Text: Dleanor Dwight, “Edith Wharton and ‘The Cask of Amontillado’,” Poe and Our Times: Influences and Affinities, Baltimore: The Edgar Allan Poe Society, 1986, pp. 49-57 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 49, unnumbered:]



During Edith Wharton’s childhood, New York society condemned “that drunken and demoralized Baltimorean”(1) as an atheist and blasphemer; consequently, the books of Edgar Allan Poe were banned from her father’s library. Still we can be confident that she read them sooner or later, although, says R.W.B. Lewis, “Poe resonated less in her imagination” than Whitman.(2) Because Wharton tended to avoid acknowledging authors who influenced her, Americans in particular, one must seek clues in what she wrote.(3) Such clues suggest that her attitude towards Poe was ambiguous. Poe is “a Great Poet” to Lewis Raycie, the hero of False Dawn (1924), who is ahead of his time in appreciating Italian “primitives.”(4) In “Telling a Short Story” (1924) Wharton calls Poe “sporadic and unaccountable” but praises him as an originator of the modern short story. She puts his original stories in “that peculiar category of the eerie which lies outside of the classic tradition.”(5)

They both wrote stories of the supernatural, but Wharton’s differed in that she aimed for a more restrained effect. She once deplored those who wrote about “the pathological world” where the action takes place “between people of abnormal psychology” and does not “keep time with our normal human rhythms” — a description that fits what she called the “awful hallucinations” of Poe’s stories.(6) Wharton’s plots aim to frighten the reader with just a glimpse into Poe’s world, but she used his techniques — most remarkably in “The Duchess at Prayer.” (1902).

In an 1899 letter Walter Berry, Wharton’s life-long friend and literary mentor, discussed a story she was writing, “The Duchess at Prayer.” “I’ll be delighted to hear the whyness of La Grande Bretèche. How about the Cask of Amontillado?”(7) They had been reading ghost stories, for two months before Berry wrote: “I’m crazy about The Turn of the Screw. Have read it twice and isn’t it creepyness besides all the rest.”(8) And in December, 1898: “I’m delighted that you have loosened the first stone in your cell toward an escape. . . Meantime I see you de- and re-articulating Pelican, thrusting old bones under the pillow whenever there’s a rattling at the door handle.”(9) Obviously Wharton had read “The Cask of Amontillado,” and she uses it for “The Duchess at Prayer.”

As Blake Nevius has pointed out, “The Duchess at Prayer” is “unmistakably a reworking of Balzac’s plot”(10) — which may have reduced what Wharton was paid for it. Berry wrote in November, 1899: “If the whole atmosphere individualizes the story so completely as to differentiate it from the Grande Bretèche, the fact that there is a resemblance should not be reason for a cut in rates.”(11) Although the plot is adapted from “La Grande Breteche, [page 50:] aspects of the dialogue and setting must be attributed to “The Cask of Amontillado.” The ending is also Poesque: the serene face of a marble statue becomes distorted by a grimace of horror.

In Balzac’s story the narrator had often visited a deserted house near Vendome called “La Grande Breteche,” where he would pass the time alone in “debauches of melancholy.”(12) Three people from Vendome eventually tell him the story of the house. It had once belonged to Conte de Merret. The notary describes how he was summoned to the deathbed of the Count’s widow: Her “fleshless hands resembled bones covered by a stretched skin, their veins, their muscles were perfectly visible . . . Never had a living creature attained to such thinness without dying,”(13) Madame’s will left the house to the notary, but he was charged to leave it for fifty years as it was the day of her death “forbidding the entrance into the apartments to anyone whatsoever, prohibiting the slightest restoration, and even allowing an annual sum to secure guardians, if they should be necessary, to insure the complete execution of her intentions.”(14) From the innkeeper our narrator hears about a lodger who once stayed there, a young Spanish prisoner of war, small, handsome, with “black hair, great eyes of fire”(15) and the finest linen Mère Lepas had ever seen. Every night he would go out to return at midnight, until one night he failed to return and was never seen again. Mère Lepas suspected his disappearance had something to do with Madame de Merret, for Rosalie, Madame’s maid, once told her that the crucifix she loved and was buried with was of ebony and silver, and the Spaniard had an ebony and silver crucifix with him when he came to stay at the inn. Rosalie, who now works there, tells the heart of the story.

The Count’s custom was to go to his club after dinner, but one evening he returned home two hours later than usual and instead of retiring to his upstairs bedroom, he decided to visit his wife’s room on the ground floor and tell her how he lost at billiards: “His foot steps, easily recognisable, resounded under the archway of the corridor.”(16) As he approached he thought he heard someone shut the closet door, but on entering he found his wife alone before the fire. When he demanded if there was someone in the closet, his wife denied it, swearing on a crucifix of silver and ebony. The Count then ordered the wardrobe to be walled up with plaster and bricks, despite his wife’s efforts to distract him so her lover could escape — for at one point the maid caughta glimpse inside and saw his anguished face, with dark hair and eyes. For twenty days the Count refused to leave: “During the first moments when some sounds would be heard in the walled-up cabinet and when Josephine wished to entreat him for the dying unknown, without permitting her to say a single word: ‘You have sworn on the cross that there.’”(17) [page 51:]

“The Duchess at Prayer” is also set in a large old house, a villa near Vicenza in the seventeenth century. Neglected by her husband the Duchess Violante had spent a long lonely winter there. She prayed frequently in the chapel and had taken to visiting the crypt, where the bones of Saint Blandina were kept. Her husband’s lively cousin Ascanio, with whom she shared many interests, had not been seen at the villa for some time. When her husband returned unexpectedly from Rome with a statue of her by Bernini, she became horrified at his plan to use it to block the entrance to the crypt. In vain she tried to dissuade him from his project, to coax him to leave her alone. The statue was emplaced; they dined together; and the Duchess swooned when the Duke toasted the absent cousin. After suffering dreadfully all night, she died. W hen the servant girl went to the chapel to pray for her mistress, she heard a “low moaning”; “coming in front of the statue she saw that its face, the day before so sweet and smiling, had the look on it that you know — and the moaning seemed to come from its lips.”(18)

Balzac’s tale does not lack for atmosphere. Hearing about the disappearance of the Spanish prisoner the narrator says: “My hostess left me a prey to vague and shadowy thoughts, to a romantic curiosity, to a religious terror sufficiently like that profound feeling that takes possession of us when we enter at night into some somber church where we perceive a feeble, distant light under the lofty arches; an undecided figure slips along, the rustle of a robe or of a cassock is heard — we shiver.”(19) The wasted, dying countess lying in her enormous bed in the chamber hung with brown tapestries is a scene worthy of Poe: “icy, and more than that, funereal.”(20) Wharton duplicates Balzac’s house of mystery, the motivation, a jealous husband’s revenge, and method of telling the story, but for her ending and other chilling details, she goes to Poe.

Although the crisis of Balzac’s story takes place in the bedroom, Wharton choses the chapel and its crypt, an underground setting like that of “The Cask of Amontillado.” In Poe’s story the vengeful but outwardly genial Montresor coaxes his victim Fortunato, pathetically dressed in carnival costume, with bells jingling, down through the long dark passageway, dripping wiih moisture, and littered with the bones of the dead, into the inner recesses of the crypt. There he chains him to the granite and entombs him by walling up the passageway. In “The Duchess at Prayer” the characters reach the entrance to the crypt, where the Duke and Duchess pause and converse. But the details of dampness, bones and cold stone are all there, as is the dominating horror, a victim buried alive.

Like Poe, Wharton uses dialogue to advance the action. In “The Cask of Amontillado” Montresor and Fortunato discuss business while they descend [page 52:] into the vault, ostensibly to taste a rare sherry. The reader knows that Montresor plans to avenge himself on Fortunato; thus the dialogue is filled with irony. In Wharton’s story, because the Duchess’ lover is hiding in the crypt and the Duke plans to trap him there, the reader is also aware of the irony in their conversation.

When Montresor presents his victim with a bottle of Medoc from the cellar and says “drinks”:

He raised it to his lips with a leer. He paused and nodded to me familiarly, while his bells jingled.

“I drink” he said, “to the buried that repose around us.”

“And I to your long life.”(21)

When the Duke and Duchess dine together they toast to Ascanio, who is dying in the crypt:

“Here’s to the cousin,” she cried, standing, who has the good taste to stay away when he’s not wanted. I drink to his very long life — and you, Madam?”

At this the Duchess, who had sat staring at him with a changed face, rose also and lifted her glass to her lips.

“And I to his happy death,” says she in a wild voice; and as she spoke the empty goblet dropped from her hand and she fell face down on the floor.(22)

Another borrowing is Wharton’s use of the word “pleasantry” as Poe used “joke” and “jest.” Early in their confrontation when the Duchess recognizes her husband’s purpose in blocking the crypt with Bernini’s statue, she says:

“I recognize there one of your excellency’s pleasantries — “

”A pleasantry?” the Duke interrupted. . . .

“You will see,” says the Duke “this is no pleasantry, but a triumph of the incomparable Bernini’s chisel.”(23)

When Fortunato realizes Montresor’s purpose he says desperately:

“Ha! ha! ha! — he! he! he! — a very good joke, indeed — an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo — he! he! he! — over our wine — he! he! he!”

The Amontillado!” I said.(24)

After Montresor finishes the first tier of masonry he senses that Fortunato’s intoxication is wearing off, for he hears “a low moaning cry from the [page 53:] depth of the recess.” Wharton’s servant girl also hears “a low moaning,” as if coming from the statue. Poe ends his story:

Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!(25)

And Wharton’s ending;

“And the crypt?” I asked. “Has it never been opened?”

“Heaven forbid, sir!” cried the old man, crossing himself. “Was it not the Duchess’ express wish that the relics should not be disturbed?”(26)

In both stories the murder has been successfully concealed. Poe graphically describes the fate of Fortunato and horrifies readers with the cool and calculating way Montresor has lured his prey to a ghastly death. Wharton lets us imagine the victim’s agony, once he has been trapped in the crypt. In Wharton’s story the wife replaces Fortunato, for the effect of her husband’s revenge must be observed from how she behaves, with readers conscious of her guilty secret.

The motives for revenge differ, and, like Balzac, Wharton introduces a second victim, the mistress of the murdered lover, where Poe’s story focuses on two characters, the murders and his intended victim, with the murderer himself explaining how he has succeeded. Fortonato’s innocence makes the reader want to cry out a warning, but particularly in the Wharton story we identify with the women bereft, more than with her murdered lover, whom we scarcely get to know. A theme common to the three stories, however, is the way the murderer exploits weakness: Fortunato is vain and greedy; the Duchess and the Countess are both paralyzed by a guilty conscience.

Montresor tells us at once that Fortunato “had a weak point.” Unlike Balzac, who suggests nothing about the personality of the Countess and her attraction to the Spanish prisoner, Wharton makes it easy to imagine why the flighty and fun-loving young wife succumbed to her cousin’s charm. The process whereby the stronger character identifies and plays on his advantage over the other is the same in the Poe and Wharton stories. The avenger is in control of the dialogue, as he is in control of the situation, but his victim is handicapped — Fortunato by his gullibility and the Duchess by the enormity of her adultery. In Balzac’s story the ironic verbal duel is missing. The Count immediately confronts his wife: “Madame, there is someone in your cabinet!(27) When she denies it, he begins his revenge, and the only hint of irony flows from his pretending to believe is wife’s denial because she has sworn on the crucifix. [page 54:]

Although the Poe and Wharton stories share the elements noted, the atmosphere of each story is distinctive. The world of Wharton’s story is neat and tidy and the murder is never mentioned; the world of Poe’s is bizarre and terrible, and the murder is described in exquisite detail. Because they hear the tale from the murderer, Poe’s reader is forced into this highly-charged atmosphere. Wharton’s narrators, on the other hand, are not emotionally connected to the action, and at first do not even recognize its deadly nature. The story reaches the reader third-hand: the caretaker of the villa learned it from his grandmother, who was the Duchess’ maid, and he tells it to a visitor, so that the reader remains distanced from the horror. Outwardly all is well in Wharton: the Duchess is beautifully dressed, the fastidious order of Wharton’s world is maintained, husband and wife keep up the pretense of normality (as one must in front of the servants). Horror is evoked by the reader’s imagination.

Only in the ending do we get a glimpse of the fantastic. Like a living being, the face of Bernini’s statue of the Duchess has recorded the dreadful murder it alone witnessed. A not uncommon nineteenth-century literary conceit was the concept of the art work that comes alive or reflects human behavior. An example is Poe’s own “Oval Portrait.” In other Poe stories, like “Ligeia” and “Morella,” a spirit is transferred between bodies. When the statue lives for an anguished moment in which a ghastly grimace replaces its smile, Wharton is using a Poesque device to surprise the reader into acceptance of the fantastic, unreal and impossible.

Wharton clearly borrowed from Poe for “The Duchess at Prayer.” She wrote eleven other stories of the supernatural, which draw on her personal horrors, as Lewis has explained.(28) On the surface they seem very different from Poe’s tales, but do they owe something to Poe? In Wharton’s ghost stories a woman is almost always the central character and the setting a large and gloomy house remote from the rest of the world. The woman is unhappy, abandoned, or sick. All that takes place is generally logical and consistent with everyday life. In each story, however, one strange event surprises the reader: the appearance of a ghost or an apparition, the mysterious disappearance of characters, or the control of living characters by those already dead.

Wharton’s stories differ from Poe’s in that they are understated and less obviously frightening. There are no crazed narrators or decomposing bodies, few settings like that of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” In Poe’s world of nightmare, strange images act according to the laws of the subconscious. Wharton’s world is usually conventional. Her technique was first to gain readers’ confidence, then to lure them into an incredible adventure:

When the reader’s confidence in gained the next rule of the game is no [page 55:] avoid distracting and splintering his attention. Many a would-be tale of horror becomes innocuous through the very multiplication and variety of its horrors. Above all, if they are multiplied they should be cumulative and not dispersed. But the fewer the better: once the preliminary horror is posited, it is the harping on the same string — the same nerve — that does the trick. Quiet iteration is far more racking than the diversified assaults; the expected is more frightful than the unforeseen.(29)

This technique is the antithesis of Poe’s. At critical moments, however, Poe’s presence emerges in her tales. In “The Eyes” a man who has out of vanity promised to help someone, and then failed to follow through, is haunted at night by the apparition of a pair of ghastly eyes:

They were the very worst eyes I’ve ever seen: a man’s eyes — but what a man! My first thought was that he must be frightfully old. The orbits were sunk, and the thick red-lined lids hung over the eyeballs like blinds of which the cords are broken. One lid drooped a little lower than the other, with the effect of a crooked leer; and between these folds of flesh, with their scant bristle of lashes, the eyes themselves, small glassy disks with an agate-like rim, looked like sea pebbles in the grip of a starfish.

But the age of the eyes was not the most unpleasant thing about them. What turned me sick was their expression of vicious security.(30)

Was Wharton inspired by “The Tell-Tale Heart”: “I think it was his eye! yes, it was this! He had the eye of a vulture — a pale blue eye, with a film over it. Whenever it fell on me, my blood ran cold.”?(31) Or was it by the teeth in Poe’s “Berenice”?

The teeth! — the teeth! — they were here, and there, and every where, and visibly and palpably before me; long, narrow, and excessively white, with the pale lips writhing about them, as in the very moment of their first terrible development.

. . .and still I sat buried in meditation, and still the phantasma of the teeth maintained its terrible ascendancy as, with the most vivid and hideous distinctness, it floated about amid the changing lights and shadows of the chamber.(32)

Was the strangling of the dogs in “Kerfol” suggested to Wharton by the strangling of the cat in “The Black Cat”? Other Poe-like details Wharton used were ghosts who are only seen by one person, mournful settings, moans and shrieks, all stock Gothic details, but wonderfully developed by Poe. [page 56:]

In her ghost stories, therefore, as in “The Duchess at Prayer,” Wharton seldom leaves the everyday world for Poe’s world of the raving and obsessed where logic disappears. When bizarre or ghastly circumstances appear in a Wharton story, they occur off-stage, like the death of the Duchess’ lover. The reader’s imagination must provide the graphic details, but Wharton knew her. Poe and she borrowed from him in her own way. Except for “The Duchess at Prayer,” how much is a matter of conjecture.

[page ???:]


1.  Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance (New York, 1934), p. 68.

2.  R.W.B. Lewis, Edith Wharton, A Biography (New York, 1975), pp. 236-237. Professor Lewis sees Poe’s influence in Edith Wharton’s short story, “The Bolted Door.”

3.  See R.W.B. Lewis, Edith Wharton, A Biography, p. 237.

4.  Edith Wharton, False Dawn (New York, 1924), pp. 28-33.

5.  Edith Wharton, “The Writing of Fiction,” Scribner’s Magazine, 77(1925), 344.

6.  Edith Wharton, “The Writing of Fiction,” Scribner’s Magazine, 76(1924), 576-577.

7.  Walter Berry, Letter toEdith Wharton, 9 January 1899. Permission to publish Berry’s letters has been graciously granted by the Collection of American Literature, in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

8.  Walter Berry, Letter to Edith Wharton, 7 December 1898. “Pelican” is another story she was then writing.

9.  Walter Berry, Letter to Edith Wharton, 2 November 1898.

10.  Blake Nevius, Edith Wharton, A Study of Her Fiction (Berkeley, 1961), p. 154.

11  Walter Berry, Letter to Edith Wharton, 6 November 1899,

12.  Honoré de Balzac. “The Grande Bretèche,” Another Study of Woman, trans. William Walton, The Human Comedy (Philadelphia, 1897), 22:264.

13.  “The Grande Bretèche,” p. 271.

14.  “The Grande Bretèche, “ p. 273.

15.  “The Grande Bretèche,” p. 278.

16.  “The Grande Bretèche,” p. 285.

17.  “The Grande Bretèche, “ p. 293. [page 57:]

18.  Edith Wharton, “The Duchess at Prayer,” The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton (New York, 1968), I: 244.

19.  “The Grande Bretèche,” p. 281.

20.  “The Grande Bretèche,” p. 271.

21.  “The Cask of Amontillado,” M.3:1259.

22.  “The Duchess at Prayer,” p. 243.

23.  “The Duchess at Prayer,” pp. 239-240.

24.  “The Cask of Amontillado,” M.3:1263.

25.  “The Cask of Amontillado,” M.3:1263.

26.  Edith Wharton, “The Duchess at Prayer,” p. 244.

27.  “The Grande Bretèche,” p. 286.

28.  See R. W. B. Lewis, “Powers of Darkness,” Times Literary Supplement, 13 June 1975, pp. 644-645.

29.  Edith Wharton, “The Writing of Fiction,” Scribner’s Magazine, 77(1925), 344.

30.  Edith Wharton, “The Eyes,” The Collected Short Stories of Edith Wharton, 2:120.

31.  “The Tell-Tale Heart,” M.3:792.

32.  “Berenice,” M.2:215-216.





[S:0 - PAOT, 1986] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Lectures - Poe and Our Times - Edith Wharton and The Cask of Amontillado (Eleanor Dwight, 1986)