Comparative Essay The Tell-Tale Heart vs.

The Cask of Amontillado

Edgar Allen Poe is considered to be one of the great masters of horror. This certainly holds true for his stories The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado. Both of these stories are written in the in the first-person limited, from the perspective of two murderers. These stories contain many similarities and differences in terms of tone and irony, imagery and symbolism, theme, and the diction of the protagonist. In both of these stories, these elements, working in tandem, are very effective in creating a sense of horror in the reader.

The tone of these stories is very similar. In both cases, the story is told from the killer’s perspective, allowing us a deeper insight into the workings of the killer’s mind, thus heightening the sense of urgency and horror. Through use of disturbing imagery, the speech patterns of the narrators, and especially irony, Poe creates an atmosphere unlike that of any other author. In both stories, the narrator is insane, which is not to say that they are not intelligent, although neither believes that he is insane. We know them to be insane because of their irrational intentions to kill men who have never actually harmed them. In The Cask of Amontillado, whatever insults Fortunado had dealt must have been relatively minor, assuming that they exist at all, as Fortunado treats Montresor as a friend and displays towards him nothing but joviality. If the two men had not been on good terms, Fortunado probably would not have spoken as cheerfully as he did. In The Tell-Tale Heart, the madness of the narrator is fairly obvious, as the story even

begins with the narrator trying to deny an accusation of madness: “How, then, am I mad?” (The Tell-Tale Heart 1). This insanity makes both of them unreliable narrators.

In terms of irony, both stories contain rather a lot; however, the form of irony is slightly different. In The Cask of Amontillado, The irony is very overt. For example, the name of the victim, Fortunado, implies that he is a very fortunate man, when we know this to be untrue, as he suffers a very untimely fate. Later on in the story, Fortunado asks “You? Impossible! A mason?” (The Cask of Amontillado 4). Montresor replies that he is, indeed, a mason, and produces a trowel as evidence. This is ironic because Fortunado is referring to the brotherhood of Masons, while Montresor is referring to the masons skilled in bricklaying, a skill Montresor will later use to seal the fate of Fortunado.

The irony in The Tell-Tale Heart is much more subtle. The narrator is an insane and agitated man, yet he claims to be sane and logical. He attempts to prove this by calmly explaining why he has committed the act of murder, yet this very explanation proves to us that he is mad. Another ironic moment is that the narrator feels a need to confess his crime, even when the police are not even remotely suspicious of him. Perhaps the most amusing example of irony in this story is when the narrator states: “

Both of these stories are rich in imagery and symbolism, particularly the latter. Some of the symbolism is very similar, while some is not used in the same manner at all. In both of these stories, there is a symbol that represents the narrators cause or desire to kill. In The Tell-

Tale Heart, this symbol is the old man’s “Evil Eye” (The Tell-Tale Heart 2). The eye represents the madness of the narrator, madness which drives him to eventually kill a man without reason. A similar symbol can be found in the coat of arms of Montresor in The Cask of Amontillado. It is described by Montresor as being “A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are embedded in the heel.” (The Cask of Amontillado 4). The human foot represents Montresor, and the serpent represents Fortunado. The serpent has dared to attack the foot, thus the foot is completely destroying the serpent. This is Montresor’s attitude towards Fortunado. Fortunado has offended Montresor (or at least Montresor believes he has), so Montresor has decided to exact his revenge upon Fortunado.

There are also some differences in the meanings of symbols used in the stories. Take, for instance, the beating of the old man’s heart. This represents the guilt of the narrator, a guilt which becomes more and more intense, causing the heart to beat louder and faster. The Cask of Amontillado does not contain any analogous symbols. Montresor believes that what he has done is right, and the only guilt he feels is fleeting.

Poe stories often share a particular theme, albeit with some differences. In The Tell-Tale Heart and The Cask of Amontillado a shared theme is that everyone has a side of his or her personality that can drive him or her to commit unwarranted acts of wickedness. The circumstances are slightly different, however. In The Tell-Tale Heart, it is not so much a facet of the narrator’s personality that drives him, but a form of madness. In The Cask of Amontillado, the driving force is Montresor’s sense of pride, and his lust for revenge.

Pride itself could be considered a theme of The Cask of Amontillado, not just Montresor’s, but Fortunado’s as well. Montresor manages to convince Fortunado to accompany him by asking for his help in determining the validity of a wine. Fortunado’s pride in his wine-tasting ability is what convinces him to follow Montresor, in hopes of displaying his skills. No such theme exists in The Tell-Tale Heart, as the narrator in that story cares little for his pride.

The diction of the protagonist in The Tell-Tale Heart bears few similarities to that in The Cask of Amontillado. One of the few similarities is that both characters speak with a certain surety that what they do is right. They believe that they have done the appropriate thing, and their language reflects that. Another similarity in diction is the archaic expressions and phrases used, although this is because of the time period in which these stories were written. Words like “dissimulation” (The Tell-Tale Heart 2), “hearkening” (The Tell-Tale Heart 3) and “unredressed” (The Cask of Amontillado 1) are not typically used in modern English.

Of the many differences observed in the diction of the protagonists of these stories, perhaps the most obvious is the broken, disjointed sentence structure seen in The Tell-Tale Heart, which contrasts with the elegance and fluidity of expression seen in The Cask of Amontillado. One could content that the protagonist of The Cask of Amontillado is fairly well-educated, as he appears to have a relatively high social standing, and consequently his speech should be rather well-developed when compared to the speech of the protagonist of The Tell-Tale Heart, who appears to be some sort of servant, denoting a lack of higher education or status. One could also explain the speech patterns of the narrator as being a product of his madness.

Personally, I believe that Poe has done a very fine job of creating a pair of hauntingly memorable stories. I enjoy that the stories are told from the perspective of the villains. So often in horror stories the victims are the protagonist, and while this works for a time, eventually these stories all seem to merge together into one general type of story, and individual tales are soon forgotten. I also enjoy these stories because of Poe’s obviously wry sense of humour.

The imagery and symbolism used in these stories could be described as disturbing to some, but, inexplicably, I find it rather amusing. In The Tell-Tale Heart the narrator obsesses over the eye of an old man. Poe was obviously not concerned with making the character’s obsession conform to a typical obsession (if there is such a thing) such as wealth, or a woman. The insanity of the character would not be obvious if he had done such a thing, and the story would have lost all meaning. What I find amusing is the apparent randomness of an eye, which the narrator finds disgusting, as something capable of stirring a man to commit an act as heinous as the murder and dismemberment of an elderly man.

The themes in these stories were conveyed with a certain grace and subtlety that I admire and respect in an author. Poe deals with issues such as a man trying to deal with his own insanity, and another man who can no longer bear the presence of another whom he feels deserves to die. The concepts are understood as soon as one reads the story, yet a moment of reflection is needed to truly understand the themes and the thoughts that Poe so skilfully illustrates and incorporates within his stories.

The diction of the characters gives us a sampling of the inner machinations of their minds, and thus increase whatever feelings the characters themselves are intended to produce in the reader. The protagonist of The Tell-Tale Heart is revealed through not just what he says, but how he says it, to be insane. The disorganized thoughts of the narrator offer a sampling of the overall person, who I find to be a wholly unpleasant man. In The Cask of Amontillado, however, the narrator is reasonably intelligent and capable of rational thought. His particular choice and placement of words create an air of culture, which, along with the flawless execution of a murder, is vaguely reminiscent of one Dr. Hannibal Lector, sans the aspect of cannibalism. This man, Montresor, is one of my favourite types of villains, for the reasons I have mentioned above.

In their entirety, the works of Edgar Allen Poe contain some of the best examples of horrific English literature in history and his poignant use of irony, symbolism, diction and themes makes his works some of my favourite short stories and poetry in my library.

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