The Cask of Amontillado Analysis
by Edgar Allan Poe

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The Cask of Amontillado Analysis

  • In “The Cask of Amontillado,” Poe introduces an unreliable narrator, irrational elements, and the play of opposites to create a bizarre, nightmarish atmosphere that leaves the boundaries between reality and illusion unclear.
  • Along with revenge, alcohol is a central subject of the story, affecting Fortunato’s state of mind and luring him to his death. Wine, a good that promises pleasure, is paradoxically stored in the catacombs, a place of death and decay. 
  • Montresor’s murder of his “friend,” committed for no clear reason apart from the unstated “thousand injuries of Fortunato,” is emblematic of humanity’s contradictory nature and the meaninglessness of life.

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More than other tales by Poe, “The Cask of Amontillado” is a study in opposites. The setting is Italy during Carnival, a time of joy and revelry. The warm Mediterranean lands seem to have held a special position in the hearts of English and American writers of the nineteenth century. Here was a place where there was a kind of freedom, a contrast to the cold and strait-laced anglophone world. Fortunato is one of the revelers, wearing “motley,” a clown's muticolored outfit with a conical cap adorned with jingling bells. He is also drunk. The appearance of Montresor's victim is one of innocent playfulness, hardly that of a man who has inflicted the thousand injuries Montresor claims and which are the motive for the gruesome revenge he carries out.

The central subject of the tale is alcohol as much as it is vengeance. Not only is Fortunato under the influence, but the bait Montresor devises for him is wine. The catacombs themselves contain an opposition of ideas. A wine vault, the place where the valued intoxicants and the ecstasy they promise are stored, is located amid the bones of the dead. “We had passed through walls of piled bones,” Montresor says, “with casks and puncheons intermingling, into the inmost recesses of catacombs.” It's a paradoxical setting, but one that reflects Montresor's point of view relating to the man he plans to kill. The behavior of the men to each other suggests that they are, in fact, the closest of friends, though from Montresor's standpoint they are enemies. Montresor hates Fortunato enough to kill him, and to kill him in a particularly sadistic fashion. In spite of this, he continues to refer to him as a friend—actually, as “my poor friend,” when Fortunato, besides being intoxicated, is seized by a horrible fit of coughing as they journey through the damp vault.

The question of friendship or brotherhood is emphasized in an exchange between them about freemasonry. The “gesticulation” by Fortunato, which Montresor does not understand, is evidence of Fortunato's being a mason and knowing a secret sign. Montresor, to Fortunato's surprise, tells him that he belongs to the order as well, and as an indication of this, he shows him the trowel he has been carrying under his coat. This is the instrument he will use to build the wall of Fortunato's tomb. It thus symbolizes both the brotherhood of the order, and death.

The scene also shows the schizoid nature of the “friendship” between the two. If they are close friends, as Montresor asserts and as Fortunato's trusting attitude to him would indicate, it's odd that Fortunato would have any doubt about Montresor's status with regard to the masonic brotherhood. One would think he would either know Montresor is a mason or know he isn't one. The exchange about freemasonry appears to have little relevance to the action, but it is typical of Poe to add incidental bits of irrationality to a narrative. It enhances the atmosphere of surprise and contradiction that permeates the story.

Fortunato, significantly, does not even seem to react when Montresor leads him into the makeshift tomb and chains him to the wall. One would think that even a drunken man would attempt to fight back. “He was too much astounded to resist,” Montresor says....

(The entire section is 973 words.)