Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells

Here is another essay I wrote for an English class very early on Friday morning. [I slightly revised it but the early-morning writing still shows, so be gentle.] This one is on Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Cask of Amontillado." You might want to read the story first. It is not very long. After all, it is a short story.

Gravely Fooling a Jester

Shortly before Montresor tricks Fortunato into taking “a draught of Médoc” to make him drunker and more obedient than he already is Poe lets the bells on Fortunato’s cap jingle: “He raised it [the wine] to his lips with a leer. He paused and nodded to me familiarly, while his bells jingled.” They jingle to signal Montresor’s triumph over his foolish friend.

Poe clearly sets the roles for his two characters in “The Cask of Amontillado”: the smart avenger and the ignorant victim. To emphasize these roles he makes use of the jingling of the bells upon Fortunato’s cap. Whenever he is about to be tricked by Montresor, they emit their typical sound. It is a very subtle indicator for Montresor’s cleverness and a sign that Fortunato gets closer and closer to his death. The bell tolls for him, so to speak.

For the first time the “bells upon his cap jingle” shortly after Montresor leads Fortunato into the catacombs of his “palazzo,” thus they indicate the success of the first trick. They can be heard again right before the second lure, when Fortunato is about to drink the Médoc, and right after Montresor tells his victim what the motto on his family’s coat of arms is: “Nemo me impune lacessit,” which functions as a justification for Montresor’s actions. Poe lets them sound only one more time at the very end of the story: “No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells.” The last “jingling” is a sign that it is finally over. Fortunato gave up and does not fight the chains anymore. His death is imminent.

The “tolling bells” are also a feature of the execution that is taking place, Montresor’s “mask of black silk” (an executioner’s mask) being another. Their recurring sound is Poe’s way of announcing Fortunato’s death. The bells are his and he jingles them himself. These are additional indicators of Poe’s morbid irony. Church bells were and still are tolled before funerals and “The Cask of Amontillado” is nothing but a funeral, albeit a very strange one. Another similarity with the tolling of bells for announcing a funeral is the number of occurrences: four times. Churches knell every fifteen minutes during the hour preceding a burial, so four times*. Fortunato’s bells can be heard four times as well—last of all shortly before Montresor “forces the last stone into its position.”

Poe uses the bells on the cap in such a way that they can be considered a subtle precursor of Fortunato’s death, among all the obvious ones. Apart from this, they are also a sign for the success of every stage of Montresor’s deadly plot and for Fortunato’s foolish character. After all, he is wearing motley. But he does not live up to his costume. As a jester, he is being fooled himself.

* As I found out after writing the essay, this is a very local thing.


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