Pride. Anger. Vengefulness. These are all emotions that every person, at some point in their lives, has felt. While most would not act rancorously on these feelings, Edgar Allan Poe tells the story of someone who let an attack on their pride lead to committing an unspeakable and abhorrent act of murder. “The Cask of Amontillado” is arguably one of Poe’s most famous and chilling works of literature. The story is made famous not only by its brilliant storyline, but by its incorporation of a first-person narrator, its themes, and ironic symbolism.
It tells the vindictive story of a man, Montresor, who deceives a longtime friend-turned-enemy of his, Fortunato. Montresor tells a very inebriated Fortunato that he has acquired a cask full of an extremely rare and sought-after wine- amontillado- and that he wants Fortunato to come and taste to see whether or not it is amontillado. While on their journey through Montresor’s vaults, Montresor picks up bottles of wine for Fortunato in an effort to worsen his condition so that he may ultimately be helpless for the tragedy that is about to befall him (Poe).
Upon reaching the end of the cellar, much to the demise and chagrin of Fortunato, there is no cask of amontillado, but instead a set of chains connected to a brick wall. Before Fortunato could realize what was happening, Montresor had already shackled him to this wall. Fortunato, taking this as a joke laughs and tells Montresor to unchain him, but instead he begins to lay bricks to fill in the space in front of the now captive Fortunato. Despite the pleas and screams from Fortunato, Montresor continues, brick-by-brick, sealing this eternal prison where Fortunato has met his ill-fated demise. The last stone is laid into place and the cries have been silenced. The story ends with Montresor telling the reader that no one has discovered Fortunato and this heinous crime has gone unsolved for around 50 years (Poe).
The story is written from the point-of-view of a first-person narrator, Montresor, telling the reader the story of what happened on that carnival night half a century ago.
Through this style, Poe conveys the illusion that Montresor is actually engaging in conversation with the reader, especially so at the beginning of the story. This method of storytelling is used to create a connection between the reader and the storyteller. This point of view inserts the reader into the mind of Montresor, and an extreme emphasis on his true hatred of Fortunato becomes readily apparent. In the first lines of the story, Montresor tells the reader ‘The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge” (Poe). This shows the reader that the events about to unfold are not a spontaneous act engendered from immediate insult, but a carefully planned and calculated act of murder. This leads in to the clear representation of Montresor’s family motto “Nemo me impune lacessit”, translated into modern English “no one attacks me with impunity” (Merriam-Webster). Montresor takes this motto to heart and does not let the actions of Fortunato go unpunished.
Throughout all of his work, Poe uses a wide variety of themes, but in “Amontillado” he uses three prominent and powerful themes to appeal to readers of all sorts. These are: freedom and confinement, betrayal, and mortality. Each of these powerful themes contributes to the great success that the story has had over the course of its existence.
Freedom and confinement are very obviously the exact opposite of one another, but they come together to create one of the main themes in “Amontillado”. Montresor feels that he is “confined” by the wrongdoing and injustices done to him by Fortunato, he knows that one can never be truly free if they have a sort of confinement. He sees the only way to make himself truly free is by killing Fortunato, therefore confining him to death. Some may argue, however that this in fact does the exact opposite.
Some critics believe that whenever Montresor has “passed the point of no return”, he begins to feel remorse and regret for his actions, but follows through with his intended plan because he does not want to let insult to his family name go unpunished. In the very last lines of the story, Montresor says “My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so. I hastened to make an end of my labour” (Poe). Montresor wrote this off simply as a problem adjusting to the disgusting atmosphere of the catacombs, but critic Robert Fossum suggests that this is due to “the sudden nausea of guilt, of the horror of his crime,”. Fossum argues that Montresor is in denial of the guilt that now confines him, which is why he is telling the story to the reader over 50 years later and he is using it as a means of a clearing his conscience on his deathbed (Jacoby).
An act of betrayal is not one that is easily forgiven or forgotten. Poe recognizes that the emotions brought on by betrayal are very powerful and he exploits them in this story to enhance a theme of betrayal. Although we do not know the severity of the initial betrayal by Fortunato, whatever the act was, Montresor found it heinous enough to retaliate with the most severe punishment: death. The driving force behind the plot of “The Cask of Amontillado” is Fortunato’s act of betrayal towards Montresor; without betrayal or Montresor’s psychological “need” for revenge, there is no story. “Amontillado” shows just how far a person may go to react to feelings of betrayal.
The story has a very clear fixation on the macabre, especially death and mortality. At the end of the story Poe shows just how serious and sobering the realization of mortality can be. While Montresor is entombing Fortunato, his attitude changes from lighthearted and joking to very panicked and terrified. When he is being barricaded, Fortunato quickly realizes this is how his life will end and he begins to experience different stages of grief, beginning with depression “I had scarcely laid the first tier of the masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off. The earliest indication I had of this was a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken man” (Poe). He then feels anger “A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back” (Poe). As Montresor moves the last brick into place, Fortunato moves into a stage of denial. He tries to play off the whole thing as a joke, laughing and saying that Montresor cannot be serious about this, refusing to accept the fact that he is about to be buried alive with no hope of being found. He then becomes so overwhelmed by grief that he passes out as Montresor lays the last brick into place.
Symbols are an important part of what make “The Cask of Amontillado” the great short story that it is. Symbols that are important and apparent in revealing the irony of the story are Carnival, Fortunato’s jester outfit, and Fortunato’s name.
Montresor is telling the reader a story that occurred in the past, but from the beginning of the story, we know that the events take place during Carnival season, because he says so in the fourth paragraph, “It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend” (Poe). Carnival, in essence, is a celebration of all of the enjoyable things in secular life. It is a period of feasting observed before the beginning of the Lenten season which is a time of fasting and sacrifice in the Christian church. Author Andrew Grant Wood says, “Carnival is an utterly life affirming holiday and an essential ‘date’ on the spring calendar” (Wood). The incorporation holiday is a very apparent notion towards the irony of “Amontillado”, because while Fortunato is in the middle of celebrating life and all that comes with it during the Carnival Season, he is oblivious to the fact that his own life is about to come to an end.
Whenever Fortunato stumbles into the story and encounters Montresor, he had just finished a night of celebrating carnival and was dressed in a jester’s costume for the festivities. The costume was bright and colorful and had a hat with jingle bells. The whole costume is symbolic of the vivacious and happy mood that Fortunato is in because he has just finished a night full of partying, however the costume has an underlying and ironic meaning to it (Kennesaw.edu). In the medieval times, the court jesters were also known as “fools”, and it is commonly known that a fool is someone who is easily deceived or just outright unintelligent. In the case of “Amontillado” Fortunato is dressed for the part of the fool he is about to play in Montresor’s scheme (Lorcher).
In the Italian language, the word “fortunato” translates to “fortunate”, so Fortunato’s name is quite literally, fortunate. This is a very ironic name for someone that is about to be trapped forever in catacombs underneath the Italian streets. To the reader, the name seems almost fitting when we read the description of Fortunato, as even Montresor recognizes this in the third paragraph stating that “he was a man to be respected and even feared” (Poe). So, when the fortunate man falls victim to an unfortunate situation, the reader can plainly see the symbolic irony that lies within the name. Once a symbol of a man of power, dignity, and respect, the name Fortunato has now turned into a mockery of what it once meant as it now belongs to a man who has befallen the gravest side of fortune (Lorcher).
“The Cask of Amontillado”, although award-less, is an incredibly well-known piece of literature that has been the inspiration for different works and retellings of the story such as Christopher Moore’s book “The Serpent of Venice” and in a graphic novel by Richard Cohen titled “The Premature Burial”. The use of a first-person point of view narrator, bone-chilling storyline, incorporation of various themes and ironic symbols, make “The Cask of Amontillado” a timeless classic and one of Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest works.