The Cask of Amontillado Essay - Criticism

Criticism

The Single Effect, Section 1

"The Cask of Amontillado" and the Single Effect

A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided. (1)

The way to analyze a story by Poe—and possibly to analyze any modern short story, since Poe is credited with being the father of the genre—is by starting at the very end with a consideration of the story's "single effect." A single effect is not necessarily a simple effect. The complex effect of "The Cask of Amontillado" is not easy to describe, although most readers probably experience it in a similar way. Since Montresor interprets and relishes his victim's feelings, the preconceived effect might be described as a combination of shock, horror, pity, delight, satisfaction, compassion, and closure.

Adhering to his rationale, Poe combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. For example, Montresor lures Fortunato underground with a cask of Amontillado. It would have to be an imported wine to tempt Fortunato, since excellent domestic wine would be readily available to a wealthy Italian. Both men refer to the cask as a "pipe." It would not have seemed unreasonable to Fortunato that he should have to accompany his host a considerable distance to reach a space large enough for a cask containing 126 gallons of wine.

The Single Effect, Section 2

Why Did Poe Choose Amontillado?

The word Amontillado appears no less than sixteen times in Poe’s story. One reason for that choice may have been to keep reminding the reader of Fortunato's motivation. The reader him- or herself would like to see a pipe of the finest Spanish sherry and perhaps even savor a glass in imagination. No doubt many people over the years have actually purchased a bottle of Amontillado to satisfy their curiosity or to pay homage to Poe. The story originally appeared in Godey's Lady's Book in 1846, and sherry was one of the few alcoholic beverages genteel ladies in that distant era allowed themselves to drink.

Poe's choices were limited. The wine could not be Italian because it would not tempt Fortunato. French wine is famous, but Montresor is French himself. He could hardly pretend ignorance on that subject. He twice offers Fortunato gourmet French wines in his vaults. The only other possibility was Spain, a country noted for exporting fine Sherries, the finest of which is Amontillado. Poe had yet another good reason for choosing Amontillado, as will be explained later.

 

The Single Effect, Section 3

Why Did Poe Give Montresor a French Name?

Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity, to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack, but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. (2)

Poe emphasizes Montresor's foreignness early on. Montresor does not consider himself an Italian. But why French, when the Montresors, judging from their accumulated bones, have been living in Italy for centuries? The narrator is an outsider. He may be able to trace his lineage in Italy back for generations but is still, in comparison to Fortunato, an upstart. No doubt, being frequently reminded of his parvenu status, his fallen fortunes, and even being referred to as "that Frenchman" are among the "thousand injuries" Montresor has suffered. Fortunato is indeed fortunate in having money and family connections. By contrast, Montresor tells his guest, "The Montresors were a great and numerous family." The word numerous helps explain the large accumulation of skeletons in a relatively few centuries. The quoted passage also shows that Fortunato deals in paintings, gemmary, and probably also in wine, which would explain his strong interest in the Amontillado that Montresor says he has just acquired at a bargain price.

Here Poe, whose name and ancestry were also French, reveals his personal feelings. Montresor tells Fortunato: "You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter." Montresor's name further suggests that his letter, which is what Poe’s story purports to be, may have been written in French and sent to a friend in France. This would make his confession more plausible. In fact, the letter might have been found among his papers...

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The Single Effect, Section 4

Limited Exposition

Poe avoids unnecessary exposition by leaving it to the reader to guess the location of the story. But the word palazzo suggests Venice, where such mansions have existed since the thirteenth century. The Carnival of Venice is the most famous of all carnivals and still a great tourist attraction. The crime would have to take place in a major city. Otherwise, Fortunato and Montresor would be recognized by too many people. At one point Montresor says: "We are below the river's bed." The largest river in Italy, which empties into an estuary near Venice, is named—very suggestively—the Po.

Many details serve dual or multiple purposes. For instance, Montresor writes:

It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.

The pretense of strong friendship not only keeps Fortunato off guard but insures that no one will suspect Montresor after the "immolation" he has planned. If the two were known to be enemies, the authorities would question Montresor and even search his premises. Like any good liar, Montresor knows he must first convince himself. For years he has lived with the lie that Fortunato is still his friend. By continuing to call Fortunato his good friend in spite of many injuries, Montresor is virtually inviting the haughty Italian to "venture upon insult."

The Single Effect, Section 5

Is Montresor Insane?

If Montresor is insane, as some critics have claimed, then his insanity consists of having a split personality. One half is able to think of Fortunato as his friend and speak of him as such at every opportunity, while the dark half is plotting murder. Without this long-established friendship, Montresor could not have enticed Fortunato into his catacombs. The reputed friendship of the two men obviates any need for Poe to deal with the inevitable future inquiry into Fortunato's disappearance. Montresor and Fortunato may have indeed been good friends in the past. Their relationship must have deteriorated over a number of years as Fortunato's...

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The Single Effect, Section 6

Other Economies of Exposition

Other details with dual or multiple purposes are more subtle, such as the repeated references to the dampness of the catacombs. Why does Poe provide his character Fortunato with a bad cough? 

"How long have you had that cough?"

"Ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!"

My poor friend found it impossible to reply for many minutes.

Montresor considers Fortunato a genuine connoisseur as well as "a man to be respected and...

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The Single Effect, Section 7

The Story’s Basic Conflict

Montresor's biggest problem from beginning to end is to maneuver his victim off the streets and down into his catacombs, then into a dark and narrow recess, and finally to bind him with a chain. Thereafter, Poe maintains dramatic tension by describing Fortunato's efforts to break free, his screaming for help, and his attempt to frighten Montresor into releasing him.

Fortunato's cough also gives Montresor an excuse to suggest a draft of Medoc to keep his enemy intoxicated. Poe could not keep Fortunato coughing, although it was artistically necessary to dramatize it at least once. Instead of urging his friend onward,...

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The Single Effect, Section 8

Timing of the Murder

The fact that Montresor has gotten rid of his household servants proves he has decided to enact his revenge that night if possible. More proof is that he is carrying the trowel under his cloak. The final example of proof is the cask of Amontillado itself. If it does not really exist, then Montresor is taking a risk in telling Fortunato he has just bought it.

Why does Poe give such stress to the dampness? He refers to it no less than six times, as in the following:

"My friend, no. It is not the engagement, but the severe cold with which I perceive you are afflicted. The vaults are insufferably damp. They are encrusted with nitre."

...

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The Single Effect, Section 9

Fortunato’s Motivation

Fortunato is not primarily motivated by the challenge to his connoisseurship, nor is he motivated by an urgent desire to sample the delicious sherry. He is motivated by avarice. He deals with British and Austrian millionaires in paintings, gemmary, and presumably wines. Montresor has just obtained a whole pipe at a "bargain" price. Fortunato must not allow Luchesi to find out. His rival might buy up whatever quantity was still available, but the first step is to verify that it really is the true Amontillado. This is why, in spite of his bad cold and in spite of being inadequately clothed, Fortunato is so insistent upon sampling it that very night.

How fortunate for...

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The Single Effect, Section 10

The Cold and Dampness

There is yet another reason—and it is the most important reason—for Poe's repeated references to the cold and dampness of the underground vaults, another proof that there is "no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design." With Fortunato chained to the wall, Montresor recounts:

...I busied myself among the pile of bones of which I have before spoken. Throwing them aside, I soon uncovered a quantity of building stone and mortar. With these materials and with the aid of my trowel, I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche.

...

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The Single Effect, Section 11

Montresor’s Foresight

The fact that Montresor happens to have a trowel under his cloak on the fateful night he encounters Fortunato may seem like too much of a coincidence. At some earlier date he must have used a shovel for mixing the mortar, but he would need a first-class mason's trowel for completing his masterpiece of revenge. The plastered wall had to look like part of the natural side of the catacombs. He does not say he met Fortunato by accident on the night of the carnival but that he "encountered" him. He was out hunting Fortunato down.

He could not leave a steel trowel with the stones and mortar because it would rust quickly in that...

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The Single Effect, Section 12

Is the Amontillado Real?

Poe has tried to protect his protagonist from being exposed by having Montresor suggest that the Amontillado may not in fact be genuine:

...But I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts.

"How?" said he. "Amontillado? A pipe? Impossible. And in the middle of the carnival!"

"I have my doubts," I replied, "and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain."

"Amontillado!"

...

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The Single Effect, Section 13

The Perfect Revenge

Poe needed Fortunato to be drunk when Montresor first encounters him but sober by the time Fortunato is trapped. Fortunato must be able to understand what is happening to him, why it is happening, and the identity of the person who is making it happen. Poe provides abundant evidence that the drunken Fortunato has become completely sober:

I had scarcely laid the first tier of the masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off. The earliest indication I had of this was a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken man. There was then...

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The Single Effect, Section 14

Fortunato: A Man to Be Respected and Feared

But now there came from out the niche a low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head. It was succeeded by a sad voice, which I had difficulty in recognizing as that of the noble Fortunato. The voice said—

"Ha! ha! ha!—he! he! he!—a very good joke indeed—an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo—he! he! he!—over our wine—he! he! he!"

"The Amontillado!" I said.

"He! he! he!—he! he! he!—yes, the Amontillado. But is it not getting late? Will they not be awaiting us at the palazzo, the Lady Fortunato and the rest? Let us be gone."

...

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The Single Effect, Section 15

Why the Jester’s Costume?

Fortunato's flamboyant costume serves many purposes. It characterizes Fortunato as a prosperous exhibitionist and a prankster. It suggests the wearer's ancient lineage, going back to an era when court jesters existed. Being unique and specially tailored for the carnival, it is a sign of conspicuous consumption. The costumes people choose for masquerades often reveal what they would like to be. Jesters were encouraged and licensed to make fun of other people for the general amusement. Some of the "thousand injuries" felt by Montresor have been hurtful jests made either in his presence or behind his back. In fact, Poe did not dress his...

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The Single Effect, Section 16

Logistical Problems

Poe heightens the dramatic suspense by increasing Montresor's logistical difficulties. Surely many people will notice Fortunato and a companion in a black cloak. Poe ingeniously deals with this weak plot point by making it weaker. When Montresor opens his cloak and shows his guest the trowel after they are safely underground, it indicates that the critical stage is past. They have not encountered any common acquaintance. Montresor has not been recognized. One way or another, Fortunato is doomed. Montresor is armed with a rapier. He could kill his guest on the spot, although he would prefer to lure him to the narrow niche and take plenty of time in...

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The Single Effect, Section 17

Closure

The perfect revenge Montresor prescribes should culminate in the avenger's perfect satisfaction. It should also result in what today's journalists so often describe as "closure." There would be no point in seeking revenge if it did not extinguish the hatred that led to the desire in the first place. When Montresor concludes his letter to his unknown correspondent with the words "In pace requiescat!" he is not being ironic. He has cleansed himself of his hatred and satisfied his desire for retribution. He can now feel pity for his fellow mortal, a feeling the reader shares.

The "preconceived effect"—that is, the emotional effect upon the...

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The Single Effect, Section 18

Why Did Poe Write This Story?

The fact that Poe may have been venting real hatred against contemporary enemies is inconsequential. His personal feelings, transformed by his imagination, served to create a masterpiece. He has been called the father of the modern short story. His paternity, like a tiny cell, is essentially contained in the epigraph to this essay. The modern short story is designed to achieve a single effect. Analyzing a short story "with a kindred art" by starting with its effect leads to a better appreciation of the craftsmanship involved: there is no word written of which the tendency, direct of indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.

Any creative writer has the...

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The Single Effect, Section 19

Poe’s Legacy

Poe was unique in literature. He is remembered for his stories and poems, but he earned his living—such as it was—as an editor and critic. He was a critic who could function as a creative writer, a creative writer who was an acute critic. His emphasis on the macabre reflects the understanding of popular taste that made him a notably successful editor. Any newspaper will show that modern readers still have an insatiable appetite for human depravity. Poe's stories have had a worldwide influence because readers recognize their own secret emotions and fantasies. We want to see Montresor murder Fortunato in the cruelest possible way, and we want to see him get away with it. The avalanche...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear