Writers rely on numerous devices to convey ideas to the audience. Some of them are easy to spot, while others require certain reading skills to be deciphered. The stories under focus are “Razor” by Vladimir Nabokov and “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe. Both readings are short stories with extensive use of literary devices to help the reader understand the message of the stories and the intention of its writers. Particularly, three literary elements are present in “Razor” and “The Cask of Amontillado”. They are the protagonist, the theme, and the symbol. Although on the surface, it may appear that it is evident how they are utilized, it is necessary to delve into the actual stories to see and appreciate their full complexity.
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Understanding what constitutes the protagonist, the theme, and the symbol is essential in ascertaining how Poe and Nabokov use these literary elements in their “The Cask of Amantilado” and “Razor”, respectively.
Both stories have protagonists, which are similar and different at the same time. Initially, the protagonist is the main character of the story. They represent the vessel through which the reader gets acquainted with the conflict, becomes engaged and emotionally interested. Usually, the protagonist changes over the course of the story. However, this is not a prerequisite as the main character can be static without any actual development. Still, it has to be the character around whom the story revolves.
“The Cask of Amontillado” makes use of a static protagonist who does not experience any growth. Poe introduces Montresor in the very first sentences of the story, which also sets up the main conflict: “the thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge” (1). This quote is used because it showcases Montresor as bitter, cold, and revengeful. Montresor develops and fulfills an elaborate plan to take revenge on his insulter. If there is remorse in him, it is hidden so deep that he is not able to acknowledge it – the same way he was not capable of stating his thoughts to Fortunato at the beginning, thus, showing the lack of change.
Nabokov’s protagonist, Ivanov, is also a calculating and resentful man, who unlike Montresor, manages to grow. His emotional state at the beginning is similar to Montresor’s: “like a tightly coiled spring, vengeance lurked, biding its time, within his soul” (Nabokov 1). He also gets a chance at taking revenge on his torturer. However, unlike Montresor, he does not kill his victim but rather releases his long-contained hatred by recounting the details of his torture to his former tormenter. Then he says: “that will do for you, I’m satisfied. You may leave” (3). This way, Ivanov overcame and rose above his dark temptation, whereas Montresor succumbed.
Both stories have the same theme – actions have consequences. Essentially, the theme is what the story is about. It is the central idea of the story that the writer wanted to convey. It does not have to be singular – themes can intertwine and combine together to form a deeper meaning. Although the overall theme of “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Razor” is the same, the stories also endorse other messages.
The reason why the plot of “The Cask of Amontillado” happened lies in Fortunato’s ignorance towards Montresor’s feelings. Fortunato did not know how much his words hurt Montresor, which was a mistake, eventually resulting in his death. He realizes it when he produces his famous outcry: “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MONTRESOR” (Poe 4). This line signifies the moment of clarity for Fortunato. He understands what has caused Montresor to do this and appeals to God. In a similar way, now, Montresor has to live with his crime for the next fifty years.
Similar dynamics can be observed in Nabokov’s “Razor”. At some point in the past, Ivanov was subjected to torture by a Soviet. Ivanov survived but memorized the tormenter, who did not expect to ever see him again. Naturally, for the narrative to work, this is exactly what happens, as the torturer unknowingly goes to his victim to get a haircut, thus reversing roles. When the tormentor realized it, his “eyes darted about, then suddenly shut tight, eyelids compressed like those of the savage who thought closing his eyes made him invisible” (Nabokov 2). He did not say anything, being frozen in terror and knowing that his own actions led to this situation. However, Nabokov does not have his protagonist kill the tormentor, thus teaching the audience not to fall to the abuser’s level.
Nabokov and Poe differ in their use of the symbol. Generally, the symbol refers to an object, which represents a certain idea. The author can highlight it with a detailed description or let the reader interpret it for themselves. In any way, symbols are important for creating depth and preparing the audience for later revelations and new found meanings.
“The Cask of Amontillado” has bones and the coat of arms, which signify death. When Montresor leads Fortunato to the part of the crypt where the poison is stored, the description of the surroundings starts to mention bones, which are an ancient symbol of death. However, an ever more important episode has Montresor explaining Fortunato the familial coat of arms: “A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel” (Poe 3). This line symbolizes the relationship between the characters and its ultimate demise.
Once again, Nabokov differs from Poe by stating directly what the symbol in his story represents. He writes: “without doubt scissors and razors are weapons, and there was something about this metallic chirr that gratified Ivanov’s warlike soul” (Nabokov 1). However, they are not necessarily used for killing, as Ivanov intimidates his torturer with them. The description that the chirr gratifies Ivanov’s soul symbolizes his intention of inspiring fear in his torturer.
Altogether, Nabokov and Poe use literary devices to create meaning, connect with the audience and deliver their message. The protagonists are different, with one of them being static, while another one changes. Various symbols highlight the important parts of the stories – death in “The Cask of Amontillado” and razors and scissors as weapons in “Razor”. The overlying theme is similar in both cases, which can be summarized as actions have consequences. However, even though the short stories are set in different time periods and have unique conclusions, both authors tell essentially the same story about a man seeking revenge and getting satisfaction. It is the use of literary devices that distinguishes the true meaning and value of the readings.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Razor. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2011.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Cask of Amontillado. Alex Catalogue, 2011.