The short story is an important genre in American literature. For a variety of reasons, including, but not limited to, the rise of the middle class and the expansion westward (which gave most American leisure time and created a perfect atmosphere for this mode of literature to blossom), the short story exploded in popularity in the early stages of American history. One of the preeminent authors of this mode was Edgar Allan Poe. His tales are often gothic, macabre short stories, so it is no surprise that A Cask of Amontillado deals with death in some capacity. Robert Frost was an American poet from the early twentieth century. He is often associated with rural life and pastoral themes. These two authors are inextricably linked to a certain locale (Poe to Baltimore and Frost to New England) and time period. Although nearly a hundred years and over a hundred miles separate them, their works still share common threads. In the case of Frosts poem, Home Burial, and Poes short story, A Cask of Amontillado, the theme of death plays an essential role in each piece of literature. Although the theme of death is dealt with differently in each piece, Home Burial and A Cask of Amontillado rely heavily on miscommunication between characters to explore the theme of death.
Death itself, in each story, couldnt be used any differently. In a literal sense, the death of a couples child and subsequent burial begins the action of Home Burial, while in A Cask of Amontillado, the death of Fortunato and premature burial are the resolution to the story. So, A Cask of Amontillado concerns itself mainly with the theme of revenge and Home Burial concerns itself with the theme of mourning, in the scope of the overall arching theme of death. This, essentially, paints death in two different lights: death being seen as a tragedy in one case and a triumph in another. There isnt much commonality within the theme between the two in that aspect, aside from the fact that both deal with the actual burial as major elements in each work.
Home Burial uses miscommunication in the wake of a childs death to reveal problems within the marriage of its two characters. Although the poem is relatively short, we are able to get a sense of their entire marriage and its problems. Frost expertly uses enjambment and form to display the couples miscommunication and growing separation throughout the argument. The use of indentation in the dialogue between the two is used to convey the miscommunications between the wife and the husband. For example the indentation between lines nineteen and twenty, What is it what she said. / Just that I see. (with the twentieth line indented to the far right of the page as opposed on the left side) shows that they are not entirely seeing the same thing. Not literally, of course, they both see their childs grave, but its the emotion that is evoked by that image that differs, what they see in the childs grave differs. Frost uses this type of indentation several times throughout the poem to reveal other occasions of miscommunication and, subsequently, separation between the husband and wife. The use of enjambment in the dialogue is used to give the reader a slight sense of confusion while reading certain parts of the dialogue, which mimics the feeling felt by the spouse being talked to. Line breaks in places like A man must partly give up being a man / With women folk slightly alter meaning as its being read along and it makes their arguments harder to follow. Its a clever use of form within the mode of poetry to further show the miscommunications between the husband and wife. Through these poetic devices, we get the sense that the actual burial of the son isnt the cause of the conflict, but rather another symptom of the overall problems with the marriage. The theme of death can be seen in the literal death of the child, but there is also a sense that the marriage is dying because these two cannot communicate well with each other. In essence, their inability to understand each other and miscommunications are killing their marriage.
While in Home Burial a series of miscommunications convey the metaphorical death of a marriage, a series of miscommunications (or misunderstandings) leads to the actual death of Fortunato. These miscommunications arent as emotionally dramatic or as gritty as the ones seen in Home Burial. Rather, they are ironic and clever. On several occasions throughout the narrative, Montresor suggests to a drunk Fortunato that they should head back out of the catacombs because of Fortunatos cough. As the reader we know Montresor is trying to get revenge on Fortunado, so we know that he doesnt actually mean what hes saying. Fortunato very well couldve accepted Montresors offers to head back, but, because he didnt, he ends up chained to a wall, which was then sealed up by Montresor. Fortunados refusals coupled with his eventual fate paint these miscommunications as leading to his death. Another scene of miscommunication between the two provides both foreshadowing and character development. Fortunato displays a grotesque gesticulation meant to signify membership in the Free Masons. Montresor doesnt recognize the movement to which Fortunato replies that he is not of the masons. Montresor then says he is and pulls out a trowel. This particular event shows the reader that Fortunato and Montresor are clearly not on the same page, because they both understand being a mason as two entirely different things. It also provides the reader a hint as to Fortunatos ultimate fate. These uses of irony and foreshadowing are best suited in the context of a narrative, in this case a short story. That gives the reader an understanding as to why Poe decided to write this as a short story rather than as a poem like his work The Raven.
Miscommunication, it could be argued, is a form of death itself. If youre unable to understand those around you, how can you live life? Both of these pieces of literature explore themes of death through this human condition of miscommunication or misunderstanding. In both cases, it doesnt lead to anything good for the party/parties involved in the misunderstanding/miscommunication. Death is a human inevitability and as long as they are people around to write about it, there will be pieces on this theme of death. This is what makes death a universal theme and although Poe and Frost are separated by time and place, they both mediate on this theme through their respective modes in Home Burial and A Cask of Amontillado.