Works of literature share common themes in order to develop and drive their plot. Commonly found are elements of love, hate, success, and tragedy. Tools such as projection and symbolism are often used as well, and when used correctly can add a layer of tragic irony. These themes and tools co-exist in an effort to add emphasis and purpose to the actions and developments which take place within a story. The stronger the trust or faith between two or more characters, the stronger the sense of betrayal once deception takes place. Take, for example, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. While both stories are quite different in setting and narration, they find their premise in deception, and subsequent death, one led by a deceiver, the other told by the deceived.
In “The Cask of Amontillado”, our story is driven by our main character (and narrator), Montresor, seeking revenge on his friend, Fortunato, who has wronged him in the past. As the narrator, he chooses to not reveal how he was previously scorned, but leads us down an unfurling journey, in which he presents himself as a trustworthy ally, but later reveals his malicious intentions. He intends on killing Fortunato and has a well-developed plan in order to do it. Montresor reaffirms Fortunato’s friendship early on, stating “I was so pleased to see him that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand’, I believe this is in order appear warm and caring. Montresor even praises Fortunato for his flair in being able to distinguish and evaluate fine wine, “I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter”.
Fortunato is lured to Montresor’s palazzo, in what he believes to be a wine tasting in order to truly verify the authenticity of the Amontillado wine. While traveling further into Montresor’s wine vault, Fortunato develops a worsening cough, he is showered by concerns for his well-being, “Your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved…” his downfall immediately foreshadowed “…as once I was. You are a man to be missed”. Further on we reach a point in the story, in the depths of Montresor’s wine vault (which Fortunato willingly explored, in order to help Montresor verify the wine), where Montresor reveals his intentions and shackles Fortunato to the wall of his vault, much to his shock and surprise.
Here, Fortunato is left to die alone and betrayed, his only way of exit is sealed off. Montresor’s betrayal is amplified when considering we are never fully informed as to why he feels so scorned, the reader is only allowed to follow a helpful friend in Fortunato, and witness his murder at the hands of a person he felt he could trust. This statement is further confirmed in Jay Jacoby’s “Fortunato’s Premature Demise in ‘The Cask of Amontillado”, in which he notes Dorothy Foote’s argument that Fortunato “dies without fully comprehending Montresor’s motives”. I find it interesting how Montresor chooses to shackle Fortunato, propping him against the vault, much like the wines they had spent the evening next to. A tragic, yet ironic end to his character, to be forever displayed like the very thing he tried assisting Montresor in verifying.
I find the themes and tools in “The Cask of Amontillado”, to be somewhat similar to those in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Our main character, Peyton Farquhar is a southern civilian in the midst of The Civil War. We are given all we need to know as to his stance on the war and of the climate of the country, “Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause”. Clearly, Farquhar is invested and is entrusting the future his rights and preservation of his ideas within his Southern army and fellow landowners.
Although not a member of the serving Confederates, we are also informed as to how far is devotion reached, “No service was too humble for him to perform in the aid of the South, no adventure too perilous for him to undertake if consistent with the character of a civilian who was at heart a soldier..”. Our story finds itself when a member of the Confederate army presents Farquhar with the opportunity to aid in the Southern cause of which he is so fond. Farquhar accepts the opportunity, unbeknownst to him, he is being deceived. The Confederate soldier was in actuality a Union soldier in disguise, conning Farquhar in order to capture and kill him. An in-the-dark Farquhar is captured by a band of Union soldiers and killed. He is hung at the bridge in which he was instructed to destroy (something that is not revealed until after we are presented with Farquhar’s last thoughts, which were presented as reality).
Farquhar, a civilian with the heart of a soldier, was trapped and killed much like an actual soldier would, as a statement from the opposing front. His trust in his fellow Southerners, and willingness to assist at all costs, led him to his death. Before his hanging, we read of his attention being caught by a piece of driftwood flowing down the stream below the bridge, pulled by the current. Interestingly, his final thoughts (perhaps a daydream of sorts), sees Farquhar plunge into the stream, also being driven by the current, much like the driftwood. He escapes the Union’s persecution, and travels back to his home, and sees his wife. Whereas the driftwood successfully flows along the currents and continues its travel, Farquhar does not, he is successfully hung and will remain at the bridge.
I find both of these stories to have a rich foundation in the act of betrayal and hoodwink. Montresor is to Fortunato what the Confederate soldier is to Peyton Farquhar. Fortunato and Farquhar are doomed by their trust, by their familiarity with their deceivers. Fortunato sees a friend, an ally, in Montresor, someone he would never expect to commit such a heinous act, someone who would not betray him. Farquhar sees an opportunity to serve his cause, to further the potential for a southern victory in the war (which would be very much in his interest as he is a slave owner). This is something that Farquhar would find much pride in doing, as his loyalty to the South has been described as something fierce.
Not only this but both stories do not shy away from uses of symbolism, foreshadowing, and irony. For instance, in Peyton Farquhar’s conversation with who he perceived to be a Confederate soldier, he describes himself as “a civilian and a student of hanging”, which foreshadows his subsequent demise by way of being hung, while also proving him wrong as he was evidently not as able to escape his punishment. Somewhat similar to Fortunato’s pride in his abilities in wine identification, seeing as how he insisted on being the one to identify whether or not Montresor’s wine was an imitation or not, “Amontillado! You have been imposed on us. And as for Luchresi, he cannot distinguish Sherry from Amontillado”.
As previously stated, the elements and presence of trust into deception make for powerful literary themes across multiple works. In analyzing both of these short stories, the correlation of pride in one’s abilities, unconditional trust, and the symbolic irony is clearly present. Where Montresor successfully exacts revenge through deceptive manners, Farquhar is successfully deceived and much like Fortunato meets his demise as a result of the innocence in his pride and trust.