Religious Imagery and Ritual in The Cask of Amontillado

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Edgar Allan Poe, the master of the macabre, understood the fine line between good and evil, between the holy and the profane. He knew how to penetrate the subconscious of his readers by subtly playing off of their most deeply held beliefs. In “The Cask of Amontillado”, Poe brilliantly interweaves religion into a dark tale of revenge. The effect is at once profound and haunting.

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The story is told as a first-person confession, possibly to a priest “who so well knew the nature of my soul.” The language is ripe with religious overtones. The action implies a death march, a procession to death designed to avenge insults suffered by Montresor and his ancestors. The drinking of wine, the ringing of bells, and the lighting of candles are all part of Montresor’s “black mass.” Fortunato, the unwittingly victim, becomes the sacrifice in a wholly un-Christian ceremony.

Poe carefully selects language that resounds of sacramental rites. Montresor admits that when he first smiles at Fortunato’s arrival, it “was at the thought of his immolation.” (A Latin-derived word, immolation means to kill as a sacrifice and carries strong religious connotations.) Montresor’s language designates him as the executor of divine punishment or retribution. His motivation, which can be interpreted as a heavy-handed perversion of the Golden Rule, is clear: “[A wrong] is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.”

Poe often uses foreign expressions with religious overtones. As is common in Roman Catholic masses, Montresor utters Latin phrases: “In pace requiescat!”(Rest in peace) and “Nemo me impune lacessit.” (No one punishes me with impunity.) The wine that lures Fortunato to his death, amontillado (which means "from the mountain" in Italian) recalls Moses’s trek up Mt. Sinai and the God-given laws that came to be as a result.

The primary action of the story recalls Jesus Christ’s procession to Calvary, the place of his crucifixion. We follow Fortunato on his long and arduous procession down through Montresor’s family’s catacombs. The journey into darkness passes by the bones of Montresor’s ancestors, as Christ had done when he passed Golgotha (place of skulls) before his death. The walk is slow, deliberate and difficult for Fortunato as was Christ’s walk through Jerusalem. Fortunato leans on Montresor desperately as he walks down the narrow passageways. We are reminded of the times when Christ required assistance along the route to meet his pre-ordained fate.

The centrality of wine to the story directs the reader again to a religious theme. The very title of the story expresses the importance of the sometimes-sacred beverage. In fact, Montresor explicitly says Fortunato’s weakness is that, “He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine.” Montresor depends on this hubris to lure Fortunato into what would eventually become his tomb. When Fortunato toasts Montresor over a draught of Medoc wine it becomes a Last Supper–like toast before a crucifixion. Poe twists the ordinarily sacred significance of wine to consecrate a sadistic ritual celebrating Montresor’s cruel revenge.

As they do during the blessing of the Holy Communion in a Christian mass, bells ring at key points throughout the story. They take on a sinister and ghostly tone as Montresor nears the completion of the ritual. “I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells.” This critical moment comes near the end of the story and precedes what may be considered Montresor’s only inclination of guilt “My heart grew sick.” Though he quickly attributes this feeling to the dampness of the vault, it clearly indicates the finality that the jingling of the bells symbolize.

Poe also skillfully fills the story with allusions to darkness and light. The vault has presumably become a place of such evil that no amount of light can penetrate its darkness. The flambeaux are themselves reminiscent of the lighting of candles at Catholic masses. When they come to the end of the catacombs Montresor notes: “The foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame.” The flickering light, usually symbolic of the presence of the Holy Spirit, instead burns more like the eerie fires of hell.

Montresor’s ritual of revenge is performed with the careful deliberation of a sacred mass. Poe perverts every holy ritual into a macabre ceremony of death. Even the apparently benign relationship between Montresor and Fortunato is entirely ironic and saccharine sweet. Like Judas kissing Christ at the Last Supper, Montresor ventures to betray Fortunato while acting as a friend. The parody of religious ritual coils around the story and threads each word together into a pattern of demonic significance. No matter the insult suffered by Montresor, there can be no doubt that he is the architect of a cruel revenge and the priest of a wicked black mass.

Irony in The Cask of Amontillado

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There has never been any doubt or disagreement about the fact that Edgar Allan Poe is a master of the short story form. His painstaking word selection, his attention to every detail, his obsession over creating a single powerful effect—these qualities have all justifiably contributed to this reputation. Nowhere is his craftsmanship, or his expert use of irony as a unifying element, more apparent than in his short masterpiece, “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Unity in theme, plot, and structure are impeccably incorporated in "The Cask of Amontillado." In the first sentence, readers are given the story's singular and simple premise: Montresor’s revenge. The plot of the story revolves tightly around the execution of his retribution against Fortunato. Ultimately, all of these elements are sewn together and given their final meaning through the pervasive use of irony.

There are two categories of irony in "The Cask of Amontillado": the ironies that Montresor manipulates and controls in the story, and the ironies that the author creates. As the story progresses we come to realize that, though Montresor is the main voice in the story, Poe subtly provides clues that bring us closer to understanding the truth behind Montresor’s words.

The first obvious irony is the fact that Montresor made sure that his servants would be gone by ordering them to stay. The use of reverse psychology is rampant throughout the story and demonstrates how perverted and backwards all of the relationships in the story have become. Because Montresor is the narrator, we are aware of the duplicity between what he is thinking, versus what he says: “Come, we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as I once was.” Montresor is obviously biting his tongue as he says these words, but does so amiably. He also drops a subtle hint (“as I once was”) about his true feelings of humiliation that are at the root of his vengeance.

Montresor has carefully planned this elaborate ceremony, which has elements of a Christian mass, but is macabre and evil. He toasts to Fortunato’s good health and long life over a glass of wine, which is usually a blessing. However Montresor and the audience are well aware that his intentions couldn’t be further from his words. Every word of discourse between the two men is given a grave double meaning with the knowledge of Montresor’s intent. He reassures Fortunato that he “will not die of a cough”, and is continually urging Fortunato not to go down into the vaults. Every plea to go back is actually a prodding downwards into the crypt.

Montresor understands he will go in spite of those pleas and, in fact counts on Fortunato’s hubris in his connoisseurship of wines to lure him into his tomb. Montresor baits him by asking him whether a “pipe of Amontillado” sherry he had recently purchased is the genuine article. But we find out early on that Montresor opportunistically views Fortunato’s love of wines as a “weakness” to be exploited.

While Montresor is quite pleased with his clever plan, he has left himself open for criticism by candidly sharing his intimate thoughts. He incidentally provides us with two main criteria by which to judge the success or failure of his revenge.

The first criterion is: “I must not only punish but punish with impunity.” Impunity is defined as “exemption from punishment.” Montresor has to punish Fortunato without condemning himself. He retells the story with a tone of pride, but given that it is fifty years after the murder, it seems likely that the monologue is a more of a confession than a boast. Furthermore, if he is confessing to repent for the sin, the pleasure he takes in the relating the details of the crime contravenes the confession. So either way, he has not punished with “impunity”.

The second criterion is: “[A wrong] is unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” To successfully attain retribution, Montresor must make Fortunato understand the nature of the wrong he perpetrated. But Fortunato never knows why he is walled up, and even thinks it’s a joke. He certainly dies quickly after being entombed and since one cannot further harm the dead, Montresor has failed to avenge the insult he had suffered.

The greatest irony in "The Cask of Amontillado" is the dramatic irony created by the fact that Montresor is telling, or retelling, the story to someone “who so well knows the true nature of my [Montresor] soul.” The structure of the story seems to be a confession, told fifty years after the actual event. Though we are told the story through Montresor’s voice, the use of irony provides us with insight to the double meanings behind the tale.

Duplicity and Doubling in "The Cask of Amontillado"

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When Montresor decides that it is time to seek revenge for the ‘‘thousand injuries of Fortunato,’’ he does not make his feelings known. Although the honor code of the day might have called for a public challenge and a duel to the death, Montresor decides that he will not give "utterance to a threat.'' Instead, while he waits for his opportunity, he behaves as though nothing is wrong: ‘‘It must be understood, that neither by word not 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 word for Montresor's behavior is "duplicitous." It means that he is concealing his true motives and feelings beneath a deceptive exterior, that he is being two-faced. The word, of course, is related to "duplicate" and "duplex" and ‘‘double.’’ Montresor is behaving as his own opposite in his dealings with Fortunato. As the story progresses, however, it will become clearer that the other side of Montresor's personality is not the smiling face he offers to Fortunato.

The story is filled with twins and opposites. The characters' names, for example, bounce off each other, two echoes of the same idea. The name "Montresor" carries the idea of "treasure," and "Fortunato" implies "fortune." Two sides of the same coin, as it were. As the two men walk along the damp passageway, Montresor offers Fortunato two bottles of wine: Medoc, thought to have medicinal powers and promising to ‘‘defend us from the damps,’’ and De Grave, a wine whose name means ‘‘of the grave.’’ Just afterward, Fortunato makes a "gesticulation," a secret gesture that demonstrates that he is a member of the Free and Accepted Masons, a secret fraternal order. In a scene that calls to mind nothing so much as Harpo Marx, Montresor produces a trowel from beneath his cloak, a sign that he, too, is a mason but of a different, deadly variety.

As the story opens, the men seem more different than alike. Montresor is cold, calculating, sober in every sense of the word. Fortunato greets him with "excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much.’’ Montresor wears a black mask, a short cloak and a rapier or sword, the very image of a distinguished gentleman. Fortunato, on the other hand, is dressed for "the supreme madness of the carnival season’’ in motley, the jester's costume, complete with ‘‘tight-fitting parti-striped’’ clothing and a pointed cap with jingling bells at the tip. A drunken man with bells on his hat seems no match for Montresor, and it is hard to imagine Fortunato as ‘‘a man to be respected, and even feared’’ as he sways and staggers and fixates on the prospect of tasting more wine, the Amontillado.

Montresor continues his duplicity. He suggests that Luchesi could taste the wine instead of Fortunato, knowing that the suggestion will make Fortunato all the more eager to taste it himself. He repeatedly fusses over Fortunato's health, proposing that they ought to turn back before the foul air makes his "friend'' ill, when in fact he intends that Fortunato will never leave the catacombs alive. He emphasizes the ways in which they are opposites: ‘‘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.''

Up to this point, even the conversation between the two establishes their different purposes. Looking over Montresor's shoulders, the reader is aware of the irony when Fortunato says, "the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough’’ and Montresor replies, ‘‘True true.’’ Although Montresor's plans have not yet been revealed, the reader knows with growing certainty that Fortunato will die. When Montresor and Fortunato share the therapeutic Medoc, Fortunato drinks ‘‘to the buried that repose around us,’’ and Montresor replies, "And I to your long life.''

From this point, things begin to change. Montresor's determination to hold himself as unlike Fortunato slips, and he becomes more like him with every step, as the wine works its effect on both of them. "The wine sparkled in his eyes and the bells jingled. My own fancy grew warm with the Medoc.’’ Previously, Fortunato has twice taken Montresor's arm to steady himself as they walk. Now Montresor returns the gesture,"I made bold to seize Fortunato by an arm above the elbow.’’ When they reach the end of the final passageway, Poe presents a flurry of twos: two men in ‘‘the interval between two of the colossal supports’’ confronted with ‘‘two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet.'' But as soon as Montresor fastens the padlock on the chain around Fortunato's waist, the two are one.

Now, when Fortunato speaks, Montresor echoes his words."The Amontillado!’’ Fortunato cries out, and Montresor replies, ‘‘True, the Amontillado." "Let us be gone,’’ says Fortunato, and Montresor replies, "Yes, let us be gone.'" 'For the love of God, Montresor!’’ cries Fortunato. "Yes," Montresor says, ‘‘for the love of God!’’ Montresor becomes unnerved when Fortunato abruptly stops the game, when he refuses to speak any more. "I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient.’’ Why does Montresor wish Fortunato to keep speaking? Why does he shine his torch inside, hoping for a response? It is when he gets no answer except "only ajingling of the bells'' that his heart grows sick.

The most chilling moment in the story happens, surely not coincidentally, at midnight (the time when the two hands of the clock are in one place), when the two men transcend human speech and communicate their oneness in another voice. Fortunato begins it with "a succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form.’’ At first, Montresor does not know how to respond to this communication. He moves ‘‘violently back,’’ hesitates, trembles. He waves his rapier around, fearing that Fortunato is coming for him, but is reassured at the touch of the solid walls. ‘‘The thought of an instant,’’ the realization that Fortunato is tightly bound, makes Montresor feel safe, and his reaction is dramatic and bizarre: "I reapproached the wall. I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I reechoed I aided I surpassed them in volume and in strength.’’ It is difficult to imagine the sounds produced by two men, enemies and opposites, hundreds of feet underground howling at midnight in a damp stone chamber. Surely the volume and the echoes would not yield two distinct voices, but one grotesque sound. For that moment, the two are one.

After the wall is completed, fifty years pass before Montresor tells the story. What has he learned in the intervening years? Has he felt remorse? For most of the story, Montresor's language is clear and direct, although the formality of nineteenth-century speech may seem difficult to modern readers. In the story's opening paragraph, told fifty years after the crime, the language is uncharacteristically convoluted and opaque: "A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.'' Most readers pause over these lines, stopping to sort out the redresser and the redressed from the redressee. If the roles are confusing, it is because in Montresor's mind the lines between avenger and victim are no longer distinct. When Montresor speaks the story's last line, "In pace requiescat'' ("rest in peace’’), is he speaking of Fortunato or of himself? By the end of the story, the two are so connected that it is all the same.

If Poe did intend the two men to be read as twins or doubles, what can he have meant by it? Critics have been pondering this question for over a century and a half. Daniel Hoffman, in Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, explores Poe's theme of "the fate of the man haunted by his own double, his anima, his weird.’’ When one of Poe's protagonists is wrestling with guilt, Hoffman explains, he sometimes "doubles his character and then arranges for one self to murder the other by burying him alive. In repeatedly telling stories of murderous doubles ( ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart," "William Wilson,’’ and others), Poe was attempting to deal with his own demons, his own repressed guilt. Poe biographer William Bittner claims that Montresor and Fortunato "are two sides of the same man Edgar Poe as he saw himself while drinking.’’ For Betina Knapp, author of a study titled Edgar Allan Poe, the ‘‘shadow figure emerges as a personification of the narrator's hostile feelings and thoughts, symbolizing the repressed instincts of the personality.’’ In his criticism and his daily life, Poe "felt himself striking back, at those forces in society or particularly individuals who might have wronged him.’’

Characters encountering and slaying their doubles are found throughout history and throughout the world, from Aristotle's story of a man who could not go out without meeting his "double'' to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Luke Skywalker meeting Darth Vader in Yoda's cave, killing him, and seeing that the face beneath the mask is his own. The Germans have a name for the phenomenon doppelganger, meaning "double walker'' and psychiatrists have recorded thousands of accounts of people who believe that they have actually encountered mirror images of themselves, usually late at night. Like other archetypal images, the encounter with the double, the other side of oneself, is a powerful image that has attracted and repelled for centuries. Poe anticipated modern psychology with its id, ego and superego by showing through his stories that the monsters outside are nothing compared to the monsters we carry within us.

Source: Cynthia Bily, for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000. Bily teaches English at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan.

Victim and Victimizer: Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"

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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 affecting his personality. In his essay "The Philosophy of Composition'' Poe remarked, ''A close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident:—it has the force of a frame to a picture.’’ A ‘‘circumscription of space,’’ that is, an enclosure, I consider to be any sort of physical confinement that restricts a character to a particular area, limiting his freedom. That Poe intended this confinement to have a certain power over narrative action is indicated by the phrases ‘‘insulated incident’’ and ‘‘the force of a frame to a picture.’’ But confinement in Poe's fiction, I will argue, also has power over a character and often causes him to do things he would not ordinarily do. Such is the case, I believe, with the tale ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado.’’

Montresor, the narrator, it will be remembered, unlike the narrators in other tales (such as ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ and ‘‘The Black Cat’’) who have murdered their victims and then tried to conceal their bodies, does succeed in concealing his crime, but it has so obsessed his memory and imagination that fifty years after the act, he is able to render an exact, detailed description as though it occurred the previous day. Like the narrator in "The Black Cat,'' Montresor uses an enclosure to conceal his victim, but Poe places more emphasis on it in "The Cask of Amontillado'' by making it a vault which Montresor fashions himself, within his own family catacombs under the city—an enclosure within a series of enclosures. One might argue that Poe uses the same device in ‘‘The Black Cat,’’ for the narrator in that tale conceals his wife's body within a wall of his cellar. The main difference lies in the fact that in "The Cask of Amontillado'' Poe centers the entire plot on the journey through the catacombs and into the vault in which Fortunato is finally walled up. In the former tale, Poe, while concentrating on the narrator's neurosis throughout the tale, dramatizes the main enclosure at the climax. In "The Cask of Amontillado,’’ the enclosures are more directly related to the narrator's neurosis.

The journey of Montresor and Fortunato through the catacombs becomes gloomier and more ominous with each step. Montresor relates: "We had passed through walls of piled bones, with casks and puncheons intermingling, into the inmost recesses of the catacombs... .'The nitre!' I said; 'see, it increases. It hangs like moss upon the vaults. We are below the river's bed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones. Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough—"It is nothing,' he said; 'let us goon.'’’

Furthermore, Montresor's language in the following passage emphasizes the enclosure:

We passed through a range of low arches ... and ... arrived at a deep crypt.... At the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious. Its walls had been lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris. Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner. From the fourth the bones had been thrown down, and lay promiscuously upon the earth, forming at one point a mound of some size. Within the wall... we perceived a still interior recess, in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven.

When Fortunato, at Montresor's urging, enters this tiny "interior crypt'' in search of the Amontillado, Montresor quickly chains him to the granite wall and begins ‘‘to wall up the entrance of the niche.’’

Montresor's last comment and his description of the enclosures indicate a certain relish for the plan, its locale, and the task of walling up his victim. He even pauses at one point to hear more precisely Fortunato's clanking the chain and to take pleasure in it: "The noise 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.’’ As the narrator in ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum'' is the victim of the enclosure, greatly fearing the pit and its unknown horrors, Montresor in this tale is the homicidal victimizer, fully aware of the horrors of enclosure, enjoying them, and scheming to make them as terrifying as possible.

In spite of his quick and effective work, Montresor pauses twice more before he finishes. The first pause occurs when Fortunato releases a ‘‘succession of loud and shrill scream." "For a brief moment I hesitated—I trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess: but the thought of an instant reassured me. I placed my hand upon the solid fabric of the catacombs, and felt satisfied. I reapproached the wall. I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I re-echoed—I aided—I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamorer grew still.’’ The frantic screams of Fortunato momentarily disturb Montresor, until he is reassured by the thought of the locale—the enclosures—and ‘‘the solid fabric of the catacombs.’’

The second disturbance comes when he is nearly finished. He thrusts the torch through the remaining aperture and lets it fall: ‘‘There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labor. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up.'' At this crucial instant, Montresor tells us, his "heart grew sick’’; of course, he is quick to assure us it is because of ‘‘the dampness of the catacombs.’’ Although Montresor is obviously fascinated by the deadly enclosure, and uses it with satisfaction in walling up Fortunato, he also experiences moments of horror while within it.

In this story, then, enclosure has a dual aspect. While it is Montresor's main source of delight in planning his revenge, it does create momentary flashes of panic which almost disrupt his carefully planned revenge. One wonders if on a subconscious level Montresor is not trying to isolate, and enclose, a part of himself and a neurosis he hates—symbolized by Fortunato: Once his victim is walled up and Montresor's neurosis is in a sense buried and out of sight, he believes he will probably regain some measure of sanity. But, of course, Poe does not allow him this luxury, for the conclusion of the tale clearly indicates that even though the long dead Fortunato may be buried, Montresor is still obsessed with the details of the crime and can recite them complete and intact after half a century.

Like the narrators of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart’’ and ‘‘The Black Cat,’’ Montresor buries his victim on his premises. But Montresor goes much deeper than the other two narrators, deeper than his cellar, deeper even than his family's subterranean burial ground, though he passes through it to reach the tiny crypt he has prepared for Fortunato. It seems as if he is reaching deep into the past, into his ancestral heritage, to deal with his current problem, Fortunato's insult. Like the other two narrators, he could have disposed of his victim in any number of ways having nothing to do with an enclosure, but he used burial and chose his family's catacombs, even his ancestors' bones, to conceal Fortunato's body: ‘‘Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones.’’ His act indicates that though he wants to be rid of his victim, he wants him to remain within reach, that is to say, among the bones of his ancestral past.

Fortunato, as a character, has little importance; he becomes significant as the object of Montresor's self-hatred, of the projection of his guilt for his aristocratic family's decline. Montresor says at one point, when his unwitting victim remarks on the extensiveness of the vaults, that ‘‘the Montresors .. . were a great and numerous family,’’ implying that they once were but no longer are; and Poe is careful not to mention any immediate family of Montresor.

Like the other two narrators, Montresor, while taking pains to conceal his crime, must needs be found out. However, unlike the other narrators, whose crimes are discovered shortly after they are committed, Montresor's is not found out until he informs the reader of it fifty years afterward. So, although the crime appears successful, the revenge is not, because Montresor has not freed himself from guilt—a fact indicated by his rendering of details which have no doubt obsessed him through every day since the deed. His final words, "In pace requiescat!’’, underscore Poe's irony. Montresor's rest has surely been troubled. Why he has preferred anonymity, while sustaining this obsession during those years, might well be explained by his unconscious fear of the guilt he would, once it was found out, consciously have to accept. And having to accept it might drive him insane, as it does the narrator at the conclusion of ‘‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’’ or it might force him to acknowledge the depth of his evil and truly repent—something Montresor is loath to do—as it does the narrator of "The Black Cat,’’ who reveals to the reader that he ‘‘would unburthen [his] ... soul’’ before he dies.

It appears, then, that Montresor is making Fortunato a scapegoat and symbolically enclosing Fortunato, his own identity, in a hidden crypt deep within his own soul—out of sight but certainly not forgotten. A similar view has been expressed by Charles Sweet: ‘‘Montresor's premature burial of his mirror self in the subterranean depths of his ancestral home (house equals mind in Poe) paints a psychological portrait of repression; the physical act of walling up an enemy in one's home duplicates the mental act of repressing a despised self in the unconscious.’’ Montresor, Sweet continues, ‘‘buries alive his scapegoat.... In Montresor's unconscious mind he is not murdering Fortunato, but burying/ repressing that dilettantish side of himself he can no longer endure, that side symbolized by Fortunato.’’ The enclosure Poe uses in "The Cask Amontillado,’’ in addition to being the focal point of the plot, providing a journey through a series of enclosures, and adding a sense of pervasive gloom and oppression to the tale, also becomes the central symbol in my interpretation. These enclosures and the crypt in which Montresor buries Fortunato are metaphors for Montresor's obsessive mind and the complex relationship between the reality of his disturbed inner self and his controlled, rational outer appearance. They emphasize his neurosis and symbolize the guilt he wishes to bury. Thus, Poe's enclosures in this enigmatic tale provide it with a thematic unity and an artistic integrity it might not otherwise have.

Source: Leonard W. Engel, ‘‘Victim and Victimizer: Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado,'’’ in Interpretations: A Journal of Idea, Analysis, and Criticism, Vol. 15, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 26-30.

"The Cask of Amontillado": Some Further Ironies

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Although readers of "The Cask of Amontillado'' have long been aware of the ironies that operate throughout to give special intensity to this tale, an awareness of its Roman Catholic cultural and theological materials adds to the irony and transforms clever trick into an episode of horror.

Throughout the entire episode—its planning, its execution, and its confession—Monsieur Montresor made self-conscious use of cunning, plotting, and irony to wreak his revenge. The French nobleman tells his story of the calmly calculated murder of his Italian aristocratic friend Fortunato. The crime had been perfectly executed; for fifty years now the act has gone undiscovered. Every smallest detail had been so carried out as to satisfy the criminal's two-fold purpose: Montresor would have revenge without himself getting caught; and, as the avenger, he would make quite sure "to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.’’ Thus he followed the motto on his coat of arms: ‘‘Nemo me impugne lacessit.’’

In the course of the narrative we learn how Montresor used the cutting edge of irony to give a surgeon's neatness to his work and to secure the greatest possible delight for himself. With consummate evil he chose the carnival season for his crime. The carnival in question was Carnevale, a three days' festivity ending at midnight on Ash Wednesday, during which time, in Catholic cultures, people have one last fling of merriment before beginning the somber Lenten fast. The season afforded a perfect setting for murder: servants were out of the house celebrating, the noise and frenzy of the crowds allowed the murderer to go about his work unnoticed, the high spirits of the season provided an appropriately ironic background for Montresor's playful antics with his victim, and the somber, religious quiet that settled upon the city at midnight was just the right mood for Fortunato's final hour. How appropriate that the victim go to his death in a catacomb while devout Christians were about to gather in churches above to receive blessed ashes, symbol of their mortality, and to hear the warning, "Remember man, you are dust and to dust you will return.’’

But overlying the story is another irony that Montresor is not conscious of, an irony that the reader is only vaguely conscious of, although its presence is felt quite strongly in several places. Basic to appreciating this irony is a correct understanding of sacramental confession. When Montresor killed Fortunato, he counted upon the judgment of God as the final instrument of revenge. He killed his enemy by leading him into sins of pride, vanity, and drunkenness; and without a chance for confession, Fortunato presumably would have been damned with no capacity for striking back in time or eternity. Moreover, to assure his own salvation, Montresor relied upon the power of sacramental confession for himself. For Montresor is not simply speaking to a sympathetic friend; he is also making his deathbed confession to a priest.

Montresor misses the irony of the phrase at the beginning of his confession, ‘‘You, who so well know the nature of my soul,’’ with its implication that the penitent had been confessing to this priest for some time, but had not been confessing all his sins. In theological terms these were bad confessions because the efficacy of the sacrament hinges upon the sincere disposition and sorrow of the penitent for all his sins. When this is lacking, the sacrament, instead of being an instrument of salvation, becomes an instrument of damnation. Such confessions were sins of sacrilege. Montresor, therefore, has been confessing in vain.

And even now, when on his deathbed Montresor confesses all his sins, he is deluded in thinking himself forgiven. He seems to be unaware, but the reader is not, of the gleeful tone of his confession. Montresor is taking delight in the very telling of his crime—hardly the disposition of a truly repentant sinner. Thus, the "In pace requiescat'' with which he finishes his confession is ambiguous. We can see it as a superficial expression of sorrow or a quiet satisfaction in the lasting, unchallenged completeness of his revenge. Here, surely, is the irony of a confession without repentance, an irony that makes the entire plan double back upon the doer.

Finally, Montresor's most serious miscalculation was his total failure to understand the ineffable power of God's mercy. Apparently he had forgotten a fundamental lesson of his catechism, that a person in serious sin—even without sacramental confession—can turn to God, out of love, and in an instant make an "act of contrition'' that can win immediate pardon. Fortunato's plea, ‘‘For the love of God, Montresor,’’ was directly addressed to his murderer, but implicitly it was a prayer expressing faith in the power of God's loving-kindness. To this, Montresor was deaf; and when the prayer received a merciful hearing in heaven, Montresor's stratagems backfired. Fortunato, lucky as his name suggests, was saved; Montresor, damned. The final effect is one of horror. The ultimate irony is that of a puny creature playing games with God.

Source: James F. Cooney, '‘‘The Cask of Amontillado': Some Further Ironies,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 195-6.

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