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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What moral lessons do the themes of vengeance and religion provide in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

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The moral lessons about revenge and religion in the story are implicit, meaning that Poe never tells us directly what to think, but leaves it to us to interpret his meaning.

Most critics assume that the story is a death-bed confession told to a priest at the end of a long life. The first reason they assume this is that Montresor says in the opening paragraph, "You, who so well know the nature of my soul," implying he is speaking to a clergyman to whom he has confessed many times before. Second, at the end of the story, Montresor states that Fortunato has been walled up for "half a century."

This would establish Montresor as a practicing Catholic. From a moral point of view, it would suggest that this murder has been weighing on Montresor's conscience for a long time and he needs to get it off his chest before he dies.

Montresor tells readers directly in the first paragraph that he has decided to take revenge on Fortunato for insulting him. He also states that he must do so with impunity—in other words, without being caught and punished—and that his victim must know he is the object of revenge.

For a group discussion, you might focus on the moral issue of whether or not Montresor achieved revenge with "impunity." He has never been caught by the police—his crime is undetected and, in that sense, unpunished, but he has been carrying the weight of it on his soul for decades. Was it worth it? Does revenge bring satisfaction? The story indicates it does not.

The guilt seems to begin for Montresor before he even is done with walling up Fortunato. Fortunato has gone quiet after begging Montresor "for the love of God" to let him go. Montresor does not give in to this religious appeal for mercy, but after this he grows heartsick when Fortunato does not respond to his calls. Montresor blames his heartsickness of the cold of the catacombs, but we can be almost certain it comes from the realization of what he has done.

The story sends a moral message that revenge is not worth the price. It also leaves us wondering not only whether Montresor got revenge with impunity but whether he achieved his goal of his victim knowing this was revenge: we never know if Fortunato understands what he has done or if he has done anything really worth avenging at all.

The passages your might use are, first, the opening paragraph, which begins,

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled— but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved, precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity.

Second is the paragraph near the end, in which Montresor derives no satisfaction at the successful completion of his revenge scheme:

“Yes,” I said, “let us be gone.” “For the love of God, Montresor!” “Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!” But to these words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called aloud: “Fortunato!” No answer. I called again: “Fortunato!” No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in reply only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs.

You might also consider the ending words of the story:

In pace requiescat.

These mean "rest in peace." Who is Montresor addressing? Fortunato, himself, or both? One could argue that Montresor wants peace for his own soul.

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