Symbolism is defined as, “An object or element incorporated into a narrative to represent another concept or concern. Broadly, representing one thing with another. Symbols typically recur throughout a narrative and offer critical, though often overlooked, information about events, characters, and the author’s primary concerns in telling the story” (Owl Purdue). Symbolism is essentially a way for authors to show something without directly disclosing it, aided by the use of other literary elements like imagery. Edgar Allen Poe, widely recognized for his dark and mysterious works, often used symbolism to convey his overarching ideas of madness to the reader. “Poe intends his readers to keep their powers of analysis and judgment ever alert” (DiSanza, 6). In his short story “A Cask of Amontillado,” Poe creates symbolism within the characters and setting to develop the theme of revenge.
One form of symbolism that Poe uses is through the setting of the story. At the beginning, Montresor says, “it was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season” (Poe, 222). By using the carnival setting and descriptive word “madness” it symbolizes what is going on in his head and his thought process of what might occur later. Montresor, the narrator and Fortunato have an ongoing conflict which the reader is not told about. Montresor plans to resolve this conflict by murder. He approaches Fortunato and explains that he found the rare pale wine, amontillado. The story then switches over to them in the catacombs below Montresor’s house. The dark, creepy feeling that the reader receives when they initially walk down supports the revenge theory. They are walking through the gloomy halls of the Montresor family catacombs when Montresor makes sly comments about human skeletons being tossed around on the floors and the walls being covered in a toxic chemical, potassium nitrate. Fortunato is still determined and does not give up on his quest to reach the amontillado.
Another way that Poe utilizes symbolism to develop the theme revenge throughout his short story is through the simple details of the characters. The names of the characters are deliberately chosen to portray their motives throughout the tale. The name Fortunato translates to fortunate in Italian. During the story he feels lucky and eager to reach the amontillado. He is a man who excessively drinks and takes pride in his knowledge of wine. In his mind, nothing was going to stop him from getting the amontillado in his hands. When talking about Fortunato the narrator says, “The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells” (Poe, 222). By giving this description, Poe transforms Fortunato’s outfit into a symbol of his foolishness. This is fitting, as he is the clown that went down to palazzo to get himself trapped and left there for death. Montresor’s name on the other hand, translates from French to English to the word treasure. Throughout the story he feels as though the revenge against Fortunato is his treasure, and he is hunting for it. He devises a plan and uses Fortunato’s weakness against him, ending in his torturous death. He is wearing a mask of black silk and a roquelaire. A roquelaire is a cloak. The cape provides the symbolic meaning of capturing Fortunato and seeking his revenge once and for all. Julian Rodriguez believes “The cloche neither protects nor sublimates the intellectual drives of his psyche” (43). In addition, before they head deep down in the catacombs Montresor says, “I suffered him to hurry me to my palazzo” (Poe, 223). The word suffered allows the reader to make assumptions about what will soon transpire.
Lastly, the strongest and most prevalent use of symbolism is through the Montresor family coat of arms. On the top of the coat of arms it says “Montresor”, on the bottom it says “Nemo me impune lacessit” and the middle has “a huge human foot d’or, in a field of azure; the foot crushing a serpent rampant whose fangs are embedded in the heal” (Poe, 224). It is evident that this coat of arms is significant and expressive of the family and their beliefs. The image created in the middle represents Montresor as the foot and Fortunato as the snake who is getting crushed. Montresor feels entitled to his revenge due to Fortunato disrespecting him, hence the Fortunato biting Montresor’s foot. The overall image shows despite him biting Montresor, Montresor will get his retaliation. The bottom saying translates to “no one attacks me with impunity”, this is known as their family motto. This is an important symbol in the story because Montresor feels that he had to “punish” Fortunato for insulting him. He believes it is not a situation of murder, but rather vengeance which his family also believed was an acceptable thing to do (Baraban, 49).
In the end, it was prevalent that Edgar Allan Poe specifically used symbolism to enhance the theme of revenge in “The Cask of the Amontillado”. Minor details about the characters, including their clothes, names, family history as well as descriptions of the setting had significant symbolic meaning that contributed to the reader’s understanding and an acknowledgement of the vengeance Montresor was attempting to obtain. One of many examples include a detail as slight as Montresor wearing a roquelaire. As said earlier, the roquelaire symbolizes the twisted capture of Fortunato all so Montresor could take him to his deathbed. Though the ending of the story, Montresor is reflecting on the situation and how it is still impacting him fifty years later, the reader never found out what caused the burning passion of seeking payback against Fortunato.