How is the nitre symbolic in The Cask of Amontillado?

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hgarey71 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nitre is the British spelling of the word niter, which is the mineral form of potassium nitrate. It's common to find it in the crystallized form in caves. It is an irritant, and breathing it can cause coughing and sneezing. 

But in Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Cask of Amontillado," the niter has a symbolic meaning, as well. As Fortunato is led deeper into the catacombs of Montresor's family, the niter increases. Montresor has premeditated the murder of Fortunato, and he plays with his victim the way a cat sometimes plays with its prey before killing it. Montresor is pretending to be concerned with Fortunato's health when the truth is that he has absolutely no regard for Fortunato. The symbolic meaning of the niter is that Fortunato is being led further into Montresor's web, just like the web-like niter on the walls is increasing. 

From the beginning, Montresor plays with his victim. First, he plants the seed of rivalry to taunt Fortunato into following him into the catacombs. He says that he sees Fortunato is too busy to see his cask of Amontillado, and he will just ask Luchesi, to which Fortunato replies that Luchesi wouldn't know Amontillado from sherry. In appealing to Fortunato's arrogance, he has secured his agreement to go see the cask. Then, like a cat toying with a mouse, he begins to urge Fortunato to turn back. He knows full well that this will only make Fortunato more determined to go on. In the quote below, he is pointing out the niter on the walls while at the same time urging Fortunato deeper into the vault by telling him the Amontillado is deeper in the caverns. 

"It is farther on," said I; "but observe the white web-work which gleams from these cavern walls."

As they descend, Montresor again feigns concern for Fortunato by telling him they should go back because the niter will cause his cough to worsen. 

"The nitre!" I said; "see, it increases. It hangs like moss upon the vaults. We are below the river's bed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones. Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough—"

Even when the pair reaches the niche that Montresor has prepared to bury Fortunato alive in, he is still pretending to be concerned about his cough. Consider the quote below: 

In its surface were two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet, horizontally. From one of these depended a short chain, from the other a padlock. Throwing the links about his waist, it was but the work of a few seconds to secure it. He was too much astounded to resist. Withdrawing the key I stepped back from the recess. "Pass your hand," I said, "over the wall; you cannot help feeling the nitre. Indeed, it is very damp. Once more let me implore you to return. No? Then I must positively leave you. But I must first render you all the little attentions in my power."

The increasing niter symbolizes Fortunato being led deeper and deeper into Montresor's trap. With every step he takes, the danger increases. 

litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The nitre is significant because it foreshadows Montresor’s murder of Fortunado, because he comments on how Fortundado should not go into the vault because he has a cold.

Montresor has been planning Fortundao’s demise, but he does not want Fortunado to know it.  Fortunado has insulted him, but he is likely not aware of it.  He uses reverse psychology to get Fortunado to want to come by telling him she should not come.

“My friend, no… the severe cold with which I perceive you are afflicted. The vaults are insufferably damp. They are encrusted with nitre.” (enotes etext p. 5)

Nitre is white dust found on the walls inside caverns.  When Fortunado coughs, they both say it is the nitre.  Montresor tells Fortunado to go back, but he does not agree.  Montresor says that it “hangs like moss upon the vaults” (p. 6).  He is trying to keep Fortunado off guard.  In the end, he successfully blocks Fortunado up in the wall, killing him.

edcon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is not such an easy question, but there are at least a couple of plausible answers.  

Nirtre, or potassium nitrate, is a mineral deposit sometimes left on damp walls underground, as in cellars, caves, or basements.  As Montresor leads Fortunato deeper and deeper into the wine cellar/crypt, he calls his attention to it.  It is extensive and is described by the narrator as "white web-work."  It could symbolize the web in which Montresor has trapped his enemy, Fortunato, whose death he will soon bring about.

Nitre has been used as a preservative.  Because Montresor plans to entomb Fortunato while he is still alive, it could represent Montresor's desire to preserve his enemy's corpse for all time as a macabre monument to his successful revenge scheme.


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The Cask of Amontillado

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