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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Teaching Approaches

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Inferring Characterization: “The Cask of Amontillado” includes two characters: Montresor and Fortunato. Little is made explicit about the two except for Montresor’s desire for revenge and Fortunato’s enthusiasm for wine. Understanding the two characters and their development in the story requires readers to infer details about each character through his appearance, actions, and dialogue.

  • For discussion: What does the story reveal about Montresor? What are his motivations? (How) Do his motivations or his emotional states change as the story progresses?
  • For discussion: What does the story reveal about Fortunato? How does his attitude shift over the course of the story? Does he deserve Montresor’s ire?
  • For discussion: Which character is the protagonist and which character is the antagonist? To what extent do the characters function as foils in the story?

Interpreting Irony: “The Cask of Amontillado relies on dramatic irony and verbal irony as primary devices in the story. Dramatic irony is developed at the beginning of the story: the audience knows that Montresor is out for revenge and that Fortunato’s trip into the catacombs will not end well. The story is also laced with verbal irony such as false invitations from Montresor to leave the catacombs, his sarcastic toast to Fortunato’s long life, and a possibly fabricated coat of arms and motto. Engage students in a discussion about how irony develops mood and tone in the story.

  • For discussion: How does dramatic irony function in the story? What information does the audience have that Fortunato doesn’t?
  • For discussion: Where does verbal irony occur in the story? When do characters say the opposite of what they mean? 
  • For discussion: How is Montresor’s toast to Fortunato’s long life ironic? What do you think Montresor means by this toast to Fortunato? 
  • For discussion: How does the dramatic irony develop mood and atmosphere in the story? 
  • For discussion: How does verbal irony develop tone in the story? How does it contribute to the reliability of Montresor as a narrator?

Defining Gothic Literature as a Genre: Edgar Allan Poe was a prominent writer of gothic fiction. Many critics consider “The Cask of Amontillado” to be a classic example of the genre. Work with students to study the tropes of the gothic genre. Discuss with students how those tropes are enacted in the story.

  • For discussion: What shameful or taboo elements of human nature are seen in the story? What emotions does the story provoke?
  • For discussion: Given Poe’s possible motivation for writing his story—as a means of revenge against a rival author—why would he choose this genre or literary tradition in which to compose this story?
  • For discussion: How does the setting of the catacombs affect the development of suspense and mood in the story?
  • For discussion: Suspense, horror, and the macabre are largely gothic elements. When do you feel suspense and horror while reading? In what ways is the murder of Fortunato representative of the tropes of gothic fiction?

Analyzing How Symbolism Develops Characterization and Theme: In a story as short as “The Cask of Amontillado,” physical objects and settings take on heightened importance. For example, the catacombs, the costumes Montresor and Fortunato wear, the wine, the act of entombing Fortunato, and Montresor’s coat of arms are critical symbols in the text.

  • For discussion: To what extent do the catacombs symbolize the psychological experiences of Montresor and Fortunato? How do the bones therein develop mood and suspense in the story?
  • For discussion: Describe the elements that comprise the Montresor family’s coat of arms. How does the coat of arms highlight themes present in the text?
  • For discussion: What are Montresor and Fortunato wearing? How do the elements of their costumes develop different aspects of their characters?
  • For discussion: How does wine function in the story? What wine does Montresor give to Fortunato while in the catacombs, and what could this wine represent? What is the importance of the cask of Amontillado, and how does it develop the plot?

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Neither of the Characters Are Sympathetic: “The Cask of Amontillado” is short and offers little development of either character beyond Montresor’s need for revenge and Fortunato’s condescending nature. Due to a lack of information about Montresor and Fortunato, especially as regards their backgrounds and relationship, students may find the two characters unrelatable and unsympathetic.

  • What to do: Invite students to consider why some characters in stories are unsympathetic, and ask why it is important for stories to include these types of characters. Have students analyze how the unrelatable and unsympathetic nature of Montresor and Fortunato helps develop themes and mood within “The Cask of Amontillado.” 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching "The Cask of Amontillado"

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this story, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the text.

Focus on rhetoric and the art of persuasion. Montresor takes advantage of Fortunato and persuades him to go farther and farther into the catacombs. Have students discuss Monstresor’s persuasive tactics. Ask students why they think Montresor was successful in trapping Fortunato in the catacombs.

Focus on the narrator’s reliability. Montresor, a character of questionable ethics, is narrating events from 50 years ago. Ask students to consider whether or not Montresor is reliable in his narration. Whether they find him trustworthy or not, have students support their ideas with examples in the text.

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