Amontillado setting analysys Essay

            An indispensable element of any story, the setting is used by the writer as background to create an atmosphere or mood in the same way that a playwright uses lights and props in the stage, or as a painter  mixes colors in his pallete to achieve a desired effect.

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Thus writers of romantic fiction take their readers on trips to flower-strewn valleys and beautiful sunsets; sci-fi writers set their tales in the realm of unexplored dimensions and outer space; and horror novelists conjure images of dark dungeons, ancient castles, haunted houses, and the like in their works.

            Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic tale of revenge, The Cask of Amontillado, is a classic example of how the setting is used by a master-story-teller to achieve his purpose.   It begins in an unknown Italian city at about dusk.   Montresor meets his friend Fortunato in the midst of the “supreme madness of the carnival season” and from there they proceed to Montresor’s palazzo and thence to the catacombs to see the cask of Amontillado, of which Fortunato’s judgment regarding its authenticity is purportedly sought.  The tale ends at midnight in the darkness of the underground vaults.

            The wild, merry setting at the beginning of the tale is in marked contrast to the dark passageways to the vaults where Montresor intends to murder his victim. Possibly, the author begins with the revelry so as to make the reader more conscious about the change of mood in the story –  from jovial to sinister, from dusk to midnight, from the warmth of the carnival to the coldness of the catacombs.

            On second thought, the choice of the setting in the beginning of the story is indispensable to the plot.    Poe is laying down the foundation to his idea of a “perfect crime”, one of the requisites of which is that the perpetrator must escape detection and consequent punishment.  “A wrong is unredressed,” says he, “when retribution overtakes its redresser.”  Thus, even before the carnival, Montresor had taken precaution to make his friend at ease, not suspecting in the least that his supposed friend is bent on his destruction.   “Neither by word nor deed,” says Fortunato, “had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my goodwill.”  So as not to make himself conspicuous to Fortunato’s acquaintances (who might remember that he was last seen with Fortunato prior to his disappearance), Montresor chooses to execute his plan of murder in conjunction with the festival, wherein merry-makers are clad in a motley of costumes and one can easily stay incognito.  Fortunato “had on a tight-fitting striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells.”  Montresor, for his part, put on “a mask of black silk” and was wrapped in a roquelaire or heavy cloak which he drew closely about his person.   By wearing a mask and donning such garment, Montresor makes certain that his identification by any potential witness will be next to impossible.  He lures Fortunato by  asking his opinion about “a pipe of what passes for Amontillado”, of which he has doubts, and flattering him with his trust in his judgment.    Fortunato, of course, finds the invitation to show his virtuosity in the old wines impossible to resist.    Thereupon, Montresor makes their departure from the carnival ground swift and unannounced.  Montresor takes Fortunato to his palazzo which is totally uninhabited; he has taken steps to insure that no one is around.   Of course it is part of his plan to escape suspicion after the murder.

            From the palazzo, Montresor takes his friend “through several suites of rooms to the archway that led into the vaults.”    At length they came “to the foot of the descent; and stood together upon the damp ground of the catacombs of the Montresors.”   Thus he takes Fortunato down in the journey towards his oblivion.

            The underground passage is extensive.   “The Montresors,” says the narrator, “were a great and numerous family.”   This part of the story in set in the classic gothic setting of many of Poe’s tales: gloomy, haunting, foreboding.  The journey through the catacombs is also reminiscent of the poem Ulalume, in which the narrator wanders with Psyche in a lonely graveyard, before finally stumbling upon the vault of his lost love. Poe adds several touches to the scene to produce a desired effect, which is one of revulsion and horror.   The mind recoils at the thought of the “long walls of piled skeletons”, of the nitre that “hangs like moss upon the vaults. . .the drops of moisture [that] trickle among the bones.”  The foulness of the air which made their torches “rather to glow than flame” adds to the eeriness of the place.

            The most remote end of the crypt contained the vault intended by Montresor to be the death chamber of Fortunato.

                        Within the wall thus exposed by the displacing of the bones, we perceived                                  a still interior crypt or recess, in depth about four feet, in width three, in                          height six or seven.  It . . . formed merely the interval between two of the                                 colossal supports of the roof of the catacombs, and was backed by one of                                   their circumscribing walls of solid granite.”

            Proceeding inexorably to its horrible climax, the author narrates how he chains Fortunato to the granite wall and proceeds to the painstaking task of laying the tiers of masonry that will entomb his friend alive.  By the time he was approaching the end of his labors, it was midnight.   The darkness of the catacombs, the piles of skeletons, the trickling moisture on the bones, the foul atmosphere, the execution of a murder most foul – all these contribute to creating an atmosphere of unspeakable horror.   Vintage Poe, so to speak.

            From the foregoing analysis of The Cask of Amontillado, we may conclude that the setting  of a story, while serving as background, is indispensably necessary at developing the desired atmosphere or effect.   Had the murder of Fortunato been committed at another, less haunting place, the tale may not have been as horrible.

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