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
Start Free Trial

What does Montresor mean when he says he must punish with impunity in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

In "The Cask of Amontillado," Montresor means when he says he must "punish with impunity" that Fortunato must pay for the "thousand injuries" which he has inflicted upon Montresor. Fortunato must die for his actions, and he must know that it is Montresor who kills him. Montresor also wants to make sure that he is not held legally responsible for the old man's murder. In this way, he succeeds in orchestrating the perfect crime.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The narrator of "The Cask of Amontillado" is bent on revenge. He opens this story by insisting that Fortunato has inflicted a "thousand injuries" upon him and claims that he has dealt with these injustices as best as he possibly could. Yet somehow, Fortunato's actions have ventured into "insulting" Montresor, and at this point, Montresor has decided that he can no longer bear these "thousand injuries." Fortunato must pay, and Montresor believes that the man must know exactly how insulted Montresor has felt. He insists that he must "punish with impunity."

One one level, Montresor desires to commit this crime without having to deal with legal acts of justice himself. In this way, his plans are perfect. Fifty years later, he recalls the way he led Fortunato to the tomb of his death, and no one has ever suspected Montresor of a crime.

Yet he also wants Fortunato to pay for his crimes without allowing him an opportunity for legal justice or redress. Montresor never explicates the nature of these thousand injuries, yet he is clear that he is bent on only one course of action at this point: revenge by murder. He has passed through any legal decisions. Instead, Fortunato must pay for his crimes with his life, and Montresor must make sure that the old man knows that it is Montresor who kills him.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Montresor wants to commit a perfect crime, and he succeeds in doing so. He not only wants to avoid getting punished for Fortunato's murder, but he wants to make sure that he isn't even suspected of having anything to do with Fortunato's strange disappearance. "Impunity" literally means freedom from punishment. Montresor can only enjoy such freedom if he doesn't have to worry about coming under suspicion at some future time. At the end of the tale he says:

Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. 

This means that his wall has not been discovered in fifty years, and hence the skeleton of Fortunato has not been discovered either. This seems to prove that Montresor committed his crime with "impunity," and perhaps it is only now, after fifty years, that he feels completely safe from punishment.

Montresor's desire for impunity is largely responsible for his problem, and his problem is what drives the story from beginning to end. He wants to get Fortunato down into the catacombs, which offer the best place to hide the body. Getting rid of a body is almost always the problem in a perfect-crime story. He can tell Fortunato he has a cask of Amontillado down there--but why should Fortunato volunteer to accompany him to his palazzo immediately? And how can Montresor conduct Fortunato to his palazzo without being seen by many witnesses as the last person to be with Fortunato before his disappearance? 

Montresor lures Fortunato to his death by telling him he got a bargain on the wine. This is what interests Fortunato. But he doesn't have to sample Montresor's wine at all. He naturally assumes that a ship must have just arrived from Barcelona with a whole cargo of Amontillado. He would have no trouble finding the ship (if it existed). But Montresor forestalls that possibility by saying that he is on his way to Luchesi. Fortunato doesn't want Luchesi to hear about a cargo of Amontillado for sale at a bargain price. This forces him to go with Montresor.

And how does Montresor manage to get Fortunato to his palazzo without being recognized as his companion? Edgar Allan Poe shows his genius here. He makes Fortunato so conspicuous in a harlequin jester's costume complete with a cap with ringing bells that Montresor, in his black cloak and black mask, is like a shadow. Everybody will remember seeing Fortunato on the night of his disappearance--but nobody will remember seeing anybody with him.

In order to assure himself of "impunity," Montresor also does everything possible to make everybody, including Fortunato, believe that these two men are the best of friends. Throughout the story Montresor addresses Fortunato as "My friend" and speaks of him as "My friend," "My good friend," and "My poor friend." No doubt he always refers to Fortunato as "My good friend" whenever he is talking about him to other people. In fact, Montresor has so conditioned himself to thinking of Fortunato as his very good friend that he cannot help referring to him as "My friend" even while he is leading him to his death. After Fortunato disappears, there is bound to be a widespread and long-lasting inquiry; but it will never occur to anybody that Montresor could have had anything to do with Fortunato's disappearance because he is such a devoted friend. Montresor will continue to make inquiries about Fortunato long after everybody else has stopped wondering about him. Montresor will have achieved perfect impunity.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team