illustration of Fortunato standing in motley behind a mostly completed brick wall with a skull superimposed on the wall where his face should be

The Cask of Amontillado

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Why does Montresor use a trowel inside the cavity where he imprisoned Fortunato in Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"?

Quick answer:

The "insult" that Fortunato commits against Montresor is a family matter, and Montresor must take revenge on behalf of the Montresor family. This theory is based on the idea that Fortunato has insulted Montresor's family name, not his own. In addition to being a possible explanation for why an insult would drive Montresor to such a terrible crime, this theory also provides a plausible motive for Montresor's insistence that he is justified in killing Fortunato.

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After successfully leading the gullible, intoxicated Fortunato into the depths of his family's vast catacombs, Montresor shackles his enemy to a niche in the back wall of the vaults and begins to construct a wall around him. Montresor's plan is to enact the perfect revenge by burying Fortunato alive.

Montresor uses a trowel to build seven tiers of the wall and takes a break to admire his work. After building the wall to the height of his breast, Fortunato begins to scream at the top of his lungs, which startles Montresor, who steps back and draws his rapier. Montresor then contemplates stabbing Fortunato to death in order to prevent him from screaming again and attracting attention. He then gropes about the recess in the wall using his rapier. Poe writes,

For a brief moment I hesitated, I trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess; but the thought of an instant reassured me. (4)

When Fortunato begins to scream at the top of his lungs, Montresor hesitates and briefly thinks about the possibility of getting caught, which prompts him to stick his rapier into the recess of the wall. Montresor then feels the thick walls of the catacombs and reassures himself that he will not get caught. He then begins to taunt Fortunato by screaming back at him.

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Montresor does not use his trowel to search the recess where he has imprisoned Fortunato. Here is the passage in question:

A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment I hesitated -- I trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess; but the thought of an instant reassured me. I placed my hand upon the solid fabric of the catacombs , and felt satisfied. I reapproached the wall. I replied to the yells of him who clamoured. I reechoed -- I aided -- I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamourer grew still.

Poe specifies that Fortunato is wearing a tight-fitting jester's costume. He would be unarmed. Montresor is wearing a short black cloak and has a rapier concealed under it. He has Fortunato at his mercy from the time they enter the underground vaults. He could kill him with his rapier any time he wants, but he prefers to kill him in the manner he finally does, which may explain why he acts in such a zany fashion. He is momentarily alarmed when Fortunato begins screaming, and he thinks of stabbing him to death. But then he realizes that no one could hear his victim no matter how loud he screamed. Poe wants to show the reader that the plot is foolproof. Montresor can carry out his revenge with the "impunity" which is so essential. He can leave Fortunato there behind the wall and his victim can scream his head off without being heard. In fact, Montresor would probably like to think of Fortunato screaming and screaming in the dark until he finally gave up hope.

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This is where he had stashed the bricks and mortar ahead of time to wall up Fortunato within in the Montressor catycombs. Montressor's act was premeditated as he had prepared in detail beforehand all he would need to finish Fortunato off once he had lured him into the catycomb.

His plan seems to have worked since fifty years later nobody has disturbed the site save for Montressor himself and whomever he is talking to. Makes you wonder if the listener (reader in this case) is to be the next victim....

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In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," why did Montresor seek revenge on Fortunato?

The opening sentence of "The Cask of Amontillado" creates a puzzle that generations of critics and readers have been unable to solve:

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.

Most readers reasonably expect Montresor to describe the insult sufficiently to justify the revenge that drives him to kill Fortunato in a horrific manner.  But Montresor simply moves on to explain how he has constructed his revenge, and readers and literary critics are left to puzzle over the "insult."  A related issue is that Montresor is the first-person narrator of this tale--everything we see and hear is filtered through the eyes, ears, and mind of Montresor.  So, we have a narrator, upon whom we depend for accurate information, who decides to kill a man in a particularly horrific manner because of an insult.  We cannot be sure that Montresor is a reliable narrator.

The short answer to your question, then, is that no one is quite sure why Montresor decides to kill Fortunato, except that Montresor thinks the "insult" is sufficient justification for murder.  This answer, of course, leaves us in no better position than before because the answer is logically circular: Montresor decides to seek revenge because.  That's about as far as readers can go.

Some critics have speculated, among many things, that the insult has something to do with Montresor's family and that Montresor is therefore obligated, as the last remaining Montresor, to defend the Montresor family honor.  An intriguing word choice by Montresor may support this theory:

I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.

The word immolation is most often used to refer to a ritual sacrifice, not merely a run-of-the-mill murder.  Because both Montresor and Fortunato are conscious of their family's status--at one point, Montresor implies that his family's status is reduced--the possibility that Fortunato's insult is directed at the Montresor family, not Montresor himself, becomes important, particularly when we have no other idea why an "insult" would drive Montresor to such revenge.

Both Montresor and Fortunato are from the upper class, and both are from leading aristocratic families in a country--Italy--where loyalty to family is both expected and considered to be a virtue.  If, and I realize this is an if, Fortunato has insulted Montresor's family name, it is reasonable to believe that Montresor would feel obligated to take revenge on the family's behalf.  This if is supported, I think, by the elaborate discussion of the Montresor family's coat-of-arms: a snake being crushed by a human foot and, in turn, biting the heel of that foot.  The snake represents the Montresors, and the foot symbolizes the Fortunato family.  One can argue, of course, that the coat-of-arms simply represents the two men's struggle with one another, but coupled with Montresor's use of the word immolation, the elaborate description of the coat-of-arms may point to a family struggle, not a struggle between individuals.

Fortunato, therefore, becomes a sacrfice to the Montresor family's honor, which he has insulted in some way.  And Montresor, as the last representative of his family, has lived up to the sentiments expressed on his family's coat-of-arms: No one harms me without suffering himself.

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