Class Conflict in Edgar Allan Poe’s Short Story “The Cask of Amontillado”
This research paper makes an attempt to explore “The Cask of Amontillado” as a story of class conflict. The researcher claims that the writer, Edgar Allan Poe has written this story from the perspective of class conflict where the upper class tries to maintain his/her established status whereas the lower class tries to get the status of the upper class. While reading this story, the researcher finds many issues related with the class conflict between upper class and lower class then he realizes that he has to use Marxist Criticism; class conflict is related with this school of thought, to look at Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”.
“The Cask of Amontillado” follows Montresor as he exacts his revenge against Fortunato for an unnamed insult. The researcher argues that Poe uses the vengeful and retaliatory nature of Montresor as a symbol of a real-world upper-class that will fight in order to keep the power and status up of which they are accustomed from slipping into the hands of the rising middle-class that will cause the upper-class’s inevitable downfall. This is how the researcher begins a discussion with class conflict.
While a reader looks at the story and simply dismiss Montresor as an insane man, “Rather than implying the protagonist’s insanity, the first paragraph of the story delineates the conflict- class conflict between the characters arising from their social roles” (Baraban 51). The conflict- class conflict, between the social roles may have come from Poe’s personal experiences with social and classes conflicts. The Cask of Amontillado seems to have been developed, in part, to show the harsh retaliation the upper-classes and nobility resort in order to keep those that are “inferior” from achieving positions that were previously unavailable to anybody not born of particular bloodlines. “Poe came into contact with the wealthy while he was registered at the University of Virginia from February 14 to December 15, 1826. The young drops of blood threw themselves to lead the life of reckless, extravagance of mingled bravado and chivalry which they considered characteristic of a gentleman at that period” (Pruette 374).
Although Poe was able to maintain great academic progress, the differences between castes that were decided at birth stigmatized him. Poe was regarded as inferior by his classmates because of his position in society determined by his birth. The attitudes of those around Poe and the intolerable treatment he sustained while young may have sparked the idea for “The Cask of Amontillado” and its protagonist. This pride of nobility that was demonstrated by his foster brothers and by those he encountered at school share much with Poe’s creation, Montresor. Ultimately, “Montresor is a complex Machiavellian criminal, exhibiting a full range of traits from clever ingratiation to stark sadism” (Reynolds 103). To show more explicitly the class conflict in Cask of Amontillado, the protagonist serves as a symbol of a declining upper-class, which leaves Fortunato as a representative of the aspiring middle-class.
Fortunato resembles Poe in many ways. Like Poe, Fortunato may not have been born wealthy, but he did earn the respect of those around him and eventually some capital. This is indicated throughout The Cask of Amontillado, but more importantly and immediately, Fortunato’s name suggests Fortunato is part of a rising class and was not born into it. Although Poe had come up in society after John Allan took him in, he was continually reminded of his original place in society by those around him; Poe uses this to characterize Montresor as the protagonist exhibits similar traits of believed superiority. Montresor degrades Fortunato throughout “The Cask of Amontillado,” with one example being that he continually refers to Fortunato as a “Fool.” The nobility surrounding Poe was reluctant to allow any man without noble blood flowing through his veins to join their ranks because of their feelings of superiority.
The “thousand injuries” (193) Montresor sustained prior to the beginning of the short story-The Cask of Amontillado is an indicator that the social norms are being breached which raises the class conflicts to its peak. However, the injuries were not what prompted him to violence, rather it was Fortunato who “ventured upon insult” which pushes Montresor to vow revenge; although the “insult” is never specifically stated, through various key points in the text the insult can be seen as nothing more than Fortunato feeling he’s on the same level as Montresor and his family. Nobility is dying and Montresor is having a difficult time coming to terms with it; he is ultimately wounded by the rise of inferior social classes and by being the last of his family, it leaves revenge as his last option.
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In the story of The Cask of Amontillado, the insulted Montresor refers to can be seen as Fortunato’s pride as Montresor sees it, of attempting to advance to a position that was not offered to him by birth. By not being of noble birth, Montresor has something of which Fortunato doesn’t: cultural capital. Although Fortunato is gaining that as well, Montresor views him as a ‘fool’ (193) and one that shouldn’t be reaching up to the class conflicts that aren’t available to him.
“Montresor’s . . . remark, “You are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed” shows that Montresor is no longer as rich and socially conspicuous as he used to be ( Baraban 51) as well as displaying Fortunato is beginning to equal Montresor’s social standing. As sole power holders, the upper class and the nobility meaning the class conflicts were in a position from which they could easily control others. However, once that power begins to be lost, Montresor acts in an irascible manner and eventually retaliate which is shown through his action in “The Cask of Amontillado.”
The motif of The Cask of Amontillado is the class conflict. Although the reason for the murder of Fortunato is never made explicitly, what is clear is not only does Montresor feel no guilt, but he perceives his murder of Fortunato as a successful act of vengeance and punishment rather than a crime. Montresor presents himself as a person who had the right to condemn Fortunato to death; he planned his murder as an act of execution. What the reader is informed of is that Montresor condemns Fortunato because of his thousand insults. While ‘injuries’ presuppose rivalry of socially equal enemies, ‘insult’ involves contempt: that is treating the other as a socially inferior person. To insult is, by definition, “To say or do something that offends somebody, a remark or an action that is said or done in order to offend somebody” (A.S. Hornby 808). These insults can be seen as Fortunato, and ultimately the entire middle-class as a whole, rising and superseding the nobility. While Fortunato’s power that he’s accumulated may injure Montresor, especially his social position, wealth, and maybe what’s most important, his pride, insulting Montresor is a whole different subject.
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Inside the small room during the scene where Fortunato’s fate is fully realized, Montresor chains Fortunato securely to the wall of a nook in the catacombs, after which he begins constructing a wall so that Fortunato will be trapped indefinitely (196). At this point in the story, Montresor hears “a sad voice, which [he has] difficulty in recognizing as that of the noble Fortunato” (196). Poe uses “noble” in describing Fortunato. This term is used by Montresor and his use of this term is the final ironic statement of “The Cask of Amontillado.”
The researcher is implying that Montresor slips up when he allows “noble” to come out in his speech in what may be its rightful place alongside Fortunato’s name, Montresor’s use shouldn’t be looked at an unconscious slip up as every detail throughout the story is planned perfectly and every word Montresor uses is stated in the utmost thoughtfulness and eloquence. The language Poe uses in the story that everything from a character’s name to the setting, to almost every word Montresor, utters contributes to the effect of irony; Montresor using “noble” shouldn’t be confused with Fortunato’s social status, rather it should be recognized that the word and how it’s used falls in line with the language and statements made by Montresor throughout the story of The Cask of Amontillado. It’s no different than Montresor’s superlatives about Fortunato’s connoisseurship of wine, which is in truth lacking, or his power he has with the public.
The use of “noble” indicates another meaning and a turning point of the story-The Cask of Amontillado: the two switch places in society and it is recognized here; while not in the literal sense, Montresor becomes the mason and Fortunato becomes noble. Montresor may be making a statement to Fortunato by walling him in the nook of the catacombs with Montresor’s noble family: if Fortunato wants to be like the nobility, then he should be buried with the nobility. Ultimately, Montresor helps Fortunato attain a level of nobility, in a way, before he dies. Sadly for Fortunato, he will remain with Montresor’s family while Montresor returns to his position in society. This evidence points to Fortunato rising up to meet Montresor at his social standing.
Conclusion of Class Conflict in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is a story of class conflict between the upper class and rising lower class, but it’s more than just one man seeking justice against another. It is a representation of Poe’s personal life experiences with the upper-class as well as a symbol of the nobility versus the increasingly important lower classes. Whenever a major power begins losing influence, there’s always backlash and that’s what Montresor represented. In the end, Montresor represents the dying nobility in the world and how strongly they would fight to keep the lower classes from rising in status; however, like the scene in the catacombs where Fortunato and Montresor switch places, the lower classes will eventually take the place of the nobility.
Baraban, Elena V. “The Motive For Murder In ‘The Cask Of Amontillado’ By Edgar Allan Poe.”Rocky Mountain Review Of Language And Literature 58.2 (2004): 47-62.
Hornby, A.S. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. 8th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.Print.
Kirszner, Laurie G. and Stephen R. Mandell. Literature: Reading, Reacting and Writing. 4th Edition. Boston: Earl McPeek, 2000. Print.
Pruette, Lorine. “A Psycho-Analytical Study of Edgar Allan Poe.” The American Journal of Psychology 31.4 (1920): 370-402. JSTOR. Web. 18 Sep. 2012.
Reynolds, David S. “The Cask of Amontillado’ in Its Cultural Context.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Views: Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2006. 103. Print.