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The Cask of Amontillado | Themes

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Revenge

Edgar Allan Poe explicitly signals that revenge will be the focus of "The Cask of Amontillado" in its opening line: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge." Much of the story's following two paragraphs explores Montresor's ideas about revenge. From there, Poe moves to Montresor's discussion of how he plans his revenge on Fortunato. This strategy echoes the idea of the dramatic monologue in poetry and the monologues of Shakespeare's plays, where the villain reveals himself to his audience.

Several things are striking about Montresor's commitment to revenge. The first is how powerful and all-consuming it is. This is a man who keeps track of how other people insult him and how many times. He plans ahead, first to deceive Fortunato and then to kill him. This calculation is part of what makes this story so hypnotic: Montresor's act is the opposite of a crime of passion. Poe emphasizes this opposition by having Montresor pull a trowel out from under his robe. Trowels have very specific purposes, and no one except a skilled tradesperson is likely to carry one.

Almost as striking as his commitment and calculation is the fact that revenge is the Montresor family tradition. It is so central to who they are as a family that it is the theme of their coat of arms and their motto's message. In his fiction, Poe often portrayed characters who developed intense passions, and some of these are even aligned with revenge, as in "The Tell-Tale Heart" or "The Black Cat." In Montresor, however, Poe gives readers something unique: a character for whom revenge is a defining characteristic and a family value.

Folly of Pride

Pride is a central motivation in this story, and foolish pride is one of the themes that affects both main characters throughout. Montresor concludes he must have revenge on Fortunato because of his wounded pride. Fortunato may be full of himself and a bit foolish, but nothing in this story suggests any of the "thousand injuries" he did to Montresor were intentional. They might not even be real offenses. Instead, they might be Montresor valuing his pride and his family legacy of being proud so highly that he takes offense even when none is meant (or given). Montresor is rich enough to have a house with servants and enough spare time to plot this elaborate revenge, but he is not, as he says, happy. He compares himself to Fortunato and finds himself wanting.

Fortunato's foolish pride is just as central to this story, but is a bit coarser and more clownish. He is dressed for a party (as a fool, notably) and clearly has plans, but he abandons those plans in a flash as soon as Montresor taunts him with the threat of asking Luchesi about the wine. His outsized pride continues to motivate him throughout the story. Fortunato is clearly unwell and has a terrible cough. However, rather than protecting his health, he insists on going deeper into the catacomb, spurred on by the mere mention of Luchesi's name.

Paradox

The carnival season is a time of paradox when the normal social order is turned upside down. This can take many forms. In Christian cultures where the Church preaches sobriety, carnival is a time of revelry when excess is allowed. In monarchies, subjects must show the king respect, but during carnival disrespect is allowed, even encouraged. Some carnival celebrations crown their own temporary kings (and kings played the role of peasant). By setting this story during carnival, Poe establishes the possibility for this sort of inversion to happen, and it does. A friend turns into a killer, a wine cellar into a tomb, and so on.

There are also other paradoxes in this story. Montresor is sure his servants aren't home precisely because he ordered them to stay home. Fortunato refers to the Masons, who are now only metaphorical stonecutters, but in the story, Montresor is a literal mason.

Perhaps the most pervasive paradox throughout the story involves failed communication. Early on, Montresor informs the reader that Fortunato has no clue he is the object of Montresor's hatred because Montresor has maintained a facade of false friendship. In that context, Fortunato is right not to base his actions on what he perceives (though he doesn't know it). That builds on the carnivalesque sense that nothing is what it seems to be. However, later in the story Montresor begins to signal to Fortunato that something is wrong and that he should be very afraid. But just as Fortunato endangers himself by not seeing through Montresor's deception and manipulation early in the story, he dooms himself by not taking Montresor's literal statements and warnings seriously later in the story.

Questions for Themes

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