An Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado'
In November of 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story titled “The Cask of Amontillado.” In short, this story is about a man who desires to get revenge on someone else because of the insults he received. The whole plot deals with the inebriation and, ultimately, the live burial of the antagonist, Fortunato. The most prominent theme running through this story is the theme of revenge. What makes this story so popular can be seen in the way it was written. It plays on the people’s fear of death, and curiosity of live burial. It also plays on the notion of many people’s way of jumping into things, and not thinking of the consequences beforehand. Ultimately, this story allows you to enter the mind of a murderer. This story also reflects many views of society in this time period.
From the very beginning of the story, even from the first line, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge,” the theme of revenge becomes apparent and obvious. Revenge is a popular subject among people; as much now as it was back when this story was published. The reality of revenge is that it is impractical. Everyone has heard the saying, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” This is a true and relevant statement. One must ask them self several questions before going about things vindictively. Is it worth going to jail over? Will it ease my pain and suffering? Is it just a good idea? In this story, the protagonist thinks carefully about the subject of revenge and the subject of his revenge. “I must not only punish, but punish with impunity.”
The motives behind the main character’s vengeful actions are, in his mind, very good ones. Even with clear motives, the leading character is still quick to think. I’m almost certain that he does not know the true consequences of his actions. He is too quick to act, and he acts with anger. His actions cause a sort of hurried, spur-of-the-moment action. This reflects a possible way of thinking during the time period that this was written in. A great example of such rash thinking is the gold rush of the 1840’s and 1850’s. The discovery of gold in this far away land of California led to one of the biggest migrations that the United States had seen. So it can be said that these migratory folk, that traveled 2000-3000 miles, were quick to act. They risked their lives, their families, and all of their possession, for a small chance of getting rich in California. It wasn’t called the gold rush for nothing. People literally dropped everything to ‘rush’ to California for their chance to strike it rich. Depending on the situation of each person in that era, it would have, or would not have been, a good idea to travel to California for gold. Therefore, one could conclude that rushing to California on a whim is an irrational decision, and is not thought out to the fullest extent that it should be.
Trust is an issue in this story. Fortunato, whom had been insulting and offending Montresor to the highest degree, decides to foolishly trust him and accept his offer to go to his house and drink with him. This action of Fortunato, to me, seems absurd. If it were I that insulted a man and then was invited to his home to drink together, "[we] to your long life," I would not trust him. Fortunato trusts Montresor enough to drink past a healthy drunkenness and to walk the dark halls of his house with him. Montresor even goes as far as to convince Fortunato to step into “the most remote end of the crypt.” It is there that Fortunato is shackled to the wall and buried alive under a wall of bricks. Fortunato’s misfortune was due to his trust in a dishonest and vengeful friend.
The one object that places the biggest role in the control and direction of the story is the alcohol. “’Drink,’ I said, presenting him the wine.” Montresor repeatedly gives Fortunato more and more wine, not because he is a warm-hearted man, but for the soul purpose of using Fortunato’s inability to be coherent with the world around him to unknowingly lead him to his downfall. Montresor’s cellars are full of many types of wine, and this fact only adds to the temptation to drink. Another fact is that Montresor seems very hospitable. He willing gives his prized wine to Fortunato to drink. Fortunato willing accepts, for he cannot resist a free drink.
The horror of being buried alive is a fear that nearly everyone has thought about at one time or another. It is the fear of this burial that Edgar Allan Plays on. Instead of making the burial a quick and short-lived scene, Poe makes this scene exceedingly long and draws out the elements of fear. He procrastinates the burial of Fortunato by first describing how he is shackled to the wall. “He stepped unsteadily forward, while I followed immediately at his heels. In an instant, he had reached the extremity of the niche, and finding his progress arrested by the rock, stood stupidly bewildered. A moment more and I had fettered him to the granite. In its surface were two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet, horizontally. From one of these depended a short chain, from the other a padlock. Throwing the links about his waist, it was but the work of a few seconds to secure it. He was too much astounded to resist. Withdrawing the key I stepped back from the recess.” This makes the story much more interesting, and creates much more suspense for the reader. The word choice and style of writing just pull the reader in, and consumes the reader in vivid imagery and rich, detailed descriptions.
This story, even 150 years after it was published, is still very popular. It allows the reader to envision the gruesome death of being buried alive. It fulfills the human desire to know about the unknown. It fulfills human curiosity; at least the curiosity to know what it would be like to be buried alive. Again, Poe makes the burial a long and drawn out process. He draws the burial out over several paragraphs. Until the final few lines, “No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick--on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labor. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I reerected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat.” Most people would agree that a slow death would be much worse than being instantly killed.
Many people fear death; it is something that they don’t want to deal with. This story very much has a tone of death. Obviously, in the end, Fortunato dies. But it can also be said that Montresor dies too. He doesn’t physically die, but he is mentally dead. He goes as far as to kill someone in such a way that he did; his mind is obviously corrupt. For there are many ways to solve a disagreement, murder is not a good way to do it. Montresor had this murder planned from the very beginning. Every detail of Fortunato’s imminent death was written down and played out in Montresor’s mind. He perfected the method of murder. He was set on murder and his mind could not be changed. Montresor was certain that murder was the right answer. By allowing himself to sink as low as to kill another man, he has allowed himself to die. In another sense, he has sent himself to death. If any authority figures find Montresor and convict him of murder, he could be put to death. I’m almost certain that an equal punishment for this atrocity in the 1840’s would be death.
The mind of a murderer is an interesting thing to observe. It isn’t too often that one can read and understand the thought processes that a man such as Montresor makes. It is interesting to see what the killer does, and why he does it. The more we understand about the mind of a murder, the more we will understand the anguish he goes through. We would also understand what causes this type of behavior.
Many similarities exist between the urban legends from the “Teenage Horrors” section of the Reading Culture book and “The Cask of Amontillado.” Like the urban legends themselves, Poe’s story contains a killer and a victim. In this case, the killer is Montresor and the victim is Fortunato. Montresor uses the disguise of being a hospitable man to cover up his desire to kill Fortunato. Like the urban legend “Killer in the Backseat,” Montresor also waits until the right moment to prey on his victim. Although many similarities do exist, these two types of stories are very different from each other.
“The Cask of Amontillado” reflects and shows some of the societal views of the late 1840’s. For one, alcoholism was very prevalent in that past society. So it wouldn’t be surprising to anyone that a story from this era would have a driving force such as that of alcoholism. In that era, it was generally okay for people to drink, more so than today. Secondly, gruesome deaths were very much a part everyday life for the 1840’s people. Everyday, many criminals were put to death by means of the guillotine. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” a grim death is the end of a man’s life and the end of the story.
The theme of revenge is a major theme in this story. It isn’t often that a revenge story of this nature comes into the hands of readers. “The Cask of Amontillado” is a very popular story, for many reasons. Even today, over 150 years after it was published, it is still being read. It was so eloquently written, and it has such vivid and detailed imagery. It caters to most people also, in that; it has elements to satisfy everyone’s taste in a good story. “The Cask of Amontillado” reflects a partial sector of society from the late 1840’s. It has elements of fear, especially the fear of death and the unknown. It illustrates some people’s way of thinking, such as the fact that some people don’t think before doing something. It also allows the reader to enter the mind of a murderer; not only to read what he is thinking, but also to understand what he is thinking. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cast of Amontillado” shall forever live on in people’s hearts as a grisly tale of death, murder, and revenge.
Copyright (C) Christopher Wanamaker 2011
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© 2011 Christopher Wanamaker