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 place of his crucifixion. We follow Fortunado on his long and arduous procession down through Montresor’s family’s catacombs. The journey into darkness passes by the bones of Montresor’s ancestors, as Christ had done when he passed Golgotha (place of skulls) before his death. The walk is slow, deliberate and difficult for Fortunado as was Christ’s walk through Jerusalem. Fortunado leans on Montresor desperately as he walks down 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 vengeance.
Montresor has carefully planned this elaborate ceremony, which has elements of a Christian mass, but is macabre and evil. He toasts to Fortunado’s good health and long life over a glass of wine, which is usually a blessing. However Montresor and the audience are well aware that his intentions couldn’t be further from his words. Every word of discourse between the two men is given a grave double meaning with the knowledge of...
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Duplicity and Doubling in "The Cask of Amontillado"
When Montresor decides that it is time to seek revenge for the ‘‘thousand injuries of Fortunato,’’ he does not make his feelings known. Although the honor code of the day might have called for a public challenge and a duel to the death, Montresor decides that he will not give "utterance to a threat.'' Instead, while he waits for his opportunity, he behaves as though nothing is wrong: ‘‘It must be understood, that neither by word not 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 word for Montresor's behavior is "duplicitous." It means that he is concealing his true motives and feelings beneath a deceptive exterior, that he is being two-faced. The word, of course, is related to "duplicate" and "duplex" and ‘‘double.’’ Montresor is behaving as his own opposite in his dealings with Fortunato. As the story progresses, however, it will become clearer that the other side of Montresor's personality is not the smiling face he offers to Fortunato.
The story is filled with twins and opposites. The characters' names, for example, bounce off each other, two echoes of the same idea. The name "Montresor" carries the idea of "treasure," and "Fortunato" implies "fortune." Two sides of the same coin, as it were. As the two men walk along the damp passageway, Montresor offers Fortunato two...
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Victim and Victimizer: Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"
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.’’ 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. Such is the case, I believe, with the tale ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado.’’
Montresor, the narrator, it will be remembered, unlike the narrators in other tales (such as ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ and ‘‘The Black Cat’’) who have murdered their victims and then tried to conceal their bodies, does succeed in concealing his...
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"The Cask of Amontillado": Some Further Ironies
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 and to secure the greatest possible delight for himself. With consummate evil he chose the carnival season for his crime. The carnival in question was Carnevale, a three days' festivity ending at midnight on Ash Wednesday, during which time, in Catholic cultures, people have one last fling of merriment...
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"The Cask of Amontillado": A Masquerade of Motive and Identity
‘‘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; 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.’’ More recently, Edward Wagenknecht asserts that the tale derives its value from Poe's ‘‘absolute concentration upon the psychological effect.’’
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. Davison has ably related the story to Poe's broad concern with "the multiple character of the self.’’ Davidson concludes that the narrator, Montresor, is capable of becoming two distinct beings with little affinity to each other: '"The Cask of Amontillado' ... is the tale of another nameless I [sic] who has the power of moving downward from his mind or intellectual being and into his brutish or physical self and then of returning to his intellectual being with...
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