Paper Example on Symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"

Paper Type:  Research paper
Pages:  7
Wordcount:  1668 Words
Date:  2022-09-11


The peculiar dark and gloomy chronotope is one of the elements of Gothic style that Edgar Allan Poe, an author said to be "obsessed by Gothic settings" (Cagliero 30), has come to be associated with most frequently. Poe's Gothic settings are mesmerizing, memorable and poignant. The effect upon the reader is so strong and lasting because the role of the setting in Poe's best stories is not merely ornamental: his settings easily yield themselves to engrossing symbolic, metaphysical interpretations. Maria Antonia Lima in her study "Poe and Gothic Creativity" writes that Poe "rendered darkness visible" (Lima 22). In Poe's literary 'workshop', the Gothic setting becomes an effecient and precise instrument which makes such a rendition possible, helping to convey both the physical darkness of the gloomy aristicratic mansions and mossy dungeons, and the impenetrable darkness of the human soul corrupted by evil. "The Cask of Amontillado" is an illustrative and illuminating example of Poe's strategy of constructing a perfect Gothic setting. In the best traditions of the Gothic literature, Poe creates a detailed and meticulously thought-through Gothic setting which performs three main functions: facilitates the plot dynamics, intensifies the atmosphere of horror and serves as a symbolic vehicle conveying the interiorization of evil.

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The damp catacombs under an aristocratic Italian palazzo in the times of the Carnival in "The Cask of Amontillado" can be seen as a masterfully crafted classical Gothic setting which conforms to the expectations of the potential reader, and yet leaves enough space for the mystery and the play of imagination. The action takes place first in the streets flooded with carnival festivities, then in the catacombs under an aristocratic palazzo, filled with such traditional elements of the Gothic setting as "a long and winding staircase" (Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado"), pervasive cold and dampness, "the white web-work which gleams from these cavern walls" (Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado"), the nitre hanging like moss on the walls, and, finally, "human remains, piled to the vault overhead" (Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado"). The exact place and time of action are not specified, but the picture is so detailed and carefully thought-through that it is possible to define the time frame and location with a rather high degree of precision. In the manner of a true literary detective, John Freehafer uses minute details (among them Montresor's roquelaire and his reference to the "British and American millionaires," the mention of the river and "the great catacombs of Paris") to define that the action in the short story is taking place in Rome, Italy some time between 1738 and 1796 (Freehafer 134-135). This meticulous detalisation makes the grotesque Gothic setting filled with bones and skulls more relatable and credible, while helping it retain the irrisistable charm of the arabesque, the bizarre and the foreign characteristic of the Gothic literature.

In his paper "On Memory, Forgetting, and Complicity in 'The Cask of Amontillado'" Raymond DiSanza brings to light an important emotional effect of this detalisation. "Every word, every cough, every jingle of the bells that adorn Fortunato's conical cap and comically sound his death knell, every slight and delicate nuance of the Carnival evening is witchily conjured up by Montresor, whose images materialize before us like the parade of the Banquo's line" (DiSanza 194), writes DiSanza when discussing the fact the events described in the short story happened half a century before they come to be related by the narrator. The careful detalization of the Gothic setting does not only make the narrative more vivid and enthralling, but also intensifies the atmosphere of wonder and horror through highlighting the fact that the narrator's 'mental archive' has been scrupulously preserving the memory about the horrible deed for more than fifty years. Poe ends the short story with a striking and ironic ending: "I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. ... For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!" (Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado"). A closer look at the setting will show that the remnants of the victim can never rest in peace, as the past is only too well remembered by the narrator and only too often raked up by the curious readers.

Another important aspect of the Gothic setting in "The Cask of Amontillado" is its potent symbolic functionality. Italy, one of the most popular Gothic settings, with its turbulent, bustling social life allows Poe to effectively utilize the device of the contrast and the motive of transition. The time chilly and damp time when the carnival is celebrated in Rome - from the end of February till the beginning of March - is also the time of a symbolic transition from the winter to the spring when the festivities help people celebrate life never for a minute forgetting the firm, cold grip of winter and death they have managed to escape for now. The time of the day chosen as a backdrop for the tragedy is quite symbolic too - it is dusk, the mysterious interlude between the day and the night. "It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season" (Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado"), writes Poe, setting in motion the dynamic contrast between the bright motley of the crowded, festive streets and the dark, gloomy dungeons beneath the palazzo, the "supreme madness" (Poe, "The Cask of Amontillado") of the carnival and the well-calculated, psychologically elaborate plan of the murderer. The contrast of the cheerful setting of the introductory part of the story and the iminous catacombs intensifies the dramatic effect upon the reader.

The traditional for Gothic literature symbolic opposition of the two settings brings in sharp contrast the freedom of the vibrant streets teeming with life and the confinement of the vault, a classical Gothic locus. In his metafictional reflection "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe comments on the powerful effect of a confined space: "A close circumspection of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident - it has the force of a frame for a picture" (Poe, "The Philosophy of Composition"). Confined space acts as an intensifier for any kind of emotional, or symbolic impulse that the setting is sending. In his study "Victim and Victimizer," Leonard W. Engel arrives at a conclusion that "Poe used the enclosure device ... in a highly artistic way," in particular "in much of his fiction, and specifically in the "Cask of Amontillado" the device helps to focus the action, assists in plot development, and has a profound impact on the main character, often affecting his personality" (Engel 26). Gradual descending from the open air into the farthermost vault in the catacombs is the backbone around which the whole story is being built - in terms of the plot, the characters, the atmosphere and the symbolism.

Visualization of the passage, the transition from the jolly, bright, carnivalesque streets into the dark and gloomy dungeons which become more sinister and frightening with each step allows for the psychological, symbolic and metaphysical reading of the setting. In his paper "Poe's Gothic Waste Land," Stephen Mooney defines the Gothic in fiction "as a Gestalt of psychic states produced from architectural images, including the grotesque" (Mooney 261) adding that "it is Cartesian and Biblical: the physical as container for the spiritual, but separated from it - the soul in the body, the spirit in the temple, the Ghost in the Machine, the Family in the House" (Mooney 261), and, to continue the quote, the murderer in the catacombs. In "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe resorts to this strategy of employing the setting as a gestalt to explore the psychic state of a man elaborately planning and commiting a crime. In S. Mooney's words, "in Poe the psychic life of the character produces events that harmonize with the setting and the general atmosphere" (Mooney 261), and vice versa, the setting and the atmosphere become a true mirror for the character's thoughts and feelings. In his paper "Poe's Interiors: The Theme of Usurpation in 'The Cask of Amontillado'," Roberto Cagliero masterfully employs the semantic variability of the word "interir" suggesting that Montresor's descent can be interpreted in terms of "understanding the vendetta theme as a motif of the interiorization of evil to which Montresor if forced in order to re-establish the original hierarchy of values upon which aristocracy is based" (Cagliero 34). Poe's usage of the setting as a symbolic embodiment of the metaphysical peripeteia is in complete compliance with the Gothic tradition.


Poe's manner of creating enigmatic, appealing, emotionally engaging and symbolically potent setting has defined the way the time and space are treated in the Gothic literature. Poe's masterful rendering of the Gothic setting which is characterized by meticulous detalization, mysterious atmosphere, free play of imagination, and profound understanding of the human psychology, is one of the features that has turned "The Cask of Amontillado" into a classic example of the Gothic literature.

Works Cited

Cagliero, Roberto. "Poe's Interiors: The Theme of Usurpation in 'The Cask of Amontillado.'" The Edgar Allan Poe Review, vol. 2, no. 1, 2001, pp. 30-36. JSTOR,

DiSanza, Raymond. "On Memory, Forgetting, and Complicity in 'The Cask of Amontillado.'" The Edgar Allan Poe Review, vol. 15, no. 2, 2014, pp. 194-204. JSTOR,

Engel, Leonard W. "Victim and Victimizer: Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado.'" Interpretations, vol. 15, no. 1, 1983, pp. 26-30. JSTOR,

Freehafer, John. "Poe's 'Cask of Amontillado:" A Tale of Effect." Jahrbuch Fur Amerikastudien, vol. 13, 1968, pp. 134-142. JSTOR,

Lima, Maria Antonia. "Poe and Gothic Creativity." The Edgar Allan Poe Review, vol. 11, no. 1, 2010, pp. 22-30. JSTOR,

Mooney, Stephen L. "Poe's Gothic Waste Land." The Sewanee Review, vol. 70, no. 2, 1962, pp. 261-283. JSTOR,

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Cask of Amontillado." The Cask of Amontillado - Poe's Works | Edgar Allan Poe Museum, The Poe Museum,

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Philosophy of Composition." Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 13 Oct. 2009,

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Paper Example on Symbols in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado". (2022, Sep 11). Retrieved from

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