Religious Imagery and Ritual in The Cask of Amontillado
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.
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...
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