One of the reasons why the story The Cask of Amontillado (Edgar Allan Poe) and the poem My Last Duchess (Robert Browning) are being commonly referred to, as such that represent a particularly high value, is that the narrative perspective chosen by the authors to highlight the discursive significance of the contained themes and motifs, does add to the perceptual plausibility of the concerned storylines.
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In its turn, this can be explained by the fact that, while reflecting upon the motif of murder, Poe and Browning succeeded in convincing readers that it was specifically the very psychological constitution of both protagonists (Alfonso Ferrara and Montresor), which naturally predetermined their behavioral maliciousness. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length.
After having been introduced to the characters of Montresor (The Cask of Amontillado) and Alfonso Ferrara (My Last Duchess), we inevitably conclude that they seem to interact with the surrounding reality similarly. One of the reasons for this is that these characters’ foremost psychological trait appears to be their traditional-mindedness.
This is exactly the reason why Montresor decides to take a revenge on the character of Fortunato, whose very appearance presupposes his psychological incompatibility with the notion of tradition: “He had on a tightfitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells” (Poe 3). Apparently, Fortunato was dressed as a jester.
Yet, as historians are being well aware of, jesters have always been known for their reputation of ‘violators of tradition’. Therefore, the Mortresor’s deep-seated hatred of his ‘friend’ Fortunato can be well discussed in terms of ‘intellectual advancement’ vs. ‘tradition.
It is specifically the fact that the story’s protagonist unconsciously perceived Fortunato, as being much more intellectually superior then himself, that prompted Montresor to become obsessed with the thought of revenge.
Essentially the same thesis applies to the character of Alfonso in My Last Duchess. Being the traditionally-minded ‘man of stature’, Alfonso believed that in their relationships with husbands, wives must remain thoroughly submissive.
This is exactly the reason why, while proceeding with his monologue, Alfonso expresses its ill-concealed annoyance with his wife’s flirtatiousness:
She had a heart… how shall I say?… too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere (Browning 22-34).
Apparently, Alfonso could not stand a thought that, being made of flesh and blood; it was perfectly natural for his wife to feel flirtatious at times.
Thus, it can be well assumed that it is specifically the hypertrophied sense of a ‘traditional propriety’, which defined the essence of Montresor and Alfonso’s existential modes. In its turn, this created an objective precondition for them to be individuals who strived to adjust the de facto reality around them to be consistent with the ideological provisions of their ‘overvalued idea’.
Consequently, this was causing Montresor and Alfonso to adopt an active stance, while denying the legitimacy of the idea that one’s life represents the greatest value of all. Therefore, there is nothing utterly surprising about the fact that, while elaborating upon their unholy deeds, both characters would do it in a strongly cynical manner.
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This is exactly the reason why the Montresor and Alfonso’s use of irony/sarcasm emanates the spirit of Freudian ‘uncanny’ – while sounding ironic, both characters reveal that, even though appearing as humans on the outside, they are in fact bloodthirsty monsters on the inside.
For example, there is a memorable scene in The Cask of Amontillado, where Montresor tries to talk Fortunato out of his decision to climb down the cellar, in search of Amontillado: “We will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed” (6).
What is especially chilling about the above-mentioned sarcastic statement, on the part of Montresor, is that; while appearing to be merely concerned with the protagonist’s wish not to allow his ‘friend’ to become ill, it actually reflects the sheer measure of the main character’s commitment to take a revenge on Fortunato.
Apparently, it was not only that Montresor wanted to ‘savor’ the approaching demise of Fortunato, but he also strived to make sure that his ‘friend’ does not reconsider its decision to venture down the cellar (the application of the so-called ‘reverse psychology’ method).
Browning’s deployment of the rhetorical device of sarcasm/irony in the poem also serves the purpose of enlightening readers about the fact that, despite being a socially prominent individual, it was in Alfonso’s very nature to treat people in terms of a soulless commodity. For example, even though Alfonso does not explicitly state that he murdered his wife, the following excerpt leaves no doubts that this was the actual case:
Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive (43-47).
Alfonso could have well admitted to killing his wife in plainer terms. This, however, would have deprived his character of a perceptual genuineness, as a hypocritical moralist, capable of simultaneously expounding on the subject of decency, on the one hand, and acting as a thoroughly immoral psychopath, on the other.
Nevertheless, it would be inappropriate to suggest that the specifics of both literary works’ narrative perspectives are solely concerned with the Browning and Poe’s intention to expose the mental inadequateness of Alfonso and Montresor, but also with their desire to provide readers with a preliminary clue, as to what should be considered this inadequateness’s actual root.
The validity of this suggestion can be shown in regards to another memorable scene in The Cask of Amontillado. In this scene, after having chained Fortunato to the wall, and after having listened to his screams for a while, Motresor begins to scream in return: “A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back… I reproached the wall.
I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I reechoed – I aided – I surpassed them in volume and in strength” (9). Apparently, Poe was well aware of the fact that religious individuals, strongly affiliated with ‘traditional values’, are psychologically inclined towards deriving an emotional pleasure out of savoring the intensity of a particular emotion – regardless of whether this emotion happened to be positive or negative.
This is the reason why in Latin American countries, thousands of people request to be crucified, during the course of Catholic religious celebrations – by doing it, they derive a pleasure out of savoring their own sensation of pain. While exposed to the spectacle, the crowds of spectators savor the physical pain of these religious fanatics with essentially the same degree of intensity (Butler 274).
In a similar manner, by screaming even louder than Fortunato, Monresor sadistically enjoyed the pain of his ‘friend’. After all, it does not represent much of a secret to psychologists that sadism and masochism usually go hand in hand, with the notion of masochism being nothing but euphemistically sounding synonym to the notion of a monotheistic religiosity.
This explains why, before placing the last stone in the immurement-wall, Montreser exclaimed: “For the love of God!” (10) – after having experienced a sadistic/semi-religious ecstasy, while exposed to Fortunato’s pain, Montresor was able to convince himself that what he had done was indeed godly.
The particulars of the deployed narrative perspective in My Last Duchess, also appear to serve the function of providing readers with an in-depth insight into the actual causes of Alfonso’s behavioral abnormality. The legitimacy of this suggestion can be explored in relation to the manner, in which Browning’s poem ends:
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, Sir! Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me (53-57).
What this statement implies, is that throughout the course of his life, Alfonso never ceased experiencing the acute lack of an emotional empathy towards the people, with which he used to socialize. The reason for this is apparent – in Alfonso’s mind, there is no qualitative difference between the painting of his former wife, on the one hand, and the statue of Neptune, on the other.
This is because he is able to swiftly switch the focus of his cognitive attention from one to another with ease. As of today, however, one’s inability to experience the sensation of empathy to his or her close relatives is often being looked upon, as the proof of the concerned individual’s mental illness. For example, it is by observing the lack of such empathy in young children that psychologists are able to come up with a preliminary diagnosis of autism (Tager-Flusberg 312).
Thus, it will not be much of an exaggeration to suggest, even though the Browning’s poem and Poe’s novel were written before the very concept of psychology came into being, the themes and motifs, contained in these literary masterpieces, do correlate with what happened to be the recent breakthroughs in the field this particular science.
As such, these literary works can be deemed truly enlightening – after having been exposed to them, readers do become more knowledgeable of the fact that there is indeed a good rationale in thinking about one’s strong adherence to the provisions of a conventional morality, as such that extrapolates the concerned individual’s mental abnormality.
As it was implied in the Introduction, the literary appeal of Poe’s novel and Browning’s poem cannot be thought of in terms of a ‘thing in itself’. It is namely due to both literary masterpieces’ discursive progressiveness, reflected by the authors’ awareness of what account for the innermost predicaments of people’s behavior, that The Cask of Amontillado and My Last Duchess continue to be valued by readers.
Apparently, after having read them, people are able to increase the extent of their existential fitness, as their exposure to the earlier discussed literary works naturally increases the measure of their awareness of what are the behaviorally observable manifestations of one’s mental inadequateness. I believe that this conclusion fully correlates with the paper’s initial thesis.
Butler, Matthew. “Mexican Nicodemus: The Apostleship of Refugio Padilla, Cristero, on the Islas Marías.” Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos 25.2 (2009): 271-306. Print.
Tager-Flusberg, Helen. “Evaluating the Theory-of-Mind Hypothesis of Autism.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 16.6 (2007): 311-315. Print.
Browning, Robert 1842, My Last Duchess. Web.
Poe, Allan Edgar 1846, The Cask of Amontillado. Web.