Revenge is the main theme of the story and the force that drives Montresor to commit the horrible murder of Fortunato. His first words in the story speak of it: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge." The idea of revenge is repeated several times in the opening paragraph. Montresor will not rush to act, he says, but "at length I would be avenged"; he is determined to "not only punish, but punish with impunity." The terms of the revenge are quite clear in Montresor's mind. He will not feel fully revenged unless Fortunato realizes that his punishment comes at Montresor's hand; a wrong is not redressed "when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong." In seeking revenge, Montresor is acting out the motto of his people, as it appears on the family coat of arms, Nemo me impune lacessit.
As countless critics have pointed out, the nature of the injuries and offenses is never revealed. Montresor appears to be telling or writing his story to someone who has more knowledge than Poe's reader ("You, who so well know the nature of my soul"), and who may be assumed to know something of Fortunato's conduct before the fateful night. Unlike Montresor's audience, however, Poe's audience/reader has no basis for judging the extent to which Montresor's actions are reasonable. The focus, therefore, is not on the reason for revenge, but on the revenge itself, not on why Montresor behaves as he does, but only on what he does.
Just as Montresor does not reveal his motive for the crime, other than to identify it as a crime of revenge, neither does he share with his audience his response when the deed is done. Does Montresor feel better once Fortunato has paid for his insult? Does he feel vindicated? Does he go back to his rooms and celebrate the death of his enemy, or smile inwardly years later when he remembers how he was able to "punish with impunity"? He does not say. Nineteenth- century audiences scanned the story for hints of negative feelings. Is Montresor sorry for committing murder? Does he regret his actions? As he nears the end of his life, does he look to God for forgiveness? Again, there is no hint or perhaps only the barest of hints. Poe's intention is to focus his story tightly. He explores neither the events leading up to the crime nor the results of the crime, but focuses the story narrowly on the act of revenge itself.
Although the action of the story revolves almost entirely around the deception and killing of Fortunato, the questions in readers' minds have revolved around Fortunato's thoughts and deeds before the crime and Montresor's thoughts and deeds afterward. While the time between their chance meeting and the laying of the last stone would have been only five or six hours, the fifty years following are perhaps more intriguing. Is Montresor deceiving himself or his audience when he attributes his momentary sickness to "the dampness of the catacombs"? What has happened to...
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