Short story analysis of: The Cask of Amontillado By: Edgar Allen Poe
In one of Edgar Allen Poe’s best-known Tales of horror, “The Cask Of
Amontillado,” he suggests that pride can be a very dangerous thing. Poe
presents the compelling drama of two men, one who will stop at nothing to
get the revenge that he deems himself and his family worthy of, and another
who’s pride will ultimately be the catalyst for his death. Fortunato falls
prey to Montresor’s plans because he is so proud of his connoisseurship of
wine, and it is for the sake of his own pride that Montresor takes revenge
on Fortunato. In this essay I will examine how Poe utilizes plot elements,
style, narration, setting, theme, symbolization, and literary devices in
order to create such a horrific and suspenseful masterpiece.
“The Cask of Amontillado” weaves all the plot elements together in
such a way as to keep a readers attention throughout the entire story
without wanting to put it down. This story starts its inciting incident
with the Montresor meeting his friend Fortunato seeking revenge “The
thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he
ventured upon insult I vowed revenge… It was about dusk, one evening
during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my
friend” (Jerome B et al. 70). Next, the story moves to its rising action in
which Montresor explains to Fortunato that he has purchased a cask of
amontillado luring Fortunato into the catacombs of Montresor’s wine vaults
“I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my
doubts” (Jerome B et al. 70). The turning point occurs when they descend
deep into the catacombs of the vault toward the elusive amontillado “”Come,
let us go.” “Whither?” “To your vaults”” (Jerome B et al. 71). The Climax
Occurs after there decent, where Fortunato explores a niche in hopes of
finding the amontillado when the Montresor chains Fortunato up and starts
to wall him in “At the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another
less spacious… A moment more and I had fettered him to the granite. In
its surface were two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet,
horizontally. From one of these depended a short chain, from the other a
padlock. Throwing the links about his waist, it was but the work of a few
seconds to secure it… With these materials and with the aid of my trowel,
I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche” (Jerome B et al.
73). The falling action begins as the Montresor finished walling up
Fortunato “I forced the last stone into its position” (Jerome B et al. 74).
After walling up Fortunato the reader is led to the conclusion in which
Montresor wishes that Fortunato rest in peace. Then leaves implying that
this story had been eating at him for half a century “Against the new
masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no
mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat” (Jerome B et al. 74)!
Romanticism is defined as neo classicism or the rejection of
intellect in which emotions must be use to express thoughts or ideas. These
works like “The Cask of Amontillado” are very dramatic pieces that are set
in erotic and in an awkward places. “The Cask of Amontillado” is a murder
based on emotions hence defining the story as romantic “The thousand
injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured
upon insult I vowed revenge” (Jerome B et al. 70). Furthermore, the setting
is a pre-Lenten carnival in an Italian city, sixth through fifteenth
century making it erotic and awkward “was skilful in the Italian
vintages…it was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the
carnival season”(Jerome B et al. 70).
Poe also implemented styles of realism and gothic into this story.
Realism is defined as making the story and events come to real life within
the reader’s head, or something that is not too far beyond belief. This
story, when read in its entirety, seems not too far from reality and sounds
like an event that might have actually occurred even though the reader
knows its fiction. To further implement this idea the characters have no
super human powers or strengths, they seem to be average people “”My
friend, no. It is not the engagement, but the severe cold with which I
perceive you are afflicted. The vaults are insufferably damp. They are
encrusted with nitre.”… These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to
insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was
turned… He turned towards me, and looked into my eves with two filmy
orbs that distilled the rheum of intoxication…a succession of loud and
shrill screams” (Jerome B et al. 70-74). The masons was a club any well off
man could have been in “You? Impossible! A mason” (Jerome B et al. 72)? The
gothic style was that of a particular time period from around 500 A.D. till
around 1600 A.D. this implanted in a story would remind you of the middle
ages “It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the
carnival season” (Jerome B et al. 70).
Poe in this particular story used the first person participant
narration in which the Montresor (“I”) is narrating the story where other
characters as well as Montresor participate. This is best shown in the end
where he is recounting events that occurred fifty years ago and telling
them to someone, maybe for forgiveness of sins, “For the half of a century
no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat” (Jerome B et al. 74)!
Moreover, the Montresor shows that he is speaking to a friend when he says
“You, who so well know the nature of my soul” (Jerome B et al. 70).
The story begins around dusk, one evening during the carnival season
in an Italian city. The location quickly changes from the lighthearted
activates associated with such a festival to the damp, dark catacombs under
Montresor’s palazzo, which helps to establish the sinister atmosphere of
the story. In addition to the physical setting you have the separation of
the nobles, which are the wealthy to whom this story is about. Also, in
accordance with the setting you have a couple of politically powerful
gentlemen one seeking a good time and the other seeking revenge. The least
distinguishable of the settings would be that of religion, since Montresor
is telling the story fifty years after it happened, a reader would be lead
to the conclusion that he is about to die and need’s to confess his sins so
he can go to heaven (Catholicism). The emotional setting of the story would
be that of a revengeful friendship in which Fortunato will be betrayed by
“The Cask of Amontillado” is a powerful tale of revenge. Montresor,
the sinister narrator of this tale, pledges revenge upon Fortunato for an
insult. Montresor intends to seek vengeance in support of his family motto:
“Nemo me impune lacessit.” (“No one assails me with impunity.”) (Jerome B
et al. 72) On the coat of arms, which bears this motto, appears ” a huge
human foot d’or, in a field of azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant
whose fangs are embedded in the heel.” It is important for Montresor to
have his victim know what is happening to him. Montresor will derive
pleasure from the fact that “…as Fortunato slowly dies, the thought of
his rejected opportunities of escape will sting him with unbearable regret,
and as he sobers with terror, the final blow will come from the realization
that his craving for the wine has led him to his doom” (Quinn 500). In
structure, there can be no doubt, that both Montresor’s plan of revenge and
Poe’s story are carefully crafted to create the desired effect.
Poe’s use of symbolism is very creative from the names of the
characters to the types of wines named in the story. First, the name
Fortunato is based off of fortunate, which would stand for his prosperity
in life but is also ironic since he will end up dead. Montresor defined
would have been a hunter with intent to kill without injury, which is
exactly what he does. Next, the wines from the amontillado to the Medoc and
the De Grave, the amontillado represent their wealth and “connoisseurship”
(Jerome B et al. 70) in fine wines. The Medoc was used as medicine to help
the Fortunato’s cough. Finally, the De Grave (of the grave) is ironic due
to the fact that it was his last wine before entering his tomb.
“The Cask of Amontillado” had extensive usage of many literary
devices. Poe used irony in almost every paragraph one example of this is
Montresor’s statement to his friend Fortunato that they should return
because his “health is precious” (Jerome B et al. 72). when Montresor
stated this he did not want Fortunato to turn back to protect his health,
but indeed to kill him. Another instance of this would be, when Fortunato
pursues the “cask”(Jerome B et al. 71), which ends up being his own casket.
Another literary device Poe used many times in this story was
foreshadowing. One example of this would be when Fortunato jests to
Montresor that “”The cough’s a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall
not die of a cough””(Jerome B et al. 72). he was right he would not die of
a cough. Another example of foreshadow is Montresor’s coat of arms and
family motto is a foot stepping on a snake and the snake in a field of
azure with its fangs in the heel, accompanied with the phrase “Nemo me
impune lacessit,” “no one assail me with impunity” (Jerome B et al.72).
Montresor was vowed to avenge his family’s blow by Fortunato, even though
we never find out what the insult was.
Poe used more than just irony and foreshadowing in his story he also
had auditory imagery and gothic imagery. When reading through the story a
person can practically hear the bells ringing from the jester hat that
Fortunato is wearing “The wine sparkled in his eyes and the bells jingled”
(Jerome B et al. 72). another example of this auditory imagery is toward
the end when Fortunato is screaming as Montresor is walling him up “A
succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of
the chained form” (Jerome B et al. 74). Also, he uses gothic imagery with
the visuals of vaults and crypts “”To your vaults”” (Jerome B et al. 71).
Also, the way Poe portrays the “”Nitre”” (Jerome B et al. 71), reminds the
reader of a gothic setting.
In the end you never find out what Fortunato’s insult was that would
drive Montresor to such insanity to kill a person. The Montresor’s coat of
arms and family motto is a foot stepping on a snake and the snake in a
field of azure with its fangs in the heel, accompanied with the phrase
“Nemo me impune lacessit,” “no one assail me with impunity” (Jerome B et
al.72). meaning I (Montresor) will get revenge. The reason Montresor is
able to recall all the events so vividly is due to the fact that the murder
has been eating at him since the events unraveled. Finally, the free masons
(an international secret society of nobles, one who builds with stone) role
in the story was to humiliate Montresor and play the role of ironic tone
because a trough in the end will wall Fortunato up.
In conclusion, Poe’s usage of all the key elements in literature is
extensive, for such a short story. With a beautifully written and concise
plot and extreme use of literary devices. His styles transcend from three
different types in one story and the way he does it is amazing. The
narration of the story as a first person participant is outstandingly
awkward and enjoyable to read. In the setting Poe does a great job of
taking a reader out of their seat and transplanting them into the story.
The main theme of revenge is portrayed clearly as well as the symbolism of
almost everything throught “The Cask Of Amontillado.” All this, tied
together, is what created Poe’s horrific and suspenseful masterpiece.
Jerome B., Alison B., J. Paul H., and Kelly M., The Norton Introduction to
Literature.8th ed. London: Castle House, 2002.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. New York: D,
Appleton-Century Company, 1941.