Edgar Allen Poe To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality. That it has frequently, very frequently, so fallen will scarcely be denied by those who think. The boundaries that divide life from death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins? Edgar Allan Poe often uses the motif of premature or concealed burials in his literary works. One such story is “The Cask of Amontillado.” The story begins around dusk, one evening during the carnival season (similar to the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans) in an unnamed European city.
The location quickly changes from the lighthearted activities associated with such a festival to the damp, dark catacombs under Montressor’s palazzo, which helps to establish the sinister atmosphere of the story. Although several characters are mentioned in this story, the true focus lies upon Montresor, the diabolical narrator of this tale of horror, who pledges revenge upon Fortunato for an insult. When the two meet during the carnival season, there is a warm greeting with excessive shaking of hands, which Montresor attributes to the fact that Fortunato had been drinking. Montresor also appears to be “happy” to see Fortunato since he is planning to murder him. Fortunato’s clown or jester’s costume appears to be appropriate not only for the carnival season but also for the fact that Montresor intends to make a “fool” out of him. Poe writes this story from the perspective of Montresor who vows revenge against Fortunato in an effort to support his time-honored family motto: “Nemo me impune lacessit” or “No one assails me with impunity.” (No one can attack me without being punished.) Poe does not intend for the reader to sympathize with Montresor because Fortunato has wronged him, but rather to judge him.
Telling the story from Montresor’s point of view intensifies the effect of moral shock and horror. Once again, the reader is invited (as was the case in “The Tell-Tale Heart”) to delve into the inner workings of a sinister mind. Poe’s story is a case of premeditated murder. The reader becomes quickly aware of the fact that Montresor is not a reliable narrator, and that he has a tendency to hold grudges and exaggerate terribly, as he refers to the “thousand injuries” that he has suffered at the hands of Fortunato. “..But when Fortunato ventured upon insult, Montresor could stand no more, and vowed revenge.” Montresor tries to convince the reader that his intentions are honorable in an effort to uphold his family motto. “Nemo me impune lacessit” is also the national motto of Scotland.
Kenneth Silverman, in his book Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, makes reference to the fact that it is not an accident or similarity that Poe chooses this particular motto. It is one that would remind Poe of another Scotsman, John Allan, his foster father. Allan, “much resembled Fortunato in being a man ‘rich, respected, admired, beloved,’ interested in wines, and a member of the Masons.” Silverman continues by saying that even the Allan name can be seen as an anagram in Amontillado. (Silverman 317) Stuart and Susan Levine, editors of The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition, does not view Poe’s story as just a clever tale of revenge, but instead, see it as an anti-aristocratic commentary. “Resentment against aristocratic ‘privilege’ of all kinds reached a peak in Jacksonian and post-Jacksonian America…
Poes tale is related to innumerable articles in American magazines of the period about the scandalous goings-on of continental nobility.” (Levine 454, 455) “The Cask of Amontillado” is a carefully crafted story so that every detail contributes to “a certain unique or single effect.” Irony, both dramatic and verbal, plays an important role in this process. Dramatic irony (the reader perceives something that a character in the story does not) occurs when the reader becomes painfully aware of what will become of Fortunato even though the character continues his descent into the catacombs in pursuit of the Amontillado. Poe further adds to this effect by calling the character Fortunato (who is anything but fortunate), and dressing him in a clown or a fool’s costume since Montresor intends to make a fool of him as part of his dark plan. There are numerous examples of verbal irony (character says one thing and means something else) within Montresor’s words. Montresor expresses concern about Fortunato’s health, and several times he suggests that they should turn back for fear that Fortunato’s cough will worsen as a result of the cold and dampness of the catacombs.
Montresor gives one of the most memorable lines of the story in response to Fortunato saying, “I will not die of a cough.” Montresor says, “True–true…” Other examples can be seen when Montresor toasts Fortunato’s long life as well as when he says that he is a mason, but not in the sense that Fortunato means. “In pace requiescat!” (“Rest in peace!”) is the last irony of a heavily ironic tale. “In pace” also refers to a very secure monastic prison. 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. Once again we are reminded of the coat of arms and the Montresor family motto.
The insignia is symbolic of Montresor’s evil character, which like the serpent intends to get revenge. “The Cask of Amontillado” is a powerful tale of revenge. Montresor, the sinister narrator of this tale, pledges revenge upon Fortunato for an insult. Montresor intends to seek vengeance in support of his family motto: “Nemo me impune lacessit.”(“No one assails me with impunity.”) On the coat of arms, which bears this motto, appears ” [a] huge human foot d’or, in a field of azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are embedded in the heel.” It is important for Montresor to have his victim know what is happening to him. Montresor will derive pleasure from the fact that “..as Fortunato slowly dies, the thought of his rejected opportunities of escape will sting him with unbearable regret, and as he sobers with terror, the final blow will come from the realization that his craving for the wine has led him to his doom.” (Quinn 500) In structure, there can be no doubt, that both Montresor’s plan of revenge and Poe’s story are carefully crafted to create the desired effect. In another story called the “The Fall of the House of Usher” The story begins on one dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year. From the very beginning, the reader, as a result of Poe’s imagery, is aware of a sense of death and decay. Even the narrator, Roderick’s childhood companion, describes “a sense of insufferable gloom which pervaded his spirit” as he approached the House of Usher.
The term “House of Usher” refers not only to the crumbling mansion but also to the remaining family members who live within. There are three significant characters in this tale: the narrator, Roderick and Madeline Usher. The narrator is a boyhood friend of Roderick Usher. He has not seen Roderick since they were children; however, because of an urgent letter that he received from Roderick which requested his aid, the nameless narrator decides to make the long journey. It was the apparent heart that went with his request –which allowed me no room for hesitation…”Roderick and Madeline Usher are the sole, remaining members of the long, time-honored Usher race.
When Madeline supposedly “dies” and is placed in her coffin, the narrator notices “a striking similitude between brother and sister…” It is at this point that Roderick informs his friend that he and the Lady Madeline had been twins, and that “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature had always existed between them.” Due to limited medical knowledge or to suit his purposes here, Poe treats Madeline and Roderick as if they were identical twins two parts of one personality instead of fraternal twins. He implies that Roderick and Madeline are so close that they can sense what is happening to each other. This becomes an important aspect in the unity of effect of this particular story. Unlike many of Poe’s stories, this particular story does not use the typical, first person point of view where the protagonist tells a personal account of a crime that he or she has committed. Instead, the narrator is a character, of which we know very little, who acts like a participant/observer.
It is easy for the reader to become “the friend” in Poe’s story as both the narrator and the reader invite “madness” as they are drawn into the underworld of the mind where fantasy becomes reality. Twice near the end of the story, Roderick calls the narrator “Madman!” However, the narrator escapes, to watch both the tenants and the house of Usher disappear into the tarn, an underworld, which is, theyre true home “The Fall of the House of Usher” illustrates Poe’s critical doctrine that unity of effect depends on unity of tone. Every detail of this story, from the opening description of the dank tarn and the dark rooms of the house to the unearthly storm which accompanies Madeline’s return from the tomb, helps to convey the terror that overwhelms and finally destroys the fragile mind of Roderick Usher. Terror, even this extreme that results in madness and death, is meaningless unless it is able to somehow illustrate a principle of human nature. One approach to understanding the true significance of this story lies in the many connections that Poe establishes for the reader.
Roderick and Madeline is not just brother and sisters but twins whom share “sympathies of a scarcely intelligible nature” which connect his mental disintegration to her physical decline. As Madeline’s mysterious illness approaches physical paralysis, Rodericks mental agitation takes the form of a “morbid acuteness of the senses” that separates his body from the physical world making all normal sensations painful: “..the most insipid food was alone endurable; he could wear only garments of certain texture; the odors of all flowers were oppressive; his eyes were tortured by even a faint light; and there were but peculiar sounds, and these were from stringed instruments, which did not inspire him with horror. Besides the fact that Roderick and Madeline are not just twins but represent the mental and physical components of a single being or soul, there is also a connection between the family mansion and the remaining members who live within. Poe uses the phrase “House of Usher” to refer to both the decaying physical structure and the last of the “all time-honored Usher race…” Roderick has developed a theory that the stones of the house have consciousness, and that they embody the fate of the Usher family. “He was enchained by certain superstitious impressions in regard to the dwelling which he tenanted, and whence for many years, he had never ventured forth.” Roderick also makes another connection between a house and a person in the poem, “The Haunted Palace.” The crack in the Usher mansion which is at first barely discernible by the narrator, symbolically suggests a flaw or fundamental split in the twin personality of Roderick and Madeline, and foretells the final ruin of both family and mansion.
The narrator is connected to the Usher family since he and Roderick were once close boyhood companions. They have not seen each other for many years, and it is only because of there past closeness and the apparent emotion in Roderick’s request that convinces the narrator to make the journey. As a result of this, the narrator spends the opening paragraphs reflecting upon the past as well as trying to prepare himself for the imminent reunion; however, nothing prepares him for the “altered” state of his childhood companion: “..a caderousness of complexion; an eye large, liquid, and luminous beyond comparison; lips somewhat thin and very pallid, but of a surpassingly beautiful curve; a nose of a delicate Hebrew model, but with a breadth of nostril unusual in similar formations; a finely molded chin, speaking in its want of prominence, of a want of moral energy; hair of a more than web-like softness and tenuity; these features, with an inordinate expansion above the regions of the temple, made up altogether a countenance not easily to be forgotten.” ( Some of Poe’s critics like to say that Poe is describing himself here.) The narrator tries to comfort and rescue Roderick from an illness in which the exterior self has been lost to the interior world of the imagination. The isolation of Roderick’s life from outer reality can be seen in the atmosphere surrounding the mansion, which seems to arise from the decayed trees and dank tarn. Roderick’s fantasy world is like that of an artist: his music; his literature which deals with extremes of the human imagination; and his art that portrays a vault which is illuminated from no visible source but is “..bathed..in ghastly..splendor.” Roderick, unlike an artist, has lost control of his fantasy world so that it has become all of reality. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe explores the inner workings of the human imagination but, at the same time, cautions the reader about the destructive dangers within.
When fantasy suppresses reality and the physical self, as in Roderick’s case, what results is madness and mental death. Madeline’s return and actual death reunites the twin natures of their single being, claiming Roderick as a “victim to the terrors that he had anticipated.” The true focus of this story is the narrator’s reaction to and understanding of these strange events. Even to look into the dark imagination where fantasy becomes reality is to evoke madness. That is why Roderick twice refers to the narrator as “Madman” in the final scene. The narrator has made a journey into the underworld of the mind and is nearly destroyed by it; however, he manages to escape and turns to watch as the “House of Usher” crumbles into “..the deep and dank tarn. According to Edward H.
Davidson in his book Poe: A Critical Study, “The Fall of the House of Usher” can be interpreted as “a detailed account of the derangement and dissipation of an individual’s personality.” The house itself becomes the “symbolic embodiment of this individual.” The fissure or the crack in the decaying mansion, which is noted by the narrator near the beginning of the story, re …