The main themes in "The Cask of Amontillado" are the corrupting influence of revenge and the nature of sin and atonement.
The corrupting influence of revenge: revenge characterizes the entire short story as Montresor gleefully recounts his victory over Fortunato. However, Montresor is clearly unhinged and his need for vengeance corrupted what may once have been a true friendship.
The nature of sin and atonement: the story is told from a confessional standpoint, fifty years after Fortunato's death. The narrator's remorse, or lackthereof, is left ambiguous, calling into question the nature and purpose of his confession.
Themes and Meanings
Edgar Allan Poe himself seems to have had a morbid fear of premature burial; it is a theme he dealt with repeatedly in such stories as “The Premature Burial,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Berenice,” “Ligeia,” and “Morella,” all of which reverberate with a claustrophobic terror. He also turned again to walling up a victim in “The Black Cat.” The fear was that the buried person would still be conscious, aware of the enveloping horror.
“The Cask of Amontillado” belongs to the Romantic movement in art; it is part of the Romantic subgenre of the gothic, a tale of horror with the gothic paraphernalia of dungeons, catacombs, and cadavers. At his best, though, Poe transcends the genre. As he observed, his horror was not of Germany (meaning gothicism) but of the soul. To the extent that this is true, Poe was a pioneer in writing psychological fiction, often of extremely neurotic, if not abnormal, personalities. He also was an early advocate of art for art’s sake; unlike his contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, he did not write moral allegories. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” the murderer gets away with his crime. Whatever meaning the tale offers lies in the portrait of Montresor, contained in his own words. D. H. Lawrence, in Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), says that Montresor is devoured by the lust of hate, which destroys his soul just as he destroys Fortunato. By this token, Montresor resembles Hawthorne’s unpardonable sinners, who suffer from an intellectual pride and monomania that destroys their humanity. His revenge echoes (whether consciously or not) a passage from Thomas Nashe’s Renaissance novel The Unfortunate Traveller (1594):
Nothing so long of memorie as a dog, these Italians are old dogs, and will carrie an injurie a whole age in memorie: I have heard of a boxe on the eare that hath been revenged thirtie yeare after. The Neopolitane carrieth the bloodiest mind, and is the most secret fleering murdrer: whereupon it is growen to a common proverbe, Ile give him the Neopolitan shrug, when one intends to play the villaine, and make no boast of it.
The force that drives Montresor to commit the horrible murder of Fortunato is his powerful desire for revenge. His first words in the story speak of it: ‘‘The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.’’ The idea of revenge is repeated several times in the opening paragraph. Montresor will not rush to act, he says, but ‘‘at length I would be avenged''; he is determined to "not only punish, but punish with impunity.’’ The terms of the revenge are quite clear in Montresor's mind. He will not feel fully revenged unless Fortunato realizes that his punishment comes at Montresor's hand; a wrong is not redressed "when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.’’ In seeking revenge, Montresor is acting out the motto of his people, as it appears on the family coat of arms, Nemo me impune lacessit ("No one wounds me with impunity’’).
As countless critics have pointed out, the nature of the injuries and offenses is never revealed. Montresor appears to be telling or writing his story to someone who has more knowledge than Poe's reader...
(The entire section is 1,200 words.)