Essays and Criticism
Religious Imagery and Ritual in The Cask of Amontillado
Edgar Allen Poe, the master of the macabre, understood the fine line between good and evil, between the holy and the profane. He knew how to penetrate the subconscious of his readers by subtly playing off of their most deeply held beliefs. In “The Cask of Amontillado”, Poe brilliantly interweaves religion into a dark tale of revenge. The effect is a once profound and haunting.
The story is told as a first-person confession, possibly to a priest “who so well knew the nature of my soul.” The language is ripe with religious overtones. The action implies a death march, a procession to death designed to avenge insults suffered by Montresor and his ancestors. The drinking of wine, the ringing of bells, and the lighting of candles are all part of Montresor’s “black mass”. Fortunado, the unwittingly victim, becomes the sacrifice in a wholly un-Christian ceremony.
Poe carefully selects language that resounds of sacramental rites. Montresor admits that when he first smiles at Fortunado’s arrival, it “was at the thought of his immolation.” (A Latin-derived word, immolation means to kill as a sacrifice and carries strong religious connotations.) Montresor’s language designates him as the executor of divine punishment or retribution. His motivation, which can be interpreted as a heavy-handed perversion of the Golden Rule, is clear: “[A wrong] is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.”
Poe often uses foreign expressions with religious overtones. As is common in Roman Catholic masses, Montresor utters Latin phrases: “In pace requiescat!”(Rest in peace) and “Nemo me impune lacessit.”(No one punishes me with impunity.) The wine that lures Fortunado to his death, Amontillado (which means from the mountain in Italian) recalls Moses’ trek up Mt. Sinai and the God-given laws that came to be as a result.
The primary action of the story recalls Jesus Christ’s procession to Calvary, the...
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Irony in The Cask of Amontillado
There has never been any doubt or disagreement about the fact that Edgar Allen Poe is a master of the short story form. His painstaking word selection, his attention to every detail, his obsession over creating a single powerful effect—these qualities have all justifiably contributed to this reputation. Nowhere is his craftsmanship, or his expert use of irony as a unifying element, more apparent than in his short masterpiece, “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Unity in theme, plot, and structure are all elements that were impeccably incorporated in The Cask of Amontillado. In the first sentence we are given the singular and simple theme: Montresor’s revenge. The plot of the story revolves tightly around the execution of his betrayal and retribution against Fortunado. And ultimately, all of these elements are sewn together and given their final meaning through the pervasive use of irony.
There are two categories of irony in The Cask of Amontillado, the ironies that Montresor manipulates and controls in the story, and the ironies that the author creates. As the story progresses we come to realize that, though Montresor is the main voice in the story, Poe subtly provides clues that bring us closer to understanding the truth behind Montresor’s words.
The first obvious irony is the fact that Montresor made sure that his servants would be gone by ordering them to stay. The use of reverse psychology is rampant throughout the story and demonstrates how perverted and backwards all of the relationships in the story have become. Because Montresor is the narrator, we are aware of the duplicity between what he is thinking, versus what he says: “Come, we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as I once was.” Montresor is obviously biting his tongue as he says these words, but does so amiably. He also drops a subtle hint (“as I once was”) about his true feelings of humiliation that are at the root of his...
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