The main plot of Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado” is easy to describe. Montresor, a wealthy man, feels that he has been insulted by another man named Fortunato. The precise nature of the insult is never revealed, but Montresor considers it serious enough that he intends to kill Fortunato in retaliation. Knowing that Fortunato regards himself as an expert about wines, Montresor allows Fortunato to think that he (Montresor) may have been deceived by a third person (Luchesi) about the purchase of some amontillado wine. Fortunato then insists on traveling deep into Montresor’s underground wine faults to see and taste the amontillado. Montresor is only too happy to let Fortunato undertake this journey. Ultimately he buries Fortunato alive.
Some elements of this basic storyline are especially noteworthy, including the following:
- In the very beginning of the story, Montresor not only explains his desire for revenge but also addresses an unnamed “you” to whom he explains his plans:
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat.
Who, exactly, is Montresor addressing here? Why does he feel comfortable confessing murder to this unnamed person? In what senses does this person know well the nature of his “soul”? Is it possible that the person addressed here is a priest? If so, why does Montresor not express greater guilt for having killed another person? What leads Montresor to confess a crime committed (as we learn later) so many years ago? These are just a few of the questions provoked by the story’s second sentence – a sentence that immensely complicates the nature of the tale. If Montresor had made no mention of a person he was addressing – if he had simply launched into his tale – the story would seem much simpler and much less provocative.
- Equally interesting is the fact that Montresor never reveals exactly how and why he felt insulted by Fortunato. What kind of insult could have been so great that it would justify retaliatory murder? By leaving this element of the plot obscure, Poe contributes to the mystery of the story. We are left guessing about the nature of the insult.
- At one point Montresor confesses fear when he hears Fortunato screaming. Presumably he is afraid that Fortunato will be heard and that the crime will be discovered and prevented:
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. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess; but the thought of an instant reassured me.
Is it possible, however, that Montresor is frightened in some deeper sense? Is it possible that he is feeling guilt about his actions?
- Near the very end of the story, Montresor reports,
My heart grew sick on account of the dampness of the catacombs.
Is this the full or only reason that his heart grew sick? Does it possibly grow sick in part because of an attack of conscience? Once again, we are left to wonder. The plot of the story is basically simple, but Poe complicates the plot in a variety of interesting ways.