The Cask of Amontillado (1846) is a chilling tale about one man’s expertly plotted revenge on another who has insulted him. It is a story of deceit, detachment and coolly premeditated murder.
Introduction: Discover the essence of Edgar Allan Poe.
The last days of Edgar Allan Poe’s life are shrouded in mystery – perhaps appropriately for Poe, the master of macabre American fiction.
We do know this though: on September 27, 1849, Poe left Richmond, Virginia to journey to his home, New York City. But he never made it to New York. Just under a week later, a then 40-year-old Poe was found in Maryland, Baltimore, in a state of delirium and extreme distress. He was disheveled, unwashed and completely unable to account for his actions since leaving Virginia.
Poe was admitted to the Washington College Hospital where, early in the morning of October 7, he died. According to the only eyewitness, the attending doctor, during his last night on earth Poe repeatedly called the name ‘Reynolds’. Reynold’s true identity has never been established.
The murky circumstances of Poe’s death stand in sharp contrast to his literary output in the last years of his life. His later stories, critics agree, distill the themes, motifs and concerns he explored over the course of his career to their purest, most concentrated form. To encounter his late story, The Cask of Amontillado, is to encounter the essence of Poe, the writer. It is claustrophobic, lurid and ultimately gruesome. Intrigued? Then let’s join our protagonists Montresor and Fortunato, deep in the catacombs below Venice…
A subterranean tale of vengeance and murder
The Cask of Amontillado is a story about revenge. We know this from its first line where the tale’s narrator, the Venetian nobleman Montresor, plainly states that he has been wronged and insulted by a certain Fortunato. Unwilling to submit to any more of Fortunato’s insults, he declares: “I vowed revenge”. As a result of this startling disclosure at the story’s opening we, the readers, are much better informed of Montresor’s true motivations than Fortunato himself is. What we don’t know is what kind of vengeance Montresor has in mind or how, exactly, he intends to pull it off. The story’s morbid pleasure lies in the gradual unfolding of Montresor’s carefully laid plans.
Montresor approaches Fortunato on the street, as dusk is beginning to fall and Carnival is in full swing. Since medieval times, the Italian city of Venice has celebrated Carnival in the days before Lent. Venetians take to the streets in costumes and distinctive masks and it’s said that, in this disguise, they sometimes forget their inhibitions.
Montresor is dressed in a black silk mask. He finds Fortunato in the center of the merrymaking, dressed in the multicolored costume of a court jester complete with cap and bells. But Montresor tempts Fortunato away from the crowd with an invitation he cannot refuse. Montresor has purchased a cask of what he believes to be fine Spanish amontillado sherry, but he can’t be sure it’s genuine. Fortunato fancies himself a connoisseur of fine wine, and very much enjoys drinking it – in fact, when Montresor meets him, he is already tipsy.
Having piqued Fortunato’s interest in the amontillado, Montresor now plays at dissuading Fortunato from coming to taste it. But Fortunato is determined to come. Montresor protests repeatedly – Fortunato is busy socializing; the damp vault where the sherry is stored will aggravate Fortunato’s health troubles. But each protestation is met with even more enthusiasm from Fortunato. Of course, this is exactly what Montresor was expecting.
Montresor leads Fortunato to his palazzo. As the two men descend into the damp vaults beneath the house where the wine is stored, it becomes clear just how precisely Montresor has prepared his revenge. He has dismissed all his servants for the night, and is confident none will return from the carnival festivities until the next morning. The two men are completely alone in the house. The conditions are perfect for Montresor to take his revenge undetected. What shape that revenge will take remains unclear.
Together, the men descend below the palazzo into a maze of cavernous tunnels that Montresor, in his narration, alternately refers to as the family vaults and the family catacombs. A catacomb is a subterranean cemetery with recesses built into the walls where corpses can be entombed. More than just a place where wine is stored, the tunnels beneath the palazzo are where generations of Montresor’s family have been buried. And while we, the reader, are still no closer to knowing what revenge Montresor intends to inflict on his companion, a throwaway line offers a possible insight into Montresor’s motives. Fortunato remarks on how extensive the vaults are, and Montresor replies – note the past tense – that the Montresors ‘were a great and numerous family’. He also mentions the family motto, nemo me impune lacessit, meaning ‘no-one attacks me with impunity.’ Perhaps, then, Fortunato has attacked Montresor’s family honor.
The two men keep walking into the vaults. As they continue, Fortunato’s sensitive lungs become aggravated by the damp surroundings and the deposits of nitre – i.e. potassium nitrate – on the walls. What’s more, Montresor keeps offering Fortunato flasks of fine wine to drink from, which he accepts enthusiastically. As they move deeper into the vaults, the drunken, coughing, wheezing Fortunato, in contrast to his name, begins to seem more and more unfortunate.
When the men have nearly reached their destination, Fortunato startles Montresor by making a distinctive hand sign. Montresor can see that Fortunato’s gesture is laden with meaning, but he doesn’t understand it. Fortunato explains that it is a gesture used between members of the secret society known as the masons. He asks if Montresor is also a mason, and Montresor responds by showing Fortunato the trowel concealed beneath his robes, as if to say that he is indeed a mason – a stonemason. Now, Fortunato is baffled – for while he laughs at what he takes to be his companion’s joke, Montresor is quite serious. Just how serious we will soon find out.
Montresor leads poor Fortunato – who is still swigging wine and cracking jokes – into a crypt where human bones hang from three of the four walls. On the fourth wall, there is a recess where Montresor says the amontillado is stored. But when Fortunato moves into the recess to grasp the amontillado, Montresor swiftly chains him to a rock. Fortunato is perplexed but not, at this stage, alarmed. Using his trowel, Montresor begins to cover the entrance to the recess with stone and mortar. It is not until Montresor has laid the first tier of masonry that Fortunato seems to understand what is happening. He begins to moan, and plead with Montresor for his life.
Too little, too late. Montresor works until midnight, laying tier upon tier of stone and entombing Fortunato inside. As he prepares to lay the very last stone, Montresor hears Fortunato cry out, ‘For the love of God, Montresor!’. Before placing the final stone, he throws a torch into the recess. The only reply is the faint ringing of the bells on Fortunato’s costume. And then, silence.
The Cask of Amontillado is pure Edgar Allan Poe. It begins with Poe’s bold choice to have the narrator effectively reveal the end of the story in its very first sentence. We know immediately that this story will see Montresor take his revenge on Fortunato. What we don’t know is what form that revenge will take. In his earlier work, The Murders at the Rue Morgue, Poe is credited with inventing the modern detective story. In a sense, The Cask of Amontillado is an anti-detective story – not a whodunnit, but a howdunnit. And the story still drips with suspense, as we try and piece together Montresor’s plan, watching as the guileless Fortunato moves unavoidably toward his gruesome fate.
The story takes up one of Poe’s most significant and macabre motifs – that of the live burial. In The Fall of the House of Usher, the protagonist Roderick Usher insists on entombing the corpse of his twin sister Madeline in the family vaults. Days later, the bloody, bruised and still-living Madeline emerges, attacking and killing Roderick before falling dead herself. And in Poe’s The Black Cat, the narrator entombs the corpse of his wife within the walls of his house. The narrator is discovered by police when a screaming starts up from behind the walls – these are the cries of a live cat that the narrator had accidentally entombed along with his dead wife.
Like many of Poe’s finest stories, The Cask of Amontillado is a painfully claustrophobic read. Apart from a brief scene in the throngs of the Venice carnival, all the action takes place underground, in the narrow and labyrinthine vaults beneath Montresor’s palazzo.
But beyond physical claustrophobia, the reader also experiences a form of psychological claustrophobia. The story is narrated in the first person by Montresor. In this way the reader has access to all of his scheming, unsavory thoughts. For the duration of the story, the reader is trapped in the mind of a man who plans and executes a cold-blooded murder not just with grim relish but with an artistic flourish, too. Interestingly, Montresor’s true motivation for seeking revenge is never revealed – in the end, we are left with the impression that this murder could just as well have been committed for pure pleasure as it could have for vengeance.
In The Cask of Amontillado, Montresor enacts his revenge on the unsuspecting Fortunato. It is never revealed why Montresor is seeking revenge. Suspense builds as the pair of men make their way deeper and deeper into the vaults that lie beneath Montresor’s mansion, as the reader waits to see what form Montresor’s revenge will ultimately take. On the pretext of tasting a fine wine, Fortunato is lured by Montresor into a recess in an underground crypt, where Montresor promptly chains his victim to a stone and walls him inside, slab by slab, burying him alive.
About the Author
Edgar Allan Poe
Based on my analysis of the book “The Cask of Amontillado: A Dark Romantic Tale of Revenge, Deceit, and Murder” by Edgar Allan Poe, here is a detailed review of the book:
The story revolves around the narrator, Montresor, who seeks revenge against his acquaintance, Fortunato, a connoisseur of fine wines. Montresor, who is also a skilled builder of casks for wine, invites Fortunato to his underground catacombs to taste a rare bottle of Amontillado. As the two men make their way through the catacombs, Montresor methodically entraps Fortunato with a series of lies and manipulations, eventually bricking him alive in a section of the catacombs. The story is told from the perspective of Montresor, who justifies his actions as a form of retribution for a past slight.
- Revenge: The primary theme of the story is the desire for revenge and the lengths to which one will go to achieve it. Montresor’s motivation for killing Fortunato is rooted in a perceived slight, and he carefully plans and executes his revenge.
- Deceit: The story explores the theme of deceit and how it can be used as a tool for manipulation. Montresor deliberately misleads Fortunato, using his knowledge of wine and his expertise in building casks to gain his trust and ultimately trap him.
- Obsession: Montresor’s obsession with Fortunato’s perceived wrongdoing drives the plot of the story. His fixation on revenge becomes an all-consuming passion, leading him to commit a heinous act.
Style and Language
- Atmosphere: Poe creates a dark and foreboding atmosphere throughout the story, using vivid descriptions of the underground catacombs and the smell of the Amontillado wine to set the tone.
- Symbolism: The use of the Amontillado wine is a symbol of both the characters’ shared passion and their eventual downfall. The wine represents the fine things in life that can be corrupted by obsession and the darker aspects of human nature.
- Irony: Poe employs irony throughout the story, particularly in the contrast between the characters’ expectations and the eventual outcome. Fortunato assumes the invitation to the catacombs is a friendly gesture, while Montresor’s intentions are far more sinister.
- Montresor: The narrator and protagonist of the story, Montresor is a skilled builder of casks and a master of manipulation. His desire for revenge drives the plot and his obsession with Fortunato’s perceived wrongdoing clouds his judgment.
- Fortunato: A connoisseur of fine wines and a respected figure in society, Fortunato is also arrogant and self-assured. He is blind to the danger that Montresor poses and is ultimately his own downfall.
- The story is structured around the events of a single day, beginning with Montresor’s invitation to Fortunato and ending with his entombment in the catacombs.
- Poe employs a non-linear structure, using flashbacks and internal monologues to reveal the motivations and thoughts of the characters.
“The Cask of Amontillado” is a masterfully crafted tale of revenge, deceit, and obsession. Poe’s use of atmosphere, symbolism, and irony creates a haunting and suspenseful story that explores the darker aspects of human nature. The characters of Montresor and Fortunato are expertly drawn, with their motivations and actions driving the plot to its tragic conclusion. Overall, this story is a classic of Gothic fiction and a testament to Poe’s skill as a storyteller.