Poe’s classic short story “The Cask of Amontillado” has gripped my imagination since I first read it in junior high. How does it work? Here’s the first part, taken from the whole story at Project Gutenberg. It’s nice and short. If you don’t know it, I encourage you to read it all before going any further.
The Cask of Amontillado
Edgar Allan Poe
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely settled—but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved, precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.
It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.
The first line of this story does a lot of things. Any opening should set you up with a mood and situation, and usually a character. Poe gives us not just one character, but two: Fortunato and the viewpoint character, the narrator. The first clause lets us know that the narrator is someone who holds a serious grudge. A thousand injuries? And presumably small ones, because what finally sets him off is “insult,” though at this point, we don’t know if it’s just the final straw. For some reason, I remember this line including not “as best I could” but “without complaint.” However, by the second paragraph here, we get that impression, that he bore injury without complaint. This guy seethes rather than confronts.
“Fortunato” is “Lucky” in Italian, which both evokes a pampered aristocrat and strikes an ironic note of foreshadowing. We don’t know much about Fortunato yet, but we shouldn’t really expect much. Why? Because of the first-person viewpoint. Someone as petty and aggrieved as this narrator who hates him isn’t likely to be objective, unless he has an epiphany and undergoes a major change. Of course, as you probably know, this isn’t that kind of story.
I’ve had professional writers tell me that a story is about a change in character. That always felt wrong. Rather, I think a story is generally about discovering what a character is capable of. Often the character is tested during the story, but sometimes, the character is tested before the story, as is the case here. That makes this what I would call a story of revelation. That’s the main development here. As Damon Knight says in his book on short fiction, you don’t need conflict if you have rising tension. Any conflict within the viewpoint character is over before this story begins, and arguably so is the conflict between the characters, as we’ll see.
The viewpoint here is well chosen. Because this is first-person and past, we know that the events have already transpired. With third-person past, we can’t take that for granted. Usually the inevitability implied with first-person past drains some tension out of a story, because it’s less immediate. However, the viewpoint is properly chosen here, because this is not a story about what is going to happen; it’s about what has happened, and — if we’re mentally healthy — we’re ambivalent about wanting to know. (The final lines of the story sum up just how long ago this actually occurred, an important point, one that gives the story chilling resonance.)
The opener with the narrator and his attitude toward a subject is an example of what I call a mirror trick: you describe a reflection and you get the mirror for free, or vice versa. In this case, Fortunato is the mirror reflecting the psychology of the viewpoint character. We get two characters, but we also get the setup for the story, and a mood, obviously the narrator’s vengeful mood but that’s not the important one; the important one is the suspense generated in the reader by the narrator’s cold hatred and promise of revenge. The “I vowed revenge” is explicit foreshadowing. This is going to be about revenge, and it’s not going to be pretty.
In the second sentence, he addresses a “you” that is clearly not the reader. Partly this may be to lend authority to the claim that he never uttered a threat, which foreshadows the revelation that he’s a psychopath. But it has another function. He says “you, who so well know the nature of my soul,” so presumably he’s addressing a confessor, but rather than baring his soul, he’s merely explaining his demeanor, and maybe with a touch of hauteur and irony: does this guy give anyone a glimpse of his soul? Does he even have one? In any case, Poe has all but told us with the simple expedient of this “you” character that the following story will not involve a change of heart; this will be a revenge story, as advertised.
Why the passive voice in the third sentence? Is it to underscore that this is a passive-aggressive man? Probably so. This guy’s apparently a coward. The switch to active voice in the next sentence is an ironic expression of resolve to boldly avoid risk and retribution, to act with “impunity.” The next two sentences return to the passive voice as he completes his weaselly rationalizations. (Obviously the much-maligned passive voice has its uses. Look what Poe does here!)
In the second paragraph, the opening passive voice is a little odd. It’s not serving the same function — he’s no longer rationalizing, merely explaining the setup. He seems to be addressing a larger audience now. Why doesn’t he simply readdress the “you” to whom he spoke before? Maybe because then he would seem to be trying to convince his confessor. He’s not; he’s stating a fact to us.
Recap of major techniques:
So a lot of the technique here is specific to the story, but here are some general tools Poe uses:
Mirror trick with viewpoint and attitude toward another character
Explicit foreshadowing and contract with the reader
Foreshadowing with a soon-to-be-ironic name (“Fortunato”)
Addressing a “you” who is not the reader to imply yet another character, one whose function in this case is to underscore that this is an unrepentant, unchanged person
Use of passive voice to reveal narrator’s cowardice and passive-aggression on one hand, and to address a general audience on the other
Boilerplate invitation for feedback:
Let me know if this seems right!