The Cask of Amontillado | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Cask of Amontillado | Summary

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Summary

Set during Carnival in February in an unnamed Italian town at some unidentified time (but perhaps the 18th or 19th century), "The Cask of Amontillado" opens with the narrator Montresor addressing someone unknown. It might be the reader, but it might be someone close to Montresor because he mentions that the addressee knows his soul well. Montresor begins by referring to the many ways Fortunato has injured and insulted him. Montresor vows revenge, but he also says he hasn't given Fortunato any reason to suspect they are anything but friends.

Montresor recounts how he runs into Fortunato on the street during carnival season. Fortunato is dressed in motley (the traditional costume of a fool or jester in commedia dell'arte, an old form of Italian theater) and has been drinking. Fortunato is proud of his knowledge of wine, so Montresor tells him he has a cask of something that he's told is Amontillado (a type of sherry). Montresor says he's not sure, though, so he's going to see a mutual acquaintance named Luchesi to ask him to test it. Fortunato is excited by the idea that Montresor has managed to buy some Amontillado and scoffs at the idea that Luchesi might know wine better than he does. Fortunato insists on going to test the wine right away.

Despite Montresor's protestations that Fortunato must have a previous engagement and that he appears to have a cold that will be worsened by the damp of his vaults, Fortunato pulls his mask on and urges Montresor to take him to see the Amontillado. Montresor leads him to his home. It is empty because the servants have gone to carnival. Montresor takes two torches from the wall and leads Fortunato down into his family catacombs.

Drunk Fortunato wobbles and coughs as they walk. However, when Montresor expresses concern for his health and says they should go back, Fortunato brushes it away, insisting it's nothing and he won't die from it. Montresor agrees and opens a bottle of wine from his wine cellars for Fortunato. They toast one another. Fortunato drinks to the dead around them; Montresor drinks to Fortunato's long life.

They walk on, talking about Montresor's family, its coat of arms, and its motto. Montresor points out all the dust and seepage on the walls and suggests again they go back to protect Fortunato's health. Fortunato again insists they continue. They do and Montresor opens another bottle of wine for them. Fortunato makes a gesture that Montresor does not understand. He repeats it, then explains it is a sign so Masons can recognize one another. He says Montresor must not be a Mason, but Montresor says he is and shows Fortunato a trowel. Fortunato thinks it is a joke and nudges his host to lead on to the Amontillado.

They walk on, arm in arm, until they reach a dark crypt full of human bones. Montresor verbally goads Fortunato once more by mentioning Luchesi. When Fortunato steps further into the crypt, Montresor chains him to the wall. He continues to talk to Fortunato as if he were there voluntarily, asking him one more time if he won't leave to preserve his health, then pretending Fortunato has again refused. Fortunato is so confused by the change in events that he keeps asking about the Amontillado, making it seem for a moment like the two men are both in the same false reality.

Montresor moves some bones to expose bricks and mortar. He begins to brick up the opening to the crypt. As he does, Fortunato finally realizes the situation. He cries out, then goes silent, then shakes the chains as Montresor methodically puts row after row of brick in place. When the bricks reach the level of Montresor's chest, Fortunato screams. This scream upsets Montresor enough that he draws his sword and pokes around the crypt for a while, but the strength of the crypt walls reassures him. He screams back at Fortunato, and louder, until Fortunato goes still.

Montresor goes back to bricking up the entrance. When he has just one stone left to put in place, Fortunato speaks again, as if the whole incident has been a prank, in an attempt to be lighthearted while imploring Montresor to let him go. Montresor plays along but does not let him out. Fortunato begs Montresor to let him out, "For the love of God," and then goes silent. Montresor calls his name two more times then puts the final brick in place. He puts the bones he moved off the bricks back in place and leaves. That was 50 years ago, Montresor notes in closing, saying in Latin, "Rest in peace!" (In pace requiescat!).

Analysis

The Unreliable Narrator

Gothic fiction often used complicated narrative structures, sometimes as part of the genre's celebration of all things ancient and archaic (so, for instance, a story may be supposedly part of found or abandoned manuscripts). Other times, the narrative structure is used to heighten the suspense in a story; for instance, readers never know how much they can trust an unbalanced narrator. In "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe uses a particular kind of unreliable narrator to add emotion and depth to the story. On one hand, Montresor is so completely rational as to be impressive. He devises a trick to lure Fortunato into his family catacombs. This trick shows considerable knowledge of human nature because he both tricks his servants into sneaking out of the house and comes up with a topic that will intrigue Fortunato so completely that the man leaves a public celebration for which he's wearing a costume. On the other hand, he's clearly not sane. Montresor catalogs the ways Fortunato has insulted him, but he doesn't share them with the reader (or with his listener). He also hates Fortunato enough to kill him but manages to completely hide this loathing. That's deception on the level of a modern sociopath.

Foreshadowing

Poe foreshadows the outcome of "The Cask of Amontillado" in several ways; some overt and some implied. Montresor indicates the ending overtly, if generally, in the story's opening line, when he says he "vowed revenge" on Fortunato for his many insults. He specifically mentions thinking of Fortunato's "immolation," a term which means to kill, often in a sacrificial fashion.

The fact that "The Cask of Amontillado" is set during carnival is also a more general foreshadowing. In today's world, a carnival might refer to an arcade or fair, but in earlier periods it meant something much more. Carnival was a time of excess and inversion. Standard rules of behavior no longer applied, and the normal social order was inverted. In this case, Montresor, who Fortunato considers a friend, acts as an enemy. Fortunato is also wearing motley, which is the costume of a joker or fool. He means this to entertain—he wears it to take part in the town's celebrations—but Fortunato also acts very much the fool throughout this story. There are clues that Montresor isn't who or what he seems (the biggest of these is that he's carrying a trowel), and Fortunato misses them all.

The Montresor family motto and coat of arms also foreshadow the retribution to come. The family's Latin motto is Nemo me impune lacessit, which means "no one insults me with impunity." This entire family takes revenge as its motto, and it illustrates this motto with its coat of arms, which shows a human foot crushing the snake that bit it. Montresor is the foot. Fortunato is the snake who has bitten him.

Irony

Poe uses several types of irony in "The Cask of Amontillado." The characters' names create an intense verbal irony, where words mean something other than what they say. "Fortunato" is the Italian version of the Latin name Fortunatus, meaning "fortunate or blessed." Obviously in this story, Fortunato is anything but fortunate or blessed. The name is also related to fortune, and fortunes are often hidden away in vaults like Fortunato is. In French, tresor means "treasure," and so the two names are linked.

Because carnival is a time of celebration, there is some situational irony here as well, where the outcome differs from expectation. Fortunato thinks he is going to a public party and then to taste a rare wine. Instead, he is taken to a private crypt forever and suffers pain instead of pleasure.

Poe's foreshadowing creates dramatic irony, where readers understand something characters do not, as readers know Montresor has sworn revenge even if Fortunato doesn't. Poe underscores this when he has Fortunato say, "It will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough." Montresor answers, "True—true." And he's right: the cough won't kill him because Montresor plans to.

Psychology

Some critics argue that vivid though the literal description is in "The Cask of Amontillado," Poe is doing something more here. Poe often explored the figure of the double in his fiction, most explicitly in his short story "William Wilson." The literary device of doubling occurs when a character is doubled to create comparison or contrast or to investigate a hidden trait.

Fortunato and Montresor can be read not as separate people but as doubles, or as two sides of the same person. The evidence for this starts with their names, which are linked (treasure and fortune). Add to that the fact that Montresor comments on how similar the two men are, and there is a distinct possibility that the two men are aspects of a single being. Montresor says, "In this respect I did not differ from him materially." In context, he's referring to the fact that Montresor is also a wine connoisseur, but the statement could be read more generally: there is no material difference between the two men because they are the same person. This reading is supported by the dreamlike nature of the story's setting: they encounter no one else during what should be the most crowded time of the year. It is also supported by the way their actions synchronize in the final paragraphs of the story: they say the same words, they both scream, and so on. In this reading, Fortunato is buried not in a catacomb but in Montresor's subconscious. The final scene in which Montresor bricks up Fortunato can be read as a dramatization of repression and denial: Montresor is blocking away part of himself.

The Cask of Amontillado Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675

Introduction

1 Montresor claims Fortunato has injured and insulted him.

Rising Action

2 Montresor decides to take revenge on Fortunato.

3 Montresor tells Fortunato about his cask of Amontillado.

4 Fortunato goes with Montresor to taste the Amontillado.

Climax

5 Montresor entombs Fortunato in his family crypt.

Falling Action

6 Fortunato pleads for his release, but Montresor leaves him.

Resolution

7 Fifty years pass without anyone discovering the crime.

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