Literature Revealed: Symbol

by Madeleine Rex

“You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world! This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have—arm yourselves!”

This year, in AP Literature and Composition, I’ve been assigned a remarkably difficult weekly task. I must turn in two analyses of literary terms within literature we are reading for class, explaining the context, affect, and relation to the story as a whole. Because these are taking up the time I would otherwise spend blogging, I figure I can post them here in case anyone finds them remotely interesting. Personally, I love this assignment. It’s ridiculously tedious and never-ending, but the critical thinking involved is so much fun.

Most of my terms are from William Shakepeare’s Hamlet and E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View. However, this term is from Edgar Allan Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.

P.S. WARNING: SPOILERS

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Symbol: A symbol represents an object or idea. It is usually commonly associated with the thing it represents. When symbols are used, it is called symbolism.

Example:

“A huge foot d’or, in a field of azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel” (Poe 111).

Function: In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, The Cask of Amontillado, the main character, Montresor, is endeavoring to lure Fortunato, against whom he has a grudge, to his death. Montresor intends to do so by promising Fortunato, a drunk, that he will be one of the first to taste a rare drink (Amontillado) that Montresor has in the cavernous vault beneath his home. As they walk through the vault, an oblivious and very drunk Fortunato says, “I forget your arms,” referring to the Montresor family’s coat of arms. Montresor describes the coat of arms as quoted above.

The Montresor coat of arms can be considered ironic, symbolic, or both. It portrays a heavy, golden foot crushing a snake after it has bitten the foot’s heel, an image of merciless retribution. The “foot of the Montresors,” as it may be called, is brutal and quick in its punishments of those who have harmed or spited it. The fact that the foot is gold cannot go unnoticed, as gold traditionally symbolizes justice and balance, which coincides with the idea of vengeance, which rewards one act with another, the balancing of two evils.

The reader, though unaware of what Fortunato did to incur Montresor’s wrath, knows that, “when [Fortunato] ventured upon insult [Montresor] vowed revenge.” The reader also knows that Montresor, though cautious, wastes no time in exacting his revenge. Such a vengeful reaction and spirit is mirrored symbolically in Montresor’s arms. Just as he is determined to have vengeance, so was the bitten foot that crushed the mad snake.

This theory is further supported by the Montresor’s motto, which translated reads, “No one provokes me without impunity.” This oath, combined with the image of the arms, solidifies Montresor’s character as a man who indignantly crushes those who have done him wrong. Understanding that this mentality has presumably been nurtured by his family for generations illuminates an aspect of Montresor’s motivation to seek revenge. He has been raised to admire such heartless “justice,” which explains the apparent clean conscience with which he lures Fortunato to his death. Our sense of right and wrong depends heavily on what we are raised to believe, so, to Montresor, seeking revenge is likely the only course of action available to him – it is his right and his duty.

The irony of the arms lies in the fact that Montresor is aware of the symbolism of its image and of who plays which part. Fortunato has no idea that he is the serpent who has – possibly in a fit of madness (or drunkenness, considering his tendencies), as the serpent is described as “rampant” – insulted and provoked the heavy foot of a Montresor, who is now determined to crush him.

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