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The Cask of Amontillado | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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How does Edgar Allan Poe use sound in the closing paragraphs of "The Cask of Amontillado"?

Edgar Allan Poe is a writer who gives a great deal of attention to the sound of language. In his essay "Philosophy of Composition," Poe identified "the long o as the most sonorous vowel," meaning that the sound of the long o could best produce a deep, emotional resonance within the reader. In "The Raven," he achieves this with the repetition of the words "Lenore" and "nevermore" in the refrain. In "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe uses the long o sound less liberally but very purposefully in the closing paragraphs. Montresor explains that he noticed that Fortunato's intoxication had subsided first when he heard a "low moaning cry" from the man. Though the cry itself is not written into the story, the description of it features two long o sounds, giving the impression of the moan. Finally, when Montresor calls out "Fortunato!" two times at the very end of the story, the long o sound is repeated again, and the reader can almost hear the long o sound echoing in the chambers of the catacomb.

Which elements of Edgar Allan Poe's personal relationship with his adoptive father surface in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

One theory about "The Cask of Amontillado" is that the character of Fortunato is modeled after Edgar Allan Poe's adoptive father, John Allan. Allan was a respected businessman, just like Fortunato. Likewise, Poe wrote in a letter once that "Mr. Allan is not often sober," a trait of Fortunato's that Montresor despises and abuses. Additionally, the relationship between Montresor and Fortunato is akin to the relationship between Poe and Allan in that it is characterized by strife. The two became estranged, and when Poe attempted to visit John Allan on his death bed, John Allan reportedly banished Poe. A biographical critic might conclude that Fortunato's death at Montresor's hands is a symbolic act of revenge against Allan.

What is the narrative function of the breaks that Montresor takes as he lays the bricks that block in Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

Once Montresor has shackled Fortunato, he sets to the work of laying bricks and mortar with his trowel; however, he does not work as speedily as possible to finish the task. Rather, he takes a number of breaks before he lays the final brick in. The first break comes after he lays the fourth tier of the bricks. Montresor hears Fortunato's chains vibrating and reports, "for several minutes ... I ceased my labors and sat down upon the bones." This break allows room in the narrative for the reader to hope that Fortunato's life will be spared. Montresor could have reconsidered his commitment to killing Fortunato during this break. Several minutes might be long enough for guilt and better judgment to set in, but not for Montresor. Instead, he patiently waits until the chains stop vibrating so that he can resume his work in peace, laying the next three tiers "without interruption." Montresor takes another break sometime between laying the seventh tier and the tenth tier. This time, Fortunato is letting out "a succession of loud and shrill screams." In response, Montresor stops his work and sticks his sword into the opening of the wall, then decides to let the man die of suffocation rather than a sword wound. This break confirms for the reader that Montresor is going to complete his murder plot despite Fortunato's extreme suffering. Montresor continues his work, all the while matching the screams of Fortunato and taking pride in the fact that he "surpassed them in volume and in strength."

What does the method of killing Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado" reveal about the narrator Montresor?

Though Montresor declares from the outset that he must seek revenge against Fortunato on account of his multiple injuries and insults, the particular murder plot that Montresor dreams up suggests there might be another (or an additional) motive. While in the catacombs, Fortunato makes the known hand gesture of the Masons, but Montresor does not recognize it. His ignorance reveals to Fortunato that Montresor is "not of the brotherhood." Of course Montresor replies, "Yes, yes" and raises his trowel to signal to Fortunato that he is some kind of mason. The Masonic brotherhood is an extremely secretive and exclusive society, one from which Montresor was apparently excluded. His choice to bring death to Fortunato through masonry suggests that he was jealous and wounded not by Fortunato's individual actions but rather by his exclusion from a part of society that Fortunato represents.

What is the role of wine in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

The proliferation of Gothic literature spanned across two other literary periods: the Romantic and the Victorian. The Romantic and the Victorian periods had between them a tension related to temperance in contemporary society. While the Romantics often indulged personal whims and passions, the Victorians cautioned against indulgence and abundance of passion. Writing in the 1840s meant that Edgar Allan Poe was caught up in this tension, and his work reflects that. In "The Cask of Amontillado," wine represents indulgence. While Fortunato does become a sympathetic character, it is on account not only of his pride but also his drunkenness that he is able to be lured to his death. Montresor is sure to keep him drunk, cracking open a new bottle at Fortunato's first sign of sobering. Additionally, the pursuit of a fine wine—an intemperate indulgence—is what appeals to Fortunato so much that he will put his health at risk to taste it. Though Poe is not a didactic writer, he makes his characters all the more real by reflecting in them a characteristic tension of his time.

How does Edgar Allan Poe engender sympathy for Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

Edgar Allan Poe manages to engender sympathy for Fortunato even though the story is relayed through a narrator who has no such sympathy. One of the ways in which he does this is by painting Fortunato as the fool. He is wearing motley and behaving drunkenly. This impression of Fortunato contrasts with the one that Montresor paints in the opening paragraphs. Montresor's treatment of Fortunato is read as unfair by the reader, thus engendering sympathy for the man against whom Montresor has ridiculed. As the circumstances of the story grow more dire and the dramatic irony increases, the reader might feel sympathetic to Fortunato because he or she can see that the character is walking into a trap but the character cannot. Finally, Fortunato's sad demise elicits sympathy from the reader—from his desperate "Ha! ha! Ha!—he! he!—a very good joke indeed," to his final plea, "For the love of God, Montresor!" The man is clearly deserving of sympathy, despite the narrator's claims against him and his folly of pride.

How are Edgar Allan Poe's characters of Fortunato of "The Cask of Amontillado" and the old man of "The Tell-Tale Heart" similar?

Most obviously, both Fortunato of "The Cask of Amontillado" and the old man of "The Tell-Tale Heart" are murdered by a mentally unstable person to whom they are close. Both are victims of a premeditated murder and are in vulnerable positions when their murderer makes his move. While the old man of "The Tell-Tale Heart" is extremely (and likely, permanently) frail, presumably to the point of needing live-in help, Fortunato of "The Cask of Amontillado" is experiencing temporary vulnerability on account of his drunkenness and cough. Both men also exhibit some degree of trust in their murderers; the old man trusts the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart" enough to let him live with him, and Fortunato, though in part driven by pride, follows Montresor trustingly into the vault.

What is the significance of Montresor's break in character at the very end of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"?

In the final paragraph of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," Montresor breaks character with just four words: "My heart grew sick." He discloses this to the auditor and reader when Fortunato fails to respond to his calls and only the jingling of the bells on Fortunato's hat can be heard. In the words "my heart grew sick," the reader can feel a sense of loss in the narrator Montresor, one that he immediately covers up as he continues the sentence: "on account of the dampness of the catacombs." Despite this explanation, readers might suspect there is something other than the dampness of the catacombs that makes Montresor sick—something he does not want his auditor to be aware of, or perhaps even something he himself cannot admit to. Fortunato was, after all, a friend before he was an adversary.

How does "The Cask of Amontillado" demonstrate the element of intense emotion in characters common to the American Gothic genre?

The first paragraph of "The Cask of Amontillado" features a number of very emotionally charged words, such as insult, revenge, threat, retribution, and punish. From the outset, the reader knows that there are strong emotional currents running through the narrator. This attention to heightened emotion is typical of the Romantic period and often explored in Gothic literature. Edgar Allan Poe's exploration of the excess of emotion and passion is unique in that he often paints a character who appears extremely disciplined and shows how the character indulges his emotions through that very discipline. In "The Cask of Amontillado," Montresor reveals through the execution of an extremely well-laid plan just how controlled he is by the feeling of being insulted and desiring revenge.

What is the significance of the snake on the Montresor coat of arms in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado"?

When taken with the Montresor family motto, the coat of arms helps to characterize Montresor and to explain his actions. The heel on the coat of arms crushes the snake that is biting it. This is a visual representation of the family motto Nemo me impune lacessit. Montresor embodies this motto, exacting revenge on those who injure him. The symbol of the snake can also be read as an allusion to the Book of Genesis. The snake in the story of Adam and Eve represents evil. When read through this symbolism, the snake on the coat of arms becomes evil crushed under the heel of the righteous. This symbolism creates a paradox: although Montresor believes himself to be the righteous one, he is, in fact, the injurious evil one he seeks to crush.

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