Edgar Allan Poe was the champion of the short story form. As he outlines in his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s work, the short story is the highest literary form a writer could aspire to: “Were we called upon, however, to designate that class of composition which next to such a poem as we have suggested, should best fulfill the demands of high genius…we should unhesitatingly speak of the prose tale” (945).
Poe’s praise of the short story draws much on Aristotle’s idea of unity. Aristotle’s Poetics identifies three type of unities: action, time, and space. Summarizing, a story must focus on a single plot happening over the course of no more than 24 hours and be confined to a single space. For Poe, the short story best exemplifies Aristotle’s unities in the following ways:
- The short story cannot require more than an hour or two from the reader. If the reader has take a break from reading the story, the overall effect of unity is destroyed. As Poe writes, “But simple cessation in reading would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intention” (945). The novel, in how long it takes to read, allows the world to intrude on our experience. We become distracted by our mundane lives and so lose the experience of the work as a whole.
- The short story writer has an extremely limited space to draw the reader into her story. Compared to the novelists, the short story writer must be skillful enough to ensure that every word, sentence has purpose: “If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he failed in his first step” (946).
I think it is helpful to read Poe’s argument for the short story as the highest literary form in dialogue with Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory.” Consider the effect that Hemingway was able to achieve by just presenting the brief conversation between the American and Jig in “Hills Like White Elephants.”
Exploring a Diseased Mind
What Poe does in arguing for the short story as being the highest literary form is gives us a lens to understand his own writing. That is, since Poe sees the significance to every word, sentence of a short story, then we as his reader must unpack the importance of his own words.
So, let’s turn to “The Cask of Amontillado.” I am sure some of you are probably already familiar with the story: Montresor, the narrator, recounts his luring Fortuntato down to his ancestral crypt with the promise of tasting a very rare wine, Amontillado. In enacting his revenge for Fortunato’s having insulted him (more on this soon), Montresor chains his victim to a wall deep in the crypt and then walls him in.
While this may seem like a simple story, Poe presents some urgent questions:
- Why does Montresor not explicitly say what insult Fontunato had leveled against him? How does withholding this key piece of information perhaps influence the reader’s perspective of the narrator? Are we meant to become more disturbed by Montresor’s actions given that he does not present a rational motivation?
- The second sentence of the story has Montresor refer to his interlocutor: “You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat.” Who is the “you” who is so close to Montresor’s heart – the reader? If so, does Montresor attempt to implicate the reader in the murder? Could it be that the horror of Montresor’s actions has caused him to distance himself from them? Is Montresor speaking to himself, driven mad with guilt? (This is a trope that Poe has explored before in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven.”)
- Finally, Poe provides a twist at the end of Montresor’s confession (?) – his walling Fortunato up happened 50 years ago! Why recount the story now? Notice that Montresor can recollect such detail after 50 years. What does this say about the effect his actions have had on Montresor?
Poe may actually intend “The Cask” not be so much about the gruesome death Montresor had condemned Fortunato to but rather delving into the psychological effect living with his action has had on the murderer.