The Cask of Amontillado | Study Guide

Edgar Allan Poe

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The Cask of Amontillado | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado," published in 1846, is a famously dark tale of revenge. The story features Montresor's endeavor to enact vengeance against the man who wronged him, Fortunato. Taking advantage of the fact that his nemesis is intoxicated, Montresor leads him to the cellar where, under the guise of wine tasting, he encases Fortunato within the stone walls and leaves him to die.

Like many of Poe's stories, "The Cask of Amontillado" is told from the killer's perspective and illustrates themes of madness and vengeance. Because of its chilling plot of premeditated murder, the story has remained a foundational work of the horror literary genre.

1. Poe wrote "The Cask of Amontillado" as an act of revenge.

The origin of "The Cask of Amontillado" itself reflects one of the story's main themes: the desire for vengeance. At the time of its writing Poe was feuding with another writer, Thomas Dunn English, and had publicly ridiculed English's work. English returned the favor and included an alcoholic, dysfunctional character modeled after Poe in one of his novels. The character, Marmaduke Hammerhead, is described as a man who "never gets drunk more than five days a week." Poe modeled the antagonist Fortunato after English in retaliation.

2. "The Cask of Amontillado" was inspired by New England folklore.

"The Cask of Amontillado" traces its roots to an urban legend from Castle Island in South Boston. At a nearby fort, soldiers explained to Poe the tale of a duel between the popular Lieutenant Massie and his far less popular colleague that occurred in the early 1800s. After Massie was killed in the duel, the disgruntled soldiers got the victor drunk, led him to the fort's basement, and encased him in a stone wall. Poe also drew inspiration from another short story, written in 1845 by popular author Joel Tyler Headley, entitled "A Sketch, A Man Built Into a Wall."

3. Scholars have argued over Montresor's motive for murder in "The Cask of Amontillado."

Poe gives no real insight in the story regarding his protagonist's true reasons for wanting Fortunato dead. Even when Montresor has imprisoned his rival, he merely mocks Fortunato instead of disclosing the reason behind his hatred. Many critics speculate that the "thousand injuries" Montresor has suffered at the hands of Fortunato are simply signs that the protagonist is insane and delusional. Another theory proposes that the murder is motivated by economic gain, since Fortunato (as his name suggests) represents a level of class and nobility that Montresor envies.

4. During Poe's time, widespread fear of live burial led to the invention of the "safety coffin."

Poe was clearly not the only one of his contemporaries who feared live burial. Because lack of medical knowledge made it difficult to distinguish death from coma, the "safety coffin" was invented in the late 1800s. Originally designed in Germany, this coffin was equipped with a bell that could be rung via a rope from inside the box, just in case of live burial.

5. Poe may have borrowed Montresor's family motto from another famous American writer.

The Montresor family motto, foreshadowing the imminent revenge plot, reads, "Nemo me impune lacessit," which translates to "No one cuts me with impunity." Writer James Fenimore Cooper also included the line in chapter 16 of his 1826 novel, The Last of the Mohicans, when Commander Munro insults the honor of his French rival, Commander Montcalm.

6. Wine experts find it hard to believe that Fortunato was a wine connoisseur.

Fortunato gleefully accepts the challenge to determine if Montressor's cask of wine is in fact Amontillado, a rare sherry. However, Fortunato is intoxicated when he goes to prove his expertise—which a true wine connoisseur know would dull one's taste and make the task impossible. Moreover, according to one scholar, his guzzling of other fine wines during their walk through the catacombs seems unlikely behavior for a connoisseur.

7. Poe may have been advocating for temperance with "The Cask of Amontillado."

Although Poe himself was accused of heavy drinking, he included a message of temperance, or self-restraint, in "The Cask of Amontillado." Fortunato's love of wine is what, in the end, allows him to fall for Montresor's trick. Many works of fiction during this era included, with varying levels of subtlety, the message that alcohol could send a person to the grave.

8. Marvel Comics published a comic book adaptation of "The Cask of Amontillado."

Marvel Comics, famous for creating characters like Ironman and the Hulk, also published a graphic novel version of "The Cask of Amontillado." The publication features comic book renditions of two additional short stories by Poe, "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Tell-Tale Heart."

9. One theory suggests Poe died of rabies.

Like many of his characters—including Fortunato—Poe himself died a bizarre and mysterious death after being found in a Baltimore gutter. Alcohol poisoning was long thought to be the culprit, but medical experts note that the symptoms that Poe exhibited during his short hospitalization—belligerence and a fear of water—match those of rabies. Poe may have been infected by a rabid animal while lying in the gutter.

10. Some scholars believe Poe intended "The Cask of Amontillado" to be set in France, not Italy.

Though Poe never explicitly states the setting of "The Cask of Amontillado," most readers assume it is set in Italy due to the prevalence of Italian wines and characters. However, Montresor is a French name, and the character is said to be living in an "ancestral domicile," leading some to speculate that it actually takes place somewhere in France.

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