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.
Edgar Allan Poe himself seems to have had a morbid fear of premature burial; it is a theme he dealt with repeatedly in such stories as “The Premature Burial,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Berenice,” “Ligeia,” and “Morella,” all of which reverberate with a claustrophobic terror. He also turned again to walling up a victim in “The Black Cat.” The fear was that the buried person would still be conscious, aware of the enveloping horror.
“The Cask of Amontillado” belongs to the Romantic movement in art; it is part of the Romantic subgenre of the gothic, a tale of horror with the gothic paraphernalia of dungeons, catacombs, and cadavers. At his best, though, Poe transcends the genre. As he observed, his horror was not of Germany (meaning gothicism) but of the soul. To the extent that this is true, Poe was a pioneer in writing psychological fiction, often of extremely neurotic, if not abnormal, personalities. He also was an early advocate of art for art’s sake; unlike his contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, he did not write moral allegories. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” the murderer gets away with his crime. Whatever meaning the tale offers lies in the portrait of Montresor, contained in his own words. D. H. Lawrence, in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), says that Montresor is devoured by the lust of hate, which destroys his soul just as he destroys Fortunato. By this token, Montresor resembles Hawthorne’s unpardonable sinners, who suffer from an intellectual pride and monomania that destroys their humanity. His revenge echoes (whether consciously or not) a passage from Thomas Nashe’s Renaissance novel The Unfortunate Traveller (1594):
Nothing so long of memorie as a dog, these Italians are old dogs, and will carrie an injurie a whole age in memorie: I have heard of a boxe on the eare that hath been revenged thirtie yeare after. The Neopolitane carrieth the bloodiest mind, and is the most secret fleering murdrer: whereupon it is growen to a common proverbe, Ile give him the Neopolitan shrug, when one intends to play the villaine, and make no boast of it.