What does irony add to Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"?

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A strikingly ironic feature of Poe's story is the completely trusting attitude Fortunato appears to show toward Montresor. It's partly explained by the fact that Fortunato is drunk, but what we see, moreover, is the typical situation in Poe in which either a victim or a villain seems immune to the ordinary processes of thought and rationality. Fortunato is similar in this way to the king and courtiers in Poe's "Hop-Frog," who never seem to realize, until it is too late for them, that Hop-Frog hates them and is planning an extremely gruesome form of vengeance to carry out against them.

Several smaller details in "The Cask of Amontillado" similarly embody an irony without which the story might come across as a rather too straightforward and even unsubtle tale of violent revenge. First, we are never given the specifics of any of the "thousand injuries" Fortunato has supposedly inflicted upon Montresor. The ironic absence of any description increases the sense of irrationality and even terror embodied in the narrative. The psychotic underpinnings of Montresor's behavior remind one of the narrator of "The Black Cat," whose acts are all the more terrifying and sadistic because they are unexplained.

But two further ironic touches toward the end of "The Cask of Amontillado" add even more to the puzzle of Montresor's character. When Fortunato cries in desperation, "For the love of God, Montresor!" the man committing murder echoes him, repeating, "Yes, for the love of God!" It's an unexpected display of piety, to say the least, and it does not appear to be said in mockery. Finally, Montresor pronounces "In pace requiescat!" Given the hatred and brutality that would make a man wall someone up alive in a tomb, one would think it more likely the murderer would wish the opposite of "resting in peace" to his victim. Without these ironic subtleties, Poe's story would be far shallower and much less memorable.

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Irony comes in several varieties--verbal, structural/situational, dramatic--and generally heightens the our engagement with the text because we generally enjoy knowing more about a particular character's situation than the character does.

In "The Cask of Amontillado" Poe uses all three types.  For example, the use of dramatic irony not only allows us to know more about what is going on than a character (in this case, Fortunato), we also clearly understand that Fortunato is never going to enjoy the Amontillado because he is being lured to his death--a fate of which he is blissfully unaware.  Part of the our enjoyment of this irony is that Fortunato is a prideful, pompous man who thinks he has total control over his condition, and we know that this pride is actually leading him to his death.

Poe employs verbal irony very cleverly when he and Fortunato exchange comments about Fortunato's cold:

'Enough,' he [Fortunato] said; 'the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me.  I shall not die of a cough.'

'True--true,' I [Montresor] replied.

The humor (fairly dark humor) is, of course, that we and Montresor know that Fortunato is not going to die of a cough, and so Fortunato is completely correct, but he is only correct because his death will come from a very different situation, one that he cannot possibly suspect at this point in the story.

Another example of both situational and verbal irony occurs as the two men descend into the catacombs, and they reach a point at which they discuss Montresor's coat of arms and the Montresor family motto Nemo me impune lacessit, which is Latin for "No one harms me with impunity."  Based on Montresor's comment at the the beginning of the story that Fortunato has insulted Montresor to such an extent that Montresor decides to kill him, we have to be both amused and slightly horrified that Montresor's family motto is actually being acted out and, again, Fortunato is completely unaware of his situation and the threat to implied by Montresor's family motto.  

Poe's use of irony in "The Cask of Amontillado" provides us with a great deal of foreknowledge of the story's conclusion, and the irony instills the narrative with very dark humor, which helps to lighten what would otherwise be a very grim story.

 

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