The Cask of Amontillado Edgar Allan Poe
"The Cask of Amontillado" Edgar Allan Poe
See also "The Tell-Tale Heart" Criticism and "The Fall of the House of Usher" Criticism.
Regarded as the originator of the modern short story and a master of the form, Poe established a highly influential rationale for short narrative art, which emphasizes the deliberate arrangement of a story's minutest details of setting, characterization, and structure in order to impress a unified effect on the reader. In his own work he demonstrated a brilliant command of this technique—often eliciting "terror, or passion, or horror" from his readers—as well as an uncommon imagination suffused with eerie thoughts, weird impulses, and foreboding fear. Renowned for cultivating an aura of mystery and a taste for the ghastly in his fiction, Poe relied on his imagination and literary skills to animate the disconcerting effects of his so-called "tales of horror," especially those dealing with crime and moral depravity. Among the latter kind, "The Cask of Amontillado" ranks as one of Poe's finest stories. Originally published in November 1846, in Godey's Lady's Book, "The Cask of Amontillado" has since become a classic tale of revenge, distinguished by the subtle irony that pervades many levels of the story and by Poe's uncharacteristic use of dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist as the principal structural device of the narrative.
Plot and Major CharactersSet in an anonymous city somewhere in the Mediterranean region of Europe during the pre-Lenten festivities of the carnival season, "The Cask of Amontillado" recounts the last meeting between two aristocratic gentlemen, the narrator Montresor and the wine connoisseur Fortunato. As the story begins, Montresor plots complete and perfect revenge for "the thousand injuries" instigated by Fortunato, who once again has insulted him, although the particulars are never indicated. Montresor encounters the obviously tipsy Fortunato dressed in fool's motley and informs him that a recently acquired cask of amontillado sherry awaits his discriminating palate in Montresor's underground cellars. Eager to taste the wine, Fortunato follows Montresor to his palazzo and into the vaults. Although Fortunato has a cough that is aggravated by the damp air and potassium nitrate hanging in the tunnels through which they pass, he is spurred onward after he learns that his rival Luchresi may be permitted to taste Montresor's new wine. Engaging Fortunato in dialogue ripe with irony, Montresor lures his victim deep into the family catacombs, urging him to try other wines along the way. As Fortunato grows impatient to sample the amontillado and assess its quality, he is easily directed into a crypt at the end of a passage where Montresor promptly shackles him in chains to the wall. With both a trowel and fresh mortar nearby, Montresor begins to entomb Fortunato brick by brick. Sobering quickly, Fortunato cries in vain for release. As Montresor finishes his task, the bells on Fortunato's costume jingle faintly. Montresor then hides his handiwork behind a pile of his ancestor's bones. He concludes that no one has disturbed them for fifty years.
Themes of betrayal and revenge clearly inform "The Cask of Amontillado," but the pervasive irony of Montresor's narration complicates attempts to understand his motives and other conflicts at the heart of the tale. At the same time, layers of irony also contribute to the story's tone of horror. While Fortunato remains blissfully ignorant of Montresor's true intentions for most of the story, the evident pleasure Montresor takes in relating his story, proudly recalling every detail fifty years after the fact, suggests a state of mind free of remorse and detached from any sense of conscience. The ironic connotations of the story also inspire darkly comedic moments and evince Poe's satiric sense of humor. Montresor's pursuit of revenge against Fortunato represents the enactment of an elaborate ritual that resembles the profane rites of the "Black Mass" or a parody of archetypal events, such as the conflict between good and evil, replete with biblical echoes; the implications of the story's last line, "In pace requiescat" ("may he/it rest in peace"), which derives from the Roman Catholic funeral rite, proliferate in the ironic context of the narrative. Likewise, the proper nouns in the story—Amontillado, Montresor, Fortunato, Luchresi—demonstrate Poe's disposition toward puns and fascination with the multiple meanings of foreign words. The traditional aristocratic code of personal honor and social obligation shapes other aspects of the tale. Although violations of the code were usually redressed in the form of the duello, here insults are expressed by a duel with words in form of Montresor's dialogue with Fortunato. Other thematic concerns involve the prevalence of masonic imagery in the story, perhaps gesturing toward the Masonic-Catholic conflict that swept the United States at the time of the story's composition, as well as the thematic device of enclosure, which Poe used in many other stories, although its presence in "The Cask of Amontillado" may allude to the popularity of live-burial literature in Poe's era.
Regarded as one of Poe's greatest and most famous tales, "The Cask of Amontillado" has attracted a broad range of commentary representing a wide spectrum of perspectives. Critics generally agree that "The Cask of Amontillado" exemplifies Poe's theory of short fiction, in which every narrative detail of a successful story contributes to a single intense effect. However, a consensus opinion about specific details remains elusive. Some scholars have disputed the time and place of the action in Poe's story as well as the national origins of the principal characters, while other commentators have suggested that the tale reflects Poe's personal bitterness in the so-called "War of the Literati," which resulted from a series of critical articles entitled "The Literati" that Poe published in Godey's Lady's Book just before "The Cask" appeared. Psychoanalytic readings have emphasized the macabre and pathological elements in the work, ranging from the psychological implications of Montresor's "motiveless evil" and a perceived division within the psyche of Montresor, or even Poe, to personality transference between the characters. Others have focused on "The Cask of Amontillado" as a practical application of Poe's theory of perversity, which hinges on apparent irrelevancies. The final line of the story has troubled many commentators: some feel that it indicates a guilty motivation for Montresor's story, while others detect sarcasm or alternative figures to whom it is addressed. Francis J. Henninger concluded that Poe "had been writing tales with startling endings, but [in The Cask of Amontillado'] he writes one guaranteed not to startle. When it does, the effect is so delightfully jarring and puzzling that it is not easily forgotten. Why else should this story . . . bear the weight . . . of the scrutiny of so many years of reading?"
SOURCE: "The Origin of 'The Cask of Amontillado'," in American Literature, Vol. 6, No. 1, March, 1934, pp. 18-21.
[In the following essay, Schick traces incidental similarities between Poe's tale and Joel Tyler Headley 's Letters from Italy (1845).]
Although many questions of literary indebtedness are open to discussion, still we can be reasonably certain that the origin of Poe's tale, "The Cask of Amontillado," was not wholly inspirational. Professor Killis Campbell has suggested that portions of the work may possibly be traced to certain incidents in The Last Days of Pompeii and in Balzac's "La Grande Brétèche."1 It is true that Montresor's method of tricking Fortunato into the underground chambers is not unlike that of Bulwer-Lytton's Arbaces in leading a priest to imprisonment. But in the immurement which marks the climax of "The Cask of Amontillado" and which Poe again used in the tale of "The Black Cat," both Bulwer-Lytton and Balzac may be disregarded as possible sources. Instead, we must turn to an American contemporary of Poe, the Reverend Joel Tyler Headley (1814-1897) and to his Letters From Italy2 (1845) in a study of the composition of "The Cask of Amontillado."3
Headley was one of the most popular writers of his day, for up to 1853 over two hundred thousand copies of his works had been sold.4 But Poe did not...
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SOURCE: "The Cask of Amontillado,'" in Notes & Queries, Vol. 1, No. 10, October, 1954, pp. 447-49.
[In the following essay, each critic focuses on the structure of Poe's tale. In the first part, Felheim explains two requisites for Montresor to perfect his revenge; in the second part Moon accounts for Montresor's failure to exact revenge; and in the third part, Pearce compares Poe's story to a profane rite, or scriptural parody.]
In "The Cask of Amontillado" there are two parts, equally important, to Montresor's revenge: "I must not only punish, but punish with impunity"; and "the avenger [must] make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong." If the story is aesthetically self-contained, our reading must be governed by these two requirements.
That Montresor accomplishes the first half is evident; his crime has not been detected "for the half of a century." Working out the second half of his requirement is more complicated, for Fortunato must become fully aware of what his "wrong" was before he can comprehend his punishment. He is a distinguished individual, "rich, respected, admired, beloved," and he has a title (his wife is "Lady"); his status makes the injury more serious. Fortunato's taunt is our first hint about the nature of this longstanding insult. Deep in the vaults he laughs and throws a bottle "upwards with a gesticulation," a "grotesque" movement. The action,...
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SOURCE: "Poe's The Cask of Amontillado' and the Code of the Duello," in Studia Germanica Gandensig, Vol. V, 1963, pp. 175-84.
[In the following essay, Randall demonstrates how Fortunato's violations of the aristocratic code of honor motivate Montresor's revenge.]
All critics agree that Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" is an almost perfect short story. Few, however, seem to have much to say about how Poe manages to achieve his extraordinary effect. I would like to propose a possible interpretation which might help explain the undeniable power which the story exerts on readers generation after generation.
A review of the relevant scholarship on the subject may furnish a starting point. George E. Woodbury calls it "a tale of Italian vengeance."(1) Arthur Hobson Quinn develops the idea a little by describing it as "a powerful tale of revenge, in which the interest lies in the implacable nature of the narrator."(2) This gives us a hint, particularly by his use of the word "implacable." Edward Davidson, in his indispensable study of Poe's mind and art, says of the story:
"The Cask of montillado" . . . is the tale of another nameless [sic] "I" who has the power of moving downward from his mind or intellectual being and into his brute or physical self and then of returning again to his intellectual being with his total...
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SOURCE: "Poe's The Cask of Amontillado'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. IV, No. 1, Fall, 1966, pp. 57-69.
[In the following essay, Rea interprets Montresor's actions in terms of Poe's theory of perversity.]
The critics say that the theme of "The Cask of Amontillado" is revenge. Hardin Craig says that the first paragraph of the story presents this theme.1 Dorothy Norris Foote finds that revenge is not only the motive for Montresor's burying Fortunato alive but also his motive in telling the story, since he failed to make sure that Fortunato understood at the time that he was the victim of revenge and since revenge is not revenge "when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who had done the wrong."2 Robert H. Fossum seems to think that Montresor acts out of revenge for a wrong he thinks Fortunato had done him and that his sense of guilt sickens him and finally brings him, after fifty years, to tell his story.3
But the critics may be wrong. It may be that Montresor tells his listener about his revenge in order to divert attention from the real reason for his crime, and Montresor's exaggeration in the first sentence, "The thousand injuries of Fortunato," makes us aware that he may not be telling the truth in the first paragraph. In the Foote argument, the proof disproves itself: if Fortunato did not understand that he was a victim of revenge,...
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SOURCE: "'The Cask of Amontillado': A Masquerade of Motive and Identity," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. IV, No. 2, Winter, 1967, pp. 119-26.
[In the following essay, Gargano considers the symbolic value of Montresor and Fortunato, arguing "'The Cask of Amontillado' is a work of art (which means it embodies a serious comment on the human condition) and not just an ingenious Gothic exercise. "]
"The Cask of Amontillado," one of Edgar Allan Poe's richest aesthetic achievements, certainly deserves more searching analysis than it has received. To be sure, critics and anthologists have almost unanimously expressed admiration for the tale;1 still, they have rarely attempted to find in it a consistently developed and important theme. Indeed, most criticism of the story has the definitive ring that one associates with comments on closed issues. Arthur Hobson Quinn, for example, pronounces Poe's little masterpiece "a powerful tale of revenge in which the interest lies in the implacable nature of the narrator."2 More recently, Edward Wagenknecht asserts that the tale derives its value from Poe's "absolute concentration upon the psychological effect."3
A few adventurous critics, however, have tried to define the theme of "The Cask of Amontillado" in terms of a split or division within the psyche of the narrator-protagonist or within the author himself. Edward H....
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SOURCE: "Poe's 'Cask of Amontillado': A Tale of Effect," in Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien, edited by Ernst Fraenkel, Hans Galinsky, Dietrich Gerhard, Ursula Brumm, and H. J. Lang, Carl Winter, 1968, pp. 134-42.
[In the following essay, Freehafer provides an overview of scholarship on Poe's tale.]
According to the usual view, Edgar Allan Poe's "Cask of Amontillado" is a masterful tale of an implacable revenge for an unspecified insult, marked by economy of words and singleness of effect. Yet no part of this customary estimate of the story has gone unchallenged. Whereas one writer contends that it is not a tale of revenge at all, but a manifestation of "Poe's theory of perversity,"1 others see in it an embodiment of the duello or a compulsive confession of a remorseful murderer. Other commentators have argued that Montresor's revenge is inspired by Fortunato's Freemasonry, or Poe's literary quarrels. Furthermore, the story has had its detractors, for Saintsbury and Auden have stated their unexplained personal dislike of it.2 Thus, only a new examination of its time, place, characters, theme, tone, and purpose will show whether the traditional understanding and estimate of the story can stand or must be modified.
The time of action of Poe's tale has gone almost undiscussed, yet it can be placed in the eighteenth century. Since the story was published in 1846, and "the...
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SOURCE: "Ironic Revenge in Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VI, No. 3, Spring, 1969, pp. 333-35.
[In the following essay, Harris indicates how Masonic imagery coheres the tale's ironic effects.]
"The Cask of Amontillado" has been less often read for itself than used to support theories about Poe's life, his psyche, or his narrative technique. It well illustrates his obsession with live burial and his use of sadism as a Gothic device,1 and it meets exactly the criteria of unity and economy set out in his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales. But such readings separate theme and form, emphasizing one at the other's expense, and neglect the irony of Montresor's trowel, that symbol of brotherhood and instrument of death. This irony gives coherence to the images of the tale and to many of Montresor's apparently gratuitous, sadistic sarcasms—and suggest a motive for murder as well.2
From the beginning Montresor has a motive—or thinks he does: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge" (p. 167).3 The chill grows as we progressively discover that Montresor, a connoisseur of the ironic, has a premeditated plan. Relying on Fortunato's envy and pride and his weakness for wine, he has arranged for his servants to desert for the holidays; he carries an...
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SOURCE: "The Bouquet of Poe's Amontillado," in South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, March, 1970, pp. 35-40.
[In the following essay, Henninger explains how the ending of Poe's story always elicits shock, despite the conclusion's obvious predictability.]
"Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything can be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention."
With these words of the second paragraph of his "Philosophy of Composition," Edgar Allan Poe illuminates an important part of his literary method; they help to explain the powerful effect of many of his stories. This effect, of course, was Poe's aim; as he says only a little further on in the same essay: "I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect." But we must not be misled by this emphasis on the importance of knowing a story's end before starting its composition, by this emphasis on the subordination of the other elements of a story to its ending. How mistaken would be the conclusion that a Poe ending must be relatively easy to surmise once one is into a Poe story. We know, on the contrary, that most of his stories have startling...
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SOURCE: "Conflict and Motive in The Cask of Amontillado'," in Poe Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, December, 1972, pp. 50-1.
[In the following essay, Rocks provides a cultural context for the Catholic-Masonic conflict that informs the plot.]
Critical commentary on "The Cask of Amontillado" has tended to dismiss the question of Montresor's motive in killing Fortunato, but the tone of the story betrays a narrator confused and troubled by the guilt of a vengeful murder that has deprived him of spiritual peace and sanctifying grace, though convinced of the righteousness of his act. His uneasy conscience has become a kind of retribution for his crime, and the benediction "In pace requiescat" at the conclusion of the story is ironic in the light of his spiritual isolation and psychological unrest and his knowledge that his own soul is damned by mortal sin. Fortunato and Montresor were political enemies but they can also be regarded as religious ones, for Montresor's act of killing Fortunato is motivated, I suggest, by a faithful Catholic's hatred and fear of the brotherhood of Freemasonry. [See Marvin Felheim, "The Cask of Amontillado," Notes and Queries, 199 (1954), 447-448; Donald Pearce, Notes and Queries, 199 (1954), 448-449; and Kathryn Montgomery Harris, "Ironic Revenge in Poe's The Cask of Amontillado,'" Studies in Short Fiction, 6 (1969), 333-335, for important discussions of the...
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SOURCE: "The Cask of Amontillado': Some Further Ironies," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 195-96.
[In the following essay, Cooney elucidates ironic aspects of the tale from the theological perspective of Roman Catholicism.]
Although readers of "The Cask of Amontillado" have long been aware of the ironies that operate throughout to give special intensity to this tale, an awareness of its Roman Catholic cultural and theological materials adds to the irony and transforms clever trick into an episode of horror.
Throughout the entire episode—its planning, its execution, and its confession—Monsieur Montresor made self-conscious use of cunning, plotting, and irony to wreak his revenge. The French nobleman tells his story of the calmly calculated murder of his Italian aristocratic friend Fortunato. The crime had been perfectly executed; for fifty years now the act has gone undiscovered. Every smallest detail had been so carried out as to satisfy the criminal's two-fold purpose: Montresor would have revenge without himself getting caught; and, as the avenger, he would make quite sure "to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong." Thus he followed the motto on his coat of arms: "Nemo me impugne lacessit."
In the course of the narrative we learn how Montresor used the cutting edge of irony to give a surgeon's neatness to his work...
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SOURCE: "Method and Motive in 'The Cask of Amontillado'," in The Malahat Review, No. 34, April, 1975, pp. 87-100.
[In the following essay, Pittman argues that the perceived inconsistencies of Poe's tale contribute to its narrative, tonal, and thematic unity, positing that a symbolic schema, in which Fortunato's character assumes diabolic proportions, structures the tale.]
It may prove both presumptuous and superfluous to try to add "yet one word more" to the already respectable body of critical material available on "The Cask of Amontillado." General consensus has it that the story is one of Poe's best, or at least one of his most effective. It is perhaps a measure of the greatness of the story (Hamlet like, I suppose) that, beyond the matter of a successfully sustained effect (whatever that may be, and however we are to cope with it), there is no particular agreement on just how and why the story is great. Though we all assume that somehow the piece demonstrates Poe's efficiency as a craftsman, yet the measure of his craftsmanship has apparently not been taken. We are quite inured to acknowledgments of the care which Poe took in preparing especially his shorter compositions (by which care alone could he hope to sustain the unity of effect he sought), and the insistence on such care should presuppose, one would think, a unity beyond the mechanics of tone and effect. I will hope to demonstrate that...
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SOURCE: "Retapping Poe's 'Cask of Amontillado'," in Poe Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, June, 1975, pp. 10-12.
[In the following essay, Sweet argues that Montresor's murder of Fortunato is motivated by an unconscious desire to destroy a despised part of himself]
Montresor's motive [in "The Cask of Amontillado"] is generally taken to be the punishment of historical transgressions. James Rocks believes "Montresor's act of killing Fortunato is motivated . . . by a faithful Catholic's hatred and fear of the brotherhood of Freemasonry."1 James Gargano decides that Montresor "regards himself as the vindicator of his ancestors" who "feels that Fortunato has, by ignoring his ancestral claims, stolen his birthright and ground him into disgrace."2 Critics have not considered, however, that while these may be Montresor's conscious motives, unconsciously he may view Fortunato as a present, personal symbol of his own true self, a mirror image.
Sam Moon has hinted in passing of Poe's technique of creating "an ironic parallel between Fortunato and Montresor, so that by the end they are virtually identified."3 Although Gargano too has noted some of the similarities between the two men, he has not realized that the parallels serve to exhibit the unconscious psychological process of transference and hence to elucidate Montresor's motivation. Montresor unconsciously projects...
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SOURCE: "The Ironic Double in Poe's The Cask of Amontillado'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Fall, 1976, pp. 447-53.
[In the following essay, Stepp casts Fortunato as a "negative" image of Montresor's doppelgänger, comparing Fortunato's function to that of the double in Poe's story "William Wilson."]
In Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," an heraldic emblem offers a suggestive entrance into the story. Descending into the catacombs of Montresor's failed family, Fortunato says, "I forget your arms."1 It is one of his numberous blind, unintentional insults. The proud Montresor, biding his time, blinks not and replies: "A huge human foot d'or, in a field of azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are embedded in the heel."
"And the motto?"
"Nemo me impune lacessit."
"Good!" he said. (p. 276)
The brief scene highlights the major plot dynamics of Poe's great story: the clumsy insult, Montresor's menacing irony, and Fortunato's further blindness to this irony. ("Good!") Montresor flashes countless "clues" like the one above before Fortunato's rheumy eyes—signals of his impending doom, but Fortunato does not perceive. The clues are part of the larger "system" or "demonstration" motif of the story: Montresor, the diabolical rationalist,...
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SOURCE: "Anything Goes: Comic Aspects in 'The Cask of Amontillado'," in American Humor: Essays Presented to John C. Gerber, edited by O. M. Brack, Jr., Arete Publications, 1977, pp. 13-26.
[In the following essay, Clendenning details the story's parody of Catholic rites and enological errors, identifying Montresor and Fortunato as classic comic figures.]
The reader who seeks guidance by perusing the "Preface" to Poe's Tales of The Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) may feel justifiably exasperated. Instead of finding definitions which might help to explain the book's title and thus lead to formal distinctions between the two aspects of Poe's fiction, the reader is confronted with the evasive assertion that the key terms, grotesque and arabesque, are self-evident, that the stories themselves demonstrate the difference. "The epithets 'Grotesque' and 'Arabesque'," he says at the outset, "will be found to indicate with sufficient precision the prevalent tenor of the tales here published."1 Does Poe mean that the terms describe two separate types of story or two elements blended in each of the stories? Though critics have generally assumed the former meaning, Poe's remarks seem to give credence to the latter. His singular phrase, "the prevalent tenor of the tales," and his stated desire "to preserve . . . a certain unity of design" suggest that Poe intended no...
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SOURCE: "Narration as Seduction, Seduction as Narration," in The CEA Critic, Vol. XLI, No. 2, January, 1979, pp. 26-9.
[In the following essay, Spisak considers Montresor's pleasure in telling his story as both the protagonist and the narrator.]
By assuming, with most readers, that the narrator of Poe's "Cask of Amontillado" is motivated by guilt to tell his tale, we miss the twin seduction he invites us to share. Besides apparently luring Fortunato to his doom, Montresor also draws the reader to partake in the pleasure he relives in telling the tale of his successful seduction. The narrator mentions his audience only once early in the tale, offering no indication as to why the listener should "so well know" him. There is no other evidence in the story of a real listener. Hence, the "you" seems to be a direct reference to the reader rather than to a third-person confessor. During the course of the story, the delight of the original seduction is reflected in the retelling, until the roles of protagonist and narrator climactically merge.
Poe's narrator enjoys telling his story, and has apparently done so many times. Opening the tale with a reworking of the cliche on insult and injury, Montresor provides a well-wrought explanation of his theories on punishment and revenge. He also tells us that he kept a smiling face for Fortunato, whom he still remembers as a worthy antagonist. This...
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SOURCE: "Fortunato's Premature Demise in 'The Cask of Amontillado'," in Poe Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, December, 1979, pp. 30-1.
[In the following essay, Jacoby addresses the significance of Fortunato's silence.]
"The Cask of Amontillado" is occasionally read as a perverse success story of a perfectly executed revenge in which crime does pay,1 and, more frequently, as a tale of cosmic and psychological retribution akin to "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," and "The Imp of the Perverse." Critics of the latter persuasion often point to the tale's pervasive irony, particularly Montresor's frustrated expectations of revenge. Early in the tale, Montresor posits two conditions for revenge. To fulfill the first, he "must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser" (Works, III, 1256). Critics have often discussed the irony involved with this condition, noting the setup of the tale as a death-bed confession and the mortal nature of Montresor's sin.2 But they have neglected the second condition—that a wrong "is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong" (Works, III, 1256; italics mine)—even though it occasions further elucidating irony.
While Fortunato has been inebriated during much of his journey through the vaults, his...
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SOURCE: "Victim and Victimizer: Poe's The Cask of Amontillado'," in Interpretations, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 26-30.
[In the following essay, Engel discusses the narrative function of enclosure as a literary device in Poe's tale, focusing on the ways it affects and transforms the characters.]
Edgar Allan Poe used the enclosure device, whether an actual physical enclosure or an enclosure alluded to on the level of image and metaphor, in a highly artistic way. In much of his fiction, and specifically in "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), the device helps to focus the action, assists in plot development, and has a profound impact on the main character, often affecting his personality. In his essay "The Philosophy of Composition" Poe remarked, "A close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident:—it has the force of a frame to a picture."1 A "circumscription of space," that is, an enclosure, I consider to be any sort of physical confinement that restricts a character to a particular area, limiting his freedom. That Poe intended this confinement to have a certain power over narrative action is indicated by the phrases "insulated incident" and "the force of a frame to a picture." But confinement in Poe's fiction, I will argue, also has power over a character and often causes him to do things he would not ordinarily do.2 Such is the...
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SOURCE: "Poe's Amontillado, One More Time," in American Notes & Queries, Vol. XXIV, Nos. 9-10, May-June, 1986, pp. 144-45.
[In the following essay, Kirkham comments on the multiple meanings of some proper nouns in Poe's story.]
Poe's delight in allusions and word play is evident throughout his works but no more so than in the short story "The Cask of Amontillado" where proper nouns, particularly, are capable of carrying multiple meanings. Fortunato believes himself to be the "fortunate one" in that he has been selected by Montresor to taste of the rare Spanish sherry, but he is also "fated" to die. He should feel "fortunate," according to his murderer's line of reasoning, to be laid to rest among the bones of Montresor's ancestors whose arms he had forgotten and whose descendent he had insulted, and yet he is "fortunate" in that he, unlike his murderer, has rested in peace for fifty years.
The name "Montresor" also has obvious possibilities: his treasures are multiple. His first "treasure" is his family honor, which Fortunato has impugned; his second, the sherry he claims to have in the vault to which he leads his victim; and finally, the new "treasure" he entombs with his ancestors, the body and spirit of his victim which haunt him for fifty years, an ironic treasure indeed. John Clendenning suggests that he is a "monster" who will show (montrer) Fortunato his fate...
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SOURCE: "The Supreme Madness: Revenge and the Bells in The Cask of Amontillado'," in The University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. V, 1987, pp. 51-7.
[In the following essay, Stewart draws parallels between Poe's narrative and the stagecraft of Elizabethan revenge tragedy, highlighting his use of sound effects.]
Even the most nonchalant reader admits that Edgar Allan Poe was more than a little interested in madness; he may be less aware, however, that Poe also dabbled in the dramatic arts. Poe's mix of madness and drama, specifically the substance of revenge tragedy in "The Cask of Amontillado," offers yet another example of his wideranging mind and creative propensities. I perceive in Poe's tale a parallel to Elizabethan revenge tragedy.1 Pointing out that Woodberry calls "Cask" "a tale of Italian revenge," Mabbott states that such feeling embodies "an implacable demand for retribution," which Poe accounts for in the beginning of the tale. As he works out the action and develops the character of Montresor as a revenge-tragedy hero, Poe by means of sound effects proves himself a master of dramatic technique. As Montresor falls deeper into insanity, the ringing of the bells symbolizes his descent.
Montresor's first declaration alerts us that revenge is the central motivation underlying the story: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but...
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SOURCE: "The Cask of Amontillado': A Case for the Defense," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, 1989, pp. 550-55.
[In the following essay, White justifies Montresor's actions and his lack of remorse, explaining the symbolism of the family shield and his sense of familial obligation.]
The usual way of responding to "The Cask of Amontillado" with something like pure and unqualified revulsion at Montresor's dark deed as an act outside the normal range of human behavior has its validity but stops short of the story's ultimate revelation. Wittingly or otherwise, Poe has given us the means of seeing Montresor's act as something other than a demented or Satanic pursuit of revenge. True, the story has been found compelling for generations of readers who see Montresor as a very special case of the human potential for evil. But is Montresor such a special case? I do not think so. He is neither demented nor Satanic. He has his reasons for what he does, and these are reasons we should be able to understand. Therein lies a deeper horror in the story.
In order to understand how Montresor can feel justified in what he has done and be free of any twinge of guilt even fifty years after the event, we must understand how family in general and his own family's motto and coat of arms in particular affect his motivation. One of the puzzles of the story has to do with its location. Does it take place in...
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Bales, Kent. "Poetic Justice in 'The Cask of Amontillado'." Poe Studies 5, No. 2 (December 1972): 51.
Comments on multiple levels of irony in the tale from a Protestant viewpoint.
Benton, Richard P. "Poe's 'The Cask' and the 'White Webwork Which Gleams'." Studies in Short Fiction 28, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 183-94.
Addresses the implications of the nitre on the walls of Montresor's catacombs.
Bonaparte, Marie. "The Masquerades." In her The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-analytic Interpretation, pp. 505-24. London: Imago Publishing Co., 1949.
Outlines Poe's oedipal rivalry in the context of the tale, supposing that Poe "fully vented" his aggression against a suspected romantic rival.
Burns, Shannon. "'The Cask of Amontillado': Montresor's Revenge." Poe Studies 7, No. 1 (June 1974): 25.
Explains the Italian tradition of revenge, concluding that the tale's final line is addressed to Montresor's ancestors.
Cervo, Nathan. "Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado'." The Explicator 51, No. 3 (Spring 1993): 155-56.
Identifies Montresor's family motto as the Scottish national motto, linking it to the...
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