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Edgar Allan Poe

Cleverly Telling the End

There is a great scene in the film Hitchcock that reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe’s cunning wit when it comes to foreshadowing. Alfred Hitchcock is talking to the reporters and a woman wants to know about his movie, Psycho. She asks him, “How does it end?” and he cleverly responds by telling her “I promised mother I wouldn’t tell (Hitchcock).” He has just given away the final line of his movie but she has no idea. Edgar Allan Poe does this in his work as well. He gives away the ending by offering up small little details that could easily be overlooked. There are several reasons these little hints are overlooked, each character with their own reasons. Edgar Allan Poe’s works are typically dark, they are riddled with symbolism, and that symbolism sometimes foreshadows the demise of a character. “The Cask of Amontillado” is full of many small jabs and symbols that predict the downfall of Fortunado similar to the foreshadowing in “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

Edgar Allan Poe had a challenging life; he faced hardships and many deaths of people close to him. His mother, Elizabeth, died when he was two years old, after she separated from Edgar’s father. Edgar was adopted by the Allan family, while his other two siblings went with other families. He went to college but started drinking and had to drop out from debt. He joined the army for a short while, but eventually dropped out of the army and became a writer. A few years later, his adoptive father died, because of their strained relationship, Mr. Allan did not mention Edgar in his will. He had a rough start when it came to writing; he struggled to earn any money for his work. While he was starting his writing career, Edgar married his cousin. For years he struggled with his writing, creating hits and misses, never really earning a significant amount of money for any of his works. Eleven years after marrying his wife, her health faded and she died ten days after his birthday. Poe’s own health was affected by this loss; he regained his health within that year. Two years after his wife’s death Poe himself died (Biography of Edgar Allan Poe). Poe’s troubled and dark life is mirrored in his works, he tells of death and destruction.

One of Edgar Allan Poe’s works overflowing with symbolism is “The Cask of Amontillado.” In this piece there are several subtle hints at the end. This piece contains many foreshadowing details falling on the oblivious character’s deaf ears. There are also references to the audience of that time that tell of Fortunado’s fate. For example, when Poe describes Fortunado’s costume it references a very real problem of the mid-1800’s; getting buried alive. His costume has the very device used to prevent people from getting buried alive. In an effort to prevent this, there was a common practice of “placing bells on the limbs of the recently dead (Platizky).” If they were not dead they moved their wrist thus jingling the bell alerting people above ground that they are not dead. Fortunado’s costume is described as “a tight fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells (Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado,” 511).” This detail has been called a “creative variation of this device-the jingling of bells on Fortunado’s cap (Platizky).”

The second hint comes when Fortunado says, “The cough’s a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough.” And Montresor responds back saying, “True –true (Poe, “Cask,” 513).” He responds this way knowing full well that Fortunado will not die from a cold because he plans to kill him. This little foreshadowing hint could possibly get overlooked because the inflection of Montresor’s voice when he responds to Fortunado’s statements is not given. If it noted that he responded knowingly, or something like that it would expose the foreshadowing.

Poe uses something as simple as a toast when Montresor is trying to liquor up Fortunado to foreshadow Fortunado’s termination. Fortunado says that he drinks to honor the dead around them and Montresor smoothly responds with, “And to your long life (Poe, “Cask,” 513).” This is another example of an insult from a modern day frenemy, Montresor is acting nice and kind but secretly he hates Fortunado.

Montresor sets up this next symbol like someone baiting a friend when setting up a joke. He smoothly sets up his companion by talking about his family while they walk through the Montresor family catacombs. When Fortunado tells Montresor that he forgot his arms Montresor does not let the opportunity go by to make another subtle jab at his acquaintance. He explains the Montresor coat of arms as, “A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are embedded in the heel (Poe, “Cask,” 513).” At first I thought that Montresor was the foot because he is going to crush the snake, Fortunado, which has been biting him with a thousand injuries. Walter Stepp has a different idea; he thinks the roles are reversed. He defends his stance when he says “Secrecy, cunning, serpentine subtley-these are the themes Montresor demonstrates best of all (Stepp, Walter).” He goes on to discuss how Fortunado is represented by the boot when he says, “The boot fits very snugly the Fortunado that Montresor presents to us-large, powerful, and very clumsy.” He brings the whole idea together when he summarizes saying, “The larger story shows us how to read the emblem: a giant has blindly stepped on a snake (Stepp, Walter).”

After discussing the coat of arms, Fortunado asks about the Montresor motto, “Nemo me impune lacessit (Poe, “Cask,” 513).” “Montresor’s family motto has been translated, ‘No one attacks me with impunity’.” From this Patrick White suggests there is a “touch of family madness here (White).” That idea of madness fits in with other Poe characters; typically they are mad, insane, and/or disturbed. There are even a few characters who question their own sanity, thinking it is on one end of the spectrum when it really falls on the opposite end.

The next symbolic jab Poe sews into the story plays off a double-meaning. Roughly half way through the story, Fortunado motions, referencing the secret brotherhood, the masons. Montresor does not understand the motion, so Fortunado proudly tells him he is “not of the masons (Poe, “Cask,” 514).” Montresor denies the claim, and shows Fortunado a trowel referencing the stone masons. Fortunado laughs it off as a joke and thinks nothing of another one of Montresor’s subtle dark jokes.

The final symbol expressing Fortunado’s end is actually near Fortunado’s end, ironically. While Montresor was walling up Fortunado, he noticed something. Montresor “discovered that the intoxication of Fortunado had in great measure worn off (Poe, “Cask,” 516).” Montresor noticing Fortunado sobering up has a double meaning. He is less inebriated than before and he also has a better understanding of what is going on. Before he trusted Montresor, but now he realizes his dastardly plot to be his undoing. This is Fortunado’s light bulb moment.

In Fortunado’s case, his hubris or excessive pride blinded him to the subtly jabs of Montresor. He had tunnel vision when it came to their journey. He had a one track mind, get to the Amontillado to prove his skill to Montresor.

Edgar Allan Poe also uses symbolism to foreshadow a character’s demise in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” This story is unique because of the way that Poe is symbolic in his descriptions in the character’s end. This story follows suit with other Poe works, when it has a character that goes insane. This story is interspersed with symbolism and double meanings. To start, we get the first foreshadowing element on the very first page, the title. I have read the title many times and it is easy to overlook and just jump into the story. If we stop and think on the title, it gives away the end just like Hitchcock did. The heart tells everything, it tells the tale. It is the motivating factor for the care taker to strike when he did; on the other hand, it also led to his downfall.

Strictly on the symbolic side the eye has a film covering it symbolizing that he is blind to see what is coming to him, and how his care taker secretly hates him. Secondly, when Poe described the ray of light that shown into the old man’s room as “a single dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out the crevice and full upon the vulture eye (Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart, 506).” This scene occurs when the narrator is stalking his prey waiting for the appropriate time to strike. This is represented by the spider web. Spiders have webs to catch their prey, they sit and wait patiently for the opportune time to strike and kill their target. The care taker is the spider in this analogy and the old man is the prey. The narrator is catching his prey in his web when he shines the light on the object of his rage and the origin of his hatred. Later in the story after the narrator decided it was time to kill the old man, Poe comments on the speed and accuracy of the act. This is also a spider-like trait. They trap and kill their prey with incredible speed and accuracy.

The next example has both symbolism and a possible double meaning. When the narrator is describing the old man he fixates on his eye. He describes it as “that of a vulture-a pale blue eye, with a film over it (Poe, “Tell-Tale,” 503).” First, the double meaning, some speculate that the “eye” is really “I,” thinking that Poe meant the narrator and the victim are one in the same (Pitcher).

The symbolism comes into play from the vulture, from its traits. It is a bird of death; it is a scavenger, lurking around after something dies, thriving on the remains of the dead. If you agree with the narrator and victim being one person, then the narrator’s vulture-like characteristics are justified even though the narrator did not possess a vulture eye. He is a vulture in the sense that he sticks around after the old man dies, and thrives on the pride he feels covering up old man’s death. The narrator possessed vulture like traits, but the old man actually had the vulture eye. With this, it supports the claim that the old man and the narrator are the same person, making his vulture-like characteristics symbolically relevant.

Edward Pitcher also argues that if we were to judge the human character by the facial features, also known as physiognomic principles, we could draw more symbolism from the story. He believes that the eye is a symbol of reason and intellect (Pitcher).” If we go off that, the reason and intellect are gone because the eye is blind. That also means the motive for the murder, reason and intellect, are gone (because the eye is blind). Pitcher also argues that the heart is the center of moral sense based on these physiognomy ideas. Pitcher supports this idea by saying “he believes that by destroying the old man’s eye (reason) and heart (moral sense) he will demonstrate his own health of mind and heart.” This is supported by the story when the care taker is interacting with the police officers and is cool as a cucumber, he is full of hubris, and he has reassuring physiognomic features, but he could not contain his composure for long because he had destroyed the old man’s reason and moral sense. Since the two are connected, he destroyed his own reason and moral sense.

The physiognomy principles also support why the care taker cut up the old man into three parts. When I first read that, I thought it would be challenging to fit a body under the floor boards in such large pieces. Contrary to my idea, Pitcher’s idea makes much more sense; there is a symbolic meaning behind the three sections. He believes that the three dismembered sections represent “the breakdown of a man,” breaking apart the mental, moral, and spiritual parts of man. This supports the idea from before that the care taker and the old man are one person. After the old man was cut up and his mental, moral, and spiritual parts were buried it was only a matter of time before the narrator went insane. He was able to keep up appearances for the police officers for a little while but it did not take long until he lost his cool and composed facade.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” focuses more on the matter of sanity than anything else. Symbolism drives this point home; it also helps foreshadow the end. Like other Poe pieces it has a few strictly symbolic details and also some details that have symbolism along with a double-meaning.

To tie everything together, Edgar Allan Poe’s works are dark and somewhat disturbing. They look at a broad range of topics ranging from revenge, and madness. Both “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” along with several other Poe works have double meaning. These works also focus on murder and death. “The Cask of Amontillado” is intermingled with references and symbolism. These things foreshadow the end, Fortunado’s demise. The story also has subtle remarks by Montresor about his superiority and his ultimate goal in the end. In the “Tell-Tale Heart,” The narrator and care taker stalks his prey, the old man, before killing him because he absolutely hates his “Evil Eye.” This story discusses madness and guilt. All in all, Edgar Allan Poe is a master of the macabre, he was superb at writing stories that were better the second time around. The references, jokes, and symbolism all make sense after re-reading his stories. They may be dark but they are clever stories that make you think and dig deeper, they a good read at surface level but when there is even just a little thought and effort put into understanding they get so much better.

Works Cited

“Biography of Edgar Allan Poe.” Poe Stories. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2013.

Hitchcock. Dir. Sacha Gervasi. Perf. Anthony Hopkins and Helen Mirren. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2012. Trailer.

Pitcher, Edward W. “The Physiognomical Meaning Of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Studies In Short Fiction 16.3 (1979): 231. Academic Search Premier. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.

Platizky, Roger. “Poe’s The Cask Of Amontillado.” Explicator 57.4 (1999): 206. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Random House, 1944. 510-18. Print.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Random House, 1944. 503-09. Print.

Stepp, Walter. “The Ironic Double In Poe’s ‘The Cask Of Amontillado’.” Studies In Short Fiction 13.4 (1976): 447. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.

White, Patrick. “The Cask Of Amontillado”: A Case For The Defense.” Studies In Short Fiction 26.4 (1989): 550-555. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Dec. 2013.