Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 682

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.

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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.”

Setting

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 231

The setting of "The Cask of Amontillado" has attracted a great deal of critical attention, because both the location and the time of the story are only vaguely hinted at. To bring touches of the exotic to his murky atmosphere, Poe freely combines elements of different nations and cultures. Fortunato and Luchesi are Italians, knowledgeable about Italian wines. Montresor, as argued convincingly by Richard Benton and others, is a Frenchman. Amontillado is a Spanish wine. Montresor's family motto, Nemo me impune lacessit ("No one wounds me with impunity"), is the motto of the royal arms of Scotland. Sprinkled among the Latin motto and other Latin phrases are references to Montresor's palazzo, his roauelaire, his rapier, and his flambeaux. If Poe's readers could not be expected to identify the nationality of each element, so much the better for creating the impression that the story happens "in another place and time."

The time of the story may be guessed at. Montresor's short cape and rapier, the slightly formal vocabulary, and the torches used to light the men's way indicate that the story takes place in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Scholars tracing the family name of Montresor and the history of laws governing the Mardi Gras carnivals in France have placed the date of the murder more precisely: John Randall III and others believe the murder occurs in 1796, while Benton argues for 1787-88.

Literary Style

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Point of View and Narrator

"The Cask of Amontillado'' is told in the first person by Montresor, who reveals in the first sentence that he intends to have revenge from Fortunato. He tells the story to an unidentified "you, who so well know the nature of my soul,’’ but this "you" does not appear to respond in any way as Montresor delivers a long monologue. The most striking thing about Montresor's voice, in fact, is its uninterrupted calm and confidence. He tells the story from beginning to end with no diversion, no explanation, and no emotion. If he is gleeful at gaining his revenge, or if he feels guilty about his crime, he does not speak of it directly, and his language does not reveal it. Even at the most terrifying moment in the story, when Fortunato realizes that Montresor intends to seal him up behind a wall, the narrator is calm and detached: "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 mourning cry from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken man. There was then a long and obstinate silence. I laid the second tier, and the third, and the fourth.’’

By presenting the story in the first person, Poe avoids hinting at any interpretation of the action. Montresor is in control, deciding what to tell and what to leave out. A third-person narrator, even a limited narrator who could not see into the minds and hearts of the characters, would have presented a more balanced story. An objective narrator telling a terrible story objectively might be frightening, but even more frightening is a man telling without emotion the story of his own terrible crime.

Setting

The setting of ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ has attracted a great deal of critical attention, because both the location and the time of the story are only vaguely hinted at. To bring touches of the exotic to his murky atmosphere, Poe freely combines elements of different nations and cultures. Fortunato and Luchesi are Italians, knowledgeable about Italian wines. Montresor, as argued convincingly by Richard Benton and others, is a Frenchman. Amontillado is a Spanish wine. Montresor's family motto, Nemo me impune lacessit, is the motto of the royal arms of Scotland. Sprinkled among the Latin motto and other Latin phrases are references to Montresor's palazzo, his roquelaire, his rapier, and his flambeaux. If Poe's readers could not be expected to identify the nationality of each element, so much the better for creating the impression that the story happens "in another place and time.’’

The time of the story may be guessed at. Montresor's short cape and rapier, the slightly formal vocabulary, and the torches used to light the men's way seem to indicate that the story takes place in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Scholars tracing the family name of Montresor and the history of laws governing the Mardi Gras carnivals in France have placed the date of the murder more precisely; John Randall III and others believe the murder occurs in 1796, while Benton argues for 1787-88.

Gothicism

Poe is often considered a master of the Gothic tale, and ‘‘The Cask of Amontillado’’ contains many of the standard elements of Gothicism. Gothic stories are typically set in medieval castles and feature mystery, horror, violence, ghosts, clanking chains, long underground passages, and dark chambers. The term "Gothic'' originally referred to the Goths, an ancient and medieval Germanic tribe, but over time the word came to apply to anything medieval. The first Gothic novel, Horace Walpole' s Castle of Otranto (1764), was set in a medieval castle, and later works that attempted to capture the same setting or atmosphere were labeled "Gothic.''

Poe was fascinated with the materials and devices of the Gothic novel, although he preferred to work in the short story form. He was a great admirer of Walpole, and of the American Gothic writer Charles Brockden Brown."The Cask of Amontillado’’ takes many details from the Gothic tradition: the palazzo of the Montresors with its many rooms, the archway that leads to the ‘‘long and winding staircase’’ down to the catacombs, the damp and dark passageway hanging with moss and dripping moisture, the piles of bones, the flaming torches that flicker and fade, and the "clanking'' and "furious vibrations of the chain'' that Montresor uses to bind Fortunato to the wall. The overall atmosphere of brooding and horror also come from this tradition.

Some elements of the Gothic, however, Poe intentionally avoided: there is no hint in "The Cask of Amontillado,'' or in most of his horror stories, of the supernatural. Poe was quite clear on this point, explaining that the plot of a short story "may be involved, but it must not transcend probability. The agencies introduced must belong to real life.’’ Montresor's crime is terrible, but it is believable, and it is committed without magic or superhuman power. Although there may be a hint of the supernatural in his remark that ‘‘for the half of a century no mortal has disturbed'' the pile of bones outside Fortunato's tomb, those beings that might not be mortal are not described, and indeed Fortunato does not reappear as a ghost or a vampire or a zombie. Poe uses Gothic conventions to create an atmosphere of terror, but then subverts the convention by using only human agents for terrible deeds. For Poe, it is not supernatural beings that people should fear; the real horror lies in what human beings themselves are capable of.

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