Now that we’ve completed reading “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” it’s time to start work on the comparison/contrast essay. Remember, you want to discuss which short story best illustrates the theme of one of the following Gothic themes:

  • Justice and injustice
  • Terror and horror
  • Confinement
  • Appearance and reality

A model topic sentence could be ______________ (short story name) is the short story that best illustrates the Gothic theme of _____________ (theme) because ________________ (reasons).

How I Would Approach This Assignment


Many students think writing is hard, but it’s really easy if you break it down into manageable parts. (That’s true of any project, by the way.) The components of the writing process are:

  1. Brainstorming
  2. Outlining
  3. Drafting (1st or rough)
  4. Revising
  5. Drafting (2nd)
  6. Editing
  7. Drafting (final)
  8. Publishing (hand it in)

If I had this assignment, I would begin to brainstorm by drafting a topic sentence to guide my thinking. (Remember, this is what I would do; your mileage may vary.) Assuming I was writing about one of the elements of Gothic literature (not a theme, as you must do), I might say something like this:

The underground caverns that are the setting of “The Cask of Amontillado” make it a more Gothic – and therefore a more terrifying – story than “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

I would then go on to describe the similarities between the stories.

  • Both stories are set indoors
  • The major action of both stories happens at midnight
  • There is minimal lighting in both stories (“Cask” – torches; “Tell-Tale” – lantern) – shadows
  • Both protagonists conceal a body

That’s probably enough similarities for now, because I know I will prove my thesis with the differences between the stories. I continue my brainstorming process by making the following notes:

  • “Tell-Tale” setting is in a room; “Cask” is set underground (Montresor and Fortunato keep going down the passage, eventually going below the riverbed – could this be a metaphor for Hell?)
  • “Tell-Tale”: Narrator dismembers the body (already dead); “Cask”: Montresor chains Fortunato to wall and seals him in a tiny niche, one stone at a time (a more effective buildup of terror, since Fortunato has to watch Montresor seal him in, brick by brick).


Now that I have my thoughts down on paper where I can see them, it’s time to start arranging them into some logical order. I like to use an old-fashioned outline, but I know that some of you like to draw Venn diagrams or use some other graphic organizer. It doesn’t matter which one you use, but I think it’s highly useful for any writer to prepare some sort of outline to guide the writing process. (Bestselling author Ken Follett outlines all of his novels, repeatedly revising them until they effectively become a first draft.)

Mine might look something like this:

  1. Introduction with thesis
    1. I write a compelling hook – a sentence that will capture the reader’s attention.
    2. My thesis is this: The underground caverns that are the setting of “The Cask of Amontillado” make it a more Gothic – and therefore a more terrifying – story than “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
    3. I provide the reasons why I think my thesis is true.
  2. Similarities
    1. The effect of the indoor setting for “Tell-Tale” and “Cask”
    2. Why the action at midnight is intense because of the hour
    3. The effect of limited lighting around the characters
  3. Differences
    1. An underground setting is more creepy than a room – more mystery
    2. Limited dramatic effect of dismemberment
      1. Old man already dead – the horror has passed for him
      2. Fortunato dies slowly – Montresor is able to savor his revenge
  4. Conclusion: A summary of my evidence that proves my thesis. You’ll want to rephrase your thesis, although you do not want to copy it word for word.

That’s how I would do the prep work for this assignment. Remember, the more work you do on the front end, the easier the writing process (from drafting to publishing) will be.


Click to read or download a copy of “The Tell-Tale Heart.

Click to read or download a copy of “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Click to download a copy of Gothic Undercurrents in American Literature.

Click here to download a copy of The New and Improved Comparison/Contrast Essay.

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