“The Cask of Amontillado” and “Young Goodman Brown are strikingly different tales, despite being bound by ties of genre. Poe’s narrative is dark, obscure, and stiflingly univocal, suggestive of little else besides its ostensible subject. Hawthorne, on the other hand, fashioned a tale equally dark in the Gothic sense, but significantly more open both in its action and in its implications. Hawthorne’s tale is given a wider view through extensive use of symbolism; “Cask,” on the other hand, by restricting our view keeps us, like Fortunato, firmly rooted to the spot. “The Cask of Amontillado” could be called, with some qualification, a ‘closed’ tale, and “Young Goodman Brown” an ‘open’ one. Evidence for this argument can be found from their first lines to their last.[note]This thesis statement is specific and based on the text.
The opening lines of “The Cask of Amontillado” are cunningly crafted to both entice the reader and immediately situate the narrative: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged…” (123).[note]Good use of close reading. With incredible economy we are presented with a troubled relationship between the narrator and Fortunato, which has reached its breaking point. It is also made clear that we are not the intended audience of this narrative. The “you” addressed knows the narrator well; we do not. This and the epistolary tone would suggest that we are looking upon some long forgotten piece of correspondence, which only heightens the atmosphere of mystery and dread already created by this sparse introduction.[note]Good synthesis of analysis and close reading.
The vague sense of antiquity surrounding the tale is confirmed by the closing line in which Montresor asserts of the bones in front of Fortunato’s tomb, that, “for the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them.”(128) Furthermore, his peculiarly specific choice of “no mortal” seems to suggest the possibility of spectral disturbance, which is consonant with both the tone and circumstances of the tale.
These two lines, taken with other incidental information throughout the tale, provide scanty adumbration of the identity and situation of the narrator: an Italian man, of a decayed aristocratic family, who is certainly over seventy, if not eighty at the time of the telling of the tale. The only characteristics of the narrator that are cast in stark relief are his capacity for deception and his burning desire for revenge. By strictly curtailing our knowledge of the narrator, Poe enhances both the mystery and the epistolary effect; one doesn’t ordinarily engage in extensive and situationally irrelevant autobiography when writing to one’s friends, after all.
Granted that we are looking at a letter, what purpose are we to divine for Montresor’s late disclosure? The lapse of fifty years, the use of the ecclesiastical Latin tag (“In pace requiescat”(128)), and the fact that the audience of the narrative knows the “nature of my [Montresors’] soul”(123) suggest that the narrative may in fact be a confession. This reading [note]Notice that "This" is joined by a specific referent. would be more persuasive were it not for Montresor’s utter lack of repentance concerning his crime.
Regardless of the exact character of our ambiguous “you,” the result of all Poe’s obfuscation and misdirection is the centering of our attention firmly on the narrative action, the creation of powerful suspense. At the tale’s conclusion, our attention has been so artfully focused on the fates of Fortunato and Montresor (of whom we know virtually nothing) that when we attempt to ascertain the implications of the tale, we find none. We are told of Fortunato’s hubristic behavior in the opening line, but we have neither enumeration of the offences in question, nor any reason to trust our gleeful murderer of a narrator. There is no lesson to be taken from Cask, nor, I believe, did Poe intend to communicate one. His intent was to grip us, to take us into the mind of a murderer, and, with luck, to scare us.
Like “Cask,” “Young Goodman Brown’s” opening lines expertly situate the narrative: “Young goodman Brown came forth, at sunset, into the street of Salem village, but put his head back, after crossing the threshold, to exchange a parting kiss with his young wife. And Faith, as the wife was aptly named…” (232). [note]This sentence transitions from one story to the other and sets up the comparison. It is also a good close reading and use of textual evidence. While this opening appears significantly more conventional than Cask’s, it manages to communicate more concrete information. It presents us with a protagonist and his location in an unremarkable way, but the honorific “goodman” and the location in question (Salem) give us a very specific time and place: Puritan Massachusetts sometime in the late 17th or early 18th century. This is more situational information than we receive about Montresor at any point.
But more importantly, we are immediately confronted with layers of symbolism not to be found in “Cask.” When he crosses the threshold, then leans across it to bid his wife goodbye, their incipient separation is strongly emphasized and given an air of irrevocability that is later fully realized. And as if intensely overdetermined liminal symbolism weren’t enough, our young heroine is given a speaking name, which Hawthorne feels obliged to further emphasize. By the time we reach the main clause of the second sentence the intensely symbolic character of the tale has been made manifest.
The closing paragraph is, likewise, rich in symbolism: “It was a dream of evil omen for young goodman Brown. A stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man, did he become from the night of the fearful dream… Often, awakening at midnight, he shrank from the bosom of Faith… And when he had lived long, and was born to his grave, a hoary corpse, followed by Faith, an aged woman, and children and grandchildren, a goodly procession, besides neighbors, not a few, they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone; for his dying hour was gloom.”(241) By characterizing Brown’s sojurn as a dream, Hawthorne reinforces the allegorical nature of the tale. If the events never took place even within the narrative framework, clearly the tale, like a dream, is to be interpreted as reflective of some internal reality. We are left to deduce from the effects of the “dream” just what reality, if any, is to be found in the tale. Clearly, Brown’s experience had transfigured him, preventing him from finding comfort in Faith (both literal and figurative), and it is through the double character of “Faith” that the true implications of the story come clear.
Invariably when Brown mentions Faith in direct discourse the statement must be read doubly. When leaving home: “’Poor little Faith! …What a wretch I am to leave you…’”(233). When late to meet the devil: “’Faith kept me back a while.’”(233). When adducing reasons not to accompany the devil: “’It would break her [Faith’s] dear little heart; and I’d rather break my own!’”(235) and “’Is that any reason why I should quit my dear Faith…’”(236). When consoling himself “’With Heaven above, and Faith below, I will yet stand firm against the devil.’”(237). And at the climax: “’Faith… Look up to Heaven and resist the Wicked One!’” Whether Faith obeyed, he knew not.”(240). [note]This paragraph needs interpretation and synthesis to tie the quotes into the argument.
This last is particularly crucial to any interpretation of his “dream:” When confronted with the fact of sin, first in his ancestors, then in his preceptors, then in the race of man as a whole, he reels, but remains “asleep.” It is this final confrontation in which he rejects the devil, but “whether Faith obeyed, he knew not”(240) that breaks both him and the dream. That he could never again be certain of his own Faith prevented him from taking solace in it/her, which is why “his dying hour was gloom.”(241)
So, in “Young Goodman Brown,” suspense and terror, while present, are not the primary effects of the narrative; after all, the identity of the mysterious stranger is stated unequivocally very early in the narrative, while it might have been played for much greater suspense. Instead, a variety of symbolic effects are used to expand the tale from an incidental occurrence to a psychological study of general application. Through use of relatively straightforward and unambiguous symbols, Hawthorne manages to raise complex and rather ambiguous questions concerning the psychologies of Faith and Evil, with far-reaching, and disturbing, implications.
So despite the fact that both tales can be called horror stories, their structural methods of inducing horror vary widely. “The Cask of Amontillado” is a self-contained tale of murder, relying on the shock value of burying a man alive to scare us; its terror ends with the story. “Young Goodman Brown” is a nuanced allegory concerning religion and conscience, that, in addition to generating a nominal suspense, discreetly raises alarming existential questions, relying on the reader’s reflective action after its conclusion to generate fear and anxiety.
Which is not to say that “Young Goodman Brown” is necessarily better, or even better structured, than “The Cask of Amontillado.” Poe’s tale is artfully arranged and smoothly written, while Hawthorne’s use of symbolism can, at times, seem heavy-handed. More critically, the peculiarly puritanical religious sensibility on which “Young Goodman Brown” relies has, for many people, evanesced. For “Young Goodman Brown” to be really frightening (or even explicable) you must, to some extent, participate in its prejudices; fear of being buried alive, however, is a cultural universal.[note]This paragraph does a good job of bringing together the arguments about both texts and illuminating the comparison.