A Lesson to Teach Edgar Allan Poe: "The Cask of Amontillado"
The short story "The Cask of Amontillado," by Edgar Allan Poe, was published in November of 1846. It is told through the voice of Montresor, a rambling, hopeful murderer, executing his own brand of justice on Fortunato, a hapless drunk in a jester costume. The story is set during Carnival in an unnamed Italian city, presumably in the 18th century. The story isn't gory or bloody, but the premise is disturbing and the outcome is eerily satisfying for the main character. Aside from this, the story also contains an inebriated character.
Montresor claims to have a cask of Amontillado, a sherry wine, deep in the catacombs beneath his manor. He lures Fortunato, who has done him a "thousand injuries" in the past (the motivation for this crime is purposely vague), down into the tunnels by asking him to sample and analyze the quality of this wine. Fortunato, who has a nagging cough throughout the tale, is already drunk from Carnival and is easily persuaded. Eventually, Montresor ambushes the man by chaining him to a wall. Fortunato slowly sobers to the reality that Montresor is creating a new wall, laying brick after brick, in front of the shadowy alcove. At the end of the story, Montresor claims satisfaction with never having been caught for his vile deed.
January 19, 1809 (Boston) – October 7, 1849 (Baltimore)
Edgar Allan Poe is credited as a pioneer in the genre of detective fiction, but is more known for his stories of horror and suspense. His famous works include the poem The Raven , The Fall of the House of Usher , and The Tell-Tale Heart. Poe married his 13-year-old cousin, and lived an impoverished and difficult life, after being orphaned shortly after birth. According to popular opinion, Poe died in a state of delirium in Baltimore at the age of 40. Likely causes include drug or alcohol dependence, but the truth has never been uncovered.
1) Start by having each student respond in his journal: Did you ever have a premonition that turned out to be true? Describe a time when you felt like something was going to happen before it happened.
Discuss these responses as a whole class. Include discussion of how we make decisions, based on the clues around us. How do people perceive the world and other people? How do these perceptions allow us to make good and bad choices?
3) Review an author's use of foreshadowing, suspense, and dramatic irony. Foreshadowing refers to the clues an author gives in a story to indicate likely future events ("I shall not die of a cough"); suspense is rising tension, and is used as a hook to keep readers interested in conflict (Montresor's feigned insistence that the two of them go back to Carnival); dramatic irony involves the audience knowing a critical fact that a central character does not (Fortunato is being led to his demise). Suspense and foreshadowing often go hand in hand. You can ask students to discuss whether anyone else knew about the instances in their journal entries, if desired, and how this affected their understanding of the situation later on.
The language in the story is very difficult for lower-level students. It contains phrases in Latin ("nemo me impune lacessit,” for example, which means “no one attacks me with impunity”), and includes references uncommon outside of 18th century Italy. It is imperative to read a good section with the whole class before allowing students to finish the remainder. If the story is assigned as homework, a plot overview will be necessary.
In taking notes, have students focus on suspense and foreshadowing. On a two-columned paper, students can easily document at least five instances of each. Have students write the actual textual example under each heading, and turn this into a quote-gathering activity.
1) Students should individually write down three lingering plot-related questions, followed by Q+A as a whole class. A summary of plot should follow.
2) Assign student groups of three, revolving around notes on the story. Groups should construct a "final" list of the five most suspenseful moments and/or most effective instances of foreshadowing, and present their findings to the class.
3) Quiz on vocabulary and/or story itself, if warranted. A quiz on the story should focus on character.
(Optional) Have students design mazes on pieces of 8 1/2 X 11 paper.
On one side of the maze, draw a scene depicting Carnival; on the other, draw a skeleton. Students can complete each other's mazes, tracing the route that Montresor and Fortunato took. Adding obstacles that are textually related to the story could be considered a bonus.
5) (Optional) Have students examine a piece of artwork on the overhead/Smartboard. A portrait of two or more individuals is preferred (something like Gerard Terborch's "Young Woman Playing a Theorbo to Two Men"). Students should write down what each character is thinking, as opposed to the other characters. This is a fun exercise.
(Optional) Have students write a short narrative in which they take the role of a sober Fortunato and must escape from the catacombs. Require students to tell the story in the 1st-person point of view and to demonstrate knowledge of primary characters from "TCofA" throughout their brief story.
7) (Optional) Have students design a puzzle, putting the examples of suspense and foreshadowing from their notes on irregular shaped pieces. Putting the pieces together successfully amounts to Fortunato understanding what is happening. Having a timed game in which students must assemble puzzles could determine whether they are free or "imprisoned."
8) (Optional) Have students do a small amount of research on 18th century Italy, particularly on the tradition and roots of Carnevale. This is an activity that could also be assigned before the reading, though it's not necessary at either end.