illustration of Fortunato standing in motley behind a mostly completed brick wall with a skull superimposed on the wall where his face should be

The Cask of Amontillado

by Edgar Allan Poe
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Poe is a master at creating an eerie, suspenseful mood in his stories. What some examples in the text that illustrate this mood?

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One of the ways Poe builds this eerie mood is through crafting an unreliable narrator. We are told in the opening sentence that our narrator has withstood a "thousand injuries of Fortunato," yet we never do find out how Fortunato has managed to push Montresor to murder. The fact that there is no evidence that Fortunato was in the least deserving of this death makes us wonder whether our narrator is sane. Should we believe this story?

The sense of suspense builds when Montresor plays to Fortunato's weakness of pride and lures him directly in the trap he has laid. Fortunato "prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine," and Montresor tells him that he has "received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado," but that he doubts its authenticity. As expected, Fortunato cannot help himself and basically begs to go with Montresor to inspect it, walking right into the tomb of his death.

Montresor convinces Fortunato to continue into the catacombs through even more flattery. He tells Fortunato that they must go back because the man is "rich, respected, admired, beloved...a man to be missed." Montresor thereby deepens Fortunato's trust by telling the man all the things he wants to hear. When Fortunato asks what his family's motto is, Montresor replies, "Nemo me impune lacessit," which loosely translates as "No one can harm me unpunished."

Perhaps the eeriest and most troubling aspect of the plot is that Fortunato blindly trusts the wrong person and dies a horrible death because of it. His character flaw of pride is realized by his enemy and then manipulated to his final demise—and all for untold "injuries."

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Poe is a master at using imagery—description employing any of the five senses of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell—to create a mood. He does this as he describes the catacombs.

Because we have long been a visual culture, most writers rely on images we can see in our mind's eye, so I will first focus on Poe's more unusual use of sound imagery in this story. Near the end, as the chained Fortunato realizes he is being bricked into a crevice in the catacombs to die, he starts to scream. Montresor joins him, and their screams compete until Montresor's overcome Fortunato's. Fortunato then grows silent. Poe describes it this way:

A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment I hesitated—I trembled. ... I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I re-echoed—I aided—I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamorer grew still.

There is something particularly eerie about the loud, competing screams echoing over and over in the chilly catacombs—and something even more eerie about Fortunato's sudden silence. It seems it would terrifying to stumble by accident into the catacombs and hear those shrieks, and terrifying to hear them suddenly stop.

Other eerie touches include the black silk mask Montresor wears, which hides his face just as his flattering words hide his intentions.

The dark, narrow passages of the bone-littered catacombs with damp walls, lit only by Montresor's flaming torch, are also eery, and lead us to wonder what will happen in that isolated setting.

We then not only see but feel the cold and damp as Montresor stops, takes Fortunato's arm, and describes the scene before them, especially the nitre on the walls:

It hangs like moss upon the vaults. We are below the river’s bed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones.

The above too is an eerie image that might lead us to think Fortunato would do well to take Montresor's advice and head out of the catacombs.

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Mood is a literary tool that authors use to evoke feelings in readers. It is often confused with tone; however, tone refers to the author's attitude and feelings toward a subject. Mood is sometimes referred to as atmosphere and is influenced by setting, theme, and even tone.

You are correct that Poe's short story "The Cask of Amontillado" is eerie and suspenseful. Poe is able to craft that mood right from the very first paragraph. Poe has Montresor tell readers that he is planning revenge, so right from the start we know that a tense confrontation is going to happen soon after.

From that point forward, I would say that the majority of the mood is carried by the story's setting. Once Montresor sets his plan into motion, the story is set at night. Bad, scary, and creepy things come out and happen at night. Next, Poe lets readers know that Montresor's home is oddly empty. There are no attendants at home, and Montresor specifically made sure that they would not return until the next day. The setting continues to get scarier because Montresor doesn't have the amontillado on a shelf in the main house. The fine wine is deep in the catacombs. They are dark, damp, and often used as burial chambers. Nothing about catacombs says fun, lighthearted, or festive. They are dark and eerie places, and the suspense is built up by not knowing Montresor's plan and being forced to follow him down a dark passage.

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In "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe uses rhetorical strategies to create an eerie and suspenseful tone and mood.  For example, early in the story, Poe has Montresor challenge Fortunato's expertise by suggesting that another man--Luchresi--is more of a wine expert than Fortunato is.  Montresor says:

"'My friend, no; I will not impose upon your good nature. I perceive you have an engagement. Luchresi--'"

Immediately, afterwards, Fortunato tells Montresor that Luchresi is a fraud and that he knows nothing of Amontillado.  Dramatic irony is at play here as the reader knows that Montresor is meaning to do harm to Fortunato and that he is using this ploy to bait and trap Fortunato.  Thus, the story gains suspense.

Further, Poe uses imagery to develop the eerie nature of the story.  As Montresor leads Fortunato further into the catacombs, the description of the scene is eerie:

"We had passed through long walls of piled skeletons, with casks and puncheons intermingling, into the inmost recesses of the catacombs."

In addition to there being skeletons lining the walls, the air is damp and there is little light, which sets the eerie scene for Fortunato's fate.

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