Told in the first person by an Italian aristocrat, “The Cask of Amontillado” engages the reader by making him or her a confidant to Montresor’s macabre tale of revenge. The victim is Fortunato, who, the narrator claims, gave him a thousand injuries that he endured patiently, but when Fortunato dared insult him, he vowed revenge. It must be a perfect revenge, one in which Fortunato will know fully what is happening to him and in which Montresor will be forever undetected. To accomplish it, Montresor waits until carnival season, a time of “supreme madness,” when Fortunato, already half-drunk and costumed as a jester, is particularly vulnerable. Montresor then informs him that he has purchased a pipe of Amontillado wine but is not sure he has gotten the genuine article. He should, he says, have consulted Fortunato, who prides himself on being an expert on wine, adding that because Fortunato is engaged, he will go instead to Luchesi. Knowing his victim’s vanity, Montresor baits him by saying that some fools argue that Luchesi’s taste is as fine as Fortunato’s. The latter is hooked, and Montresor conducts him to his empty palazzo and leads him down into the family catacombs, all the while plying him with drink. Through underground corridors with piles of skeletons alternating with wine casks, Montresor leads Fortunato, whose jester’s bells jingle grotesquely in the funereal atmosphere. In the deepest crypt there is a small recess, and there Montresor chains Fortunato to a pair of iron staples and then begins to lay a wall of stone and mortar, with which he buries his enemy alive. While he does so, he relishes the mental torment of his victim, whom he then leaves alone in the dark, waiting in terror for his death.
“The Cask of Amontillado” is one of the clearest examples of Poe’s theory of the unity of the short story, for every detail in the story contributes to the overall ironic effect. The plot is relatively simple. Montresor seeks revenge on Fortunato for some unspecified insult by luring him down into his family vaults to inspect some wine he has purchased. However, Montresor’s plot to maneuver Fortunato to where he can wall him up alive is anything but straightforward. In fact, from the very beginning, every action and bit of dialogue is characterized as being just the opposite of what is explicitly stated.
The action takes place during carnival season, a sort of Mardi Gras when everyone is in masquerade and thus appearing as something they are not. Montresor makes sure that his servants will not be at home to hinder his plot by giving them explicit orders not to leave, and he makes sure that Fortunato will follow him into the wine cellar by playing on his pride and by urging him not to go. Every time Montresor urges Fortunato to turn back for his health’s sake, he succeeds in drawing him further into the snares of his revenge plot.
Moreover, the fact that Montresor knows how his plot is going to end makes it possible for him to play little ironic tricks on Fortunato. For example, when Fortunato says he will not die of a cough, Montresor knowingly replies, “True, true.” When Fortunato drinks a toast to the dead lying in the catacombs around them, Montresor ironically drinks to Fortunato’s long life. When Fortunato makes a gesture indicating that he is a member of the secret society of Masons, Montresor claims that he is also and proves it by revealing a trowel, the sign of his plot to wall up Fortunato.
The irony of the story cuts much deeper than this, however. At the beginning, Montresor makes much of the fact that there are two criteria for a successful revenge—that the avenger must punish without being punished in return and that he must make himself known as an avenger to the one who has done him the wrong. Nowhere in the story, however, does Montresor tell Fortunato that he is walling him up to fulfill his need for revenge; in fact, Fortunato seems to have no idea why he is being punished at all. Furthermore, the very fact that Montresor is telling the story of his crime some fifty years after it was committed to one who, he says, “so well know[s] the nature of my soul,” suggests that Montresor is now himself dying and confessing his crime to a priest, his final confessor.
That Montresor’s crime against Fortunato has had its hold on him for the past fifty years is supported by another detail in the story, the Montresor coat of arms—a huge human foot crushing a serpent, whose fangs are embedded in the heel; the accompanying motto translates as “No one harms me with impunity.” If the foot is a metonymic representation of Montresor crushing the metaphoric serpent Fortunato for his bite, then it is clear that, even though Montresor gets his revenge, the serpent continues to hold on.
The ultimate irony of the story then, is that, although Montresor has tried to fulfill his two criteria for a successful revenge, Fortunato has fulfilled them better than he has. Moreover, although Montresor now tells the story as a final confession to save his soul, the gleeful tone with which he tells it—a tone that suggests he is enjoying the telling of it in the present as much as he enjoyed committing the act in the past—means that it is not a good confession. Thus, although the story ends with the Latin phrase “rest in peace,” even after fifty years Montresor will not be able to rest in peace, for his gleeful confession of his story damns him to Hell for all eternity.
Although “The Cask of Amontillado” seems on the surface a relatively simple revenge story, it is, in fact, a highly complex story riddled with ironic reversals. Every detail in the story contributes to this central effect, and it is the overall design of the story that communicates its meaning—not some simple moral embedded within it or tacked on to the end.