Edgar Allan Poe describes the perfect murder in “The Cask of Amontillado.” No one discovers the body of Fortunato during the lifetime of the murderer Montresor. The entire story is a flashback narrated by Montresor looking back on the crime fifty years later.
It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend.
Poe was a master in the use of symbolism in his stories. One of the first symbols employed by Poe is the choice of (1) settings for the story. The "supreme madness of carnival season" represents a jovial time. The carnival provides Montresor the opportunity to entice Fortunato to go with him to look at the wine.
As the story progresses, the action moves to the catacombs under the city or underground graveyard. Dead bodies abound. As the characters journey through the catacomb, Fortunato moves from freedom to imprisonment.
Another symbol comes from the (2) title of the story. The cask of amontillado is the ruse that Montresor uses to draw Fortunato to his death.
The words cask and casket have the same root. The relationship between the two represents the means to draw Fortunato down to the catacombs and then on to the bricked casket.
The Amontillado signifies the two causes of Fortunato's demise. Fortunato is extremely drunk, yet Fortunato understands that the trip will produce one of two results--free wine or a humiliated Montresor.
Fortunato's passion for good wine leaves him susceptible to flattery which Montresor provides. Amontillado symbolizes pleasure, and Fortunato is willing to travel through a graveyard to get what he wants. The wine betrays him and the Amontillado signals his death.
(3)The Montresor family motto and coat of arms epitomizes the reason behind Montresor choosing to murder Fortunate. Fortunato comments on the Montresor family motto and emblem. The Latin phrase translates to nobody harms me with impunity. Fortunato should have heeded this warning. Anyone who does anything questionable to a Montresor will be punished.
The heraldry of the family contains a heal smashing a serpent's head as it sinks its fangs into the heel. It is symbolic of what happens to Fortunato. Fortunato has insulted Montessori’s pride (the snake biting the heel). Montresor kills Fortunato following the emblematic coat of arms of the heel crushing the serpent's head.
(4)The names of the characters correspond to their outcomes. Fortunato is the victim. The reader finds himself farther removed from Fortunato since Montresor is the narrator. Fortunato’s name literally means fortunate. Of course, in the story Fortunato is anything but lucky. Montresor fails to mention the specifics of the hurts that Fortunato gave to him; consequently, it is hard to agree that Fortunato deserves to die. Surely, his crime cannot be his braggadocio that he knows more about wine than Montresor.
Montresor denotes vengeance in the hearts of all men. For one character to be free, another must die. The treasure for Montresor is the death of Fortunato.
(5)Fortunato’s costume lends itself to fun. In reality, Fortunato dressed as a fool makes his character less likable and he becomes the ignoramus that he calls Luchesi. His conical cap with the bells is worn by a court jester whose purpose is to entertain. It is also the last sound that Montresor hears as he places the last brick in the tomb of Fortunato. Thus, the perfect ending for the great mystery story.
The first symbol is the cask of Amontillado itself. It is an extremely rare and valuable vintage. However, its functionality and usefulness are extremely limited. As a substance whose only real purpose is to intoxicate the user, it perfectly represents Fortunato’s abandonment of reason and common sense in the pursuit of the accoutrements of wealth and power. Not only is he oblivious to the insult he has offered Montressor, but he blindly and drunkenly follows him into an obviously dangerous situation in the pursuit of the cask.
Another example of symbolism within the story is the nature of the setting. On the surface, the city represents revelry and celebration. However, underneath the apparent revelry and happiness lie the catacombs, dark and sinister. This is a perfect parallel to Montressor’s mental state. While he is generous and light-heartened on the surface, beneath the façade, he harbors darkness and ill intent.
The celebration itself is an additional symbol. Carnival is a time when people feel free to engage in activities they may be reluctant to pursue during the normal course of their life. Additionally, Carnival is a time when people not only engage in various levels of debauchery, but it is a time of masks, costumes, and concealment of identity. Montressor has contained his impulse for revenge for an extended period of time. He has also masked his true intentions behind a façade of camaraderie and friendship.
Fortunato’s costume is an additional focus of symbolism within the story. He has chosen to don the garb of a “fool” for Carnival celebration. The traditional role of an addle-witted jester is extremely appropriate in this case as a reflection of not only his inebriated state throughout the course of the story, but of also how oblivious he is to Montressor’s true intentions.
Finally, both of the characters names represent various levels of both irony and symbolism. Fortunato’s name translates roughly as “the fortunate one” from Italian. He is obviously not fortunate in any way.
On the other hand, Montessor’s name, “my treasure” in French, can be interpreted in a number of ways. Primarily, it symbolizes his usage of the cask itself as a hidden prize to accomplish his goals. Additionally, the hidden prize that his name represents could also be interpreted as his revenge on Fortunato. First, he effectively buries Fortunato in the ground in an extremely secretive manner. Further, the revenge plot itself is a treasure in and of itself to Montressor, something he has secretly held close to his heart for an extended period of time.