Analysis of "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe
The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe is a frequently anthologized short story and one of my favorites.
This gothic/horror story is set in Europe during the late 18th or early 19th century. It's told by a first person narrator, Montresor, a nobleman.
It deals with an idea that recurred in Poe's stories—being buried alive in some form.
Synopsis of The Cask of Amontillado
Montresor vows revenge against Fortunato over an insult, a revenge that he will take at the right time.
During a carnival they encounter each other. Fortunato has been drinking. Montresor says he has purchased a cask of amontillado but is uncertain of its quality. He is going to get Luchesi to taste it. Fortunato won't hear of a rival wine connoisseur lending his expertise. He insists on tasting it himself.
They walk to Montresor's palace which is empty of servants. They take torches and start down the long staircase leading to the vaults. They go slowly due to Fortunato's intoxication and a persistent cough.
At the bottom is a deep crypt, its walls lined with human remains. Fortunato steps into a recess to find the amontillado. Montresor quickly chains him to the wall.
Moving aside the pile of bones, Montresor reveals stones and mortar. He starts to wall up the entrance of the recess. Fortunato screams and then implores Montresor to stop. He puts the last stone in place and piles the bones up against the wall.
He reveals that he exacted this revenge fifty years ago.
I'm not breaking any news by saying revenge is a prominent theme; it's obvious but unavoidable, so we'll look at it first.
Montresor makes his motivation plain from the start: “. . . when he [Fortunato] ventured upon insult I vowed revenge." The narrator tells us what he thinks the incident to follow was all about. After hearing the full story, the reader can agree that the narrator was reliable on this point.
He goes on to outline his personal standard for revenge: "I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser.” To Montresor, true revenge must be free of consequences.
"It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong." A secret, convoluted plot to destroy Fortunato's life won't satisfy Montresor. Even killing him with subterfuge isn't enough. The man must know who has come for him.
A complete revenge must be calculated so the "redresser" exacts his vengeance conspicuously and without repercussions.
Montresor hasn't given Fortunato any cause to raise his defenses. "Neither by word nor deed" did he indicate he held a grudge. He continued "to smile in his face."
This theme is reinforced as they descend into the vaults and catacombs. Fortunato asks about the Montresor family coat of arms which translates to "No one wounds (or "attacks") me with impunity." There's little doubt that Montresor intends to see his plan through.
Readers and critics have focused on the themes of remorse, guilt and atonement despite the dearth of supporting details.
Some readers are uncomfortable with the story if Montresor doesn't regret the murder. This has given rise to interpretations that claim he's sorry for what he did.
Some things used to support this include:
- the belief that he's telling the story as a confession to a priest;
- reading a Christian interpretation into some of the story's details; and
- his admission that "[his] heart grew sick" just before finishing the job, which he attributes to "the dampness of the catacombs."
The matter of who Montresor's telling the story to is dealt with below in question #1. Reading a Christian interpretation into various details seems perfectly reasonable. However, seeing these possible parallels as proof of a guilty conscience seems like an unreasonable leap to me. Likewise, the mention of a vague symptom like a sick heart just before finishing sounds like an odd way to express remorse.
Some things that suggest Montresor isn't repenting over a wrong include:
- the lack of a direct acknowledgement of any wrongdoing, and
- the lack of an apologetic tone or any asides that justify his actions.
Of course, the omission of something by a narrator doesn't mean a particular idea isn't in a story. Still, if Montresor is recounting this episode to unburden his conscience, he doesn't seem to make an effort to show any contrition. I would expect a remorseful narrator to express this unambiguously, if he was in his right mind.
Another possibility is that this point is unsettled so readers will discover their own view on the subject. Conversely, others can appreciate the story and not really care if he's sorry or not.
In the end, the establishing conceit of the story is that it's being told to someone who knows Montresor well. That someone is not the reader, so we're missing some important information about his character that would make the motive behind the story clearer.
Theme: The Dangers of Alcohol
Poe was familiar with the dangers of alcohol. His older brother Henry died from causes related to alcoholism. Poe struggled with alcohol himself. Some think it caused his death, but this is uncertain. In any case, it was a long-standing problem for him.
This danger is evident in The Cask of Amontillado. Montresor's revenge plot is carefully planned; part of it is choosing to strike at Fortunato when his senses are diminished. He picks a day when his target "had been drinking much."
Throughout their interaction, incidents accumulate that might have become suspicious to a sober man, such as:
- the chance meeting,
- the "threat" of using a rival's expertise,
- the deserted grounds and house,
- the piles of bones on the descent, and
- the trowel.
Even sober, it's possible all these things wouldn't have alarmed Fortunato, but when they reach the bottom the cask is nowhere to be seen. A man in full possession of his faculties might have realized he could be in danger, while Fortunato can only stand "stupidly bewildered". A sober Fortunato could certainly have reacted faster when encircled with a chain, and offered some physical resistance.
Ultimately, Fortunato's intoxication significantly shifts the balance of power. It all but guarantees Montresor's success.
1. To whom is Montressor telling his story?
Montresor's listener is described only as “You, who so well know the nature of my soul.” This tells us the person knows him very well; they probably have a long-standing relationship. Some possible identities for this person include:
- a priest,
- a wife or mistress, or
- a trusted friend.
I think the argument for a priest is weak. I lean toward the friend or partner as a likely confidante.
2. Are there any examples of irony?
Among the ironic moments in the story are when:
- Fortunato, a "man to be respected and even feared" wears motley and striped clothing, and a jester's cap with bells due to the carnival,
- Montresor smiles at Fortunato, not out of goodwill, but at the thought of his doom,
- Montresor refers to Fortunato as "my friend",
- Montresor says "Your health is precious," and that he "cannot be responsible" for risking it,
- Montresor agrees that Fortunato won't die of a cough,
- Montresor drinks "to your long life" and
- the bells jingle as Fortunato is walled in and dies.
3. Does Montresor have good reason for holding his grudge?
We don't know for sure. He claims to have suffered "a thousand injuries" and an insult from Fortunato.
It's noteworthy that Fortunato doesn't ask Montresor why he's killing him. I would guess that would be the first question that would come to someone's mind—it's what I would ask.
He begs for mercy. He says they could call it a practical joke and laugh about it later. This suggests he's thinking clearly enough to try to save himself. Perhaps he knows what he's done to Montresor. It could be something so serious that he knows there's nothing to gain by bringing it up.