The Cask of Amontillado Edgar Allan Poe - Essay

Edgar Allan Poe


(Short Story Criticism)

"The Cask of Amontillado" Edgar Allan Poe

See also "The Tell-Tale Heart" Criticism and "The Fall of the House of Usher" Criticism.

Regarded as the originator of the modern short story and a master of the form, Poe established a highly influential rationale for short narrative art, which emphasizes the deliberate arrangement of a story's minutest details of setting, characterization, and structure in order to impress a unified effect on the reader. In his own work he demonstrated a brilliant command of this technique—often eliciting "terror, or passion, or horror" from his readers—as well as an uncommon imagination suffused with eerie thoughts, weird impulses, and foreboding fear. Renowned for cultivating an aura of mystery and a taste for the ghastly in his fiction, Poe relied on his imagination and literary skills to animate the disconcerting effects of his so-called "tales of horror," especially those dealing with crime and moral depravity. Among the latter kind, "The Cask of Amontillado" ranks as one of Poe's finest stories. Originally published in November 1846, in Godey's Lady's Book, "The Cask of Amontillado" has since become a classic tale of revenge, distinguished by the subtle irony that pervades many levels of the story and by Poe's uncharacteristic use of dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist as the principal structural device of the narrative.

Plot and Major Characters

Set in an anonymous city somewhere in the Mediterranean region of Europe during the pre-Lenten festivities of the carnival season, "The Cask of Amontillado" recounts the last meeting between two aristocratic gentlemen, the narrator Montresor and the wine connoisseur Fortunato. As the story begins, Montresor plots complete and perfect revenge for "the thousand injuries" instigated by Fortunato, who once again has insulted him, although the particulars are never indicated. Montresor encounters the obviously tipsy Fortunato dressed in fool's motley and informs him that a recently acquired cask of amontillado sherry awaits his discriminating palate in Montresor's underground cellars. Eager to taste the wine, Fortunato follows Montresor to his palazzo and into the vaults. Although Fortunato has a cough that is aggravated by the damp air and potassium nitrate hanging in the tunnels through which they pass, he is spurred onward after he learns that his rival Luchresi may be permitted to taste Montresor's new wine. Engaging Fortunato in dialogue ripe with irony, Montresor lures his victim deep into the family catacombs, urging him to try other wines along the way. As Fortunato grows impatient to sample the amontillado and assess its quality, he is easily directed into a crypt at the end of a passage where Montresor promptly shackles him in chains to the wall. With both a trowel and fresh mortar nearby, Montresor begins to entomb Fortunato brick by brick. Sobering quickly, Fortunato cries in vain for release. As Montresor finishes his task, the bells on Fortunato's costume jingle faintly. Montresor then hides his handiwork behind a pile of his ancestor's bones. He concludes that no one has disturbed them for fifty years.

Major Themes

Themes of betrayal and revenge clearly inform "The Cask of Amontillado," but the pervasive irony of Montresor's narration complicates attempts to understand his motives and other conflicts at the heart of the tale. At the same time, layers of irony also contribute to the story's tone of horror. While Fortunato remains blissfully ignorant of Montresor's true intentions for most of the story, the evident pleasure Montresor takes in relating his story, proudly recalling every detail fifty years after the fact, suggests a state of mind free of remorse and detached from any sense of conscience. The ironic connotations of the story also inspire darkly comedic moments and evince Poe's satiric sense of humor. Montresor's pursuit of revenge against Fortunato represents the enactment of an elaborate ritual that resembles the profane rites of the "Black Mass" or a parody of archetypal events, such as the conflict between good and evil, replete with biblical echoes; the implications of the story's last line, "In pace requiescat" ("may he/it rest in peace"), which derives from the Roman Catholic funeral rite, proliferate in the ironic context of the narrative. Likewise, the proper nouns in the story—Amontillado, Montresor, Fortunato, Luchresi—demonstrate Poe's disposition toward puns and fascination with the multiple meanings of foreign words. The traditional aristocratic code of personal honor and social obligation shapes other aspects of the tale. Although violations of the code were usually redressed in the form of the duello, here insults are expressed by a duel with words in form of Montresor's dialogue with Fortunato. Other thematic concerns involve the prevalence of masonic imagery in the story, perhaps gesturing toward the Masonic-Catholic conflict that swept the United States at the time of the story's composition, as well as the thematic device of enclosure, which Poe used in many other stories, although its presence in "The Cask of Amontillado" may allude to the popularity of live-burial literature in Poe's era.

Critical Reception

Regarded as one of Poe's greatest and most famous tales, "The Cask of Amontillado" has attracted a broad range of commentary representing a wide spectrum of perspectives. Critics generally agree that "The Cask of Amontillado" exemplifies Poe's theory of short fiction, in which every narrative detail of a successful story contributes to a single intense effect. However, a consensus opinion about specific details remains elusive. Some scholars have disputed the time and place of the action in Poe's story as well as the national origins of the principal characters, while other commentators have suggested that the tale reflects Poe's personal bitterness in the so-called "War of the Literati," which resulted from a series of critical articles entitled "The Literati" that Poe published in Godey's Lady's Book just before "The Cask" appeared. Psychoanalytic readings have emphasized the macabre and pathological elements in the work, ranging from the psychological implications of Montresor's "motiveless evil" and a perceived division within the psyche of Montresor, or even Poe, to personality transference between the characters. Others have focused on "The Cask of Amontillado" as a practical application of Poe's theory of perversity, which hinges on apparent irrelevancies. The final line of the story has troubled many commentators: some feel that it indicates a guilty motivation for Montresor's story, while others detect sarcasm or alternative figures to whom it is addressed. Francis J. Henninger concluded that Poe "had been writing tales with startling endings, but [in The Cask of Amontillado'] he writes one guaranteed not to startle. When it does, the effect is so delightfully jarring and puzzling that it is not easily forgotten. Why else should this story . . . bear the weight . . . of the scrutiny of so many years of reading?"

Joseph S. Schick (essay date 1934)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Origin of 'The Cask of Amontillado'," in American Literature, Vol. 6, No. 1, March, 1934, pp. 18-21.

[In the following essay, Schick traces incidental similarities between Poe's tale and Joel Tyler Headley 's Letters from Italy (1845).]

Although many questions of literary indebtedness are open to discussion, still we can be reasonably certain that the origin of Poe's tale, "The Cask of Amontillado," was not wholly inspirational. Professor Killis Campbell has suggested that portions of the work may possibly be traced to certain incidents in The Last Days of Pompeii and in Balzac's "La Grande Brétèche."1 It is true that Montresor's method of tricking Fortunato into the underground chambers is not unlike that of Bulwer-Lytton's Arbaces in leading a priest to imprisonment. But in the immurement which marks the climax of "The Cask of Amontillado" and which Poe again used in the tale of "The Black Cat," both Bulwer-Lytton and Balzac may be disregarded as possible sources. Instead, we must turn to an American contemporary of Poe, the Reverend Joel Tyler Headley (1814-1897) and to his Letters From Italy2 (1845) in a study of the composition of "The Cask of Amontillado."3

Headley was one of the most popular writers of his day, for up to 1853 over two hundred thousand copies of his works had been sold.4 But Poe did not join the public in its common acclaim. In fact, the one review that he wrote of Headley, on The Sacred Mountains, may be regarded as typical of the Norman Leslie school of criticism. Poe was bitter, harsh, and ruthless. In this review he gives evidence of knowing other works by Headley, for he writes that "a book is a 'funny' book and nothing but a funny book, whenever it happens to be penned by Mr. Headley."5 Now the only literary production of Headley that Poe could have had in mind in making this statement was the Letters From Italy, for it was the only publication of Headley prior to The Sacred Mountains.

Although there is no exact evidence to show that Poe had read the Letters From Italy entire, there were other possibilities which might have brought one of Headley's letters containing the germ of "The Cask of Amontillado" to his attention. The letter in question was printed separately in two publications well known to Poe under the title, "A Sketch, A Man Built in a Wall," in The Columbian Magazine and The New York Evening Mirror. The letter appeared in the former in the issue of August, 1844, which also contained Poe's article on "Mesmeric Revelation." Poe sent copies of this issue to Lowell and to Chivers, a fact which may indicate that the magazine was actually in his possession.6 Thus we can be reasonably certain that Headley's article came to his attention. One year later, on July 12, 1845, Headley's letter was again printed in The New York Evening Mirror. At this time Poe was no longer on the staff of the Mirror, but no Poe scholar will deny that he was in daily contact with the paper, so far as that was possible, throughout his later career. His connection with the Mirror was especially sympathetic in the year 1845, which marked the first appearance of "The Raven" in its columns. In view of these facts, it is not likely that Headley's letter describing an immurement was unknown to him. Nothing is more eloquent of this than his subsequent use of the material.

The letter by Headley may be summed up briefly. He and his companion enter the little town of San Giovanni, in Italy. They are shown through the church of San Lorenzo. In the wall of the church is a niche covered with "a sort of trap-door," containing an upright human skeleton. This ghastly spectacle had been discovered by workmen some years previous to Headley's visit, but it had not been disturbed. Headley describes the skeleton in detail and concludes that the victim had died of suffocation after having been walled-up alive. The history of the...

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Marvin Felheim, Sam Moon, and Donald Pearce (essay date 1954)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Cask of Amontillado,'" in Notes & Queries, Vol. 1, No. 10, October, 1954, pp. 447-49.

[In the following essay, each critic focuses on the structure of Poe's tale. In the first part, Felheim explains two requisites for Montresor to perfect his revenge; in the second part Moon accounts for Montresor's failure to exact revenge; and in the third part, Pearce compares Poe's story to a profane rite, or scriptural parody.]

In "The Cask of Amontillado" there are two parts, equally important, to Montresor's revenge: "I must not only punish, but punish with impunity"; and "the avenger [must] make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong." If the story...

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John H. Randall III (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poe's The Cask of Amontillado' and the Code of the Duello," in Studia Germanica Gandensig, Vol. V, 1963, pp. 175-84.

[In the following essay, Randall demonstrates how Fortunato's violations of the aristocratic code of honor motivate Montresor's revenge.]

All critics agree that Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" is an almost perfect short story. Few, however, seem to have much to say about how Poe manages to achieve his extraordinary effect. I would like to propose a possible interpretation which might help explain the undeniable power which the story exerts on readers generation after generation.

A review of the relevant scholarship...

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J. Rea (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poe's The Cask of Amontillado'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. IV, No. 1, Fall, 1966, pp. 57-69.

[In the following essay, Rea interprets Montresor's actions in terms of Poe's theory of perversity.]

The critics say that the theme of "The Cask of Amontillado" is revenge. Hardin Craig says that the first paragraph of the story presents this theme.1 Dorothy Norris Foote finds that revenge is not only the motive for Montresor's burying Fortunato alive but also his motive in telling the story, since he failed to make sure that Fortunato understood at the time that he was the victim of revenge and since revenge is not revenge "when the avenger fails to...

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James W. Gargano (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Cask of Amontillado': A Masquerade of Motive and Identity," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. IV, No. 2, Winter, 1967, pp. 119-26.

[In the following essay, Gargano considers the symbolic value of Montresor and Fortunato, arguing "'The Cask of Amontillado' is a work of art (which means it embodies a serious comment on the human condition) and not just an ingenious Gothic exercise. "]

"The Cask of Amontillado," one of Edgar Allan Poe's richest aesthetic achievements, certainly deserves more searching analysis than it has received. To be sure, critics and anthologists have almost unanimously expressed admiration for the tale;1 still, they have...

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John Freehafer (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poe's 'Cask of Amontillado': A Tale of Effect," in Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien, edited by Ernst Fraenkel, Hans Galinsky, Dietrich Gerhard, Ursula Brumm, and H. J. Lang, Carl Winter, 1968, pp. 134-42.

[In the following essay, Freehafer provides an overview of scholarship on Poe's tale.]

According to the usual view, Edgar Allan Poe's "Cask of Amontillado" is a masterful tale of an implacable revenge for an unspecified insult, marked by economy of words and singleness of effect. Yet no part of this customary estimate of the story has gone unchallenged. Whereas one writer contends that it is not a tale of revenge at all, but a manifestation of "Poe's theory of...

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Kathryn Montgomery Harris (essay date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ironic Revenge in Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. VI, No. 3, Spring, 1969, pp. 333-35.

[In the following essay, Harris indicates how Masonic imagery coheres the tale's ironic effects.]

"The Cask of Amontillado" has been less often read for itself than used to support theories about Poe's life, his psyche, or his narrative technique. It well illustrates his obsession with live burial and his use of sadism as a Gothic device,1 and it meets exactly the criteria of unity and economy set out in his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales. But such readings separate theme and form, emphasizing one at the other's...

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Francis J. Henninger (essay date 1970)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bouquet of Poe's Amontillado," in South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, March, 1970, pp. 35-40.

[In the following essay, Henninger explains how the ending of Poe's story always elicits shock, despite the conclusion's obvious predictability.]

"Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before anything can be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention."


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James E. Rocks (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Conflict and Motive in The Cask of Amontillado'," in Poe Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2, December, 1972, pp. 50-1.

[In the following essay, Rocks provides a cultural context for the Catholic-Masonic conflict that informs the plot.]

Critical commentary on "The Cask of Amontillado" has tended to dismiss the question of Montresor's motive in killing Fortunato, but the tone of the story betrays a narrator confused and troubled by the guilt of a vengeful murder that has deprived him of spiritual peace and sanctifying grace, though convinced of the righteousness of his act. His uneasy conscience has become a kind of retribution for his crime, and the benediction "In pace...

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Philip McM. Pittman (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Method and Motive in 'The Cask of Amontillado'," in The Malahat Review, No. 34, April, 1975, pp. 87-100.

[In the following essay, Pittman argues that the perceived inconsistencies of Poe's tale contribute to its narrative, tonal, and thematic unity, positing that a symbolic schema, in which Fortunato's character assumes diabolic proportions, structures the tale.]

It may prove both presumptuous and superfluous to try to add "yet one word more" to the already respectable body of critical material available on "The Cask of Amontillado." General consensus has it that the story is one of Poe's best, or at least one of his most effective. It is perhaps a measure of...

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Charles A. Sweet, Jr. (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Retapping Poe's 'Cask of Amontillado'," in Poe Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, June, 1975, pp. 10-12.

[In the following essay, Sweet argues that Montresor's murder of Fortunato is motivated by an unconscious desire to destroy a despised part of himself]

Montresor's motive [in "The Cask of Amontillado"] is generally taken to be the punishment of historical transgressions. James Rocks believes "Montresor's act of killing Fortunato is motivated . . . by a faithful Catholic's hatred and fear of the brotherhood of Freemasonry."1 James Gargano decides that Montresor "regards himself as the vindicator of his ancestors" who "feels that Fortunato has, by ignoring...

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Walter Stepp (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ironic Double in Poe's The Cask of Amontillado'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 4, Fall, 1976, pp. 447-53.

[In the following essay, Stepp casts Fortunato as a "negative" image of Montresor's doppelgänger, comparing Fortunato's function to that of the double in Poe's story "William Wilson."]

In Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," an heraldic emblem offers a suggestive entrance into the story. Descending into the catacombs of Montresor's failed family, Fortunato says, "I forget your arms."1 It is one of his numberous blind, unintentional insults. The proud Montresor, biding his time, blinks not and replies: "A huge human foot...

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John Clendenning (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anything Goes: Comic Aspects in 'The Cask of Amontillado'," in American Humor: Essays Presented to John C. Gerber, edited by O. M. Brack, Jr., Arete Publications, 1977, pp. 13-26.

[In the following essay, Clendenning details the story's parody of Catholic rites and enological errors, identifying Montresor and Fortunato as classic comic figures.]

The reader who seeks guidance by perusing the "Preface" to Poe's Tales of The Grotesque and Arabesque (1840) may feel justifiably exasperated. Instead of finding definitions which might help to explain the book's title and thus lead to formal distinctions between the two aspects of Poe's fiction, the...

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James W. Spisak (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Narration as Seduction, Seduction as Narration," in The CEA Critic, Vol. XLI, No. 2, January, 1979, pp. 26-9.

[In the following essay, Spisak considers Montresor's pleasure in telling his story as both the protagonist and the narrator.]

By assuming, with most readers, that the narrator of Poe's "Cask of Amontillado" is motivated by guilt to tell his tale, we miss the twin seduction he invites us to share. Besides apparently luring Fortunato to his doom, Montresor also draws the reader to partake in the pleasure he relives in telling the tale of his successful seduction. The narrator mentions his audience only once early in the tale, offering no indication as...

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Jay Jacoby (essay date 1979)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fortunato's Premature Demise in 'The Cask of Amontillado'," in Poe Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, December, 1979, pp. 30-1.

[In the following essay, Jacoby addresses the significance of Fortunato's silence.]

"The Cask of Amontillado" is occasionally read as a perverse success story of a perfectly executed revenge in which crime does pay,1 and, more frequently, as a tale of cosmic and psychological retribution akin to "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," and "The Imp of the Perverse." Critics of the latter persuasion often point to the tale's pervasive irony, particularly Montresor's frustrated expectations of revenge. Early in the tale, Montresor...

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Leonard W. Engel (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Victim and Victimizer: Poe's The Cask of Amontillado'," in Interpretations, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 26-30.

[In the following essay, Engel discusses the narrative function of enclosure as a literary device in Poe's tale, focusing on the ways it affects and transforms the characters.]

Edgar Allan Poe used the enclosure device, whether an actual physical enclosure or an enclosure alluded to on the level of image and metaphor, in a highly artistic way. In much of his fiction, and specifically in "The Cask of Amontillado" (1846), the device helps to focus the action, assists in plot development, and has a profound impact on the main character, often...

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E. Bruce Kirkham (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poe's Amontillado, One More Time," in American Notes & Queries, Vol. XXIV, Nos. 9-10, May-June, 1986, pp. 144-45.

[In the following essay, Kirkham comments on the multiple meanings of some proper nouns in Poe's story.]

Poe's delight in allusions and word play is evident throughout his works but no more so than in the short story "The Cask of Amontillado" where proper nouns, particularly, are capable of carrying multiple meanings. Fortunato believes himself to be the "fortunate one" in that he has been selected by Montresor to taste of the rare Spanish sherry, but he is also "fated" to die. He should feel "fortunate," according to his murderer's line of...

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Kate Stewart (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Supreme Madness: Revenge and the Bells in The Cask of Amontillado'," in The University of Mississippi Studies in English, Vol. V, 1987, pp. 51-7.

[In the following essay, Stewart draws parallels between Poe's narrative and the stagecraft of Elizabethan revenge tragedy, highlighting his use of sound effects.]

Even the most nonchalant reader admits that Edgar Allan Poe was more than a little interested in madness; he may be less aware, however, that Poe also dabbled in the dramatic arts. Poe's mix of madness and drama, specifically the substance of revenge tragedy in "The Cask of Amontillado," offers yet another example of his wideranging mind and creative...

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Patrick White (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Cask of Amontillado': A Case for the Defense," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, 1989, pp. 550-55.

[In the following essay, White justifies Montresor's actions and his lack of remorse, explaining the symbolism of the family shield and his sense of familial obligation.]

The usual way of responding to "The Cask of Amontillado" with something like pure and unqualified revulsion at Montresor's dark deed as an act outside the normal range of human behavior has its validity but stops short of the story's ultimate revelation. Wittingly or otherwise, Poe has given us the means of seeing Montresor's act as something other than a demented or Satanic pursuit of...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Bales, Kent. "Poetic Justice in 'The Cask of Amontillado'." Poe Studies 5, No. 2 (December 1972): 51.

Comments on multiple levels of irony in the tale from a Protestant viewpoint.

Benton, Richard P. "Poe's 'The Cask' and the 'White Webwork Which Gleams'." Studies in Short Fiction 28, No. 2 (Spring 1991): 183-94.

Addresses the implications of the nitre on the walls of Montresor's catacombs.

Bonaparte, Marie. "The Masquerades." In her The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe: A Psycho-analytic Interpretation, pp. 505-24. London: Imago Publishing Co., 1949....

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