The Cask Of Amontillado By Edgar Allan Poe Essay Contest

"The Cask of Amontillado" Edgar Allan Poe

See also "The Tell-Tale Heart" Criticism and "The Fall of the House of Usher" Criticism.

Regarded as the originator of the modern short story and a master of the form, Poe established a highly influential rationale for short narrative art, which emphasizes the deliberate arrangement of a story's minutest details of setting, characterization, and structure in order to impress a unified effect on the reader. In his own work he demonstrated a brilliant command of this technique—often eliciting "terror, or passion, or horror" from his readers—as well as an uncommon imagination suffused with eerie thoughts, weird impulses, and foreboding fear. Renowned for cultivating an aura of mystery and a taste for the ghastly in his fiction, Poe relied on his imagination and literary skills to animate the disconcerting effects of his so-called "tales of horror," especially those dealing with crime and moral depravity. Among the latter kind, "The Cask of Amontillado" ranks as one of Poe's finest stories. Originally published in November 1846, in Godey's Lady's Book, "The Cask of Amontillado" has since become a classic tale of revenge, distinguished by the subtle irony that pervades many levels of the story and by Poe's uncharacteristic use of dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist as the principal structural device of the narrative.

Plot and Major Characters

Set in an anonymous city somewhere in the Mediterranean region of Europe during the pre-Lenten festivities of the carnival season, "The Cask of Amontillado" recounts the last meeting between two aristocratic gentlemen, the narrator Montresor and the wine connoisseur Fortunato. As the story begins, Montresor plots complete and perfect revenge for "the thousand injuries" instigated by Fortunato, who once again has insulted him, although the particulars are never indicated. Montresor encounters the obviously tipsy Fortunato dressed in fool's motley and informs him that a recently acquired cask of amontillado sherry awaits his discriminating palate in Montresor's underground cellars. Eager to taste the wine, Fortunato follows Montresor to his palazzo and into the vaults. Although Fortunato has a cough that is aggravated by the damp air and potassium nitrate hanging in the tunnels through which they pass, he is spurred onward after he learns that his rival Luchresi may be permitted to taste Montresor's new wine. Engaging Fortunato in dialogue ripe with irony, Montresor lures his victim deep into the family catacombs, urging him to try other wines along the way. As Fortunato grows impatient to sample the amontillado and assess its quality, he is easily directed into a crypt at the end of a passage where Montresor promptly shackles him in chains to the wall. With both a trowel and fresh mortar nearby, Montresor begins to entomb Fortunato brick by brick. Sobering quickly, Fortunato cries in vain for release. As Montresor finishes his task, the bells on Fortunato's costume jingle faintly. Montresor then hides his handiwork behind a pile of his ancestor's bones. He concludes that no one has disturbed them for fifty years.

Major Themes

Themes of betrayal and revenge clearly inform "The Cask of Amontillado," but the pervasive irony of Montresor's narration complicates attempts to understand his motives and other conflicts at the heart of the tale. At the same time, layers of irony also contribute to the story's tone of horror. While Fortunato remains blissfully ignorant of Montresor's true intentions for most of the story, the evident pleasure Montresor takes in relating his story, proudly recalling every detail fifty years after the fact, suggests a state of mind free of remorse and detached from any sense of conscience. The ironic connotations of the story also inspire darkly comedic moments and evince Poe's satiric sense of humor. Montresor's pursuit of revenge against Fortunato represents the enactment of an elaborate ritual that resembles the profane rites of the "Black Mass" or a parody of archetypal events, such as the conflict between good and evil, replete with biblical echoes; the implications of the story's last line, "In pace requiescat" ("may he/it rest in peace"), which derives from the Roman Catholic funeral rite, proliferate in the ironic context of the narrative. Likewise, the proper nouns in the story—Amontillado, Montresor, Fortunato, Luchresi—demonstrate Poe's disposition toward puns and fascination with the multiple meanings of foreign words. The traditional aristocratic code of personal honor and social obligation shapes other aspects of the tale. Although violations of the code were usually redressed in the form of the duello, here insults are expressed by a duel with words in form of Montresor's dialogue with Fortunato. Other thematic concerns involve the prevalence of masonic imagery in the story, perhaps gesturing toward the Masonic-Catholic conflict that swept the United States at the time of the story's composition, as well as the thematic device of enclosure, which Poe used in many other stories, although its presence in "The Cask of Amontillado" may allude to the popularity of live-burial literature in Poe's era.

Critical Reception

Regarded as one of Poe's greatest and most famous tales, "The Cask of Amontillado" has attracted a broad range of commentary representing a wide spectrum of perspectives. Critics generally agree that "The Cask of Amontillado" exemplifies Poe's theory of short fiction, in which every narrative detail of a successful story contributes to a single intense effect. However, a consensus opinion about specific details remains elusive. Some scholars have disputed the time and place of the action in Poe's story as well as the national origins of the principal characters, while other commentators have suggested that the tale reflects Poe's personal bitterness in the so-called "War of the Literati," which resulted from a series of critical articles entitled "The Literati" that Poe published in Godey's Lady's Book just before "The Cask" appeared. Psychoanalytic readings have emphasized the macabre and pathological elements in the work, ranging from the psychological implications of Montresor's "motiveless evil" and a perceived division within the psyche of Montresor, or even Poe, to personality transference between the characters. Others have focused on "The Cask of Amontillado" as a practical application of Poe's theory of perversity, which hinges on apparent irrelevancies. The final line of the story has troubled many commentators: some feel that it indicates a guilty motivation for Montresor's story, while others detect sarcasm or alternative figures to whom it is addressed. Francis J. Henninger concluded that Poe "had been writing tales with startling endings, but [in The Cask of Amontillado'] he writes one guaranteed not to startle. When it does, the effect is so delightfully jarring and puzzling that it is not easily forgotten. Why else should this story . . . bear the weight . . . of the scrutiny of so many years of reading?"

The Cask of Amontillado

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. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

It must be understood, that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.

He had a weak point - this Fortunato - although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity - to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen , was a quack - but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him materially : I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.

It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend. He accosted me with excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much. The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells. I was so pleased to see him, that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand.

I said to him - "My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met. How remarkably well you are looking to-day ! But I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts."

"How ?" said he. "Amontillado ? A pipe ? Impossible ! And in the middle of the carnival !"

"I have my doubts," I replied ; "and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain."

"Amontillado !"

"I have my doubts."

"Amontillado !"

"And I must satisfy them."

"Amontillado !"

"As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchesi. If any one has a critical turn, it is he. He will tell me --"

"Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry."

"And yet some fools will have it that his taste is a match for your own."

"Come, let us go."

"Whither ?"

"To your vaults."

"My friend, no ; I will not impose upon your good nature. I perceive you have an engagement. Luchesi --"

"I have no engagement ; - come."

"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."

"Let us go, nevertheless. The cold is merely nothing. Amontillado ! You have been imposed upon. And as for Luchesi, he cannot distinguish Sherry from Amontillado."

Thus speaking, Fortunato possessed himself of my arm. Putting on a mask of black silk, and drawing a roquelaire closely about my person, I suffered him to hurry me to my palazzo.

There were no attendants at home ; they had absconded to make merry in honor of the time. I had told them that I should not return until the morning, and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was turned.

I took from their sconces two flambeaux, and giving one to Fortunato, bowed him through several suites of rooms to the archway that led into the vaults. I passed down a long and winding staircase, requesting him to be cautious as he followed. We came at length to the foot of the descent, and stood together on the damp ground of the catacombs of the Montresors.

The gait of my friend was unsteady, and the bells upon his cap jingled as he strode.

"The pipe," said he.

"It is farther on," said I ; "but observe the white web-work which gleams from these cavern walls."

He turned towards me, and looked into my eyes with two filmy orbs that distilled the rheum of intoxication .

"Nitre ?" he asked, at length.

"Nitre," I replied. "How long have you had that cough ?"

"Ugh ! ugh ! ugh ! - ugh ! ugh ! ugh ! - ugh ! ugh ! ugh ! - ugh ! ugh ! ugh ! - ugh ! ugh ! ugh !"

My poor friend found it impossible to reply for many minutes.

"It is nothing," he said, at last.

"Come," I said, with decision, "we will go back ; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved ; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter. We will go back ; you will be ill, and I cannot be responsible. Besides, there is Luchesi --"

"Enough," he said ; "the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough."

"True - true," I replied ; "and, indeed, I had no intention of alarming you unnecessarily - but you should use all proper caution. A draught of this Medoc will defend us from the damps."

Here I knocked off the neck of a bottle which I drew from a long row of its fellows that lay upon the mould.

"Drink," I said, presenting him the wine.

He raised it to his lips with a leer. He paused and nodded to me familiarly, while his bells jingled.

"I drink," he said, "to the buried that repose around us."

"And I to your long life."

He again took my arm, and we proceeded.

"These vaults," he said, "are extensive."

"The Montresors," I replied, "were a great and numerous family."

"I forget your arms."

"A huge human foot d'or, in a field azure ; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel."

"And the motto ?"

"Nemo me impune lacessit ."

"Good !" he said.

The wine sparkled in his eyes and the bells jingled. My own fancy grew warm with the Medoc. We had passed through walls of piled bones, with casks and puncheons intermingling, into the inmost recesses of the catacombs. I paused again, and this time I made bold to seize Fortunato by an arm above the elbow.

"The nitre !" I said : "see, it increases. It hangs like moss upon the vaults. We are below the river's bed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones. Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough --"

"It is nothing," he said ; "let us go on. But first, another draught of the Medoc."

I broke and reached him a flaçon of De Grâve. He emptied it at a breath. His eyes flashed with a fierce light. He laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand.

I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement - a grotesque one.

"You do not comprehend ?" he said.

"Not I," I replied.

"Then you are not of the brotherhood."

"How ?"

"You are not of the masons."

"Yes, yes," I said, "yes, yes."

"You ? Impossible ! A mason ?"

"A mason," I replied.

"A sign," he said.

"It is this," I answered, producing a trowel from beneath the folds of my roquelaire.

"You jest," he exclaimed, recoiling a few paces. "But let us proceed to the Amontillado."

"Be it so," I said, replacing the tool beneath the cloak, and again offering him my arm. He leaned upon it heavily. We continued our route in search of the Amontillado. We passed through a range of low arches, descended, passed on, and descending again, arrived at a deep crypt, in which the foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame.

At the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious. Its walls had been lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris. Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner. From the fourth the bones had been thrown down, and lay promiscuously upon the earth, forming at one point a mound of some size. Within the wall thus exposed by the displacing of the bones, we perceived a still interior recess, in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven. It seemed to have been constructed for no especial use in itself, but formed merely the interval between two of the colossal supports of the roof of the catacombs, and was backed by one of their circumscribing walls of solid granite.

It was in vain that Fortunato, uplifting his dull torch, endeavored to pry into the depths of the recess. Its termination the feeble light did not enable us to see.

"Proceed," I said ; "herein is the Amontillado. As for Luchesi --"

"He is an ignoramus," interrupted my friend, as he stepped unsteadily forward, while I followed immediately at his heels. In an instant he had reached the extremity of the niche, and finding his progress arrested by the rock, stood stupidly bewildered. 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. He was too much astounded to resist. Withdrawing the key I stepped back from the recess.

"Pass your hand," I said, "over the wall ; you cannot help feeling the nitre. Indeed it is very damp. Once more let me implore you to return. No ? Then I must positively leave you. But I must first render you all the little attentions in my power."

"The Amontillado !" ejaculated my friend, not yet recovered from his astonishment.

"True," I replied ; "the Amontillado."

As I said these words I busied myself among the pile of bones of which I have before spoken. Throwing them aside, I soon uncovered a quantity of building stone and mortar. With these materials and with the aid of my trowel, I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche.

I had scarcely laid the first tier of my masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off. The earliest indication I had of this was a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken man. There was then a long and obstinate silence. I laid the second tier, and the third, and the fourth ; and then I heard the furious vibrations of the chain. The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labors and sat down upon the bones. When at last the clanking subsided , I resumed the trowel, and finished without interruption the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh tier. The wall was now nearly upon a level with my breast. I again paused, and holding the flambeaux over the mason-work, threw a few feeble rays upon the figure within.

A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment I hesitated - I trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess : but the thought of an instant reassured me. I placed my hand upon the solid fabric of the catacombs, and felt satisfied. I reapproached the wall. I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I re-echoed - I aided - I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamorer grew still.

It was now midnight, and my task was drawing to a close. I had completed the eighth, the ninth, and the tenth tier. I had finished a portion of the last and the eleventh ; there remained but a single stone to be fitted and plastered in. I struggled with its weight ; I placed it partially in its destined position. But now there came from out the niche a low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head. It was succeeded by a sad voice, which I had difficulty in recognising as that of the noble Fortunato. The voice said -

"Ha ! ha ! ha ! - he ! he ! - a very good joke indeed - an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo - he ! he ! he ! - over our wine - he ! he ! he !"

"The Amontillado !" I said.

"He ! he ! he ! - he ! he ! he ! - yes, the Amontillado. But is it not getting late ? Will not they be awaiting us at the palazzo, the Lady Fortunato and the rest ? Let us be gone."

"Yes," I said, "let us be gone."

" For the love of God, Montressor ! "

"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 return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick - on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labor. I forced the last stone into its position ; I plastered it up. 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 !

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