murder, which was “a thousand” injuries he had borne and that Fortunato bordered on insult. Poe fails to give more details as to these injuries, perhaps to focus more on Montresor’s state of mind during the inception of the act. Montresor comes up with a plan to lure Fortunato into his wine vault where the latter would meet his death.
Fortunato is introduced as a man who prides himself in his knowledge of winery, which becomes Montresor’s bait. The title of the story is suggestive of the means used by Montresor in the murder, the cask referring to the vault which served as Fortunato’s casket and Amontillado as the temptation which leads to Fortunato’s demise. (Ross) Montresor tells Fortunato that the former has acquired Amontillado but is unsure of its quality, luring Fortunato to volunteer his expertise and go to the crypt with his friend. Montresor hides his contempt by masking his feelings with that of amity.
Poe makes use of a dialogue to describe both Montresor’s character background and the setting of the story. Fortunato makes comments on the surroundings while Montresor gives the appropriate responses. During the walk, several symbols are encountered during the conversation. One of such symbols is the comedic costume of Fortunato which indicates that Montresor sees him as a fool to fall for such a trap. Other critics have also taken notice of the use of a cape and a black mask, which symbolize evil and the treachery of Montresor’s motives. The significance of Montresor’s family crest intricately described by Poe should also be stressed. The narrator now shows that he sees Fortunato as a snake that needs to be crushed to defend his family’s pride from constant insults. This provides a look into Montresor’s family values which compel him to pursue a path of revenge against Fortunato. (Ross)
The occasion of a carnival is also significant in the setting of a story. Like the modern day celebrations of Mardi Gras or Cinco de Mayo, the carnival at the time was an event where people would let go of their inhibitions and enjoy themselves. This also symbolizes Montresor’s release of any reservations he may have against avenging his family pride and his disregard for any consequence that his actions may bring. (SparkNotes)
Poe makes use of the element of irony in this story. Fortunato, according to a critic, pursues his own “cask,” which becomes his final resting place (Ross). Montresor’s concern and his toast to Fortunato’s health is also a prime example as he knows that illness will not be the cause of the latter’s death. Another perceivable use of irony is the choice of name for the victim, which translates as “lucky,” considering that his own pride has led him to his death.
In the end, Montresor leads Fortunato to a place where he allegedly kept the coveted Amontillado and chains him to prevent escape while he laid the masonry tier after tier all night. The sound of the clanking chains described in the story is reminiscent of the sound of the thumping heart which the unnamed narrator hears in The Tell-Tale Heart.
Through both short stories, Poe has achieved his triumph as a master of horror. In both narrations, he uses the first-person perspective to be able to get more intimate with the reader and allow the reader to discover the potential evil that lurks in the deep recesses of the mind. It also gives the reader an opportunity to temporarily assume the identity of the narrator in an effort to understand the apparent illogical reasons for their actions. The use of this perspective also allows the reader to see the situations and the setting as the narrator does.
Both The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado make use of the element of trust reposed by the victims on their killers. The murderers in both short stories betray this trust, that of a companion for the old man in The Tell-Tale Heart and that given to a friend in The Cask of Amontillado. The murderers also take advantage of the superior strength or impairments of their victims such as the old man’s weakness and Fortunato’s drunken state.
With the abuse of trust comes the duplicitous nature of both the unnamed narrator and Montresor. The unnamed narrator looks upon the old man with love and compassion with the statement that he was never kinder to the old man than the week before the murder, all the while plotting to take his life. Montresor, meanwhile, has treated Fortunato as a friend until they had reached the spot where the Amontillado was supposedly kept, expressing concern about the latter’s persistent cough and toasting to his health.
Further similarities are seen through the use the unusual surroundings in the murders. The old man in The Tell-Tale Heart fears the unknown that lurks in his dark room while Fortunato expresses no fear but his unfamiliarity with the crypt led him into the trap. The darkness plays a great role in the stories to highlight the malevolent force that drives the narrators into committing their crimes and the depth of their homicidal thoughts.
The lack of any justifiable motive is also noticeable in both stories. Though Fortunato’s specific trespass has never been revealed in the story, Montresor’s ability to hold a grudge against one who could be perceived as a good friend is remarkable. The reader is also given a chance to add to the story by allowing his imagination to run away with him in figuring out what Fortunato’s offense might be. The obsession to eliminate the vulture-eye in The Tell-Tale Heart, meanwhile, is also not a justifiable motive to an ordinary man but Poe has used his words to make a reader believe that the anxiety it has caused the narrator would be enough to drive one to murder.
At one point during each story, the narrator’s encounters a moral dilemma regarding the decency of his action, usually brought about by a steady sound such as the heart beat in The Tell-Tale Heart and the rattling of Fortunato’s chains in The Cask of Amontillado.
The characters themselves are interestingly diverse in both stories. The unnamed narrator in The Tell-Tale Heart could be profiled as probably an underachiever, considering that he may be highly dependent on the old man and very sensitive to criticism or paranoid to it, as shown by his obsession over the vulture-eye that misses nothing. The old man, meanwhile, is seen as a benevolent character, although not physically attractive probably due to age or his “evil eye.” He is the complete opposite of the narrator as the former may have been successful at one point in his life, proven by the existence of many treasures pointed out by the narrator to the police and his ability to travel out of the country on occasion.
Meanwhile, the characters in The Cask of Amontillado are very similar in more ways than one. Both characters have an extreme sense of pride, Fortunato in his expertise of wine and Montresor in his heritage. Both are members of the affluent class of European (probably Italian) society and are highly educated. The characters believe themselves to be infallible in certain matters and this eventually leads to their downfall.
Though very similar in terms of the plot and symbolisms, the difference in the writing style used by Poe in both stories is somewhat remarkable. Poe rambles on in The Tell-Tale Heart, perhaps to emphasize the narrator’s state of mind, with his wordy and persistent denial of madness. The narrator describes his surroundings as seen by his fractured mind, always going back to the topic of the vulture-eye which had become an obsession.
In The Cask of Amontillado, Poe takes advantage of the use of the dialogue to describe the surroundings and the feeling of the narrator, probably also to lessen the subjectivity of the narration. Unlike The Tell-Tale Heart, the use of irony is also more prominent in this short story, with its numerous symbols of death, deceit and revenge.
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