In "The Cask of Amontillado," what is the meaning of the phrase "A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser"?

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In Poe's classic short story "The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor is the unreliable narrator and protagonist who is obsessed with seeking revenge on his enemy, Fortunato. Before Montresor elaborates on his brilliant plan to get revenge, he expounds upon his strict definition of revenge. Montresor begins by stating...

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In Poe's classic short story "The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor is the unreliable narrator and protagonist who is obsessed with seeking revenge on his enemy, Fortunato. Before Montresor elaborates on his brilliant plan to get revenge, he expounds upon his strict definition of revenge. Montresor begins by stating that one must not only punish their enemy but do so with impunity. In other words, Montresor believes that it is necessary to not get caught while taking revenge. Montresor goes on to say:

A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser (Poe 1)

The word unredressed means "not set right" or "unfixed" while retribution is a punishment inflicted upon someone as vengeance. Therefore, Montresor is saying that a wrong will not be fixed or set right if punishment overtakes the person seeking revenge (redresser). This is another way of saying that one must avenge their enemy with impunity and avoid being punished for their actions. Essentially, Montresor is adamant about not being caught, arrested, or punished for getting revenge.

He feels that in order to get revenge one must maintain their wits and focus by concealing their intentions and carefully executing a foolproof plan, which is exactly what he does. For the remainder of the narrative, Montresor describes how he cleverly manipulated Fortunato into following him into the depths of his catacombs, where he proceeded to bury him alive. Montresor ends up getting away with his crime, which proves that he followed his own advice regarding vengeance.

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This phrase is best understood within the context of the paragraph in which it appears; Montresor is talking about the need not only for vengeance against Fortunato, but vengeance that is conducted in a particular way.

I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

"I must not only punish, but punish with impunity" - impunity basically means exemption from punishment or vulnerability. Montresor needs to punish Fortunato in a way that will not cause Montresor to be punished, himself. He's basically saying that he needs to think of a way to take his revenge that will protect him from suspicion and ensure that he gets away with it.

"A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser." The word "redress" means to fix or set right. Thus this sentence might translate to, "A problem is not set right if revenge overtakes the person trying to fix it." Montresor is saying that he needs to keep his wits about him and avoid being overcome by emotion, or by the manner in which he conducts his revenge - otherwise, being punished for what he's going to do to Fortunato will make it look as though the justice of his actions is not complete.

"It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong." The person who committed the crime needs to know that his actions have brought revenge upon him, and that revenge is what is taking place, rather than some sort of accident or unrelated offense. Montresor needs Fortunato to know that he is being punished, otherwise his crimes are not fully addressed because Fortunato will not know why this is happening.

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Montresor has a number of conditions on the revenge he seeks on Fortunato. First, he says, "I must not only punish but punish with impunity." In other words, it is not only vital that he exact revenge on his enemy but also that he must punish this enemy without incurring punishment for himself.  Next, he says that "A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser," which addresses an idea that is similar in some respects: Montresor feels that he won't actually have achieved his revenge on Fortunato if he, the avenger, must deal with some personal consequence for the revenge. This could refer to some form of punishment, but it could also refer to guilt. If Montresor spends the rest of his life feeling guilty about the revenge he takes on Fortunato, then how successful will his revenge really be? Some readers feel that Montresor does feel guilty about what he did to Fortunato and that this is why he is confessing it some fifty years after it has taken place. If this is the case, then his revenge has not been complete.

Montresor also says that a wrong "is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong." Thus, his final condition for revenge is that Fortunato must understand that Montresor is responsible for whatever pain or injury Fortunato is made to feel.

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Montresor takes a lot of pride in explaining (or over-explaining) the means, reasons, and effects of his revenge. In this phrase, Montresor is saying that a wrong is not really avenged if the punishment (retribution) controls or overtakes the redresser (Montresor). What is meant by "overtakes"? I think it means one of two things. The wrong is not really avenged if the retribution becomes more important than the person exacting the retribution. In other words, Montresor wants to punish Fortunato, but he wants this to be about himself and Fortunato. The other, more accepted explanation of this line is that the redresser should not get caught. This is what is meant by the retribution taking over the redresser. If the redresser gets too involved with the retribution, he may forget the overall strategy. He may get careless and get caught. He will be overtaken by the retribution. Montresor seems to be saying that revenge will not be as satisfying if he gets caught himself. So, he vows to remain in control of the retribution. 

This is why Montresor chooses to bury Fortunato. He essentially hides all evidence of his crime. In this way, he completely controls the retribution and the evidence. 

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These are the words of narrator in the exposition of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" as Montresor offers the reader his explanation of veritable revenge.  According to Montresor, it is not revenge, or retribution when this retribution comes upon the "redresser" suddenly; in other words, when the avenger is himself punished by being caught or harmed, etc.  Nor is it retribution when the avenger does not reveal his hatred to the one who has done the wrong:

I must not only punish, but punish with impunity.  a wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser.  It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as much to him who has done the wrong.

The elaborate plan of the man who has endured "the thousand injuries of Fortunato" fulfills the requirements that Montesor has set down.  For, Montesor punishes "with impunity"  since the revenge has been exacted fifty years ago, and no one has discovered his victim: 

For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them [Fortunato's bells].  In pace requiescat

Montesor has also made himself known to his victim.  Fortunato cries out from behind the wall, "For the love of God, Montresor," and Montresor responds, "Yes,...for the love of God."

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