The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allen Poe, is a story of revenge by aristocratic Montressor who decides to kill Fortunato in a deceitful cruel way to punish him for an insult. Poe weaves a mood of gloom, despondency, and grotesque into this story, by using the literary elements of plot, setting and theme. The plot is diabolical and simple. Planning to take revenge on Fortunato, Montresor lures him to the deep family wine vault and ends up with Montresor burying him alive in the crypt. The story illustrates the author’s focus on “single effect”. “Every action that Montresor takes in order to redress the wrongs he has suffered at the hand of Fortunato strengthens the tale’s tone of impending doom” (Smith 225).
The story does not have a particular named setting but the names of the characters seem to suggest it must be somewhere in Europe. It opens at the time of the carnival season and soon shifts into the damp, dark and gloomy catacombs full of human remains with piles of bones. Montresor is the narrator of the story and hence the story has a first-person point of view. From this point of view, one is able to know and understand only Montresor’s point of view. But as the story progresses, one understands that it is Montresor’s thoughts and feelings that dictate the beginning, progress, and end of the story and the first-person narrative allows the reader to get a glimpse into the criminal mind of Montresor, increasing the reader’s sense of horror (Garrity 117). In the words of critic Harold Bloom: “First-person narratives, from Richardson to Poe, enact the unification of narrator and narrated, narration and event, creator and created” (Bloom 147).
The theme of the story is stated in the opening paragraphs by Montresor, which is the motivation behind his crime of killing Fortunato: “A thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge”. He further makes evident the intensity of his desire to take revenge: “I must not only punish but punish with impunity.” The plot is diabolical and simple. Planning to take revenge on Fortunato, Montresor lures him to the deep family wine vault and ends up with Montresor burying him alive in the crypt. The story illustrates the author’s focus on “single effect”. Every action that Montresor takes in order to redress the wrongs he has suffered at the hand of Fortunato strengthens the tale’s tone of impending doom.
The author weaves the theme of reverse psychology into the plot. Reverse psychology is pretending to want one thing when the person actually desires the opposite. In order to lure Fortunato into the catacombs, Montresor uses reverse psychology. Montresor says if Fortunato is too busy, he will take Luchesi to the catacombs to taste the Amontillado in his vaults. This is a ploy used by Montresor for he fully knows that Fortunato does not like Luchesi and loves rare wine and these references will persuade him to follow Montresor. Whenever Fortunato coughs, Montresor pretends to be interested in his health and suggests that they go back, making Fortunato insist that a mere cough will not kill him.
The two main protagonists of this story are Montresor and Fortunato. Fortunato, in the eyes of Montresor, is “rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You’re a man to be missed”. These words suggest that Fortunato must have been an important and cultured man in his social circle. The fact that Fortunato is totally unaware of the murderous intent of Montresor implies that he is a very innocent trusting man. Fortunato is dressed as a clown for the carnival, symbolic of his foolishness. He is also a very proud man who thinks he alone is capable of evaluating the wine of Montresor. This folly leads him to his death. Montressor while maintaining a cool appearance has a lot of rages within. His entire focus is on punishing his enemy and he is so obsessive on this goal that he is blind to the moral implications of his criminal act. Montressor is a very cunning, deceitful criminal who plans the murder of Fortunato and uses his innocent trusting nature to lure him to the trap. Montressor is also a very sensitive and weak person to carry the grievance of an insult and to allow it to drive him to murder. But Montresor seems to have some humanity left in him when he leaves the catacombs hastily unable to stand the jingling sound of bells “My heart grew sick”.
The theme of “The Cask of Amontillado” reveals the criminal mind of a person who revels in planning and executing the murder of another person. Even after fifty years, Montresor remembers the dead body of Fortunato that lies in his wine cellar and he continues to convince himself that it is an acceptable act of revenge. Fifty years later, Montressor is still thinking about the corpse that has been quietly rotting in the corner of his wine cellar and this story is a sort of confession by Montresor after so many years.
One of the most remarkable aspects of “The Cask of Amontillado” is the blending of a macabre sense of humor with a deep element of irony. Montresor keeps toasting on the health of Fortunato whom he plans to murder, as they both descent to the catacombs. This sarcastic behavior continues till the end when Montresor reveals his mason trowel to Fortunato when the latter mentions that he is a member of the secret Mason society. “It reflects the humor of a mind tickled by its own perversity” (Magistrale 94). Dramatic irony occurs when Fortunato goes into the cellar to taste Amontillado while the reader is painfully aware that he is moving towards his end. There are numerous examples of verbal irony within Montresor’s words. “I will not die of a cough.” Montresor says, “True–true….”; “In pace requiescat!” (“Rest in peace!”) is the last irony of a heavily ironic tale. The narrative’s ultimate irony is however reserved for Montresor himself, who expected to get everlasting peace by taking his revenge on Fortunato, but finds himself captive in the memories of the crime even fifty years after the act had been committed.
Bloom, Harold (1987). The Tales of Poe. Chelsea House Publishers, New York.
Garrity, Roberts Nancy (2000). Classic Middle School Literature Mystery: Mystery. Good Year Books.
Magistrale, Tony (2001). Student Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.
Smith, A. Patrick (2002). Thematic Guide to Popular Short Stories. Greenwood Publishing Group.