Thursday, December 19, 2013

Montresor’s Downfall A Psychoanalytical look at Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado

            Psychoanalytic Criticism is an approach of critical thought that follows “how and why people behave the way they do,” this theory is practiced in more than one field outside of literature. Some theories have been developed alongside other literary theories and those have been further developed by different theorist. Psychoanalysis as a school of literary theory can focus on one or more than one aspect of a literary work by focusing on the author, a specific character, the literary text, and even the audience that is reading the text. The most famous critic of psychoanalysis is Sigmund Freud who developed the original theory consisting of the unconscious mind, the desires of a person or character, and a defense. Freud further developed this into the id, the ego and the superego. Each of these aspects of the theory is dominated by a particular aspect; the id is dominated by pleasure, the ego is dominated by reality, and the superego is dominated by morality. Freud’s most famous part of the theory involve the Oedipus Complex in which a character subconsciously has a sexual desire to be with the parent of the opposite sex and is in constant battle with the parent of the same sex. This develops during childhood when the child realizes that the parental object of their desire doesn’t see them as the center of the universe. In looking at these aspects of Freud’s theory they all become a part of the breakdown of the principal character in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”. Montresor’s decision to ultimately box in a living person as an act of revenge by using a cask of wine as a lure, to get his friend down into the vaults where his own family lay. Though many parts of the theory would be difficult because of the lack of backstory where Montresor is considered since there are very few aspects of his family lineage.

             “The id is…, the source of all our aggressions and desires. It is lawless, asocial, and amoral. Its function is to gratify our instincts for pleasure without regard for social conventions, legal ethics, or moral restraint. Unchecked, it would lead us to any lengths – to destruction and even self-destruction – to satisfy its impulses for pleasure.” (Guerin et al.121)What is it that ultimately drives Montresor to lead his friend Fortunato down into the catacombs under his home? Even though Montresor gave Fortunato plenty of time to turn back and go back to the surface he took an immense amount of pleasure as he bricked in his friend. Even before he bricks up his friend he dressed the part of an executioner foreshadowing what he intends to pursue, Fortunato is dressed as a jester “The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells.”(Poe.108) This can translate to the fact that he was a fool all along and didn’t know what he’d done against Montresor. In correlation with the id, Montresor didn’t have moral regard for killing his friend even though he gave him the option of turning back several times but kept on goading him with the amontillado. Montresor gave his unwitting victim a false sense of security by using their friendship to push him forward through a toxic vault towards his death. Before Freud identified the id and it’s complex nature this attribute especially when it’s brought together with Montresor’s act of murder would be coupled with acts of the devil and not to the changes within the personality of the person and what may have happened to force them to unfortunately kill.
            Since the ego is dominated by reality when reality is splintered and the person isn’t able to repress their inner desire the world is broken and the person begins to create their own reality. This can lead towards other problems when the person in question develops a stage of paranoia. Terry Eagleton discusses this in his book on Literary Theory saying, “Paranoia’ refers to a more or less systematized state if delusion under which Freud includes not only delusions of persecution but delusional jealousy and delusions of grandeur.”(159) This would mean that Montresor’s sense of broken reality because of the injustice causes him to create this plot to lure Fortunato down to the vaults. According to Montresor since a wrong was done to him and his family it is normal for him not to notice that he had done wrong. It could be considered that Montresor may have had deeper feelings for Fortunato but because it’s not normal he used the wrong against him to be able to act upon his inner desires to keep Fortunato all to himself. The sense of broken reality and his actions caused his to make Fortunato his once friend into an enemy that he could hate enough to be able to make him the enemy so he change his own sense of reality.
            “Freud attributes the development of the superego to the parental influence that manifests itself in terms of punishment for what society considers to be bad behavior and reward for what society considers good behavior.” (Guerin et al.122) Since Montresor seems to be the only person living in his home he may have already been orphaned before the start of the story so there’s no one around to remind him of what is good and bad. The servants that work in his house left for the carnival at his insistence so he knew that he would be alone. There’s a possibility that all the privilege that he’s had his whole life his parents didn’t teach him to know who’s right and wrong. Though there were times when he felt guilty about what he was doing it wasn’t until he had to retell the story to someone later on in life did the guilt finally get to him. Montresor may have been suffering from a guilty complex through the rest of his life because of his actions towards Fortunato. The beginning of the story starts with Montresor retelling his story to someone part by part, though never mentioning the offense that had occurred that would push him towards the actions that he’d taken.
            If a reader looked to see if the Oedipus Complex would be a viable source of what is wrong with Montresor and his fixation with killing Fortunato. It can be looked upon also as the fact that Montresor was using his friend to enact revenge against his own father. The house he lives in was a part of his family line but considering the massive vaults the men in the family weren’t prime figures in raising of the children of the family. Montresor love for his mother may have extended to the point where he would have enacted revenge against his own father for the love of his mother even if the love that he wanted wasn’t legal in anyway. The last part of the vault in which he buries Fortunato can also be seen as the womb of a woman in particular his mother and by using Fortunato his was able to enact his revenge against his father.
            When a psychoanalytic approach is taken outside the story and towards the author of the story it turns into a look at Poe’s own insecurities about being buried alive. In his analysis of “The Cask of Amontillado” Roger Platizky wrote “his fixation on living interment. To a significant degree, Poe’s fear of live burial had a cultural counterpart.”(207) At the time of his life live burial was a form of punishment but because noncriminal would also be buried alive by accident they attached bells to the body so that if it rung then it was known that the person was still alive. That’s why the bells on Fortunato’s hat were a significant part of the story the bells were the only way to signify if he were still alive. Poe’s works could also signify a deep psychological problem within himself as the writer to have so many stories and poems with revenge and death in mind it could be that Poe himself suffered from an oedipal complex and that he too wished to exact the same amount of revenge against his father.
            “Nemo me impune lacessit.”(110) the motto on the Montresor family’s coat of arms mean “No one provokes me with impunity” could have given Fortunato a hint at his fate had he known what was to come. Looking at “The Cask of Amontillado” to see if there would be signs that Montresor was suffering from a psychotic break would be easier to spot in the 21st century though in 19th century Italy where the story takes place it would have been far more difficult to know that there were any problems. There were many signs that pointed that something could have gone awry if someone was looking for someone to blame for the disappearance of the man. Montresor was missing for a considerable amount of time from carnival though the mask would have been difficult for people to know that he was missing but if someone knew what he was wearing it wouldn’t have been too difficult. There’s also the fact that someone could have seen them together. Montresor used his shared traits and shared history to keep Fortunato at bay until the very end also using a false sense of security to lure his prey down to the vaults. There’s no sure way of knowing whether Fortunato would really have been missed by any other person that and the only people who would have been able to shed some light on the truth about Montresor would have been buried within the deep recesses of the vault for a long time.     

Works Cited
Brizee, Allen and Tompkins, J. Case. “Psychoanalytic Criticism (1930s-present).” Purdue Online Writing Lab. The Writing Lab, The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. 03 Jun.2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2013

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983. Print.

Guerin, Wilfred L., Earle Labor, Lee Morgan, Jeanne C. Reesman, and John R. Willingham. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Print.

Platizky, Roger. "Poe's The Cask Of Amontillado." Explicator 57.4 (1999): 206. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. 10th ed. Ed. Alison Booth and Kelly J. Mays. New York: Norton, 2010. 1173. Print

Webster, Roger. Studying Literary Theory An Introduction. Great Britain, Routledge, Chapman and Hall Inc., 1990. Print