Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 377
"The Cask of Amontillado" and the Single Effect
A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided. (1)
The way to analyze a story by Poe—and possibly to analyze any modern short story, since Poe is credited with being the father of the genre—is by starting at the very end with a consideration of the story's "single effect." A single effect is not necessarily a simple effect. The complex effect of "The Cask of Amontillado" is not easy to describe, although most readers probably experience it in a similar way. Since Montresor interprets and relishes his victim's feelings, the preconceived effect might be described as a combination of shock, horror, pity, delight, satisfaction, compassion, and closure.
Adhering to his rationale, Poe combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. For example, Montresor lures Fortunato underground with a cask of Amontillado. It would have to be an imported wine to tempt Fortunato, since excellent domestic wine would be readily available to a wealthy Italian. Both men refer to the cask as a "pipe." It would not have seemed unreasonable to Fortunato that he should have to accompany his host a considerable distance to reach a space large enough for a cask containing 126 gallons of wine.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 186
Why Did Poe Choose Amontillado?
The word Amontillado appears no less than sixteen times in Poe’s story. One reason for that choice may have been to keep reminding the reader of Fortunato's motivation. The reader him- or herself would like to see a pipe of the finest Spanish sherry and perhaps even savor a glass in imagination. No doubt many people over the years have actually purchased a bottle of Amontillado to satisfy their curiosity or to pay homage to Poe. The story originally appeared in Godey's Lady's Book in 1846, and sherry was one of the few alcoholic beverages genteel ladies in that distant era allowed themselves to drink.
Poe's choices were limited. The wine could not be Italian because it would not tempt Fortunato. French wine is famous, but Montresor is French himself. He could hardly pretend ignorance on that subject. He twice offers Fortunato gourmet French wines in his vaults. The only other possibility was Spain, a country noted for exporting fine Sherries, the finest of which is Amontillado. Poe had yet another good reason for choosing Amontillado, as will be explained later.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534
Why Did Poe Give Montresor a French Name?
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. (2)
Poe emphasizes Montresor's foreignness early on. Montresor does not consider himself an Italian. But why French, when the Montresors, judging from their accumulated bones, have been living in Italy for centuries? The narrator is an outsider. He may be able to trace his lineage in Italy back for generations but is still, in comparison to Fortunato, an upstart. No doubt, being frequently reminded of his parvenu status, his fallen fortunes, and even being referred to as "that Frenchman" are among the "thousand injuries" Montresor has suffered. Fortunato is indeed fortunate in having money and family connections. By contrast, Montresor tells his guest, "The Montresors were a great and numerous family." The word numerous helps explain the large accumulation of skeletons in a relatively few centuries. The quoted passage also shows that Fortunato deals in paintings, gemmary, and probably also in wine, which would explain his strong interest in the Amontillado that Montresor says he has just acquired at a bargain price.
Here Poe, whose name and ancestry were also French, reveals his personal feelings. Montresor tells Fortunato: "You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter." Montresor's name further suggests that his letter, which is what Poe’s story purports to be, may have been written in French and sent to a friend in France. This would make his confession more plausible. In fact, the letter might have been found among his papers posthumously. Montresor may have remained a heavy drinker all his life, especially if suffering from guilt or fear. He may have written the confession when drunk and decided not to send it when sober.
Poe highlights the protagonist's French background in multiple ways. Montresor is wearing a "roquelaire," a French garment named after the Duc de Roquelaure. He offers his guest Medoc, a French wine, than a flagon of another Bordeaux called De Grâve. He uses the French word flambeaux to describe their torches. He is armed with a rapier, a French word for a French weapon. He speaks of "puncheons" of wine (from Old French poinçon). The fact that Montresor is not wearing a costume is another indication of his outsider status. He would feel awkward participating in a festival among folk with whom he has no sympathy.
It is impossible to read "The Cask of Amontillado" without sensing Poe's hypersensitivity about his own insecure financial and social position. Poe had no friends and many enemies. The facts that he married a thirteen-year-old girl, that he was a notorious alcoholic, that he had been expelled from West Point, that he was deeply in debt, and that he had been disowned by his foster father hardly enhanced his reputation. He had good cause to fantasize about taking revenge on more than one person.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 252
Poe avoids unnecessary exposition by leaving it to the reader to guess the location of the story. But the word palazzo suggests Venice, where such mansions have existed since the thirteenth century. The Carnival of Venice is the most famous of all carnivals and still a great tourist attraction. The crime would have to take place in a major city. Otherwise, Fortunato and Montresor would be recognized by too many people. At one point Montresor says: "We are below the river's bed." The largest river in Italy, which empties into an estuary near Venice, is named—very suggestively—the Po.
Many details serve dual or multiple purposes. For instance, Montresor writes:
It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.
The pretense of strong friendship not only keeps Fortunato off guard but insures that no one will suspect Montresor after the "immolation" he has planned. If the two were known to be enemies, the authorities would question Montresor and even search his premises. Like any good liar, Montresor knows he must first convince himself. For years he has lived with the lie that Fortunato is still his friend. By continuing to call Fortunato his good friend in spite of many injuries, Montresor is virtually inviting the haughty Italian to "venture upon insult."
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 357
Is Montresor Insane?
If Montresor is insane, as some critics have claimed, then his insanity consists of having a split personality. One half is able to think of Fortunato as his friend and speak of him as such at every opportunity, while the dark half is plotting murder. Without this long-established friendship, Montresor could not have enticed Fortunato into his catacombs. The reputed friendship of the two men obviates any need for Poe to deal with the inevitable future inquiry into Fortunato's disappearance. Montresor and Fortunato may have indeed been good friends in the past. Their relationship must have deteriorated over a number of years as Fortunato's fortunes rose and Montresor became like the raven:
...unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore,
There is no point in analyzing Montresor as though he had ever existed in the flesh. He is given exactly the attributes needed, including envy, pride, cunning, motivation, patience, duplicity, cruelty, caution, and even some experience with masonry. His outstanding characteristic is that he is a Machiavellian liar. He has formed the habit of talking about his "friend" at every opportunity to guard against future suspicion. He has actually forced himself to think of Fortunato as his good friend because this is the only way in which he could interact with his enemy in a totally friendly manner for all the world to see. Montresor could not drop his mask of friendship after disposing of his victim. People would be inquiring about the uncanny disappearance for years, and Montresor would have to remain as baffled and distressed as his victim's closest relatives.
Montresor has grown so used to thinking of his enemy as a friend that he cannot help calling Fortunato his "friend" as he is leading Fortunato to his doom, and even fifty years later, when perhaps he has actually come to believe that Fortunato really was still his friend. It is a sad thought that Montresor may have been so alone in the world that his worst enemy was his best friend.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212
Other Economies of Exposition
Other details with dual or multiple purposes are more subtle, such as the repeated references to the dampness of the catacombs. Why does Poe provide his character Fortunato with a bad cough?
"How long have you had that cough?"
"Ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!"
My poor friend found it impossible to reply for many minutes.
Montresor considers Fortunato a genuine connoisseur as well as "a man to be respected and even feared." Poe invented the cough to prevent Fortunato from asking many obvious questions, such as the following:
- Who sold you this Amontillado?
- How much did you pay for it?
- Is more of the shipment available for purchase?
- When did it arrive?
- How did it arrive? By ship or overland?
- Why have I heard nothing about it?
- Has anyone else tasted it?
- Have you told anyone else about it?
Without being hampered by his cough, Fortunato might eventually demand to know:
- What is this?
- Where are you taking me?
- Why should you store your best wine so far from the bottom of the stairs?
Drunks can be obstinate, argumentative, unpredictable, intractable. Montresor uses these traits to urge Fortunato onward by reverse psychology, constantly advising him to turn back.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
The Story’s Basic Conflict
Montresor's biggest problem from beginning to end is to maneuver his victim off the streets and down into his catacombs, then into a dark and narrow recess, and finally to bind him with a chain. Thereafter, Poe maintains dramatic tension by describing Fortunato's efforts to break free, his screaming for help, and his attempt to frighten Montresor into releasing him.
Fortunato's cough also gives Montresor an excuse to suggest a draft of Medoc to keep his enemy intoxicated. Poe could not keep Fortunato coughing, although it was artistically necessary to dramatize it at least once. Instead of urging his friend onward, instead of assuring him that they are nearing the goal, Montresor urges Fortunato to turn back. Montresor repeatedly points to the nitre and dripping water as signs of the unhealthy atmosphere and uses these as plausible reasons for his guest to forget the Amontillado and allow Luchesi to render judgment. Montresor's expressions of concern will allay any suspicions that might arise in his friend's inebriated brain. Montresor thus understands the power of reverse psychology and the streak of obstinacy in human nature that psychologists call reactance.
After manipulating Fortunato into insisting on accompanying him to his vaults, Montresor relates:
There were no attendants at home; they had absconded to make merry in honor of the time. I had told them that I should not return until the morning, and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was turned.
A small, overworked, underpaid, and disrespectful domestic staff is all Montresor can afford. The fact that there is no one in the palazzo shows that Montresor is alone in the world. His palazzo, like the House of Usher, is in decay. He is the last of the Montresors. Another subtle indication of his poverty is contained in the following phrase:
...I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.
He does not mean whenever they were available. There would always be plenty of Italian wine in Italy. What he means is that he bought largely whenever he could afford to do so. The fact that Montresor owns a palazzo does not mean he is wealthy. The roquelaire indicates that the story takes place in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century when that style was in fashion. The palazzo could be in decay. In The Aspern Papers published in 1888, Henry James has Mrs. Prest explain:
If she didn't live in a big house how could it be a question of her having rooms to spare? If she were not amply lodged you'd lack ground to approach her. Besides, a big house here, and especially in this quartier perdu, proves nothing at all: it's perfectly consistent with a state of penury. Dilapidated old palazzi, if you'll go out of the way for them, are to be had for five shillings a year. And as for the people who live in them—no, until you've explored Venice socially as much as I have, you can form no idea of their domestic desolation. They live on nothing, for they’ve nothing to live on. (3)
The fact that Montresor buys wine in such quantities shows that he, like his friend Fortunato, is a heavy drinker. Their relationship may be based on being "drinking buddies." It is probably when they are tipsy that Fortunato becomes most offensive: in vino veritas. No doubt Montresor is already somewhat intoxicated when he finds his intended victim carousing in the streets. After sharing wine with him in his vaults, Montresor naturally becomes more intoxicated. Only this can explain his strange behavior when he claims to be a Mason and audaciously shows Fortunato the trowel with which he intends to finish his entombment. Montresor is inebriated and also exuberant. He has successfully accomplished the most difficult and dangerous part of his intricate plan: he has gotten Fortunato off the streets without being recognized and has him at his mercy. Montresor has a rapier, while Fortunato in his "tight-fitting parti-striped dress" must be unarmed. A sword would be inappropriate with a court jester’s costume.
By stating that he "bought largely" whenever he could, Montresor explains why his vaults are so full of barrels and bottles that he is forced to lead his friend a considerable distance. It is possible, however, that many barrels are nearly empty. If Fortunato is aware that Montresor, in spite of his poverty, buys wine liberally when he can afford to, then it will not seem implausible that his host has acquired 126 gallons of Amontillado. Neither will it seem implausible that the Amontillado should have been offered to Montresor first.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610
Timing of the Murder
The fact that Montresor has gotten rid of his household servants proves he has decided to enact his revenge that night if possible. More proof is that he is carrying the trowel under his cloak. The final example of proof is the cask of Amontillado itself. If it does not really exist, then Montresor is taking a risk in telling Fortunato he has just bought it.
Why does Poe give such stress to the dampness? He refers to it no less than six times, as in the following:
"My friend, no. It is not the engagement, but the severe cold with which I perceive you are afflicted. The vaults are insufferably damp. They are encrusted with nitre."
Henry James wrote: "The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting." That is also the only obligation to which we may hold a short story—except of course that it be short. A story cannot be interesting unless it is dramatic. It cannot be dramatic without sustained conflict. The only conflict in Poe's story is created by the many dangers and logistical difficulties the narrator must overcome. Montresor's method of luring his friend underground and murdering him is the story.
Montresor has no redeeming character traits, with the exception of a sense of humor, and yet we emphasize with him because of his motivation, his problems, and because we are kept in his point of view from start to finish. We can only imagine Fortunato's point of view from Montresor's description of the sounds—and even the silences—that occur after the victim has been trapped. First there is "a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess," and then there is "a long and obstinate silence." Montresor considers it “obstinate” because he would prefer to hear screams of horror and pleas for mercy.
The reader knows very well what is going on inside the recess. Fortunato is trying to determine how securely the bolts are fastened to the granite wall. Then he is checking the rusted chain itself to judge whether there are any weak links. Finally, he is testing the padlock to guess whether there is any possibility of prying it open. He does all this in silence because it would be foolhardy to try to break free before his captor had departed. His "long and obstinate silence" is proof of his insincerity when he pretends to take the entrapment as a practical joke. But here Fortunato is betrayed by the "tight-fitting" jester's costume bestowed upon him by his creator. If he cannot be carrying a concealed weapon, then he cannot be carrying any kind of tool that would enable him, even with infinitely patient effort, to file through the chain or pick the padlock.
When the silence ends, Montresor hears "the furious vibrations of the chain." Poe's choice of the word vibrations shows that the chain is too tight to rattle. Fortunato is now overcome with blind panic as the wall grows taller. He is trying to free himself either by breaking a link or pulling the chain out of the wall. Finally, he resorts to shrill screams for help but gives up when his host's echoing screams make him realize that no one could hear him. Montresor's screams are not intended to characterize him as a madman, as some critics have suggested; he is screaming to show Fortunato, as well as to reassure himself—and most importantly for Poe to show the reader—that nobody can hear anything taking place so far beneath the surface of the earth.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 248
Fortunato is not primarily motivated by the challenge to his connoisseurship, nor is he motivated by an urgent desire to sample the delicious sherry. He is motivated by avarice. He deals with British and Austrian millionaires in paintings, gemmary, and presumably wines. Montresor has just obtained a whole pipe at a "bargain" price. Fortunato must not allow Luchesi to find out. His rival might buy up whatever quantity was still available, but the first step is to verify that it really is the true Amontillado. This is why, in spite of his bad cold and in spite of being inadequately clothed, Fortunato is so insistent upon sampling it that very night.
How fortunate for Fortunato that he encountered Montresor before Luchesi! Otherwise, his rival would have done the same thing to him that he plans to do to Luchesi. Poor Montresor could probably only afford to buy a single cask, but Fortunato could buy the entire shipment and drive an even better bargain. No doubt the many occasions on which he has been beaten out of lucrative transactions by his richer, better connected friend are among the thousand injuries Montresor himself has suffered.
Meanwhile, Poe's description of cobweb-covered human bones dripping moisture and nitre plays on the reader's imagination and emotions, and Fortunato's fate will thus seem all the more horrible. This place is suitable only for dead men. The reader, however, is drawn along by curiosity, just as Fortunato is drawn along by avarice.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 264
The Cold and Dampness
There is yet another reason—and it is the most important reason—for Poe's repeated references to the cold and dampness of the underground vaults, another proof that there is "no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design." With Fortunato chained to the wall, Montresor recounts:
...I busied myself among the pile of bones of which I have before spoken. Throwing them aside, I soon uncovered a quantity of building stone and mortar. With these materials and with the aid of my trowel, I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche.
The cold and dampness serve to explain why the mortar has remained soft enough to work with. Without the unusual dampness, the mortar would have turned as hard as cement. The covering of dripping bones would also have helped keep the mortar from hardening. It is remarkable how Poe deals so effortlessly with the complex procedure of building a wall from ground to ceiling, plastering it over, and re-erecting "the old rampart of bones." By having the mortar and stones in readiness (for who knows how long?), Poe avoids a dead spot in his story during which Montresor would have to mix his mortar with water and prepare his other materials. By actual count, Poe devotes only 147 words to describing the construction of the wall. These words are scattered over two pages of action and dialogue intended to keep the situation dramatic. Exposition and explanation slow a story, whereas action and dialogue tend to keep it interesting.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404
The fact that Montresor happens to have a trowel under his cloak on the fateful night he encounters Fortunato may seem like too much of a coincidence. At some earlier date he must have used a shovel for mixing the mortar, but he would need a first-class mason's trowel for completing his masterpiece of revenge. The plastered wall had to look like part of the natural side of the catacombs. He does not say he met Fortunato by accident on the night of the carnival but that he "encountered" him. He was out hunting Fortunato down.
He could not leave a steel trowel with the stones and mortar because it would rust quickly in that dampness. He has been waiting patiently for an opportunity to lure Fortunato underground. He had to keep the trowel somewhere up above, but Poe does not wish to waste words describing how Montresor goes to retrieve it after getting Fortunato to his palazzo. Montresor shows the trowel to Fortunato, but Poe is showing it to the reader. The frequent stress on the dampness is not a waste of words but necessary to explain the fresh condition of the mortar as well as the fact that Montresor is carrying the trowel on his person. A roquelaire, incidentally, is not a full-length cloak but one that comes only to the wearer's knees, thus allowing Montresor plenty of freedom for his exertions.
The underground dampness does more than create a Gothic atmosphere. It does more than provide an excuse for the deviously cunning Montresor to urge his victim to turn back. It expedites the denouement by explaining why the mortar is fresh. The construction of a stone wall is hardly a simple matter, and Poe needed to provide some minimal description of the process. This is why he uses the words "throwing aside," "soon," "vigorously," and "hastened" in describing the construction of the wall.
Assuming that the Amontillado is nonexistent, this is yet another proof that Montresor has decided to enact his revenge that very night. Otherwise, Fortunato would certainly make inquiries and learn that Montresor could not have purchased a pipe of Amontillado. If Fortunato had in fact had an "engagement" that night, Montresor would have aborted his plan. But Fortunato might never again accept Montresor's "friendship" at face value. It might dawn on the overbearing Fortunato that his snubs and jibes had not gone unfelt or unresented.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 325
Is the Amontillado Real?
Poe has tried to protect his protagonist from being exposed by having Montresor suggest that the Amontillado may not in fact be genuine:
...But I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts.
"How?" said he. "Amontillado? A pipe? Impossible. And in the middle of the carnival!"
"I have my doubts," I replied, "and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain."
"I have my doubts."
"And I must satisfy them."
"As you are engaged I am on my way to Luchesi. If any one has a critical turn, it is he."
The very fact that Montresor is seeking an expert's opinion suggests that the wine he supposedly purchased may prove to be only an inferior sherry. If Fortunato eludes Montresor's trap for any reason, he is sure to ask for a sample of the Amontillado later. Montresor can bring an unlabeled bottle of ordinary sherry for his good friend to taste. When Fortunato dismisses it with disdain, that may put an end to the matter.
Enveloped in a black roquelaire and wearing a mask of black silk, Montresor must look like the personification of Death leading yet another mortal to his predestined grave. Wearing a fool's costume complete with cap and bells, Fortunato must look like the personification of Life with its vanities and illusions. Poe's story depends on risks and coincidences. Fortunato's cold and cough are a coincidence without which he might ask too many penetrating questions. But the coincidences, rather than fighting against verisimilitude, actually strengthen it by making it seem that Fate has decreed this to be the night of nights when Fortunato must meet his doom. Montresor would not be describing the incident in such detail if his risky plan had not been a success.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 249
The Perfect Revenge
Poe needed Fortunato to be drunk when Montresor first encounters him but sober by the time Fortunato is trapped. Fortunato must be able to understand what is happening to him, why it is happening, and the identity of the person who is making it happen. Poe provides abundant evidence that the drunken Fortunato has become completely sober:
I had scarcely laid the first tier of the masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off. The earliest indication I had of this was a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken man. There was then a long and obstinate silence.
Less than a page later—almost at the end of the tale—Montresor offers convincing proof that Fortunato recognizes Montresor as the avenger. Fortunato addresses Montresor by name only once in the entire story. This occurs when the wretched man cries, "For the love of God, Montresor!", dispelling any doubt that the avenger might have failed "to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong." Montresor is not mocking Fortunato when he echoes, "Yes, for the love of God!" He is saying, in effect, "Yes, that is exactly what I anticipated. It is your last attempt to escape." He is affirming his expectation that the arrogant Fortunato would end up begging for mercy. Montresor may also be accepting eternal damnation as the price of revenge.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634
Fortunato: A Man to Be Respected and Feared
But now there came from out the niche a low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head. It was succeeded by a sad voice, which I had difficulty in recognizing as that of the noble Fortunato. The voice said—
"Ha! ha! ha!—he! he! he!—a very good joke indeed—an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo—he! he! he!—over our wine—he! he! he!"
"The Amontillado!" I said.
"He! he! he!—he! he! he!—yes, the Amontillado. But is it not getting late? Will they not be awaiting us at the palazzo, the Lady Fortunato and the rest? Let us be gone."
"Yes," I said, "let us be gone."
"For the love of God, Montresor!"
"Yes," I said, "for the love of God!"
This passage is absolutely essential. In the first place, it serves to characterize Fortunato as something more than a boor, a souse, a jester, and a dupe. Montresor describes him as "a man to be respected and even feared," but this has yet to be shown. The sober Fortunato reveals some of the craftiness that makes him dangerous. He does not for a moment believe that this horrible entrapment is a practical joke. He suddenly realizes that Montresor is not the simpleton, masochist, toady he has taken him for, but an enemy whose hatred and cunning are unfathomable. His only hope is that Montresor might be frightened into opening the padlock. He claims that the Lady Fortunato and a number of other people are expecting his arrival, which suggests that friends, relatives, and servants will be out with torches. They will be asking everyone for a man wearing a harlequin costume complete with jingling bells. Fortunato understands that Montresor would prefer that his victim’s absence should go unremarked until at least the following day.
The fact that this is a season during which the wildest behavior is licensed gives Fortunato a slender pretext for taking Montresor's elaborate entrapment as a clever prank. Fortunato himself, dressed as a jester, can pretend to be a connoisseur of jests. If Montresor could be frightened into giving up the project, then he could probably avoid retribution by maintaining that it was all in fun. In manifold ways, the sober Fortunato displays his cunning:
- He pretends to believe Montresor is playing an excellent practical joke.
- He pretends that he will be praising Montresor's cleverness to all their acquaintances.
- He pretends to be amused, although his voice and forced laughter betray his terror and insincerity.
- He pretends to believe that Montresor plans to release him.
- He pretends to believe that he and Montresor are still good friends.
- He not only pretends that he is expected at home but that they are both expected by his wife, relatives, and numerous guests. By asking, "Will not they be awaiting us at the palazzo, the Lady Fortunato and the rest?" he is trying to plant seeds of doubt. The implication is that many people have recognized the two as companions and assumed the good friends were en route to Fortunato's palazzo.
- He invites Montresor to join his intimate circle—something he may have rarely done in the past—implying that he may be of greater use to him socially and in practical matters in the future.
- He pretends to believe that the cask of Amontillado actually exists and is to be found somewhere in the vicinity. Even if it never existed, that should not deter Montresor from releasing him, since that could have been part of the "excellent jest."
Like a cornered tiger, eyes gleaming in the torchlight, Fortunato is still "to be respected and even feared." He would exact the fullest revenge if he could somehow manage to escape.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 702
Why the Jester’s Costume?
Fortunato's flamboyant costume serves many purposes. It characterizes Fortunato as a prosperous exhibitionist and a prankster. It suggests the wearer's ancient lineage, going back to an era when court jesters existed. Being unique and specially tailored for the carnival, it is a sign of conspicuous consumption. The costumes people choose for masquerades often reveal what they would like to be. Jesters were encouraged and licensed to make fun of other people for the general amusement. Some of the "thousand injuries" felt by Montresor have been hurtful jests made either in his presence or behind his back. In fact, Poe did not dress his Fortunato in motley to characterize him as a fool. He intended to characterize him as a jester, which would suggest an explanation of some of the "thousand injuries."
The adjective "tight-fitting" also suggests that Fortunato is corpulent, not surprising because of all the wine he consumes. The size of the drunken reveler only makes him more conspicuous and harder for the smaller man to handle. His colorful costume presents serious problems for Montresor, but human problems—always created by human motivations—are the heart and soul of drama. Montresor must patiently steer a big, strong, boisterous, drunken man through crowds of revelers while the intended victim is dressed in the most conspicuous possible costume and keeps shouting, "Amontillado!"
Another reason for providing Fortunato with a tight-fitting costume was so that the chain itself would fit snugly when Montresor shut the padlock on the link that would make it tightest. Poe describes the interior recess as about four feet deep. Fortunato would have to be pinned against the wall with the "short chain" across his waist in order to prevent him from reaching out and interfering with the wall-building. The mortar will take a long time to dry in that dank atmosphere, and Fortunato could break down a portion of the wall even if he could not escape. If he had been wearing a looser-fitting costume, and even a cloak, or if he had been less corpulent, he might have a hope of slipping free.
Poe's description of the trap is minimal. The iron staples are only about two feet apart. Evidently Montresor draws a short chain across Fortunato's waist and attaches a padlock at whichever link makes the chain like a tight belt. Montresor does not say he heard the chain rattle. That would suggest some slack. He says he heard the "furious vibrations" of the chain.
Poe foresaw the possibility that people could be searching for Fortunato but was so confident of his technical virtuosity that he gratuitously provided Fortunato with a unique costume complete with bells. The costume was intended to make Fortunato as conspicuous as possible. If enough people had noticed the man in the "tight-fitting parti-striped dress," the searchers could conceivably trace him to the doors of Montresor's palazzo—but only if the search was initiated that very night. By morning the littered streets would be empty. Repentant sinners would be recovering from hangovers. The man in the harlequin costume would be remembered, if at all, as a fleck of color amidst what Poe might have called the "phantasmagoria of the carnival orgy." The costume would certainly attract attention, but it would also detract attention from the harlequin's companion, who would be no more than a shadow in his black cloak and black mask. The more conspicuous the costume of the one man, the more inconspicuous would be the apparel of the other.
Still another reason for dressing Fortunato in a clown's costume was to guard against the reader's identifying with him. The costume dehumanizes him. Poe wants the reader to identify exclusively with Montresor until the very end. He does so by providing Montresor with a strong motive, by remaining entirely in his point of view, and additionally by making his protagonist the narrator. The reader must rely on Montresor to find out what happens. Poe demonstrates that a reader can be induced to empathize with a fiend. The reader is relieved to learn that Montresor's terrible crime was a complete success. Like Dante, Poe has taken his reader into the depths of hell and brought him safely back.
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Poe heightens the dramatic suspense by increasing Montresor's logistical difficulties. Surely many people will notice Fortunato and a companion in a black cloak. Poe ingeniously deals with this weak plot point by making it weaker. When Montresor opens his cloak and shows his guest the trowel after they are safely underground, it indicates that the critical stage is past. They have not encountered any common acquaintance. Montresor has not been recognized. One way or another, Fortunato is doomed. Montresor is armed with a rapier. He could kill his guest on the spot, although he would prefer to lure him to the narrow niche and take plenty of time in order to feel assured that Fortunato would be sober enough to understand what was happening to him and why.
Montresor has foresight. When he first encounters Fortunato, he says, "As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchesi. If anyone has a critical turn, it is he." A few lines later, not having gotten the information he needs, he says, "I perceive you have an engagement. Luchesi—" To which Fortunato responds: "I have no engagement;—come." No doubt Fortunato has often stayed away from home overnight, and, after all, this is "the supreme madness of the carnival season." If his intended victim had in fact had an engagement that evening, the infinitely patient Montresor would have postponed the execution. Many people will be searching for Fortunato eventually, but the executioner will be safe if he can leave a cold trail. If Fortunato fails to put in an appearance the next day, his wife will assume he is sleeping it off on someone's couch or in someone's bed.
Fortunato will not die of thirst. Poe establishes that there is enough water dripping down the walls for the victim to quench his thirst by licking the stones—a poor substitute for Amontillado. He may not die of suffocation either. There ought to be enough oxygen seeping into the recess to enable him to keep breathing. Montresor would have wanted his victim to survive as long as possible and might have even left some narrow spaces in the newly built wall for air to get through. The “effect” is less powerful if the reader does not imagine Fortunato suffering a long, lingering death, such as was suffered by countless wretches in medieval dungeons. The fact that so much water leaks into these catacombs indicates there must be spaces to admit oxygen as well. Poe makes a great many references to the nitre. He uses the word five times and also refers to "the white web-work which gleams from these cavern walls." This cannot be purely for atmosphere. Nitre (KNO3) contains more oxygen than any of its other components.
We passed through a range of low arches, descended, passed on, and descending again, arrived at a deep crypt, in which the foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame.
The captive will have to breathe foul air, but he should at least be able to breathe. He will be most likely to die of starvation, which will take longer; and he will have to remain upright, befouling his fancy costume. His torment will only be augmented by his longing for someone to rescue him, by imagining that the dripping water is the sound of approaching footsteps, or by hoping against hope that his friend may have a change of heart or may actually have intended this atrocity as a practical joke.
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The perfect revenge Montresor prescribes should culminate in the avenger's perfect satisfaction. It should also result in what today's journalists so often describe as "closure." There would be no point in seeking revenge if it did not extinguish the hatred that led to the desire in the first place. When Montresor concludes his letter to his unknown correspondent with the words "In pace requiescat!" he is not being ironic. He has cleansed himself of his hatred and satisfied his desire for retribution. He can now feel pity for his fellow mortal, a feeling the reader shares.
The "preconceived effect"—that is, the emotional effect upon the reader—is "brought out" after Montresor succeeds in chaining Fortunato to the wall. It is Fortunato who experiences the sobering shock, the disbelief, the horror of his situation; but those feelings are interpreted by the narrator Montresor, who is experiencing them vicariously and mingling them with his own satisfaction and relief.
According to Montresor's letter:
The noise [of the "furious vibrations of the chain"] lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labors and sat down upon the bones.
The furious vibrations of the chain serve the dual purpose of representing Fortunato's emotions and assuring the reader that the victim is a moth in a web. Poe does nothing to create any sympathy for the victim until this point. Then the reader finds himself identifying with Fortunato, whose nightmare is only intensified by the fact that Montresor is enjoying it.
Poe's story retains its fascination from generation to generation because of the technical brilliance of its preconceived single effect. It leaves some readers with feelings they remember for years. And yet it is a work of pure imagination. Even the cask of Amontillado is imaginary—doubly imaginary, in fact, because it was created in the imagination of Montresor, the character created in the imagination of Poe.
The man who writes the confidential letter fifty years after the deed is not the same as the man who committed it. Montresor has grown very old. He has often thought about the unfortunate Fortunato decaying into a skeleton while his costume turned to rags. Montresor refers to his victim as his friend throughout the letter. This is not necessarily ironic. By the time the murderer pens his confidential confession he has forgotten his old hatred, which should further explain why he does not feel a need to itemize any of "the thousand injuries of Fortunato." He has buried his old enemy among his own ancestors and has made him, in a sense, a part of the family. No doubt he often revisited the scene of his crime. He had been the custodian and will soon join Fortunato among all the other dead men's bones.
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Why Did Poe Write This Story?
The fact that Poe may have been venting real hatred against contemporary enemies is inconsequential. His personal feelings, transformed by his imagination, served to create a masterpiece. He has been called the father of the modern short story. His paternity, like a tiny cell, is essentially contained in the epigraph to this essay. The modern short story is designed to achieve a single effect. Analyzing a short story "with a kindred art" by starting with its effect leads to a better appreciation of the craftsmanship involved: there is no word written of which the tendency, direct of indirect, is not to the one pre-established design.
Any creative writer has the option to disregard Poe's definition, but most short story writers all over the world appear to have been satisfied with such a precise and logical guideline. Not only that, but Poe's story serves as the perfect illustration of his own rationale. It is not the gruesome ending that makes his story a classic, nor is it the suggestion of a mystery involving long-forgotten Literati. Instead, it is the creative virtuosity and the strict economy in the execution of artistic design that assure the story's longevity.
Many scholars have argued about the "meaning," the "message," or the "point" of Poe's story. A work of art does not have to have a meaning, a message, or a point. A work of art that is not a work of propaganda is intended to convey an emotion experienced by the artist himself. This emotion is what Poe always refers to as an "effect." It is the feeling left with the reader (or the hearer or the viewer) that constitutes the purpose of art.
Here is Leo Tolstoy's sensible and succinct definition:
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by, means of movements, lines, colors, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling—this is the activity of art. (4)
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Poe was unique in literature. He is remembered for his stories and poems, but he earned his living—such as it was—as an editor and critic. He was a critic who could function as a creative writer, a creative writer who was an acute critic. His emphasis on the macabre reflects the understanding of popular taste that made him a notably successful editor. Any newspaper will show that modern readers still have an insatiable appetite for human depravity. Poe's stories have had a worldwide influence because readers recognize their own secret emotions and fantasies. We want to see Montresor murder Fortunato in the cruelest possible way, and we want to see him get away with it. The avalanche of mystery and horror novels since Poe's seminal creations is glaring proof of this interest. The creative and analytical faculties—so often at odds—were joined in Poe. He gave the literary world the most succinct, the most practical, and the most self-evident working definition of the modern short story, and then provided the prototype.
If Poe was not concerned with a meaning, a message, or a point, why did he write "The Cask of Amontillado"? He did it to rid himself of painful feelings. In this respect he was not different from many other creative writers. For example:
If he wrote it he could get rid of it. He had gotten rid of many things by writing them.
—Ernest Hemingway, "Fathers and Sons"
Now, I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book.
To me alone there came a thought of grief.
A timely utterance gave that thought relief,
And I again am strong.
"The Cask of Amontillado" was Poe's "timely utterance" of pent-up emotions. He places his story in a distant land and a different era, but it is his own feelings that give it force. We have all had our thousand injuries. The most painful often come at the hands of our "good friends," people we loved and admired and trusted.
1. Edgar Allan Poe. Review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, Graham's Magazine, April 1842. Reprinted in Edgar Allan Poe: Essays and Reviews (New York: The Library of America, 1984) 572. Emphasis added.
2. Edgar Allan Poe. "The Cask of Amontillado" in Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales (New York: The Library of America, 1984) 848. Subsequent citations of this story refer to this text.
3. Henry James. “The Aspern Papers,” in The Turn of the Screw, The Aspern Papers and Two Stories (New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003) 25-26.
4. Leo Tolstoy. What Is Art? Translated by Almyer Maude. (Indianapolis, Indiana: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1960) 51.