Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
At masquerades Poe’s characters abandon social conventions and leave themselves vulnerable to crime. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” for -example, Montresor uses the carnival’s masquerade to fool Fortunato into his own demise. The masquerade carries the traditional meanings of joy and social liberation. Reality is suspended, and people can temporarily assume another identity. Montresor exploits these sentiments to do Fortunato real harm. In “William Wilson,” the masquerade is where the narrator receives his double’s final insult. The masquerade is enchanting because guests wear a variety of exotic and grotesque costumes, but the narrator and his double don the same Spanish outfit. The double Wilson haunts the narrator by denying him the thrill of unique transformation. In a crowd full of guests in costumes, the narrator feels comfortably anonymous enough to attempt to murder his double. Lastly, in “The Masque of the Red Death,” the ultimate victory of the plague over the selfish retreat of Prince Prospero and his guests occurs during the palace’s lavish masquerade ball. The mysterious guest’s gruesome costume, which shows the bloody effects of the Red Death, mocks the larger horror of Prospero’s party in the midst of his suffering peasants. The pretense of costume allows the guest to enter the ball, and bring the guests their death in person.
In Poe’s murder stories, homicide requires animalistic element. Animals kill, they die, and animal imagery provokes and informs crimes committed between men. Animals signal the absence of human reason and morality, but sometimes humans prove less rational than their beastly counterparts. The joke behind “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is that the Ourang-Outang did it. The savage irrationality of the crime baffles the police, who cannot conceive of a motiveless crime or fathom the brute force involved. Dupin uses his superior analytical abilities to determine that the crime couldn’t have been committed by a human. In “The Black Cat,” the murder of Pluto results from the narrator’s loss of reason and plunge into “perverseness,” reason’s inhuman antithesis. The story’s second cat behaves cunningly, leading the narrator into a more serious crime in the murder of his wife, and then betraying him to the police. The role reversal—irrational humans vs. rational animals—indicates that Poe considers murder a fundamentally animalistic, and therefore inhuman, act. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the murderer dehumanize his victims by likening him to animal. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” claims to hate and murder the old man’s “vulture eye,” which he describes as “pale blue with a film over it.” He attempts to justify his actions by implicitly comparing himself to a helpless creature threatened by a hideous scavenger. In the “Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor does the reverse, readying himself to commit the crime by equating himself with an animal. In killing Fortunato, he cites his family arms, a serpent with its fangs in the heel of a foot stepping on it, and motto, which is translated “no one harms me with impunity.” Fortunato, whose insult has spurred Montresor to revenge, becomes the man whose foot harms the snake Montresor and is punished with a lethal bite.
More main ideas from Poe’s Short Stories
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