Poe's Theory and Practice Reflected in The Cask of Amontillado
Edgar Allan Poe, author of "brilliant reviews, poems, and stories," was born in 1809, and sadly died, a young man, in 1849 (665). To truly understand Poe, one must note the time period in which he wrote. It was an age of Literary Realism and Dark Romanticism, which was Poe's arena. The concept of "New Literary Criticism" was not yet mainstream. However, Poe was a critic as well as an acclaimed author. By observing the talents that Poe admired in the writings of others, one may better understand the inner workings of Poe's infamous short stories. In 1854, Poe wrote a review of the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne entitled "The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale" (854). In this essay I will compare the strengths Poe champions in Hawthorne's works with those that accentuate Poe's well known short story "The Cask of Amontillado."
According to Poe, "Truth is often . . . the aim of the tale" (855). Perhaps this is why Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" borrows its premise from an allegedly factual incident that took place while Poe was stationed at Boston Harbor.
After unjustly killing a young lieutenant in a duel, a Captain Green was
incited, by his men, into drinking a great deal. He was then buried alive
under the floorboards. (Agatucci)
Similarly, the unfortunate Fortunato meets his doom while the warmth of liquor soothes his inhibitions. Also like Captain Green, Fortunato was not depicted as an innocent.
Universal truth is considered to be one facet of Literary Realism, or as Shakespeare stated "a mirror held up to [human] nature." There is hardly an emotion more natural than the need for revenge. While the appearance of forgiveness may be fashionable, even the Bible allows "an eye, for an eye." The realistic need for vengeance Montresor alludes to in his opening statements is one readers can relate to (666).
Another common truth Poe plays upon is the price of one's pride. Fortunato has obviously acted in a manner than insulted Montresor's pride. Although Poe never reveals the exact injustice, one may assume that it is not a crime normally punishable by death. Likewise, Fortunato "prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine" (666). This proves to be the bait with which Montresor lures him to his death. Each time Montresor mentions "Luchesi," another wine connoisseur, Fortunato becomes more determined to taste the Amontillado. The bitter irony of it all is that there is no Amontillado. Coupled with the fact that Montresor is not "good" and Fortunato is not "good," they are "mixed" characters. The untruth, so to speak, of hero and villain is cast aside by the concept of Realism.
Through his review of Hawthorne, Poe also proclaims the virtue of unity in a literary work. He states that "undue length is . . . to be avoided" (855). With use of fewer words, each description, each statement, must be given a greater value than it would in a novel....