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Literary Analysis
Miriam Orr
Melessa Henderson
ENG 132 01
18 Nov. 2014

A Fictional Autobiography: How Edgar Allen Poe's Life Fits into His Cask and Cat
...Real life often ends badly. Literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still
possible for us to endure nobly.
- Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook

For centuries, the human mind has been befuddled with murder. In reality, murder is a
despicable, horrible act; so horrible, in fact, that the act is punishable by death or life
imprisonment. There is a realm, though, that has perfected the art of murder. That perfection lies
in its ability to captivate audiences. Murder has made itself a grand best-seller on TV and in
books. Perhaps we have sin to thank for that, or Cain when he killed his brother Abel. Or,
perhaps, we have ourselves to thank; we, the ones who have made murder a grand pass time. But
who is the creator of such a twisted sense of story? That is perhaps debatable, but many would
give the title to one Edgar Allan Poe, the man known for his twisted and mortified horror stories
of intentional and accidental murder. In a college essay on Poe, writer Yisorel Shtern stated about
Poe's work that "[he achieved such] ghostly, mythical, and covertly uncanny effects". The purpose
of this paper is to analyze two of Poe's finest works--The Black Cat and The Cask of

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Amontillado, and offer simple comparisons and contrasts. The beginning pages of this paper will
define murder (or termed manslaughter), both voluntary and involuntary, as well as examine some
of Edgar Allan Poe's life, and the will examine the plot, character, and conflict.

Also this essay

will examine Poe and how some of his life events may have influenced his writings.
To begin, a novice understanding of how the United States views murder is necessary to
understand the context of Poe's work. Murder can be examined in different lights. One set of
lights may be manslaughter, whether voluntary or involuntary; and another could be first degree
and second degree murder. To examine the two works of Poe in this analysis, second degree and
voluntary manslaughter will be the primary focus. would define second degree murder as follows:
Second degree murder is such a killing without premeditation, as in the heat of
passion or in a sudden quarrel or fight.
Many would argue that Poe's works seem to always have a protagonist whose acts could
be sentenced as second degree "murder". Much of Poe's works contain a graphic murder of a
secondary character: the wife in The Black Cat and Fortunado in The Cask of Amontillado. One
murder was committed in "the heat of passion", such as the narrator in The Black Cat, while the
other in The Cask of Amontillado was committed more along the lines of a quarrel or fight.
Again, would identify voluntary manslaughter as:
Voluntary manslaughter includes killing in heat of passion or while committing a
The two stories examined have different motifs, hereby setting them apart in how they
should be classified in their genre. One of them is arguably a murder, while the other is more of a

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manslaughter story--because there are differences. That difference can be stated that
"[Manslaughter is] distinguished from murder (which brings greater penalties) by lack of any prior
intention to kill anyone or create a deadly situation." (, brackets added). So, arguably,
The Black Cat is not in and of itself a "murder" by technical term as much as it is considered
manslaughter. The narrator in The Black Cat kills his wife out of rage, having stepped on his cat-which he loathes--on his way into the basement. This can be seen as voluntary manslaughter
because it happened in the heat of passion, without an intent to kill originally.
Contrarily, The Cask of Amontillado is a murder. The narrator of that story plots his
victim's murder so intricately, that he finds time to deceive his victim and coerce him into his cellar
to taste wines. Once the man is intoxicated, the narrator begins his murder by entombing the man
alive in the cellar. His motive is hatred, ensued by Fortunado's "insult", whether to the man's
family or himself. From the insult, the narrator "...vowed revenge" (Diyanni, 144). We can define
this killing as a murder because of the motive and the fact that it was not because of an accident.
For the purposes of this paper, both plots will be referred to as murderous.
To better analyze Poe's works, it is best to examine Poe's life, as it was filled with tragedy
and hardship in spite of his publications. Life began for Poe with his birth to traveling actors in
January of 1809 (Silverman). Poe was the middle child of three siblings. At the age of three, both
of Poe's parents died, and he and his siblings were adopted by a rich tobacco farmer by the name
of John Allen, who was married to Frances Valentine Allen (Poe Museum). Life with the Allen's
was good, and he found his love of poetry and writing. Hewas thoroughly disinterested with the
business of his adopted father. Allen would not allow him to publish his first set of poetry. It
would seem that Poe had a distaste for his adopted father, especially as he went onto the
University of Virginia and accumulated large amounts of debt. Allen would not fund his schooling,

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and Poe soon found himself destitute and among the peasants. He blamed Allen for his misery,
perhaps one of the reasons so many of Poe's characters are depressed older men who mistreat
their families and have psychological as well as emotional tribulation.
It would seem that his life events inspired much of his work--perhaps he put himself in his
characters, with their minds shaped by his own hardship and tragedy. A comment by R.W. Wallace
in an issue of Journal of Education affirms this in his statement: "It is because Poe was so largely
himself, so unlike any other of his fellow-bards." (Wallace, 680).
One could say that this is all Poe knew how to write, because it was all he knew--death,
gloom, and disaster. It has been implied that drug use, alcoholism, or perhaps even seizure
disorders plagued Poe and influenced his works of "...confusion, and paranoia" (Bazil, abstract).
Whatever inspired Poe's work, whether his life or other reasons, he was a master of the
darkest types of writing. Reviewers and critics of Poe were convinced he was obsessed with the
supernatural and demonic. Neil Gaiman, a highly renown English author, writes of Poe:
He wrote about death. He wrote about many things, but death, and the return from
death, and the voices and remembrances of the dead pervade Poe's work -- like
dramatist John Webster in Eliot's poem, Poe "was much obsessed with death. He
saw the skull beneath the skin." Unlike Webster, though, Poe also saw the skull,
and could not forget the skin that had once covered it (Gaiman).
Additionally, Susan Amper, in her Introduction to Poe Criticism, states:
As early as 1836, reviewers were lamenting what was then referred to as Poes
Germanism. One critic of the day described Poe as too fond of the wild
unnatural and horrible. Why, this critic complained, will he not disenthrall himself
from the spells of German enchantment and supernatural imagery (Amper)?

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On a separate note, one can conclude that Poe was a depressed man. Psychology
undergrad Erica Giammarco states that:
As Poe aged his health deteriorated and he continued to drink heavily. He was
described by coworkers and family as chronically melancholic, acquiring the
nickname the man who never smiles
Giammarco later concludes that Poe was "high on Neuroticism", meaning that he was
anxious and abnormally irritable. His past could be attributed to the root of these issues, though
that is not scientifically proven. Scientific literature is not a stranger to Poe's work, as Giammarco
pointed out. Informed consent, frontal lobe syndrome descriptions, and other medical conditions
have been featured in some of Poe's work. It may have been that Poe was mentally disturbed or
plagued with psychological diseases that drove him to "the delicate, the weird, the grotesque..."
styles (Wallace, 682). Or, perhaps, his works were born out of post traumatic stress disorder
flashbacks of such a drastic past.
Additionally, an article from the Hebei Jiatong Vocational and Technical College in Tianjin
stated that the narrator in The Black Cat has a tendency for schizophrenia (Junfeng, Haiyuan,
326). This would be a recurring theme, it would seem, since the authors write that enthusiasts'
gravitate towards his collection of "enigmatic narrator[s], alcohol, mutilation, strangulation,
murder..." (Junfeng, Haiyuan, 326). We can see from this statement that Poe's works--note the
plurality--have the tendency to reflect struggles that Erica Giammarco previously concluded Poe
may have had issues with himself, as a human being.
Moreover, The Cask of Amontillado deals with issues of revenge, hatred, and
drunkenness. As Giammarco stated that Poe had an exclusively heavy drinking issue, one could
speculate that he had contemptuous emotions to people in his life. Perhaps The Cask of

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Amontillado was a way for Poe to handle his emotional tribulation; by furiously writing out a
murder he himself wished he could undertake.
As for The Black Cat, the narrator refers to his state of Alcoholism as if it were indeed a
human, giving it reality by capitalizing the 'A'. The narrator in this story consistently refers to
alcoholism as a dastardly thing and a thing which he regrets. Poe may have felt the same way
about his struggle with alcoholism, since he had a way of expressive writing.
Continuing, one can examine the characters of these stories. The Black Cat is told in first
person, so we never know the character's first name. The Cask of Amontillado is also told in first
person. Perhaps when Poe was writing these two stories he decided in narrating them in first
person, perhaps fitting himself into the story without the reader knowing it. This might have been
a way he coped with his struggles, one will never know, but can only speculate.
These two protagonists both seem to have a drinking problem, though for different
reasons: one man struggles because he is an alcoholic and mentally unstable, as seen by his
"disease", which he called "Alcohol" (Diyanni, 138). We can see the other mans drinking problem
because he delights in wine tasting, as we can tell by his "extensive cellars" (Diyanni, 146). To add
to the stories' similarities, both actions of the two men are completed out of a state affected by
alcohol: one has a hangover, the other perhaps not drunk but duelly effected by alcohol.
The two characters also seem to have vendettas about seemingly innocent victims.
Fortunado could be innocent, if his statement of offense was out of a drunken stupor. The cat (the
object of the other narrator's hatred) was innocent simply because it is incapable of intentional,
emotional harm to a human being. The man's wife, who dearly loved the cat, is also innocent
because she does nothing to her husband and is instead the victim of an unintentional murder.
Both secondary characters in these works are innocent bystanders, and are both victims.

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Michael McGlasson, in his article Three Notes on Poe and Whitman, believes that anxiety
drove the narrators to their deeds. He makes a statement about scenarios which Poe creates,
where many of his find themselves in:
An individual perceives he is trapped in a hostile environment beyond his control
which produces great a number of Poe's "tales of terror," the
protagonist migrates through one or more segments of the above scenario."
(McGlasson, 22).
Both characters in Poe's two works seem to have great "apprehension". Montresor in The
Cask of Amontillado seems to possess great hatred towards Fortunado, whether because of an
insult to his family or his Freemasonry, we don't know. But, on his way down into his cellar, he
seems to be at war with his conscious about such a deed, and as he leaves and begins to entomb
Fortunado, he tries to justify such behavior, feeling remorse. Similarly, the narrator in The Black
Cat feels extreme guilt for killing his wife, and fear as well that he'd be discovered. So much fear
that he quickly entombs his wife in the wall of his basement, all the while narrating to the reader
of how he hadn't meant to kill his wife. McGlasson makes another statement regarding the
Afterwards, he feels remorse for his actions and is emotionally moved to atone for
his guilt through confession or by exposing himself to official punishment or selfinflicted agony. (McGlasson, 21).
Considering Poe's history in dabbling with alcohol, drugs (opiates), and mental instability,
it would not be unlikely that Poe was confessing or "exposing himself to official punishment or
self-inflicted agony" through his writings. By creating characters that would perhaps struggle with
emotions like his own, this may have been his way of releasing stress or confessing vaguely to
clear his own conscious.

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Wallace again makes a statement of Poe that "He blamed circumstances for his empty
purse and his friendlessness, when he should have blamed himself." (Wallace, 681). This is an
interesting statement, considering that both The Cask of Amontillado and The Black Cat have
narrators that seem to have a vendetta against their circumstances, and those in their
circumstances. The narrator in The Black Cat blames his misfortunes on Alcohol, whereas the
narrator in The Cask of Amontillado blames Fortunado for his act of revenge. Really, these two
characters should have blamed themselves, the drunkard because of his weakness to alcohol, and
the murderer because of his intense hatred and unforgiveness. These men allowed their
circumstances to control them and rob them of their joy, and thus their strength, for the Bible
states that "The joy of the Lord is your strength." (Nehemiah 8:10).
Now, one can compare and contrast the plot of both the stories. The Black Cat and The
Cask of Amontillado both have the plot of murder, as previously stated. The narrator's of these
stories both kill the secondary characters--The Black Cat's murder was unintentional, as The Cask
of Amontillado pre-meditative, or planned; as already established by examining the law regarding
To further examine the plot, the narrator out of The Black Cat's story accidentally murders
his wife; unintentional because of the claim on Diyanni's page 141: "....aimed the blow at the
animal..." The narrator from The Cask of Amontillado, on the other hand, has planned his victim's
murder because of his intense hatred of the man for a crime of "insult, [and] I vowed revenge"
(page 144, brackets mine). But, The Black Cat also features an intentional murder as well, for the
narrator murder's his wife's beloved cat after longing to murder the animal for a great deal of time.
Though the act of killing his wife was committed out of rage and anger, he still had plotted a
murder beforehand, just as the narrator in the Cask of Amontillado planned his murder as well.

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Additionally, the settings in these stories can be examined. Poe did very well in setting the
scene for these two works: both of them happen underground, and involve going deep down into
the earth to commit their crimes. The Cask of Amontillado is set in the cellar of the narrator's
home, where he keeps his best wines, and most of the dialogue happens on the way down to the
cellar--we discover the man's hatred towards his visitor here. Contritely, we discover the narrator's
hatred toward the cat at the beginning of the story as he states: "..I soon found a dislike to it
arising within me." (Diyanni, 140). The Black Cat's murder happens on the way down into the
basement, in a setting of descending. The murder in The Cask of Amontillado doesn't occur until
already in the cellar. Both stories imply that the narrator's, deep within themselves (as symbolized
by going deep underground), have troubles which are wickedly evil; though one didn't intend to
end up that way, while the other very much did.
The University of Maryland conducted research on the death of Poe. Many would suggest
that Poe died of intoxication or suicide, but that is not what R. Michael Benitez, M.D. thinks. In
an article published by the University in 1996, Benitez stated inconclusively that Poe died of
rabies (Mystery), since Poe had many, many animals that he dearly loved and cared for. In this
article, the University concluded that Poe had been addicted to alcohol and opiate drug use.
Opiates, according to WebMD, are painkillers. The website also lists the symptoms for
alcohol abuse. Some questions which doctors ask speculative alcoholics are as follows:
Have you had problems sleeping?

Have you felt depressed or anxious

Have you noticed any changes in your


The list continues on. Note the question to the right, regarding depression or anxiety.
Poe's turning to such substances is not unexpected, considering the life events he endured: spousal
death, parental death, poverty, war, etc. It would only seem logical that Poe would turn to such

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substances on his own, to perhaps numb grief and keep psychological or emotional pain at bay. It
is not unusual either for these substances to appear in Poe's work, either. In an unidentified article
from Illinois State, a student writes that
It is fair to say that at many times, authors use instances from their own lives and
incorporate them into their work (Riddle).
This could be said of Poe, especially since many of his characters have traits which
resemble Poe's own personal struggle. The same author from Illinois State suggests that,
Some critics have gone so far as to believe that with respect to Poes tales (. . .)
the central figure there, however disguised, is always the image of the romancer
Perhaps Poe wrote on the personality or the emotions he was feeling, or during those
times. During the process of writing The Black Cat, Poe might have been experiencing emotional
turmoil towards one of his many pets. Or, perhaps, writing the Cask of Amontillado Poe may have
had feelings of contempt or hatred towards a family member or a friend. Either way, both stories
are written with the same emotional intent: harm to an innocent victim.

To conclude, the introduction of this paper posed a question: who is the creator of such a
twisted sense of story, such as murder, which have the ability to capture audiences everywhere,
through time? Again, that is perhaps debatable. Many would answer the question that Edgar
Allan Poe had mastered such an art, known for his twisted and mortifying horror stories of
intentional and accidental murder. Poe put much detail into his works The Black Cat and The
Cask of Amontillado, and it could be said that he did it intentionally, like he always did, to keep us
guessing. The research presented in this paper would point to one conclusion: Poe seemed to put
himself into his literary works, or moreover; he put his emotions into his works. Perhaps it could

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even be said that he put his diseases into his works and made them characters; diseases such as
revenge (as seen in The Cask of Amontillado) and alcoholism (The Black Cat). This essay has
analyzed two of Poe's finest works and has offered simple comparisons and contrasts to their
plot, character, and conflicts. It has also presented research on Poe's life and his behaviors.
Edgar Allen Poe perhaps wrote his own autobiography in his works. He seemed to use his
passion for critique and writing to vent his emotions and work through his painful childhood
experiences, whether to success or not. In muse of Poe and his writings, it could be said that he
was perhaps one of the greatest horror authors of all time--and there has not been yet another to
arise in his place.

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