Study Guide

The Cask of Amontillado

by Edgar Allan Poe

The Cask of Amontillado Characters

Themes and Characters

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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The Cask of Amontillado Characters

Fortunato
Fortunato is an Italian friend of Montresor's, and his sworn enemy, whom Montresor has planned to ‘‘punish with impunity. ‘‘Although Montresor's explains that Fortunato has committed a "thousand injuries’’ and a final "insult," no details of these offenses are given. Fortunato displays no uneasiness in Montresor's company, and is unaware that his friend is plotting against him. Fortunato, a respected and feared man, is a proud connoisseur of fine wine, and, at least on the night of the story, he clouds his senses and judgment by drinking too much of it. He allows himself to be led further and further into the catacombs by Montresor, stepping past piles of bones with no suspicion. He is urged on by the chance of sampling some rare Amontillado, and by his unwillingness to let a rival, Luchesi, have the pleasure of sampling it first. His singlemindedness, combined with his drunkenness, leads him to a horrible death.

Luchesi
Luchesi is an acquaintance of Montresor's and Fortunato's, and another wine expert. He never appears in the story, but Montresor keeps Fortunato on the trail of the Amontillado by threatening to allow Luchesi to sample it first if Fortunato is not interested.

Montresor
Montresor is the "I" who narrates the story, telling an unseen listener or reader about his killing of Fortunato fifty years before. Montresor is a wealthy man from an established family, who lives in a large "palazzo'' with a staff of servants. He speaks eloquently and easily drops Latin and French phrases into his speech. He has been nursing a grudge against his friend Fortunato, who has committed several unnamed offenses against him, and has been coldly planning his revenge. Meeting Fortunato in the street one evening, Montresor takes this opportunity to lure his friend into the deepest catacombs beneath his palazzo, and there he chains Fortunato to the wall of a small alcove, seals him in behind a new brick wall which he builds even as Fortunato begs for mercy, and leaves him to die. Montresor's coldness sets him apart from many murderous characters and many Poe protagonists. Even as he tells the story fifty years later, he reveals no regret for his actions, and no real pleasure in them. This lack of feeling made Poe's early readers uncomfortable, and led some to accuse Poe of immorality in creating such a character.