In observance of Poe's birthday this Friday, January 19th, here are my comments about my favorite Poe short story.
In several Poe short stories, the main character is convinced someone has done him an egregious wrong. In the case of "The Cask," all the reader knows is that Fortunato has inflicted "... (a) thousand injuries" upon Montresor, but no details are offered by Montresor. It is Carnivale, probably in Venice, a time of festivities leading up to the beginning of the religious season of Lent. Montresor considers his victim a fool, who happens to be dressed as a court jester, and who happens to have had too much to drink while enjoying the Carnivale.
In all of Edgar Allan Poe's short stories (whether horror or detective), he adhered to his theory of the single effect, which we discussed last week. All the elements of the short narrative (character, plot, setting, mood) lead the reader to experience one overriding emotion or reaction to the story. Certainly, in the two stories we're reading this week, that one overriding emotion or reaction is horror.
How could one possibly decide to chain someone in a catacomb and then - brick-by-brick - close up the upright stone coffin, all the while, listening to the screams of his victim? An aside – A scene from the movie, The Silence of the Lambs, itself a horror story, reminds me of Montresor's mimicking Fortunato's screams: Buffalo Bill, a serial killer, holds his victim captive at the bottom of a well inside his basement. At one point, his victim starts screaming, and what does Buffalo Bill do? He screams each time his victim screams, just as Montresor does in "The Cask of Amontillado."
A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment I hesitated -- I trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess; but the thought of an instant reassured me. I placed my hand upon the solid fabric of the catacombs, and felt satisfied. I reapproached the wall. 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 clamorer grew still.
Throughout Poe's short story, the reader is lead, along with Fortunato, deeper into the catacombs, with its damp nitre-encrusted walls. Montresor is always polite to is "guest." When Fortunato coughs, Montresor appears to plead that perhaps they should return to the world above. When Fortunato replies that he will not die of a cough, we, the readers, all but cringe. The irony of Fortunato's reply fills us with fear because we already realize that he certainly won't die of a cough! While people above-ground are enjoying the Carnivale, with all its masked participants reveling in dance and drink, Montresor enjoys his ever-growing satisfaction that he is getting even with Fortunato. We never know what poor Fortunato has ever done to Montresor to make him so willing to kill; all we know is that Montresor believes he is in the right and that he can commit his heinous crime with impunity.
But does he? Despite Montresor's successful plan (if you want to call is successful!), in ridding himself of the cause of his thousand injuries, the story ends with:
For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In Pace Reequiescat!
Is Montresor bragging to someone fifty years after his heinous crime, or has his conscience plagued him for over five decades? So much for committing a crime with impunity!