In Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Cask of Amontillado," what is the meaning of the phrase "A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its addressor"?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story “The Cask of Amontillado” has one primary theme: retribution. From the first word of the story, the narrator explains to the reader that he has been insulted by Fortunato; consequently, he will be avenged.  This was definition of Poe’s stories: one singular purpose with every detail pointing toward that end.

The point of view is first person with Montresor narrating his vengeful story.

“I must not only punish but punish with impunity.  A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser.  It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who had done the wrong.”

When Montresor seeks his revenge, he must do it without being punished himself.  If Montresor is discovered or punished for getting his vengeance, than he will not have achieved his retaliation.  Furthermore, if Montresor does not make sure that Fortunato knows that it is he that is seeking to punish him, then his plan will also fail.

  • Insult=punishment
  • Insult with Montresor being punished for seeking his revenge---nothing is accomplished
  • Insult without Fortunato knowing that Montresor desires to punish him—nothing is accomplished

Montresor has gone to great lengths to plan his revenge.  He has set the time during the carnival when everyone will be drinking and reveling. His servants will be gone with his palace. The evil narrator knows that he can lure Fortunato down to the catacombs because Fortunato thinks that he is the only one who can recognize the amontillado.

The catacombs are deep within the earth and under the house of Montresor.  He has prepared the tools necessary to complete the final punishment.

Dressed as a court jester, Fortunato has been drinking too much.  He does agree to go with Montresor and taste the wine. As they walk deep into the catacombs, Fortunato has a terrible coughing spell.  Fortunato makes the statement that he will not die of a cough.  Montresor ironically agrees because he knows exactly how and when Fortunato will die.

Eventually, the two arrive at the end of the catacombs. Bones are lined from the floor to the ceiling which will also keep any sounds from reaching outside of the catacombs.  Before Fortunato realizes what has happened, Montresor chains him to the wall.  Fortunato screams and cries out; Montresor joins him in yelling.  Nothing can be heard on the surface. 

Montresor walls up Fortunato. When he gets to the last brick, Montresor has a slight twinge of guilt which he attributes to the cold in the catacombs.  He pushes the last brick in place sealing the fate of Fortunato.

At the end of the story, the reader learns that Montresor accomplished his purpose.  No one has discovered Fortunato’s body or tomb for fifty years.  His final statement on behalf of Fortunato is “Rest in peace.”  Montresor punished Fortunato without anyone knowing that he committed a crime.

Read the study guide:
The Cask of Amontillado

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