James Russell Lowell, in his satiric poem A Fable for Critics (1848), called Poe’s work three-fifths genius and two-fifths fudge. In the genius-fudge ratio, “The Cask of Amontillado” ranks high on the genius side. A brief, concise story, it fulfills Poe’s literary theory that every detail and word in a tale or poem should contribute to the intended effect. Here, there are only two characters, and though Montresor insists on his patience in devising an appropriate and satisfying revenge, the story moves quickly and relentlessly to its climax. In contrast to the verbosity found in the works of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, Poe’s story, only about four pages long, has not a wasted word. Poe grips readers and plunges them right in with the opening sentence, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” Readers learn almost nothing about the background of the characters; one is told nothing about their age, their families, their wives and children, if any, or their appearance. One is not even told when and where the story takes place, though the name Fortunato and references to a palazzo indicate Italy. From the last sentence, stating that Fortunato’s bones have moldered in the tomb for half a century, one can deduce that they were young men at the time of the tale, which could occur no later than the end of the eighteenth century. As for character, Montresor tells readers that Fortunato was to be respected and even feared, that his only weak point was his pride in being a connoisseur of wine. This pride in such a trivial matter becomes grotesquely disproportionate and leads him into the trap.
Critics have complained that all of Poe’s characters sound alike, that Poe has only one voice, but in “The Cask of Amontillado” the narrative voice—learned, passionate but cold, ironic—fits perfectly the character of the avenger. Like Shakespeare’s Iago and Richard III, Montresor takes the reader into his confidence, assuming he or she will approve not only of his revenge but also of the clever and grotesque manner of it, and share his gloating satisfaction. The sensitive reader will also identify with Fortunato, however, and share his fear of the charnel-like catacombs and his horror of being walled up alive, to die slowly in the dark of starvation or suffocation among the skeletons of Montresor’s ancestors.
The reader should realize, as Montresor does not, that despite his cleverness and irony, Montresor is an inhuman monster and something of a madman. Montresor’s tone throughout is jocose. Repeatedly, he baits Fortunato (whose name is ironic in light of his ghastly fate) by playing on his vanity, suggesting that Luchesi can judge the wine as well, pretending to be his concerned friend, giving his enemy chance after chance to escape. The vaults are too damp, Fortunato has a cough, his health is precious, and they should turn back. With foreknowledge, Montresor observes that Fortunato will not die of a cough and drinks to his long life. Montresor interprets his family’s coat of arms—signifying, he says, that no one injures him with impunity, a warning that Fortunato has ignored. When Fortunato makes a secret gesture and asks if Montresor is a mason, the latter produces a trowel, which he will use to wall up his enemy. Thus, Montresor plays cat and mouse with his victim. After chaining his enemy, he implores him to return, then says he must render him “all the little attention in my power,” and proceeds to the masonry. Clearly, he savors every moment of his murderous revenge. When Fortunato begins to scream, Montresor reveals his own madness. Unsheathing his rapier, he thrusts about with it and then responds by echoing and surpassing the cries of his victim. At the end, he returns to his jocose tone, observing that his heart grew sick on account of “the dampness of the catacombs,” and concluding, fifty years later, “In pace requiescat”: “May he rest in peace.”