It was Edgar Allan Poe’s belief that short stories should be told with only one aim in mind, that of achieving a single effect upon the viewer by the time the story ends.
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Joy, despair, horror, tragedy, whatever the emotion, it must be established early on in the story, as early as the first few lines if possible, in order to achieve its fullest impact with the readers. As such, he insured that all his short stories had incidents and events that helped moved the story along from the get-go.
The very first words uttered by the author at the start of the story carried the hook necessary to reel the reader into the story with the desired effect. This is all done so that by the end of the story, the reader will have a sense of satisfaction and the writer will have achieved his pre-established story design.
For me, the best Edgar Allan Poe story that truly embodies the definition of a single effect would have to be “The Cask of Amontillado”. It is my opinion that this story effectively fulfills the requirements for the single effect story telling policy of Poe. I will explain how that is done in the succeeding paragraphs below.
Horror. That is the central theme that The Cask of Amotillado revolved upon amidst the backdrop of revenge among friends masked by drunkenness and gay festivities that blur the line between friend and foe. Set at night during the carnival season, the quick transition from the gay festivities of the European night streets to the somber, dark, damp, and terrifying catacombs clearly aids in establishing the upcoming horrors that shall unfold for the unsuspecting Fortunato.
There could have been many ways in which Poe could have presented the point of view of the characters in The Cask Of Amontillado, but he chose to present it from the point of view of Montresor. The reason behind this is that by presenting the sometimes clouded memories of the antagonist in the story, he is able to present us with a memorable and effective lead character.
By making him an unreliable narrator, he keeps with his single effect principle, deciding to use a character that would immediately grip our imagination and offer a study into the twisted mind of an alcoholic criminal.
The same could not have been said if he opted to use the viewpoint of Fortunato because there would be a lack of gripping clarity in storytelling since Fortunato is the victim in the tale and was knocked out while most of the events were unfolding. The story would in effect have lost its sense of suspense since, as a reader, there would be no way that we would ever know what was passing through Montresor’s mind as he implemented his evil deed.
As Montresor continues to reveal the weaknesses of his friend for the readers, Poe continues to build up the suspense as he involves the readers by making one wonder as to how Monteresor will exact his vengeance upon his drunken friend. Therefore, the single effect of this short story is made quite clear by its main character, that of the horrific death of his close friend as told by its the perpetrator.
Having said that, we can see that Poe has chosen the best way by which to set the scenes for the story that is about to unfold. Each and every sentence that he wrote was meant to, and successfully advances the story to the next, heightened level of horror as only he could write using his single effect theory.
There is no mistaking the fact that the horror unfolding before the reader’s eyes, calling into question whether Montresor even thought about the moral, never-mind the psychological, implications of his actions.
I still remember the chill that I felt upon reading the lines ” The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” I knew that it was a foreshadowing of what was to come for the unfortunate friend, yet, I still could not understand why he had to do it.
In The Cask of Amontillado, these lessons and themes are taught through the vivid use of irony, foreshadowing, and metaphor. The irony of these two friends sitting together and sharing a drink, discussing wine vintages, while Montresor bides his time before snuffing out the life of the man he once considered his friend.
The foreshadowing of the walk within the concrete catacombs where his friend would soon be imprisoned to die, and finally, the metaphor represented by the family motto of Montresor, “Nemo me impune lacessit”, are all crucial elements of the single effect principle that Poe worked hard to present within this short story masterpiece.
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The Cask of Amontillado is one of the best examples of effective and impressive single effect short stories. From the very first line of the story, to the very last word uttered, the reader will find himself on a dark roller-coaster ride of human emotions, feeling the horror that the poorly named Fortunato experienced as the final brick was laid by Montresor at his final resting place.