The Cask of Amontillado
Duplicity abounds in this tale of an aristocrat obsessed with retribution against his friend. "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe enchants the reader to experience the damp catacombs to witness the premeditated act. Through the excitement of the carnival, the two walk together into the caverns to substantiate a bottle of wine. The theme is when someone is unable to overlook minor infractions, it can turn into deep hatred. The irony Poe skillfully added is dominant from the introduction of the characters to the bone chilling end.
Being told in first person by Montresor, Poe thrusts the reader into a believable tale, though the narrator may not be reliable or trusted solely because of his actions. The participant approach by the narrator plunges the reader directly into the story, effectively making it more interesting because the reader feels as though they are in the story rather than reading it. "Montresor tells the story to a presumably appreciative listener, someone capable of relishing its many ironies" (Kishel).
The story begins immediately , drawing the reader into "the supreme madness" (4) of a Mardi Gras type festival in Italy. The character wears "tight-fitting parti-striped dress" (4) and a "conical cap and bells" (4) on his head. They put cloaks on as they walk to the vaults. Though no dates are mentioned, there is no doubt the confession takes place fifty years after the event. "Poe suggests that Montresor may be telling his tale to his confessor, 'you who know so well the nature of my soul,' perhaps on his deathbed" (Bloom).
Poe develops the characters instantly in the story. Montresor is the antagonist. He is round and static throughout the development of the story. He is arrogant and does not feel sorry for his actions, in contrast, he is extremely satisfied with what he has done. The reader gets the sense that Montresor simply applies what he believes is justice upon Fortunato. Fortunato is the protagonist, and never sees what is coming until the very end of the story. In comparison to Montresor, Fortunato's character is flat and static through the story. Fortunato is full of pride and vanity, but other than this, the reader doesn't really know much about him. Since the story is told by Montresor, the reader learns his attitude, and can feel a good sense of who he is in this moment of his life as he commits this act.
In the exposition of the story, Montresor says "a thousand injuries" (1) he has taken from Fortunato, but "when he ventured upon insult" (1) Montresor vows revenge against him. The specifics of exactly what the injuries or insults are, the reader is never told and therefore, throughout the story the reader is forced to wonder if the crime fits the punishment. When Montresor meets Fortunato in the street, and says "My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met" (5), "Poe has introduced a sense of irony and amoral cruelty, as the reader knows that Montresor has vowed revenge upon his enemy and his pleasure springs only from the possibility of revenge. The meeting is indeed lucky, but not for Fortunato" (Bloom).
Fortunato is then thrust into the trickery Montresor has premeditated when he tells Fortunato about a bottle of wine and though they are both wine connoisseurs, invites Fortunato to show off his expertise. Even as Montresor insists he not bother Fortunato, he plays on Fortunato's pride knowing he will absolutely follow Montresor to the vaults to prove he knows more about the wine. "In an ironic twist, Montresor has given his servants 'explicit orders not to stir from the house' (24) during the carnival, thereby ensuring 'their immediate disappearance, one and all' (24) and eliminating any witnesses to the crime he plans to commit" (Mustafa). Montresor has truly thought of everything ahead of time to ensure success. As the two go into the caverns of the cellar, the damp air makes Fortunato cough. Montresor gives Fortunato an opportunity to leave, saying "...we will go back; you will be ill, and I cannot be responsible..." (35). The proud Fortunato, states ironically "I shall not die of a cough" (35). When Montresor knowingly agrees, they continue their journey deeper into the catacombs. His family motto, ironically, "Nemo me impune lacessit" (45) is spoken of as they continue into the vault. When Montresor speaks it to Fortunato, he is ignorant of what it means, but too proud to ask. Instead, he says "Good!" (50). Montresor also talks of his family arms; a serpent being stepped on by a boot, its fangs in the boot. The arms being another clue to the motto, and also to the impending revenge but Fortunato doesn't recognize it.
In the climax of the story, Montresor again implores Fortunato to leave with him as they near the end of the vault, and once again, he declines as he finds the Amontillado and is sure he will now prove his substantial worth as a connoisseur. Montresor then fastens him onto the floor of the vault. Fortunato becomes frightened and sobers at first. As Montresor pulls out a trowel and uncovers some bricks he had covered with some bones, he lays a row of bricks upon the floor in front of Fortunato and hastens to build a brick wall encasing him into the recess. "Loud shrill screams" (77) came from Fortunato as he realizes what Montresor intends to do. As the final bricks are laid, Fortunato begins to laugh and says "...an excellent jest...we will have many a good laugh about it..." (79). Montresor toys with Fortunato in the last moments being louder, and more jovial. As it becomes clear to Fortunato the nightmare is real, he goes silent, and only the jingle of the bells on his cap can be heard.
As the story ends, the resolution is uneventful but chills the core of the reader. At this point it is difficult for the reader not to remember something Montresor has said earlier. When the two regard Fortunato's cough, Fortunato drinks "to the buried that repose around us" (41). Montresor comes back with a toast as well when he toasts "and I to your long life" (42). At that point of the story it seems innocent enough however, after the reader witnesses the crime, seems cruel as the reader then knows if Fortunato's life lasts for even several days, it will be torturous. Montresor leaves the vault sickened, not by what he has done, but because of the dampness of the vaults. "My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so" (85). He speaks of Fortunato's bones at the last sentence. "For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them" (85). He adds 'may he rest in peace" (85) as a final ironic moment, for the reader feels that the last thing Montresor would want is for Fortunato to rest in peace.
The irony continues as Poe adds imagery into the story by using words that the reader can smell, taste, feel and hear. He says "...the bells upon his cap jingled..." (30) as the two were descending into the crypt which would eventually be the resting place of Fortunato. The "...foulness of the air..." (70) caused by the dampness, and not the decaying family members of Montresor. He also uses "ugh! ugh!" (30) to relate to the reader that Fortunato coughs.
Even in the tone of the dark story, it is ironic that Montresor speaks flamboyantly and almost brags about the deed he has done. Poe has fun with the act of Montresor luring Fortunato, and even uses humor in some places. Montresor clearly has not rested since he committed the act, or he wouldn't be telling the confession fifty years later. He presses 'rest in peace' to Fortunato, however, he himself has not.
The symbolism of the story focuses on the crest and motto of Montresor's family. Though Fortunato does not understand it, if at any point he had asked, Montresor may have told him and he may have become enlightened that he was in danger. The big foot smashing down upon a serpent who strikes through the boot into a supposed enemy is symbolic of the relationship between Montresor and Fortunato. The motto of 'no one attacks me without punishment' is also symbolic of what Montresor does to Fortunato. "Ironically, however, the arms portray a moment of mutual ruin. The snake has presumably poisoned the foot, but only at the moment in which it is itself crushed" (Bloom).
Poe has introduced a sort of chess match carefully constructed by Montresor to lure Fortunato successfully into a trap where he faces his demise. The irony filled story is entertaining and assaulting. Though the reader can see it coming, knowing that Fortunato is unable to is interesting and compels the reader to almost side with Montresor for Fortunato's pride and vanity gets him killed. Even so, the reader is left with a bitter taste in their mouth as they think of Fortunato wasting away in the sealed recess of the vault.
Bloom, Harold. Bloom's Major Short Story Writers: Edgar A. Poe, 1999, p54-57, 4p.
Kishel, Joseph F. Explicator; Fall82, Vol. 41 Issue 1, p30, 7/8p.
Mustafa, Jamil. Literary Contexts in Short Stories: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado", 2006, p1-1, 1p.
Poe, Edgar Allan, Portable Literature, "The Cask of Amontillado", 2010, p219-224, 5p.