In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," what are some examples of irony—and to what purpose does Poe use them?
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“The Cask of Amontillado” is loaded with situational, dramatic, and verbal irony.
Examples of situational irony, when one thing is expected but the opposite happens, are numerous. First, the word “cask” means “wine barrel,” but casket, or coffin, also comes from the same word, so although Fortunato believes he will ultimately reach a cask of wine, he actually meets his casket. Next, the name “Fortunato” means “fortunate” in Italian, but Fortunato is actually very unfortunate in all actuality. Finally, although Fortunato is dressed as a joyous court jester, his festive outfit contrasts with the ghastly fate that awaits him.
Dramatic irony, when the reader or a character knows something that another character does not, is also evident in the story. Fortunato then tells Montresor not to worry about his health and that “the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill [him]. [He] will not die of a cough.” Montresor then replies, “True–true.” The reader at this point can almost see a devilish gleam in Montresor’s eyes, for he knows exactly how Fortunato will die.”
Verbal irony is when one thing is said but another is meant. For example, when Montresor runs into Fortunato at the beginning of the story, he says, “My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met.” However, he actually means that he himself is happy to see Fortunato because he will profit from this meeting, not Fortunato. While traveling into the catacombs, Fortunato asks Montresor if he is a mason, meaning a Freemason, and Montresor says yes. Yet, Montresor means that he is a craftsman, since he will be entombing Fortunato with stone and mortar. Later, Montresor appears to be worried about Fortunato’s health as they travel deeper into the catacombs and says, “We will go back. Your health is precious.” However, he has no intention of going back and is not worried about Fortunato’s health. He is actually using reverse psychology to lure him further in. Finally, Montresor brings out some wine to toast “to [Fortunato’s] long life.” However, he actually means to toast to his inevitable death.
In Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," there are several examples of irony. When Montresor explains that revenge is not good enough, but that the victim must know he is being punished, Montresor never explains his actions to his victim, so essentially Fortunato dies without ever knowing why.
I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.
We might find some irony in that Fortunato becomes increasingly more drunk. As a connoisseur of fine wines, and someone who appreciates good wine when it is available, one might think getting him drunk would be more difficult.
For as intelligent as Montresor presents himself to be (and an aristocrat, as well), it's ironic that he does not know what a "Freemason" is—the secret organization known as the Freemasons previously made up of stone masons. Montresor wields his trowel believing that a "mason" is only one that works with stone, as Montresor himself is preparing to do. (This, of course, confuses Fortunato who genuinely is a Freemason.)
He laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand.
I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement—a grotesque one.
“You do not comprehend?” he said.
“Not I,” I replied.
“Then you are not of the brotherhood.”
“You are not of the masons.”
“Yes, yes,” I said; “yes, yes.”
“You? Impossible! A mason?”
“A mason,” I replied.
“A sign,” he said, “a sign.”
“It is this,” I answered, producing from beneath the folds of my roquelaire a trowel.
“You jest,” he exclaimed, recoiling a few paces. “But let us proceed to the Amontillado.”
Another irony may be found in the last words of the story:
This means "Rest in peace!" This is ironic because Montresor seems not to have been able to do just that: he wishes peace (perhaps an ironic one) on Fortunato, but fifty years later, Montresor still tells the tale with precision and mental clarity—we can infer that it has been on his mind, perhaps eating away at him, all this time. To support this assumption, look to Montresor's one moment of hesitation in the story—though he explains it away:
My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so.
This emotional "hiccup" may be something that the author is unable to overcome after the murder.
Poe uses irony to throw off the reader, keeping him/her unbalanced and not sure of Montresor and his intentions. It also serves to make the reader question the narrator of the story: is he reliable or is he insane? As more information comes to light, the story becomes creepier because we assume that Montresor must be insane and is committing not only murder, but he is murdering an innocent man—for the insult may certainly be nothing more than a figment of Montresor's imagination.
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