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What is the main theme in “The Black Cat”, “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Poe. What type of style does he use?

-- Anonymous, November 25, 2002


Response to Help on “The Black Cat”, “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The Tell-Tale Heart”

I wish this will be helpful Tina. ______________________________________


Type of Work: Psychological realism ( murder + perversity) ---------

Themes and Meanings :

The story has many themes, most of them relating to human psychology and several in the form of contraries: reason versus the irrational; human being versus animal; self-knowledge versus self-deception; sanity versus madness; love versus hate; good versus evil; the power of obsession and guilt; and the sources or motives of crime. As in many of his works, Poe is interested in the borderline between opposites and how it may be crossed.

Despite the narrator’s explicit claim of sanity in the story’s first paragraph, he immediately shows himself self-deceived by terming his story “a series of mere household events.” Further, by the end of the first paragraph the narrator has circled to a contradictory position by expressing his hope for a calmer, more logical, and “less excitable” mind than his own to make sense of the narrative. A favorite adjective of his for pets, “sagacious”’ which he uses early in the story for both dogs and his cat Pluto, thus ironically indicates the wisdom he himself needs both to see life clearly and not to give in to the irrationality of drinking or violent behavior. What should distinguish man from beast-this is, the faculty of reason- the narrator too frequently abandons, a weakness expressed in the animal metaphor of his “rabid desire to say something easily” to the police searchers.

His early reference to admiring the “unselfish and self-sacrificing love” of animals reveals the narrator’s blindness; ironically, his scornful words, “the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man” (author’s italics), apply to himself. The narrator later reveals that his dipsomania is self-indulgent and self-loving, because he “grew ... regardless of the feelings of others” and dimly perceived that he had lost the “humanity of feeling” (compassion) that his wife retained.

Sheer emphasis or proportion in the story-the great number of words he spends on the cats contrasted with the brevity of his remarks about the maltreatment and murder of his wife-indicates the deficiency in both the narrator’s insight and his feelings. He cannot see that guilt causes him to forestall mentioning his greatest misdeed until the story’s end, while his feeling for his wife was too weak to prevent his murdering her. The narrator cannot see that his killing her is not a mere deflection from his murderous purpose, but its true aim, whose motives are laid down in the sixth, sixteenth, eighteenth, and twenty-second paragraphs of the story. Mutely representing goodness, she has been a constant irritant to him, one upon whom he can vent all of his pent-up feelings in one blow.



Type of Work: Horror ( murder & revenge ). ---------

Themes and Meanings:

Poe himself seems to have had a morbid fear of premature burial; it is a theme he dealt with repeatedly in such stories as “The Premature Burial,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Berenice,” “Ligeia,” and “Morella,” all of which reverberate with a claustrophobic terror. He also turned again to walling up a victim in “The Black Cat.” The fear was that the buried person would still be conscious, aware of the enveloping horror.

“The Cask of Amontillado” belongs to the Romantic movement in art; it is part of the Romantic subgenre of the Gothic, a tale of horror with the Gothic paraphernalia of dungeons, catacombs, and cadavers. At his best, though, Poe transcends the genre. As he observed, his horror was not of Germany (meaning Gothicism), but of the soul. To the extent that this is true, Poe was a pioneer in writing psychological fiction, often of extremely neurotic, if not abnormal, personalities. He also was an early advocate of art for art’s sake; unlike his contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, he did not write moral allegories. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” the murderer gets away with his crime. Whatever meaning the tale offers lies in the portrait of Montresor, contained in his own words. D. H. Lawrence, in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), says that Montresor is devoured by the lust of hate, which destroys his soul just as he destroys Fortunato. By this token, Montresor resembles Hawthorne’s unpardonable sinners, who suffer from an intellectual pride and monomania that destroys their humanity. His revenge echoes (whether consciously or not) a passage from Thomas Nashe’s Renaissance novel The Unfortunate Traveller (1594):

Nothing so long of memorie as a dog, these Italians are old dogs, and will carrie an injurie a whole age in memorie: I have heard of a boxe on the eare that hath been revenged thirtie yeare after. The Neopolitane carrieth the bloodiest mind, and is the most secret fleering murdrer: whereupon it is growen to a common proverbe, Ile give him the Neopolitan shrug, when one intends to play the villaine, and make no boast of it.



Type of Work: Gothic mystery and horror. ( pereversity) ---------

Themes and Meanings:

This is largely a study in human terror experienced on two levels, both horrifying to behold. First, there is the narrator, the maniac, driven by his compulsive hatred of the “evil eye” to kill a man he says he loved. He is a case study in madness, tormented by that satanic eye which he simply must destroy. His madness is quite convincing and profoundly disturbing because it seems so capricious and meaningless. Indeed, seldom has the mystery and the horror of mental illness been so vividly portrayed. The “eye” also has a double meaning. The narrator is driven to self-destruction, though his suicidal urges are objectified in the old man’s diseased eye.

The other level of terror is that experienced by the old man. His terror is made all the more realistic because it is related from the perspective of his tormentor, the mad narrator, who takes sadistic delight in knowing that the old man is quaking in his bed. Given the appearance of three police officers not long after the murder, one is tempted to speculate that the old man knew more than the narrator thought he knew. Perhaps he had conveyed his suspicions to a neighbor, or perhaps the young man has been demented for years, and the old man has been caring for him. If he did suspect the narrator, the terror that the old man felt during the hour before his death must have been excruciating.

The story is replete with double meaning and irony. The narrator destroys the “evil eye,” thus assuring his own destruction, or incarceration at least. Fearful that the neighbors would hear the heartbeat growing increasingly louder, the anxious maniac yells as he bludgeons the old man, and the neighbors certainly heard that. The arrival of three police officers suggests that they knew something was amiss and that the old man had tipped off someone, though the narrator is sure that his victim suspected nothing. There is also the beating of that tell-tale heart. Was it really the old man’s heart, or was it the narrator’s own heart betraying him? The mystery—and the story is to a considerable extent a mystery—is thus maintained to the very end. The irony is exquisite, a tribute to the literary genius of Poe. _______________________________________________________________


-- Anonymous, November 27, 2002

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