The Effects of “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Bartlby, the Scrivener”

January 21, 2009

1. How does Poe’s short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” compare to what he wrote a short story should be in “The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale?” Does Poe accomplish his “single effect?”

Edgar Allen Poe was not only a writer himself, but he also critiqued the work of his contemporaries and those of the past. In his essay, “The importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale,” Poe is critiquing Nathaniel Hawthorne. In doing this Poe makes general statements about what a short story should contain, and what the function of a short story should be. He compares the short story to poetry and to novels. He exclaims how the short story is superior because, if done right, it can achieve it’s goal more successfully. Poe begins his essay by stating, “We need only say, upon this topic, that, in almost all classes of composition, the unity of effect or impression is a point of great importance.” He begins his argument here for what a short story is about, or at least what it should be about. He mentions this “effect.” Poe is stating that the purpose of a short story is to cause an effect. He goes on to state that a “wise” writer would have a “single effect” in mind when setting out to write. And from that purpose -that vision- a story is created. He takes it one step further, and states, “If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.” Poe is saying here that in every short story every word, sentence, and paragraph should serve a common goal- a common goal of effect. Nothing should be put in that does not help provide the effect. The question derived from what Poe says the short story should be about is this: Does Poe accomplishes his “single effect” in “The Cask Of Amontillado?” Poe has set the stage for what a short story should be: it should have a “single effect” and every sentence should lead the reader to that effect. David S. Reynolds discusses Poe in his essay “Poe’s Art of Transformation in ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’” About halfway through his essay he addresses part of Poe’s criteria for a short story, “There is absolutely no excess in ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’ Every sentence points inexorably to the horrifying climax.” By stating there is no “excess “ and that everything points to “the horrifying climax” Reynolds not only is stating that the sentences lead to something or seems to aid in a unity, he states that the “single effect” is horror. According to Reynolds Poe accomplishes his “single effect.” In fact Reynolds goes on to update what Poe said in his critique of Hawthorne: “Effect is what a tale like ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is about. An overwhelming effect of terror is produced by this tightly knit tale that reverberates with psychological and moral implications.” Poe couldn’t have wanted anything else. For Reynolds there was a single effect-horror and terror. I have to agree with Reynolds. I believe that Poe has achieved this “single effect” in his story. Poe was clearly trying to set this tone of horror and terror when he wrote, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” Poe opens his story with this tension and suspension. Clearly he is pointing to some sort of final effect. Poe does an excellent job to build upon each sentence. The story rises higher and higher until it reaches the climax. Leaving the reader with a “creepy crawly” feeling. Nothing but terror was Poe’s intent, which is evident from the very first sentence.

2. In what ways, if any, are the stories by Poe and Melville similar? What can be said about both of them? Does Melville’s story live up to Poe’s “single effect?”

Poe and Melville both use walls as symbols in their stories. I found it interesting that in both stories a man dies trapped behind a wall. For Fortunato the wall was built by a “friend,” and was more of a metaphorically wall. It provided the narrator a way to trap his former self inside. A way to block out a shadow of what he once was. For Bartleby, the walls trapped him in and provided him with a sort of comfort. Through out the story it was almost as if Bartleby wanted death and solitude, and in the confine of those walls he found both of those things, “The surround walls, of amazing thickness, kept off all sounds behind them.” Those walls are even where Bartleby chose to die, “Strangely huddled at the base of the wall, his knees drawn up, and lying on his side, his head touching the cold stones, I saw the wasted Bartleby.” Still with these words I couldn’t help but wonder what the bigger significance of the walls were in this story. I don’t understand what they were suppose to be. Clearly Melville wanted something to come of them, or he would not have described them in the way he did. Another similarity between the two stories is obsession. Obsession plays a key part in both stories. For Poe the obsession lies with Fortunato and his thirst for wine. Fortunato’s obsession leads to his entrapment and ultimately to his death. Several times Montresor warns Fortunato to turn back. But, because of his ego and his thirst to taste this wine Fortunato presses on. For Melville the obsession is with the narrator trying to rid himself of Bartleby. He does everything he can think of. He tries to fire Bartleby, he offers Bartleby money, he offers Bartleby a place in his home, he shows compassion and mercy to Bartleby, and ultimately he moves his offices. Nothing really works. For in the end the one thing that the narrator tries to avoid happens. Bartleby is removed by police and sent to jail. However, even there Bartleby is still an obsession of the narrator. He visits him, pays a man to take care of him, and in the end sees him dead- the one thing he never wanted to happen. Through out the story I was looking for a “single effect.” What would Poe say about this story? Would he agree that it is a success, does it provide the reader with an effect? In reading this story I felt compassion, not just for Bartleby, but also for the narrator. Compassion is felt for Bartleby because he is alone in this world. He is alone, homeless, and ultimately an empty man. He has nothing and no one. However, compassion is also felt for the narrator because of what he tries to do for Bartleby. He does everything he can think of to help Bartleby, and only leaves him be when Bartleby refuses the help. Even while Bartleby is in jail the narrator does what he can to help Bartleby, and in the end the narrator is left alone.

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