The Cask of Amontillado Themes
The main themes in “The Cask of Amontillado” are ambivalence, self-delusion, and substance abuse.
- Ambivalence: Readers are never told the nature of the “thousand injuries of Fortunato,” and Montresor himself seems somewhat ambivalent about the revenge he takes on his “friend.”
- Self-delusion: Montresor appears to be under the delusion that his murder of Fortunato is just, and perhaps even that Fortunato has wronged him at all, while Fortunato is under the delusion that Montresor means him no harm.
- Substance abuse: Alcohol and drunkenness play central roles in the story, contributing to Fortunato’s gullibility and ultimate demise in Montresor’s wine cellar.
Ambivalence might be an unexpected theme for a story in which a man's emotions and intent are one-sided to the point of burying another man alive, but the surface events conceal a deeper meaning. One cannot know precisely what motivates Montresor in his quest for revenge. Poe leaves the reader in the dark regarding the "thousand injuries" to which Montresor has been subjected. It's conceivable that Montresor suffers from paranoia and is under a massive delusion about Fortunato's treatment of him. He continues, through the narrative, to refer to him as his "friend." The impression is one of a man compelled to carry out retributive justice almost against his will. The final statement, "rest in peace," is ironic but perhaps the key to the entire story. If indeed this is an enemy he has killed, it's strange that this wish sums up his narrative.
An analogy in the Poe canon is "The Black Cat," in which the narrator declares that he killed Pluto with tears streaming down his cheeks because the cat loved him and had never done him any harm. The same is true concerning the elderly victim in "The Tell-Tale Heart." Poe alludes to the "perversity" that motivates his killers; it is just as accurate to describe the feeling that dominates these characters as a kind of bizarre, grand-scale ambivalence. They love and hate on an exaggerated, almost supernatural plane, in a kind of grotesque manifestation of the irrationality that lies at the heart of human behavior.
Montresor, whatever the reality or unreality of Fortunato's wrongs perpetrated against him, is duping himself. He begins with an extended statement, like a postulate, on the nature of vengeance and the proper way of enacting it against a foe. He says a wrong is "unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to the one who has wronged him." Yet he never tells Fortunato why he's killing him. Not only does he not say what the specific wrongs committed against him have been, he gives no indication at all to the victim, even in the most general way, that revenge is what motivates him. Perhaps Montresor does not explain himself because there's nothing to explain. In any event, he appears to be under a delusion that he's been victimized, or at least in thinking that suffocating a man alive is the appropriate punishment for whatever Fortunato has supposedly done.
Fortunato has been deluded into thinking Montresor a friend. At no point until it is actually happening does he seem to suspect that Montresor intends to do him harm. Even after Montresor has led him into the niche and chained him, Fortunato's reaction is one of complete bewilderment. He seems to have no idea of what's taking place, or why.
Readers must be wary of overinterpretation on this point. Poe's main purpose, in a story such as this, may be simply to present a horrific occurrence that isn't intended to be looked into as more than an instance of grisly cruelty, a straightforward account of the potential for sadistic violence that is an unfortunate component of human nature. To read a further elaborate message into it runs the risk of attributing motives to Poe that were perhaps foreign to the unpretentious, non-didactic style of his fiction.
The theme of alcoholism and substance...
(The entire section is 1,184 words.)