Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

James Russell Lowell, in his satiric poem A Fable for Critics (1848), called Poe’s work three-fifths genius and two-fifths fudge. In the genius-fudge ratio, “The Cask of Amontillado” ranks high on the genius side. A brief, concise story, it fulfills Poe’s literary theory that every detail and word in a tale or poem should contribute to the intended effect. Here, there are only two characters, and though Montresor insists on his patience in devising an appropriate and satisfying revenge, the story moves quickly and relentlessly to its climax. In contrast to the verbosity found in the works of Sir Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper, Poe’s story, only about four pages long, has not a wasted word. Poe grips readers and plunges them right in with the opening sentence, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” Readers learn almost nothing about the background of the characters; one is told nothing about their age, their families, their wives and children, if any, or their appearance. One is not even told when and where the story takes place, though the name Fortunato and references to a palazzo indicate Italy. From the last sentence, stating that Fortunato’s bones have moldered in the tomb for half a century, one can deduce that they were young men at the time of the tale, which could occur no later than the end of the eighteenth century. As for character, Montresor tells readers that Fortunato was to be respected and even feared, that his only weak point was his pride in being a connoisseur of wine. This pride in such a trivial matter becomes grotesquely disproportionate and leads him into the trap.

Critics have complained that all of Poe’s characters sound alike, that Poe has only one voice, but in “The Cask of Amontillado” the narrative voice—learned, passionate but cold, ironic—fits perfectly the character of the avenger. Like Shakespeare’s Iago and Richard III, Montresor takes the reader into his confidence, assuming he or she will approve not only of his revenge but also of the clever and grotesque manner of it, and share his gloating satisfaction. The sensitive reader will also identify with Fortunato, however, and share his fear of the charnel-like catacombs and his horror of being walled up alive, to die slowly in the dark of starvation or suffocation among the skeletons of Montresor’s ancestors.

The reader should realize, as Montresor does not, that despite his cleverness and irony, Montresor is an inhuman monster and something of a madman. Montresor’s tone throughout is jocose. Repeatedly, he baits Fortunato (whose name is ironic in light of his ghastly fate) by playing on his vanity, suggesting that Luchesi can judge the wine as well, pretending to be his concerned friend, giving his enemy chance after chance to escape. The vaults are too damp, Fortunato has a cough, his health is precious, and they should turn back. With foreknowledge, Montresor observes that Fortunato will not die of a cough and drinks to his long life. Montresor interprets his family’s coat of arms—signifying, he says, that no one injures him with impunity, a warning that Fortunato has ignored. When Fortunato makes a secret gesture and asks if Montresor is a mason, the latter produces a trowel, which he will use to wall up his enemy. Thus, Montresor plays cat and mouse with his victim. After chaining his enemy, he implores him to return, then says he must render him “all the little attention in my power,” and proceeds to the masonry. Clearly, he savors every moment of his murderous revenge. When Fortunato begins to scream, Montresor reveals his own madness. Unsheathing his rapier, he thrusts about with it and then responds by echoing and surpassing the cries of his victim. At the end, he returns to his jocose tone, observing that his heart grew sick on account of “the dampness of the catacombs,” and concluding, fifty years later, “In pace requiescat”: “May he rest in peace.”

The Cask of Amontillado

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Furious because of unspecified insults by Fortunato, the nobleman Montresor seeks revenge. By appealing to his enemy’s pride, Montresor lures Fortunato into his family vaults to sample some wine to determine if it is true Amontillado. Once there, Montresor bricks the drunken man into a niche in the wall to die. Montresor tells the story of his crime fifty years later to an unnamed someone who knows well the nature of his soul.

The clues to the basically ironic nature of the story can be seen in many separate details which suggest that the truth is just the opposite of the surface appearance. The central irony lies in Montresor’s coat of arms--which depicts a large human foot crushing a serpent whose fangs are embedded in the heel--and his family motto: No one harms me with impunity. There is irony also in Montresor’s criteria for a successful revenge: that a wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser or when the avenger does not make clear that he is acting out of revenge.

At the end of the story, although Montresor does indeed murder Fortunato, he never really makes clear to him why he is doing it. Moreover, the fact that fifty years later he confesses his crime, perhaps to a priest, might mean that he has been punished by guilt all this time. The question left in the reader’s mind is: If Montresor is represented by the foot crushing out the life of the serpent Fortunato, then are the fangs of Fortunato still embedded in Montresor’s heel? If so, it might be said that Fortunato fulfills Montresor’s criteria for revenge more perfectly than Montresor himself does.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Short Story
Although there have been stories as long as there have been people to tell them, many critics trace...

(The entire section is 658 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The setting of "The Cask of Amontillado" has attracted a great deal of critical attention, because both the location and the time of the...

(The entire section is 231 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View and Narrator
"The Cask of Amontillado'' is told in the first person by Montresor, who reveals in the...

(The entire section is 943 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

In the first half of the nineteenth century there was a great call for Americans to develop a national literature, by which was meant a body...

(The entire section is 294 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1830s: An Anti-Masonic political party is formed in the United States, intended to counterbalance the supposed political...

(The entire section is 227 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Who is the narrator addressing? Who is the "you" to whom Montresor confesses his crime? What is his motivation in telling the story?


(The entire section is 184 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Investigate the history of the Free and Accepted Masons, the group to which Fortunato apparently belongs. How were Masons perceived in the...

(The entire section is 208 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Investigate the history of the Free and Accepted Masons, a group to which Fortunato apparently belongs. How were Masons perceived in the...

(The entire section is 153 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The audio-cassette collection The Best of Edgar Allan Poe (1987), read by Edward Blake, includes "The Cask of Amontillado" and...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

The audio cassette collection The Best of Edgar Allan Poe(1987), read by Edward Blake, includes "The Cask of Amontillado'' and...

(The entire section is 208 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Bodies of the Dead and Other Great American Ghost Stories (1997) is a collection of thirteen classic stories by Ambrose Bierce

(The entire section is 214 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Benton, Richard P. "Poe's 'The Cask' and the 'White Webwork with Gleams.'" Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Spring 1991): 183- 95. Benton...

(The entire section is 361 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Benton, Richard P. ‘‘Poe's 'The Cask of Amontillado': Its Cultural and Historical Backgrounds,’’ in...

(The entire section is 503 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Burluck, Michael L. Grim Phantasms: Fear in Poe’s Short Fiction. New York: Garland, 1993.

Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1998.

Hutchisson, James M. Poe. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

Irwin, John T. The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges, and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

Kennedy, J. Gerald. A Historical Guide to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Peeples, Scott. Edgar Allan Poe Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Sova, Dawn B. Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 2001.

Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.