Critical Analysis of Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado

It is Edgar Allan Poe’s intense use of symbolism and irony throughout The Cask of Amontillado that establishes the short story as an indeed interesting piece worthy of thorough analysis. The skilful use of these devices is utilized by the author to create this horror and suspense in his masterpiece.

The Cask of Amontillado is a horror short story, which revolves around the themes of revenge and pride. The plot involves two men: Montresor, the narrator, who is an Italian aristocrat seeking revenge against the second main character: Fortunato, a proud man that boasts about his connoisseurship of wines and who finally walks to his own death.

The irony is a manner of expression through which words or events convey a reality different from and even opposite to appearance or expectation. The use of such a device in the story provides it with humour and wit and makes the piece more sophisticated. The sustained irony is detected through style, tone and the clear use of exaggeration of Montresor, the narrator.

From the very beginning, we notice the apparition of irony in the story. The very name Fortunato would clearly imply that this is a man of good fortune when the actual case is that he is about to suffer a mostly untimely demise: the end of his life. The setting in which the story takes place again shows an ironic element. It is during Venice’s Carnival that the characters meet. Carnival is supposed to be a time of celebration and happiness for everybody. However, in the tale, it is a time for revenge and death. The atmosphere changes drastically when the two protagonists leave the gaiety of carnival for the gloomy and desolate catacombs beneath Montresor’s palazzo. We learn from the narrator that when he first meets Fortunato the latter has apparently been drinking and is dressed in many colours, resembling a jester. His costume suggests that he will be the one playing the fool. On the other hand, Montresor is dressed in a black-coloured cloak and has his face covered with a black mask. At this point one can mention the presence of symbols: the black mask and outfit might be a representation of Death or the devil. Such figure foreshadows the events taking place later that night in the damp catacombs.

The way the narrator treats his enemy is one of the clearest examples of ironic elements. When the characters meet, Montresor realises that Fortunato is afflicted with a severe cold, nevertheless, he makes a point of him looking “remarkably well”. Montresor acts in the most natural and friendly way towards the main object of his revenge and even praises his “friend’s” knowledge in the subject of wines. Also upon their meeting, Montresor begins a psychological manipulation of Fortunato. He claims that he needs his knowledge to ascertain that the wine he has purchased is indeed Amontillado. Furthermore, he acknowledges that Fortunato is engaged in another business (i.e.: the celebration of carnival), so he would go to Luchesi, who, one is made to believe, is a competitor of Fortunato’s. To these words, Fortunato is forced by his pride to accompany Montresor to the vaults (where the Amontillado is kept), dissipate his doubts and also to prove his higher status than Luchesi as a connoisseur of wine. In fact, during their way down under in the catacombs, the twisted mind of Montresor dares to give Fortunato the chance to go back, due to the almost unbearable dampness and foulness rampant in the vaults and Fortunato’s state of health. The narrator clearly knows about the stubborn nature of Fortunato and is positive that his pride would not allow him to retreat. Thus, Fortunato continues his journey towards death by his own will.

“The vaults are insufferably damp. They are encrusted with nitre.” “Let us go, nevertheless. The cold is merely nothing. Amontillado!”

Another memorable line in the story is given by Montresor in response to Fortunato saying, “I will not die of a cough.” To what Montresor responds, “True— true…” And then also when the hypocritical narrator toasts to Fortunato’s long life, already knowing that he was taking to affect the devilish crafted plan of revenge.

Further evidence of ironic components is found with Montresor as a “Mason”. We anticipate this means he is a member of the distinguished group of men, yet he actually is a stonemason, someone whose job is to prepare and use stone for building. Montresor makes use of his skill as a mason as well as of the trowel he had shown his rival to build up the wall that will lock up unfortunate Fortunato inside the niche.

When Fortunato is trapped behind the wall his avenger built, Montresor “re-echoes” and even“surpasses” Fortunato’s yelling apparently to sympathise with the victim. He is evidently being ironic since he is actually delighted by what he has done and only stops shrieking till Fortunato is silent. The story ends with Montresor’s words “In pace requiescat!” (May he rest in peace). His words are unmistakably sarcastic: he has been the performer of the dreadful murder, then how could he pray for him to rest in peace?


The story also contains many accounts of symbolism. They can be classified as reinforcing; that is, their meaning is not apparent to the reader. It is only after several readings that the symbols begin to be clear. The first example in the story was mentioned earlier, the fact that Montresor’s costume is black would suggest beforehand that he would be playing the role of an evil being.

The coat of arms of Montresor’s family is perhaps the best example of symbolism and foreshadowing in the whole story:

“A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel”

It is clear that a metaphor has been constructed. In this image, the foot is symbolic of Montresor and the serpent of Fortunato. Fortunato had wronged Montresor and had offended both him and his ancestors. Although Fortunato has hurt Montresor, the coat of arms suggests that Montresor will ultimately crush him. Montresor is determined to uphold his family’s motto: “Nemo me impune lacessit”, which is the Latin for “No one can injure me with impunity”. The sinister narrator seeks his vengeance in support of this principle.

A further manifestation of symbolism is the vaults at the end of the catacombs piled with skeletons. The accumulation of human remains may be an implication of human destruction. The absence of light and the dank murkiness that surrounds the characters are sensory images that aid for a perfect setting of horror and makes the reader capable of getting the sensation of impending doom.

Finally, the very title of the story: The Cask of Amontillado, represents the imminent ruin of Fortunato: his pursuit of the cask which, in the end, will be his own casket.

The Cask of Amontillado is a carefully crafted short story. The originality and artistic genius of Edgar Allan Poe overflows through this “grotesque” tale. Every trait of irony and symbolism Poe uses contributes to a single and meaningful effect: Conveying his message in a creative and original manner, not allowing the reader to stop.

“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” The opening line of the story presents irony of situation. How often have we heard: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me?” Poe’s speaker says the opposite. He has suffered injuries without complaint, but insults he will not abide. The protagonist Montresor has a name that means “my treasure.” He declares his intention to wreak vengeance on unfortunate Fortunato, who has committed some unspecified insult to Montresor’s name and reputation.

We know that Montresor hates Fortunato, but Fortunato is unaware of this. We know that the doomed character does not know that Montresor’s friendly attitude is a fabrication of goodwill, that his smile is at the thought of Fortunato’s immolation. This dramatic irony will continue until the final page when Fortunato becomes an initiate.

Ironically, the story takes place during the carnival season of madness and merrymaking. The drunken Fortunato is wearing motley and the cap and bells of a jester, but a wise fool he is not. Montresor plays on Fortunato’s pride in his wine connoisseurship, asking him to verify whether or not Montresor’s recent bargain-price wine purchase is expensive amontillado or ordinary sherry. Fortunato agrees over Montresor’s protests that it would be an imposition and a health danger since the vaults where the wine is stored are cold, damp and “encrusted with nitre.” Montresor’s expressed concern for the other man’s well-being is at odds with his true intentions.

How did Montresor know that no servants would be present? He had informed them that he would be gone all night and “given them explicit orders not to stir from the house.” That, he knew, would be enough “to ensure their immediate disappearance” as soon as he left.

The two descend into the catacombs, Montresor repeatedly expressing worry about the nitre-covered walls and exacerbation of Fortunato’s cough.

The unfortunate victim-to-be says, “the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough.” True.

Accepting a bottle of Medoc that Montresor has chosen from the many wines lying in the mould, Fortunato toasts “to the buried that repose around us,” unaware that he will soon join them.“And I to your long life,” responds Montresor. Fortunato inquires about the Montresor coat of arms. “A huge human foot d’or, in a field of azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.” The motto is Nemome impune lacessit – No one can harm me unpunished. The reader again recognizes the relationship of arms and inscription to what is happening. The unfortunate one does not.

More wine is consumed. This second bottle is a flagon of De Grave – another turn of the ironic screw. Montresor makes sure Fortunato will continue by suggesting that they instead turn back to escape the bad air, a scene worthy of vaudevillian comedy ensues as Fortunato asks whether Montresor is a member of the masons. Montresor produces a mason’s trowel from under his cloak. Fortunato thinks it a joke, unaware that he is seeing a tool to be used in his entombment. The brotherhood of Free and Accepted Masons is far removed from what has brought these two men together.

They proceed through the charnel house, passing the remains of generations of Montresors, to n interior recess. Finding the opening of the 4 by 3 by 6-foot chamber requires displacement of piled bones. They penetrate to a granite wall accessorized with iron staples, one holding a short chain, the other a padlock. Seconds later Montresor has his drunken dupe in chains.

Fortunato is an ignoramus, the term he uses to insult Luchesi, whom Montresor has several times suggested as a connoisseur who could substitute for Fortunato. Such name-calling may be the propensity for the insult that has prompted Montresor’s deadly revenge. Even chained to the wall, Fortunato thinks it’s all a big joke and asks about the non-existent amontillado. Building stone and mortar readily at hand, Montresor uses his trowel and begins walling up the niche.

As the aperture closes with each row of masonry, the realization begins to penetrate Fortunato’s drunkenness. He screams and struggles. As the final stone is about to be inserted, Fortunato laughs again saying it’s all been a joke they can they can share with the revelers at the palazzo.

But it’s after midnight; shouldn’t we call it quits? My wife will be wondering where I am. “Let us be gone.”

When Montresor repeats that line, “be gone” has a different meaning. Fortunato has uttered his last words. Montresor hears only the jingling of the bells on his victim’s cap. “My heart grew sick,”he says. Remorse? No. Montresor blames his illness on the dampness. Shaking off his malaise, he inserts the last stone, plasters it, returns the displaced bones.

“For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them.” Montresor has been relating a grisly event of long ago. He has indeed punished with impunity, giving new meaning to the motto on his coat of arms. The final sentence echoes the Latin of the requiem mass. In pace requiescat May he rest in peace.

A final irony presents itself. Poe’s story The Black Cat is about a black cat. There is both a pit and a pendulum in The Pit and the Pendulum. But there never was a cask of amontillado. There is no other literary work named for a non-existent object except The Cask of Amontillado.

One more unexpected twist came to me dozens of years after my first boyhood reading of the tale and numerous re-readings for personal enjoyment and as a teaching material to exemplify and illustrate all varieties of irony and their interplay, I had always considered The Cask of Amontillado a purely fictional outgrowth of Poe’s fevered imagination. Such people as Montresor aren’t realistic.Events like this don’t happen in the world we live in.

Then, curious about the life of the most bizarre person in the pantheon of American Literature,I did some biographical research. I learned that during his ill-starred career in the army, Private Poe had been stationed at Fort Independence on an island in Boston Harbor. He became fascinated with the inscription on a gravestone just outside the fort. He learned that the entombed soldier died ten years earlier near the spot of the grave.

Knowing there had been no military combat in 1817, Poe began interviewing officers about what had happened. He learned that a popular lieutenant had been involved in a card game with captain reputed to be a bully. An accusation of cheating led to a duel and the death of the lieutenant.The captain vanished soon after and was written off as a deserter.

Friends of the fallen lieutenant had plied the captain with liquor, carried his unconscious body into a dungeon, shackled him, sealed up the vault where he lay and left him to die a horrible death.

Hearing about Poe’s investigations, the post commander summoned him and swore him to secrecy about the scandalous affair. This took place years before Poe penned his similar story set in Italy. In 1905, workers doing repairs on the old fort, came across a walled section that didn’t appear on their plans, They chiseled an opening in the wall that wasn’t supposed to be where it was and found a skeleton in fragments of an old army uniform and shackled to the floor.

In The Cask of Amontillado, Edgar Allan Poe uses several different artistic choices in the construction of the story. He manipulates the story to be the way he wants it to be by using the point of view of the narrator, the setting, and a common monotonous sentiment throughout. Poe is successful in maintaining a “spirit of perverseness” that is prevalent in most of his works.

The point of view plays a very important role in influencing the reader’s perception of the story. The first line of the story is a good example of how the narrator attempts to bring the reader to his side right from the start.

“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge”. Montresor, the narrator of the story, immediately tries to win the reader to his side by telling him that Fortunato has “ventured upon insult,” and apparently crossed over the line. This attempt is clever, but the reader never gets a sense of what Fortunato has actually done to the narrator. This fact alone raises the question in my mind as to whether Fortunato has really insulted Montresor, or whether Montresor is creating it in his own mind.

The point of view of the story can also affect the emotional attachment that the reader gets, or fails to get in this case, for a given character. When a reader is involved in a story, the point of view from where the story is being told is crucial to the feelings the reader has. In this story, Montresor dominates the progression of the story in every regard. In other words, the reader only knows what Montresor tells him, or what he can infer from the story. This being the case, it is difficult for the reader to develop any liking for another character unless Montresor describes him or him in a favorable way.Fortunato never stands a chance.

Montresor begins putting down Fortunato in the reader’s mind with the first line of the story,“when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge”. Even his most prized skill, wine tasting, is described as “a weak point.” This puts Fortunato at a major disadvantage in the fight for the reader’s liking, and ultimately the fight for his life.

As in most Poe stories, the narrator tries to steer the reader away from seeing the perverseness of his actions. In The Cask of Amontillado, Montresor tries to convince the reader that walling up Fortunato is his way making himself “felt as such to him who has done the wrong”. In reality, Poe tells the story from Montresor’s point of view in order to increase the astonishment and perverseness that the reader feels when reading the story.

Edgar Allan Poe uses the setting in many different ways in his various works. There are two primary settings in The Cask of Amontillado, the carnival and the catacombs. There are several reasons that make the carnival the ideal setting for Poe to lure Fortunato away. “It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend”. This sentence contains two important details as to why the carnival is a perfect setting for Montresor’s under-takings. The first is that it is dusk, which makes it harder for people at the carnival to notice what is happening, and also adds some gloom to the story. The second and most important detail, is that the carnival is a scene of “supreme madness.” Fortunato, along with most others at the carnival, has likely been drinking most of the day, is relaxed, and more likely to disappear with Montresor on a quest into the dark catacombs than he would be on a normal day. The “excessive warmth,” that Fortunato greets Montresor with even further proves his intoxication and relaxed state.

Poe’s descriptive setting is an asset to the appeal of the story, particularly when the story proceeds to the catacombs. “We came at length to the foot of the descent, and stood together on the damp ground of the catacombs of the Montresors”. Descriptions such as this, are a very distinct characteristic of Poe stories, and are one of his greatest strengths. His descriptions allow the reader to put themselves in the story and get the same feeling as the characters. In this example, the reader subconsciously puts himself in Fortunato’s position, walking along with a madman in the catacombs of Montresors, not knowing your fate. The only difference in this case is that the reader has a better sense of Fortunato’s fate than he does.

Besides using it as appeal to continue reading a story, Poe also uses the setting in symbolic ways as well. “The drops of moisture trickle among the bones” is symbolic of what Fortunato’s bones will someday look like after he is walled up in the catacomb. Also, when the narrator walls up Fortunato with the Amontillado, it is symbolic of Fortunato’s pride for his wine tasting ability that he is walled up with the wine.

The scene where Montresor walls-up Fortunato is by far the most perverse scene in the story. The scene is particularly effective in my opinion because of the cordial manner maintained by the narrator up to the point where he is nearly finished. There is no struggle or resistance put up by Fortunato: “He was much too astonished to resist”. If Poe had Fortunato put up a struggle or had the narrator shown any anger, it would have destroyed the consistent mood of the story up to that point. Instead, Poe has Fortunato remain intoxicated right up until the point where it is too late for him to struggle.

The immediate sobering-up of Fortunato when he is near death also adds to the effect of the scene. “It was not the cry of a drunken man” tells the reader that Fortunato now knows fully well what is happening to him. It is followed by a yelling match and then silence, which creates such a sinister atmosphere that even Montresor is trembling and hastening to finish.

It seems as if Montresor almost has a sense of humour in his madness to punish Fortunato for his so-called wrongdoings. His constant insistence that Fortunato leave the catacomb with him provides seven further ‘insult to injury’ for Fortunato. “Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough…”. Montresor says this because he knows that Fortunato’s pride in his wine tasting ability is too great for him to turn back, so he makes remarks such as this one simply for his own amusement. The comments aren’t necessary in helping Montresor achieve his goal, they are said simply to raise a smile in his own mind. The fact that the narrator finds enjoyment out of killing someone, supports Poe’s common theme of perverseness in his stories.

In addition to Montresor’s sense of humor, Poe’s uses irony in a humorous way a few times. The manner in which Poe dresses Fortunato, as a clown, is ironic because Fortunato is being virtually made a fool of by following Montresor into the catacombs. Also, when Fortunato says “I will not die of a cough,” and Montresor responds “True-true,” it shows a perverse sense of humor in the irony of Montresor’s response.

Poe’s theory of the short story is very important on influencing the way he writes The Cask of Amontillado. A major component of his short story theory is that the stories are brief and engaging. The Cask of Amontillado achieves both of these goals. Poe merely devotes three paragraphs on setting the scene before he gets right down to his endeavor to “not only punish but punish with impunity”. This artistic choice is crucial to keeping the reader’s interest. Poe gets right to the point, wasting no time for giving examples of Fortunato’s wrongdoings or for giving any justification for the degree of punishment that Fortunato is to be submitted to. Not wasting the reader’s time is very important to Poe, and that is even more obvious after reading The Cask of Amontillado.

The story complies with Poe’s other components of a short story as well. Everything in the story is written for a reason and leads to a final event. Poe does not add any miscellaneous details. He simply explains his intent to get revenge on Fortunato, and then shows how he gets it. Every part of the story affects the story as a whole. Finally, Poe’s story leaves the reader somewhat in awe, with an undercurrent of suggestion wondering what has happened to Fortunato, after he has finished reading.

The Cask of Amontillado is similar to Poe’s other short stories in many ways. For example, the narrator walls up Fortunato in The Cask of Amontillado just like the narrator walls up his wife in The Black Cat, and the old man in. Another parallel between The Cask of Amontillado and other short stories of Poe, is the basic layout of the story. First, the narrator starts off trying to justify or explain his actions. Second, the narrator tells the story, and finally, there is always a twist or surprise at the end. In The Cask of Amontillado this twist occurs when the narrator calls Fortunato and he doesn’t answer.

This is a certain uniqueness, though, that this story has that separates it from other Poe short stories. This uniqueness is, in my opinion, found at the end of the story. While other Poe short stories are narrated from a jail cell or from death row, the narrator of The Cask of Amontillado Montresor, tells his tale over fifty years after its occurrence. He is not in jail and has seemingly served no time for his crime. Montresor, unlike many of his short story narrator counterparts, has apparently gotten away with his crimes. He doesn’t break down and confess his actions to the authorities as Poe’s narrators often do. Instead, Montresor goes on with his life and waits until he is of old age to pass on his tale. “In pace requiescat” is more than just a traditionally saying for the narrator, it is a phrase of triumph. The triumph of the narrator, and ultimately perverseness, over justice, makes The Cask of Amontillado one of Poe’s most unique works and is an example of Poe’s perversity at its best.

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