Thursday, February 19, 2009

There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells - "The Cask of Amontillado", Poe's finest story

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge."

Poe, in most of his fiction, in most of his poems, was concerned primarily with effect. Every element of the story was supposed to build to a single emotional state or image, like the collapse of the house of Usher, or the appearance of the Red Death. I suspect this is why Poe was not so interested in writing novels. Even in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, it's the individual episodes that stand out - the horrible death ship, for example. Rather than build continously, the novel surges and recedes.

"The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells. I was so pleased to see him, that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand."

As a result, individual sentences, even entire passages, can be sacrificed to the final effect. They can be clumsy, or involute, or simply bizarre, but they're not necessarily meant to be considered on their own. The effect erases everything that came before.

"Here I knocked off the neck of a bottle which I drew from a long row of its fellows that lay upon the mould.

'Drink,' I said, presenting him the wine.

He raised it to his lips with a leer. He paused and nodded to me familiarly, while his bells jingled."

This striving for effect is not my ideal of the art of the short story. I prefer a succession of small touches and ironic details that, considered as a whole, amount to something more significant than their parts. I want the steps leading up to the coup de theatre to be good, too. Edgar Allan Poe did not care about what I want.

"It was in vain that Fortunato, uplifting his dull torch, endeavored to pry into the depth of the recess. Its termination the feeble light did not enable us to see."

Still, he did just what I wanted, once, at least, in "The Cask of Amontillado." How long had it been since I had last read this story? Decades, I think, and the effect was as I had remembered. But the artistry, that was an enjoyable surprise. It is not typical Poe. Look at the quotations I have included. The sentences are shorter than usual; even the words are shorter. Much of the dialogue is in fragments, just a phrase or an exclamation. The whole story is less than seven pages, one of Poe's shortest.

"No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells."

For what it's worth, I pick "The Cask of Amontillado" as Poe's best story.


  1. I see what you're saying about Poe's focus on effect, but I don't believe that any sentence can be sacrificed outright without harming the story. It's Poe's subtleties that tie the story together throughout, and even he said that he would never waste words that did not advance his purpose.

    Still, "The Cask of Amontillado" IS a great story, but I'm not sure I'd call it Poe's "best." My personal favorite is always "Berenice" but nothing beats the construction of "The Tell-Tale Heart" or "The Fall of the House of Usher." Great post, by the way! I'm loving the Poe focus!

  2. I'll give a specific example:

    "At each intersection of these paths the nest of an albatross is constructed, and a penguin's nest in the centre of each square - thus every penguin is surrounded by four albatrosses, and each albatross by a like number of penguins." Pym, Ch. 14.

    This sentence has an artistic purpose, more than one - it's a clue into the bizarre mentality of the narrator, it parodies travel books, etc. But on it's own - what a dud. The sentence advances Poe's purpose, but is nevertheless not good.

    Another way I think about it is that the writer, in any given story, has a list of problems to solve. Some of these solutions are better than others, even if one ends up in the same place. In "The Cask of Amontillado" or, definitely, "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe invents solutions that I find very effective. In the Dupin stories, much less so.

    I'm glad you brought up "Berenice." There's the whole strain of what the current Portable Poe calls "Bereavements" - "Morella," "Ligeia" - that I haven't even mentioned (besides "The Raven"). Very interesting stuff, quite different in effect than his other stories.

    The world of Poe is a big one!

  3. Great example with "Pym"... I daresay, however, that it doesn't count because Poe wrote it before he had developed his aesthetic theory (and, in fact, one could argue he created his artistic theory around the failure of "Pym" and "Al Aaraaf").

    And, I agree: the world of Poe is huge!

  4. I just read The Cask of Amontillado waiting for my wife to come home from work. Such was appreciated. I did appreciate the cadence of the walling scene, though my mind did float to the pride of Ivan Denisovich with a similar labor.

  5. I fully agree with you! I first read this story when I was eight years old, and even though I didn't really get into studying Poe and his work until a couple of years ago, I never forgot it. When I eventually re-read it, it just caused me to appreciate its terse, understated brilliance all the more.

    Plus, "Amontillado" contains what is probably my number-one favorite opening line in all of literature.