"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 CharactersSet 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.
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.
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?"