Untitled Essay, Research Paper
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Thesis: The Cask of Amontillado is about revenge.
II. Psychoanalytical Criticism
A. Poe s Revenge
III. New Criticism
A. Irony of Revenge
IV. New Historicism
A. History s view of Revenge
1. Poe s Time
2. Critic s Time
V. Comparison of New Criticism and New Historicism
A. Text s view similar to Poe s
B. Text s view contrasts with Critic s
VI. Reader Response
A. Response to Justification
B. Response to Success
C. Response to Confession
Nemo me impune lacessit (Poe 21), Latin meaning no one assails me with impunity. In this one line Poe characterizes The Cask of Amontillado. It is a story of the perfect revenge and why it is unattainable. The main character, Montresor, executes a plan, which he hopes will punish [Fortunato, the wrongdoer,] with impunity (18). The short story discloses that the act of revenge is not successful if retribution overtakes its redresser and if the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong (18). This story revolves around those requirements. The idea of revenge has played a major role in history and even today influences our culture. Through Psychoanalytic Criticism the ramifications of revenge will be explored, through New Criticism the story s viewpoint on revenge will be revealed, through New Historicism history s view of revenge will be discussed with a comparison to that of the text, and through Reader Response the critic s reactions to the story will be expounded.
The storyline for The Cask of Amontillado is presented as a memory. Montresor is recalling a dark secret, which has been hidden for half a century, and is confessing his crime to an unknown, silent listener. The crime is the taking of a man s life in an act of revenge. The vividness of the storyline shows the importance of the memory to Montresor, for even after fifty years he still recalls such minor details as Fortunato s eyes being two filmy orbs that distilled the rheum of intoxication. This memory embodies Montresor s desires, which looking from a Freudian perspective could be the removal of the father and the taking of the mother. Fortunato could be seen as Poe s father, John Allan. Poe describes Fortunato as a rich, respected, admired, beloved (20). Through the biographies on Poe and from Silverman, it is learned that John Allan is a Scotsman who is very wealthy and respected by many. He was a member of the Masons and had a particular fondness for wine (316-317). These facts about John Allan mesh with the character of Fortunato very well. It is also interesting to note that the Montresor s creed Nemo me impune lacessit is Scotland s national motto and probably would remind Poe of his father. The idea of Poe seeking revenge on his father figure can be understood from his biography. Poe and John Allan never got along well and usually were arguing. When Poe had amassed a large debt, Allan refused to pay it off for him and their squabbles over money lasted through John s death (Fagin 31-32, 183, 195, 227-28). John Allan left a fortune close to a million dollars and Poe was not even mentioned in his will (Carlson, 7-8). This in itself could inspire the revenge, but the whole idea can take on new meaning when the setting is considered.
The setting for the majority of the storyline is in the catacombs under the house of the Montresor family. The catacombs are a very dark long tunnel and can be seen as a symbol of the womb from a Freudian perspective. By entering the catacombs with his father figure and slaying him there, Marie Bonaparte believes that Poe is fighting for his mother figure s affection and destroying his rival for that affection (224-25). During Poe s life he lost his real mother at an early age and then lost his foster mother eleven years later. It is easy to see how in Poe s mind that a link between death and the love of his mother could be formed. The catacombs being a place of death are the yonic symbol for his mothers, which are dead. This coupled with the phallic symbol of the puncheons, which support the catacombs, gives way to the idea that the story represents Poe s innermost desires for revenge against his fathers and the love of his dead mothers. This Psychoanalytical reading differs from that of the New Criticism.
A New Critic s reading on The Cask of Amontillado focuses on the text itself for the meaning instead of bringing in the author s biography. In this type of reading the pattern the storyline follows helps us to arrive at the meaning. The act of revenge is still at the center of our attention, but now the focus lies on its pattern. In this story the act of revenge is circular. It begins with the thousand injuries of Fortunato I, [Montresor,] had borne (Poe 18), progresses to the planning of the punishment, proceeds to the execution of the plan, continues with conclusion of the design, and starts over with the sting of failure. The story accomplishes this circularity through irony. There appear to be two types of irony taking place throughout the story. The first type is the obvious ironies that Montresor creates and controls, while the second type of irony stems from the structure of the story.
The obvious ironies are seen in Montresor s dialogue with Fortunato. My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met (19), Agreeing that Montresor shall not die of a cough (20), and I to your long life are some examples of the verbal irony that Montresor uses, and the reader understands once the climax of the story is revealed. The act of revenge is premeditated and because of this it is assumed that Montresor has planned out the ironies he uses for pleasure and to gull Fortunato. Finding examples of the second type of irony is the most important to understanding the story. The name Fortunato is Italian and means one who is fortunate. This is the second type of irony. Fortunato is far from fortunate when it comes to his dealings with Montresor. The most important irony that deals with the revenge is the Montresor s coat of arms, a huge foot d or, in a field of azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel (21), and the family creed that no one assails me with impunity. The irony of the two being that the creed calls for the Fortunato to be punish[ed] with impunity (18), while the coat of arms suggests that while punishing Fortunato, Montresor might get the last blow but the sting from Fortunato s bite will not go away. After finishing the story this irony is better understood. For it is learned that Montresor is confessing his crime to someone and he implies that while the crime was perfect he was unable to get the last laugh. This is seen in the last interaction with Fortunato and how ambiguous it is. Montresor calls out:
No answer. I called again;
No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labor. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. (24)
Unlike the rest of the story this scene lacks the vividness that Montresor uses when retelling the action up to this point. This suggest that Montresor realizes in his subconscious that he has not succeeded in his perfect revenge, but in his conscious he still tries to hold on to it as being flawless. It is inferred that he may be confessing his sin to the church, but since he believes that he has achieved his goal he does not seem to repent or show remorse therefore bringing about this final irony. Through the irony in the story the circularity of revenge is seen and the idea of perfect revenge is fractured.
Reading The Cask of Amontillado distills several reactions from the reader. The first reaction to the story comes about from the idea of whether Montresor is justified in his revenge. The second reaction comes from further inspection of the story and whether Montresor succeeded or if he failed. The last reaction stems from who Montresor is talking to when he says, You, who so well know the nature of my soul (Poe, 18), and what the purpose of retelling the story is. Through a Reader Response criticism these reactions can be analyzed and an interpretation of the text can be achieved.
The first response evoked by the story is the judgment of an Eye for an Eye style revenge. Montresor tell us that a thousand injuries have been endured and once the perpetrator ventures upon insult he must be punish[ed] with impunity. Montresor s quest for revenge can be understood by all, for who has not at one time felt the want and need to justify a wrong set against them. The problem with accepting Montresor s plan comes down to the fact that the wrong is never explained. How can we condemn a man for whom we do not know his sin? This leaves the readers in doubt as to whether Fortunato deserves his fate, and as such it evokes the decision as to whether we can trust Montresor s viewpoint on the revenge. This in turn casts a shadow on the perfection of the revenge, which Montresor needs else he will have failed and all his work will be for not.
Does Montresor succeed or is he undone by his empathy towards his victim? This is what causes the second response to the story. Throughout the descent to Fortunato s tomb, Montresor inquires about his health stating, how long have you had that cough! We will go back; your health is precious (20). It is understood that here Montresor is using foreshadowing with irony to help gull his victim. Once Fortunato starts to sober up, he will realize that his pride caused his demise because he passed up his opportunities to escape. Or so this is what we see upon first re-inspection. What if Fortunato had taken Montresor up on the offer to return to the house? We get the idea that killing Fortunato with his own pride is the most important thing to Montresor. If Fortunato would not let his pride get in the way I believe Montresor might have pulled out the rapier and killed him outright. This plays a key role in the last scene. Why does Fortunato no longer answer Montresor s taunts?
But to these words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called aloud;
No Answer. I called again;
No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. (24)
I believe that Fortunato has finally realized his doom and what caused it, by not answering Montresor s taunts Fortunato has defeated him. Fortunato would have won also if he had gave in and gone back to the palazzo. It is this reason that I can say Montresor would have killed him. The act of revenge had consumed Montresor. He carried the rapier with him for insurance. We know he would instinctively use his weapon in such a case for when Fortunato s scrams and wails seemed to show a glitch in his plans Montresor hesitated I trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess (23). From this viewpoint we must discern that Montresor did not succeed in his perfect revenge. So why is he retelling his story after fifty long years?
The last response to The Cask of Amontillado stems from to whom Montresor is telling his story and why he is telling it. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them, [Fortunato s gravesite] (24) So why is Montresor now disclosing this secret? He states, In pace requiescat! (24) This is Latin for rest in peace. By bringing out the truth of the revenge and Fortunato s disappearance, Montresor is in fact disturbing the grave. Montresor may be confessing his crime to a priest, which would understand the two Latin phrases, but in his confession of the crime he does not seem to repent. Therefore Montresor could be gloating about his perfect revenge and his lack of detail about the end could be his trying to hide the fact that he did not succeed. Also we are left to ponder if Montresor is talking about himself when he says In pace requiescat. Maybe he is trying to clear his conscience of his misdeed. I believe that Montresor may be on his deathbed confessing his sins to God. I believe he is trying to convince himself that he had succeeded therefore eliminating the guilt of not triumphing over his enemy. He is not remorseful for the act only that he did not get away with it. It reminds me of how when people get caught breaking a law at some point they usually end up saying, I thought that I would never get caught. These are only three of the questions that arise from the story, many more can come from it but the answers to them all lead to the same conclusion: Montresor is an imperfect man. We cannot blame him for that and he should not blame himself, because there is no such thing as perfection it is an unreachable goal. Yet, we still strive to attain it.
Through four types of analysis the central issue of The Cask of Amontillado is seen to be the act of perfect revenge. What that revenge symbolizes in each analysis differs, yet the results are all the same. It does not matter what we are pursuing we always fall short of perfection. It is no wonder why Montresor failed. Failure is a harsh reality. It has been known to make some men stronger, but for others it breaks them and plagues their mind. He set his goals too high, so he must confess to ease his torment. Whether we are talking about Montresor or Poe it really does not matter. The same holds true for all human kind.