How is the concept of insanity suggested in "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Few people kill over a verbal insult.  Poe uses the old adage, “Sticks and stones may hurt my bones, but words will never kill me,” in reverse.  In Montresor’s world, words are deadly.  Insanity drives the main character and narrator Montresor to murder Fortunato who has insulted his family a thousand times [a hyperbole at best]. There have been times in history when insults would have led to a duel with swords or pistols.  But this killing is different!  It is ruthless and cruel beyond measure.

In Edgar Allan Poe's short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor speaks to his audience in a soliloquy, relating a fateful meeting between himself and his secret enemy Fortunato during the carnival season.  Enraged beyond reason because of a careless insult made to his family by Fortunato, the narrator sets in motion his plan to murder the unsuspecting wine connoisseur.

Montresor exhibits his madness by his detailed planning of the murder. Luring his enemy into the tombs of his ancestors which also serve as wine cellars, Montresor tells his enemy that he has procured a valuable barrel of Amontillado and that he wants Fortunato to taste it. Unfortunately for Fortunato, there is no Amontillado hidden deep beneath the ground. Instead, Montresor chains him up to the wall in the catacombs and buries him alive.

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 the material and with the aid of my trowel, I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche.

Montresor has become a socio-pathic killer.  His behavior is deplorable and despicable though he believes himself clever because of the success of his plan.   The murder of Fortunato demonstrates Montresor’s callous disregard for moral restraint.  These restraints keep normal people from committing violence against another person.

Through his madness, Montresor is able to put an invisible mask of civility and friendship.  His caring façade enables him to lure Fortunato into the catacombs and on to his death.  He masks his insanity by playing the part of an inept wine connoisseur to Fortunato’s arrogant expertise. 

His ability to act the friend to his hated enemy when his anger has become unmanageable follows  the logic of William Blake’s poem “The Poison Tree.”  By not expressing his anger, it has grown so much  that he infuriated and willing to kill to gain vengeance. From words to a horrific murder takes many insane steps.

Another ironic aspect of the story comes from the variation in the characters’ appearances.  Montresor plays the rational well-turned individual while Fortunato is dressed like the fool. The dress of each character, therefore, seems as if it should be switched to fit the persona and motives of each character.  But, by masking his true intentions, Montresor is able to hide his insanity through his appearance.  

Poe uses verbal irony to accentuate the hardness of Montresor‘s heart. When the ignoramus Fortunato has a coughing spell, Montresor feigns concern offering him more wine to keep Fortunato drunk in order to easily chain him.  His ironic statements also add to the reader’s knowledge that this is a man who will kill and with impunity.


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The Cask of Amontillado

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