How Poe Observes the Characteristics of the American Gothic Literature Tradition in “The Cask of Amontillado” Edgar Allan Poe was destined to a life of darkness and insanity. As the son of traveling performers, Poe was abandoned to the horrors of the world at a young age. Poe is generally regarded as the father of American Gothic Literature, an example to such authors as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. The stories that Poe inscribed are prevalent in modern times, creating genres such as horror films and science fiction movies. “The Cask of Amontillado” is one of Poe’s most memorable short stories, that epitomizes the American Gothic Literature Tradition through the dark narrative. In this short story Montresor, the protagonist, has a vendetta against Fortunato, a man that has wronged him thousands of times. To carry out his revenge, Montresor proceeds to lure Fortunato into the catacombs of his cellar, promising him amontillado, a rare wine.
In the end, Fortunato is bound to a wall, while simultaneously being entombed by Montresor. The symbolism, settings, and narrator employed by Poe in “The Cask of Amontillado” are the stereotypical elements to Southern American Gothic Literature To begin, Edgar Allan Poe utilizes his patriarchal mastery of symbolism to adhere to the characteristics of The American Gothic Literature Tradition in “The Cask of Amontillado.” Poe uses the symbol of Fortunato’s attire to describe his personality as foolhardy and gullible. He adorns “a tight fitting party-striped dress and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells” (Poe 1). He was dressed as a jester; this symbolic representation portrays Fortunato as a fool. Trent Lorcher touts “This is Montresor’s way of humiliating Fortunato further for the anger he has caused Montresor. Montresor wants Fortunato to die like the fool that he is “(Lorcher 1). Additionally, the amontillado is a symbol within itself for deceit. Amontillado is a rare and delightful wine, a significant temptation to one who is a wine connoisseur such as Fortunato.
The amontillado symbolizes Montresor’s deceit of Fortunato; at the mere mention of the amontillado by Montresor, Fortunato exclaims “To your vaults!” (Poe 1). Lorcher justifies this “Fortunato’s passion for good wine leaves him susceptible to flattery, flattery which Montresor provides” (Lorcher 1). Another symbol is the way in which Montresor disposes of Fortunato, which depicts Montresor’s hatred and scorn for Fortunato. Montresor murders Fortunato in the most unusual fashion, he walls him up within a dungeon. In killing Fortunato in this humiliating method, it signifies Montresor’s true detestation for Fortunato and the want to dispatch of him in a humbling methodology. Poe describes this burial in such a manner: “I forced the last stone into position and plastered it up…. for the half of a century no mortal has disturbed [his bones]” (Poe 1). R.J. Russ supports this assumption by stating: “The way he actually killed Fortunato was torturous and cruel.
This proves how angry he was at Fortunato… Montresor [did] it because he wanted Fortunato to die in an [embarrassing] fashion that Montresor believed he deserved” (Russ 1). From Fortunato’s wardrobe, to the deceitful wine, to the mode that Fortunato was killed; Poe uses these symbols to observe the characteristics of the American Gothic Literature. As well as using symbolism to adhere to the elements of the American Gothic Literature tradition, Poe also delves into the twisted thoughts of a vengeful narrator. Poe uses the dynamics of a tortuous plan, an irrational storyteller, and honor of aforementioned Montresor to craft “The Cask of Amontillado” into an American Gothic classic. Montresor tells the story of his revenge against Fortunato nearly fifty years after the live burial. He is proud of his intricate plan to take vengeance. Through imagery, Poe depicts a premeditated murder as planned by a ruthless Montresor.
“Throwing them aside, I soon uncovered a quantity of building stone and mortar” (Poe 7). The prior planning required to execute this intricate plan is evident, as Montresor created the ideal situation t exact his revenge. Womack states, “By the end of Poe’s story, Montresor has gotten his revenge against unsuspecting Fortunato, whose taste for wine has led him to his own death” (Womack 5). In order to continue, Montresor supplies the weakening Fortunato with alcohol to further lower the senses of the impulsive Fortunato. The lure of Amontillado is too much for the jolly Fortunato, willing to stagger to his death at the promise of a taste of the fine sherry. Montresor attacks the pride of Fortunato when mentioning that Luchresi may be a better connoisseur of wine, in fact leading Fortunato to declare that “Luchresi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry” (Poe 3).
This moment shows not only the pride imperative to Montresor’s plan for vengeance, but also the dignity that connoisseurs of wine such as Montresor and Fortunato possess. This pride is magnified in Montresor more so than Fortunato, as shown by the narrator’s opening line, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge” (Poe 1). The insult of Montresor is the death sentence for Fortunato, though the nature of the insult nor the consequence upon Montresor’s dignity is described. Montresor’s pride is the nature of his family as the motto upon the family crest, “Nemo me impune lacessit” (Poe 5). Simply, Poe shows that Montresor’s ancestry contains the same pride by creating a motto saying “No one assails me with impunity” (Poe 5). Poe further challenges the reliability and character of the narrator, and in fact “Poe does not intend for the reader to sympathize with Montresor because he has been wronged by Fortunato, but rather to judge him” (Womack 4).
The narrator evolves throughout the story as his insanity grows, and doubt is created in the reader as to the reliability of Montresor. As the end of his deed draws near, the agonized howls of Fortunato are heard when the certainty of doom finally emerges upon the captive. The story continues, “I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I re-echoed, I aided, I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamourer grew still” (Poe 8). The insane narrator is a characteristic of Poe’s American Gothic Literature tradition, a characteristic that continues in the Cask of Amontillado with Montresor, who recounts the story nearly 50 years after the murder of Fortunato. Womack expounds upon Poe’s fascination with the mad chronicler, saying, “Once again, the reader is invited to delve into the inner workings of a sinister mind” (Womack 4). Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” is characterized as American Gothic Literature by the story-telling of a vengeful narrator as well as the dark setting that is described. Lastly, in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” dark setting is portrayed through the use of a medieval carnival to adhere to the American Gothic Literature tradition.
To begin this short story, the cheerful setting of a medieval carnival is described “they walked amidst the drunken and mirth.” (Poe 1). The carnival is a profound, ironic representation of Poe’s twisted plots in which he conveys fear to his audience. Poe strays from a prototypical melancholy setting associated with the American Gothic Literature tradition. “You would never expect a tale of sick revenge to take place at the same time as a merry making carnival” (Palmer 3). Another setting representative of evil is portrayed in Poe’s work through the isolation of the catacombs. “We passed through a range of low arches, descended, passed on, and descended, arrived at a deep crypt in which the foulness of the air caused our flame beat torches to grow the flame” (Poe 3). Poe’s use of imagery when describing the catacombs fashions a scene of isolation and despair common among short stories classified as American Gothic Literature.
The use of a deep underground tomb is used to portray sinister setting and the chaos of impending death. “I busied myself among the pile of bones…. a succession of loud and shrill screams busted suddenly from the throat of the chained form” (Poe 6). The moment described in the quote is Fortunato’s realization that he will die as the egress to his tomb is gradually sealed. “Poe’s work in a sense puts the reader in the shoes of the victim in the tomb. As they experience fear, panic and rage in their final moments of struggle” (Moore 2). Poe’s use of setting in “The Cask of Amontialldo” is archetypal to the American Gothic Literature tradition, using the setting to further create a sense of mystique and unease.
To conclude, Edgar Allan Poe is purely a master of The American Gothic Literature Tradition. He utilizes the prototypical elements of symbolism, a vengeful character, and an eerie setting to adhere to the specific protocol of The AGLT (American Gothic Literature Tradition). Poe’s exploitation of symbolism conveys underlying messages about the short story’s plot and characters. Poe’s dominance over the concept of having an unstable and vengeful protagonist entices the reader to read on. Finally, Poe’s use of a carnival as a setting is a sick twist, a place where one expects merriment is substituted with a place where revenge is taken. It is safe to presume that Poe’s life of disappointment, resilience, darkness, and mystery shaped him into an individual that properly utilizes all of the elements of The American Gothic Literature Tradition.
Lorcher, Trent. Symbolism and Irony in “The Cask of Amontillado. 17 January 2012. September 2013 .
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Cask of Amontillado. 1846. September 2013 .
Russ, R.J. Symbolism in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado. 28 April 2008. September 2013 .
Womack, Martha. “Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”” The Poe Decoder. 1997, September 2013 < http://www.poedecoder.com/essays/cask/>.
Poe, Edgar A. Short Stories: The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe