“What’s in the box, Poe?” A review of three short stories by Poe


Three Short Stories by Edgar Allan Poe


We were assigned a set of three shorts by Poe. These three represent some of his most famous stories and all have a theme: A crazy, unreliable narrator uses the story as a confession of sorts, a reasoning for his outrageous acts. All three of the narrators hide their murders behind a wall or in the case of the Tell-Tale Heart, the floor boards.

The Tell-Tale Heart: In this, arguably Poe’s most well-known short story, the unnamed narrator seems more interested in convincing us of his sanity than he does his innocence. Which is something we will see in the other stories, and seems to be a theme in much of Poe’s work. I tend to think that many of his tales have an autobiographical bent. Poe, like his characters was considered odd, unhinged, or straight up insane and his character’s protests often come off desperate, as Poe himself was to prove his talent and mental stability. This particular narrator admits to his wrong doing but states it was the old man’s clouded eye that drove him to murder. The constant look of it. But what I find interesting in this story compared to the others is that while nonchalantly telling his tale, if read carefully, we realize that he tortured the old man for days. I wonder if perhaps he was hoping to cause a heart attack and when it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, he went to extreme. Evidence of that is the complete unpreparedness of the narrator regarding disposal of the body and I believe it was that more than anything else that lead to him cracking. It was the dismembering and hiding the body parts that really unhinged him.


The Black Cat: Alcoholism drove this narrator to his evil deeds we are told over and over. He, again a nameless narrator, assures us that prior to succumbing to this disease, he was a mild, peaceful being who loved people and animals. In this story, I felt like Poe, who also was described as quiet and polite when sober but completely out of control the minute a glass of liquor passed his lips, wrote this from a familiar place inside himself. This narrator, like the previous one, shows no remorse for his actions but instead spends his time explaining his reasoning for what he did and how he was driven to it. For me, the theme here is alcoholism in general. He first cuts out the eye of his favorite cat (this time not a cloudy eye, more just a knowing one) in a drunken rage and from there, it’s as if he kills anything and everything that reminds him of his problem with temperance. While he acknowledges that he loses control when he drinks, he refuses to stop and rather than attack the cause, he attacks the reminders of it. His paranoia grows until he turns these reminders into almost paranormal forces that have to be stopped.


The Cask of Amontillado: This tale of pride, revenge and murder is also told in the first person point of view but we do get a name for our narrator. Montressor has suffered a thousand times over at the hands (or lips) of Fortunato but a recent insult is the last straw and he plans revenge. Montressor tells this tale from a date far removed from the incident and like his predecessors (at least on my blog), he too shows no remorse. Now, for me, this was the most interesting of the three. In this story, unlike the other two, we get to know the victim as well as the perpetrator. And Fortunato sounds like the rich asshole we all love to hate. The guy who thinks he is a big deal and that everyone loves him. (Use your imagination and see if anyone comes to mind…someone with a huge ego but little hands). I mean all Montressor had to do was feed the guy’s ego and string him a long with a cask of rare booze instead of a carrot. The whole time Fortunato is obnoxious. He makes a secret Mason’s sign and when Montressor misses it, he makes fun telling him he is no Mason. Monstressor shows him a trowel and disagrees. This was funny. In fact, Montressor makes many little quips and puns alluding to his plan for the loud mouth narcissist. This story was more amusing and more intellectual than the other two.

Unlike the other two tales, this killer had a reason I think many could relate to or at least understand a bit more. I also think there are autobiographical elements. Poe struggled with his contemporaries and critics. He bore their insults as best he could. I am sure there is some of his own unspoken desires in this story. Which I think is why he gave so much more personality to Montressor. Montressor was intelligent, funny and witty but most importantly sympathetic. Also, we don’t know what happened to Monstressor but we are not told he is in jail or has been arrested. For all we know, he got away with it.


I love Poe. His style is described as American gothic which unlike the paranormal elements of the European gothic, studies the darkness within humanity—the horrors of reality. These three stories are not my favorites of all his works and The Tell-Tale Heart has just been overdone. I’ve read it for every English class I have ever taken. But they were good choices for the psycho class (William Wilson would have been a fun tale to look at as well in this category). I think he was misunderstood in his time and I think he struggled with his own inner demons and that gave a life to his characters that many couldn’t appreciate until much later.


5 thoughts on ““What’s in the box, Poe?” A review of three short stories by Poe

  1. You did a nice job of synopsizing these three stories. And I agree, too, that “The Cask of Amontillado” was pretty subversive, and funny. Still, at the end my heart went out to Fortunato when he says, “For the love of God, Montresor!” Good post.


  2. I agree that there is probably a lot of autobiographical information in these stories. All of the narrators also seemed to feel the need to justify why they did what they did, as if the reason was much more important than the deed.
    There is a lot of humor woven throughout “The Cask of Amontillado.”


  3. I think Cask was my favorite of the three, because the psycho is so well developed. From his quips to his false concern to his Mason one-upsmanship, Montressor made for a great villain we can root for… and those are my favorite kinds.


  4. I think it was so interesting how Poe often chooses to have his characters remain nameless–except in the case of The Cask of Amontillado. I think it would be so fascinating to do a critical essay comparing and contrasting The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat. The similar endings intrigued me and I can’t imagine Poe did it unknowingly.


  5. I love how you tied each story to what we know of Poe himself. Each story does seem to relate to his own demons in someway and with the first person narrative I couldn’t help but think that it was Poe doing the killing in way. I did not pick up at all that the old man was tortured for days. Now I’ll have to go back and look for it. The Cask was far more interesting to me personally as well.


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