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Edgar Allan Poe and Gothic Imagery in “The Cask of Amontillado” Essay

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ENG 341-Studies in Literary Genres| The Significance of Imagery | In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” | Lauren Grilli 6/7/2010 | Imagery is described as the ‘mental pictures’ one interprets from reading any type of literature; this can be done using any of the five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. Edgar Allan Poe is notorious for his use of dramatic imagery in the gothic genre. “Gothic literature has a number of conventions, including evocations of horror, suggestions of the supernatural, and dark, exotic locales such as castles and crumbling mansions” (Canada, 1997).

In this paper, I will examine the imagery Poe has chosen in The Cask of Amontillado, and explain why it is vital to the furthering of the plot. In “The Cask of Amontillado” Poe uses descriptive language and imagery to create a sense of intrigue and an enticing character and situation, expanding the rhetorical strategy of maintaining a state of suspense. Although it remains a mystery, throughout The Cask of Amontillado, the reason why the narrator harbors such hatred toward Fortunato, this missing information adds to the suspense and allows the reader forge a bond with the words Montresor speaks, as he cunningly guides Fortunato to his death.

Aside from creating a closer attention to the descriptive language, Poe also uses imagery to create the sense of impending doom. Two main contributors to the impending doom and suspense, which course freely through the structure of the entire story, are irony and foreshadowing. Poe highlights these components through imagery, creating, for the reader, a sense of place that becomes overwhelmed with underlying fear. In sum, the story of The Cask of Amontillado relies heavily on descriptive language and imagery to achieve a sense of atmosphere that parallels its dark plot.

Some critics, like Phillips, argue that Poe’s extensive use of dark imagery “in an effort, largely successful, to create mood, sacrificed (willingly or inadvertently) both characterization and plot” (1972). I, along with many other critics, do not believe this to be true. In fact, it is his use of the extensively dark and ominous imagery that gives The Cask of Amontillado the intense suspense necessary to achieve the effect the final act of violence and murder has on the reader.

The character’s actions and descriptions produce the horror that Poe intended to enhance the suspense and the shock value of the story’s outcome. In the next paragraphs, I will analyze Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado, and demonstrate the importance of the imagery in the furthering of the plot by building suspense through setting, characterization, foreshadowing and irony. Poe’s use of descriptive language and imagery, to create suspense, goes far beyond his creation of character and motivation alone. He carefully chooses words that convey a strong sense of place and, in turn, create more tension.

The Cask of Amontillado’s setting has begun at “about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season” (DiYanni, 2004). Instead of being given a portrait of a carnival with a light atmosphere, it is the end of the day and, much like the narrator’s intentions, it is growing dark. Poe describes the ambiance of the setting as taking place during a time of “supreme madness” and thus it becomes clear that there is something sinister about the setting (DiYanni, 2004). There is an air of madness and chaos, rather than joy and fun, through such details in the setting.

Montresor is smiling during the search for Fortunato; waiting to begin his plan of revenge for the “impunities” he has suffered at Fortunato’s expense (DiYanni, 2004). His smile causes the reader a certain degree of uneasiness and morbid curiosity towards this impending punishment, and it becomes obvious that Montresor is twisted and evil. When Fortunato appears he is “drunk” and wearing “a tight-fitting, parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells” (DiYanni, 2004).

The fact that he is dressed as a clown and is unknowingly in store for a punishment is comical and horrifying all at the same time. The suspense builds when it becomes clear Fortunato has no clue about his fate. Montresor informs the intoxicated Fortunato of the Amontillado stored in the vaults below. After a little ego-trip, Fortunato convinces himself he must go and sample this grand vintage wine. As the story progresses, so does Montresor and Fortunato’s hell-like descent into the vaults, and also the “nitre” which “hangs like moss upon the vaults” (DiYanni, 2004).

Montresor tells Fortunato “We are below the river’s bed” where “The drops of moisture trickle among the bones” and warns him to “Come, we will go back ere it’s too late” (DiYanni, 2004). The foulness of the air around them had “caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame”, and created a feeling of suffocation (DiYanni, 2004). By using simple but descriptive passages such as these, the reader is transported to the chilly vaults and can feel what the narrator and his companion sense.

Every detail of the caves is explored through dialogue and as one scholar noted, “Poe’s strict attention to the geology and chemistry of the subterranean passages of Montresor’s chateau serves a much larger purpose than a simple description, the creation of atmosphere, and the selection of an ideal place to conceal a murder” (Benton, 1991). With the centuries of buried dead around them and the dripping walls, it is literally a place of death and the reader becomes aware of this even before the ending is known.

Through such uses of setting and description, Poe is able to create a sense of suspense that lasts throughout the story. They reach the final room, at last, and “its walls had been lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead…” (DiYanni, 2004). Some of the bones are piled upon the floor, leaving a niche in one of the walls about “four feet in depth, in width three, in height six or seven” which resembled a horizontal grave and leaves the reader with a suspenseful assumption that this will be where Fortunato will end up.

According to the interesting theory of one critic, “the whole imagery of the crypt suggests that the word ‘Amontillado’ is a metaphor that evokes the meaning of the root word ‘mons’ or ‘montis’ meaning collected or formed into little heaps” (Baraban, 2004). This critic is referring to the piles of bones that can be found in the final room. Three walls are lined with bones and there is a pile on the floor which comes from the fourth wall, where the niche, or Fortunato’s final resting place, is located. The irony of the ituation being Fortunato’s inability to decipher the meaning behind the word ‘Amontillado’, or the pun intended. At last, Montresor pushes Fortunato into the niche, chains him and begins to brick him inside. From inside the homemade grave comes his “low moaning cry…”, “…not the cry of a drunken man (DiYanni, 2004). There was then a “long obstinate silence” indicating his sober awareness of what is happening and his acceptance of being powerless to stop it (DiYanni, 2004). Before the final brick is set in place, the “jingling of the bells” is heard for the last time (DiYanni, 2004).

Unfortunately, the sound continues to haunt the reader, and possibly even Montresor, long after the story is over. Certain imagery of the characters, Montresor and Fortunato, not mentioned above, plays a critical role in furthering the plot in order to build suspense. For instance, Montresor puts on “a mask of black silk, and drawing a roquelaire closely about…” as they were about to begin their “descent” into the vaults (DiYanni, 2004). Once inside the vaults, Montresor takes a good look at Fortunato and described his eyes as “two filmy orbs that distilled the rheum of intoxication” (DiYanni, 2004).

Montresor even seems to be a little fearful of the situation he has put himself in. Not only do we have a mysterious and chaotic setting, but now a shrouded figure that we imagine might look like death itself-a very dark and typically gothic image. This is even further emphasized by the family’s coat of arms which Montresor describes as showing a “foot that crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel” (DiYanni, 2004). This image gives the reader pause and leads to the question of what it means.

While it might be easy to think that Montresor is the serpent, “he is not the serpent but the figure whose heel bruises the serpent’s head” (St. John Stott 85). This image makes us see our narrator as violent and aggressive. Another part of the character’s imagery is the “conical cap and bells” which jingled randomly, haunting the reader and igniting suspense at different times during the play. This sound is also the last one heard from Fortunato, causing the reader, and probably Montresor, to continually hear its lingering effects, long after the story has ended.

The imagery used in this short story, not only creates suspense through setting and characterization, but also through irony and foreshadowing. In The Cask of Amontillado, situational irony occurs when the setting is revealed through the imagery of the carnival season and the impending punishment Montresor has planned for the clueless Fortunato. The name Fortunato also possesses irony because it is derived from the word ‘fortunate’ meaning ‘of good luck or fortune’ which, in this story, unbeknownst to him, he will not end up lucky after all.

The comical nature of Fortunato’s attire is ironic because he is travelling to his death dressed as a jester, ordinarily comical, yet, in this story, is no laughing matter. The description of the mason’s “grotesque” gesture, which Fortunato does in response to Montresor’s telling him he is a member of their union, creates the greatest irony in the story (DiYanni, 2004). This is because we know that Montresor is not truly a mason; but tonight he will assume the role of one, as he bricks up Fortunato’s horizontal grave.

These events all occur with the doomed Fortunato totally in the dark, creating the suspense necessary to enhance the final scene and the horror of the murder’s details. The imagery in The Cask of Amontillado also gives clues as to what is going to happen next. The foreshadowing of the impending crime can be observed in the imagery associated with Montresor and Fortunato’s constant descent into the maze of crypts, the increasing “web-like nitre” on the walls and the dampness which increase Fortunato’s “cough”, and the only light being that of the torch (DiYanni, 2004).

The haunting jingle coming from the bells on Fortunato’s “conical cap”, also foreshadow death, yet it is not until the story’s end that the sound begins to haunts the reader, which continues long after the story is over (DiYanni, 2004). The imagery is almost screaming death and the foreshadowing gives every indication that Fortunato is, indeed, going to die. As explained, imagery plays a sizeable and essential role in many aspects of the plot of The Cask of Amontillado. The descriptions of the odd, morbidly humorous Fortunato and the maniacally evil Montresor serve only to contribute to the play’s suspense.

The carnival setting, which ordinarily suggests a fun and comical tone, ends up being anything but fun and comical, creating a sense of twisted strangeness, favored by Poe, in order to build up the suspense, accentuating the horror of the final death scene. Also, Poe uses dramatic contrasts of imagery, like the carnival setting for a murder and the jester’s attire Fortunato is wearing, to create a plot that confuses yet, at the same time, satisfies the reader. Thus, the imagery becomes Poe’s most powerful and effective tool in the plot’s construction.

While many critics agree that Poe was a master of gothic imagery, using it as his primary tool in the construction of The Cask of Amontillado, other critics feel as though his efforts sacrificed the characterization, atmosphere and, in general, the entire plot of this story. This statement, in my opinion, is far from true. As an avid reader of literature in the gothic genre, I find Poe’s style precisely more effective than other, more subtle approaches seen in other works in the gothic genre. The Cask of Amontillado held my interest throughout the entire structure, despite the early revelation of its outcome and its lack of a motive.

The story was so well-crafted that, having been completely absorbed in its intricate details and imagery, I failed to realize that a motive was missing until I began to analyze the story for this paper! The early revelation of Fortunato’s ‘punishment’ hardly mattered when the twisted ending was revealed and still managed to surprise me. I cannot imagine the plot of this story being as powerful or effective without Poe’s dramatic usage of imagery. Annotated Bibliography Baraban, Elena V. (2004). The Motive for Murder in “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe.

Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 58, No. 2 (2004), pp. 1-110. Retrieved May 14, 2010, Stable URL:  http://www. jstor. org/stable/1566552 Benton, Richard P. (1991). Poe’s `The Cask’ and the `White Webwork which Gleams’. Studies in Short Fiction, 28. 2, pp. 183. Canada, Mark. (1997). “Edgar Allan Poe. ” Canada’s America. 1997. http://www. uncp. edu/home/canada/work/canam/poe. htm (5/27/2010). DiYanni, Robert. (2004). Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama. New York: McGraw-Hill. St. John Stott, Graham. (2004). Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado. Explicator, 62. 2 : 85.

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