What is the setting in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Poe intentionally set "The Cask of Amontillado" long ago and far away because it is a perfect-crime story. Editors wouldn't publish a story in which a contemporary American commits a cold-blooded, premeditated murder--and gets away with it! Poe ends his story with these words:

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

So the crime was committed at least a half-century ago and probably somewhat longer. The victim is dead and his body has never been discovered. The perpetrator is also probably dead by this time. Even if Fortunato's body were found now, there would be no one to charge with his murder, and it might be impossible even to identify him as the long-missing Fortunato. The story seems to be represented as an old letter found among the papers of Montresor after his death and tranlated into English by a Mr. Edgar Allan Poe to be published in an American magazine; or else as having been found among the papers of the now dead recipient of Montresor's confidential letter. 

Since Montresor is writing to a man or woman whom he addresses as "You, who so well know the nature of my soul," there is no need for him to explain where his palazzo is located. Such large, imposing buildings could only have been built in important cities, and the word palazzo immediately suggests Venice. The annual carnival of Venice, which is still celebrated today, was world famous. There are two settings in the story, the crowded streets where Montresor encounters his victim, and the stygian catacombs where he entombs him. 

The effect of the story is produced largely by the underground setting full of dead men's bones. Poe lures the reader down into these dark tunnels just as Montresor lures Fortunato. Through his narrator Montresor, Poe describes the darkness, dampness, bones, dripping water, and fetid odors. The gloomy setting was also essential to the commission of the perfect crime. Fortunato's body had to be completely hidden from the world because he was an important man and there would be an extensive inquiry into his disappearance. 

There are still very few stories, novels, or movies in which a perfect crime is successfully committed, although there are many in which some unscrupulous egotist attempts to commit a perfect murder but gets caught because of having overlooked one important detail. (Poe wrote several such stories himself, including "The Tell-Tale Heart." Readers and moviegoers are intrigued by perfect-crime plots, but most of them do not really want to see a murderer get away with his crime. They can't even be sure that he did get away with it, because there is no statute of limitations on murder, and a "cold case" with be broken years after the event by someone's confession or some newly discovered piece of evidence. Poe had to have Montresor say at the end that he had gotten away with Fortunato's murder for at least fifty years before the reader can feel assured that the crime was really successful.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The setting is most likely Italy as in the exposition of Poe's story, Montresor describes his enemy, Fortunato, to his audience,

He had a weak point--this Fortunato....He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit....In painting and gemmary,l Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack....

With the name of the narrator and his rather supercilious attitude, the reader can assume that Montresor is French. The catacombs into which Montresor lures Fortunato on the pretext that the man dressed as a harlequin during the "Carnival," or the celebration prior to the six weeks of Lent, give a taste judgment from a vat of Amontillado houses at least some of Montresor's ancestors in its catacombs. For, as the two men traverse the damp corridor that winds and curves, Montresor points to his coat of arms, on which there is a huge golden foot that crushes a rearing serpent against a blue background. It is described with French: "A huge human foot d'or [of gold] and the narrator employs another French word, puncheons, which are large vats.

Further, Montresor's diction may be a clue that he is French as he describes his drawing of the sword as his rapier; earlier, he has drawn a roquelaure, a cloak, over his shoulders. Still, the setting is ambiguous. Perhaps, because Americans such as Poe were intrigued in the 19th century with the grotesque and gothic of southern Europe, the story is set in this geographic area: The Amontillado wine is Spanish, Fortunato and Luchese are clearly Italian, Montresor is French, yet his "catacombs" are probably located in Rome where the early Christians hid. 

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Edgar Allan Poe, in his short story The Cask of Amontillado, provides no overt description of the setting in which his macabre story takes place.  The reader, however, can easily infer the setting from a number of phrases and words Poe uses in telling his story of a vengeful man luring an acquaintance to his doom.  While a discussion of Italian wines does not in and of itself suggest that the story takes place in Italy, it does appear to be the case that a town or city in Italy is in fact the setting.  First, there is this passage by the narrator that strongly implies an Italian setting:

“He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity—to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack—but in the matter of old wines he was sincere.”

“Few Italians” combined with the name “Fortunato” and the references to Britain and Austria clearly suggest an Italian setting, as there is definitely a European focus here.  In addition, reference to another acquaintance, “Luchese,” again suggests an Italian locale.  Finally, there is the following passage that again strongly implies that the story takes place in Italy:

“Putting on a mask of black silk, and drawing a roquelaire closely about my person, I suffered him to hurry me to my palazzo. There were no attendants at home;”

So, we can establish that the city, town or village is in Italy, and we know that Poe lived in the early 19th Century, and that The Cask of Amontillado was published in 1846, so it seems logical to place the time frame towards the middle of that century.  The bulk of the story, though, takes place inside the narrator’s home, which is apparently quite large, and quite old.  We can, again, infer from the information provided in the narration that follows that the home is gothic in nature and was built many years, possibly centuries before the story takes place:

“I took from their sconces two flambeaux, and giving one to Fortunato, bowed him through several suites of rooms to the archway that led into the vaults. I passed down a long and winding staircase, requesting him to be cautious as he followed. We came at length to the foot of the descent, and stood together on the damp ground of the catacombs of the Montresors.”

A long winding staircase suggests a large structure with a deep cellar, in which are located a series of catacombs, subterranean burial sites that could date back to the Roman Empire, thereby once again suggesting a very old and very large building.  To conclude, then, The Cask of Amontillado takes place in an Italian village or town, around the early- to mid-19th Century, with the story’s climax taking place in the dungeon of an old and large building. 

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