In “The Cask of Amontillado” Edgar Allan Poe takes us on a journey into the mind of a mad man. The story relates a horrible revenge made even more horrible by the fact that the vengeance is being taken when no real offense had been given. In a short space and with ultimate technical skill, Poe creates a nightmare, guaranteed to give the reader a sleepless night.
The plot of the story is a simple one. Montresor tales revenge on his friend Fortunato by luring him into the tunnels under the family estate. There he leads Fortunato into the depths of the catacombs where he buries him alive by walling him into a niche. The story is told in first person from the point of view of Montresor himself. The exposition of the story occurs when Montresor tells us that he wants to take revenge on Fortunato because “he ventured upon insult.” We also learn that he intends to go unpunished for this act of vengeance. The narrator informs us that he is going to continue to smile in Fortunato’s face, but use the pride his victim has in wine to lure him into the catacombs to taste some of his non- existent amontillado. At this point, the reader knows the conflict will be one of man against man. It is an external struggle because Fortunato and Montresor are in a life and death fight. However, the conflict is largely internal, because Montresor has a fierce hatred that Fortunato is unaware of. The narrative hook seems to occur when Fortunato follows Montresor into the vault. Even if the reader was confused by the language of the first paragraph or is puzzled by the motive of the narrator, he is curious to know what will happen next. We know the moment of revenge is at hand, but what is Montresor going to do to Fortunato? Why is he taking him underground?
The climax of the story is when Montresor chains Fortunato to the wall and begins to layer the bricks. It is our high point of emotional involvement. We are like Fortunato in that we cannot bring ourselves to believe what is about to happen. The denouement lets us know indeed, Montresor was never punished for this crime. Fifty years has passed and he is an old man telling the story on his deathbed. The true horror is that Fortunato died a terrible death, utterly alone, and his killer was never brought to justice.
Perhaps the theme in the story is the least important feature. After all, it is about a senseless crime, and what sense can be made of such horror? Perhaps the idea behind the story is that no one can find refuge from a deranged mind, or that terrible crimes can be committed when an imaginary offense can fester into a deep hatred. Perhaps Poe is saying that there have always been great crimes that go unsolved. How many undiscovered remains are there in the walls of medieval buildings?
In this story the character of Montresor is revealed through his own words. When he reveals he is going to punish Fortunato for merely insulting him, that he has planned the whole act of vengeance, and that he has been playing as being Fortunato’s friend, we know we are dealing with a deranged personality. His character is also revealed with references to his family. It is almost as if Poe has Montresor’s ancestors tell the reader how nicely he fits into the family tree. His legacy from his family motto “No one attacks me with impunity” and a coat of arms that depicts a serpent whose last wish before death is to poison the foot that crushed it. Does the fruit of ever fall far from the tree? Montresor is as evil as his forebears were. He shows no remorse about what he has done, even in old age. When he says, “May he rest in peace” at the end of the story, the reader gets the feeling he means, “ I hope you stay there and rot” rather than, “I hope you found joy and peace in heaven.”
We don’t really know much about Fortunato: just enough to know that he must not have really known the true heart of his friend. He must not have been a guarded person. He must have said too much to make Montresor think he was insulting him and he must have boasted about his knowledge of wines. You feel that Fortunato was probably a bit too sociable and a bit foolish. He was an unfortunate man who found himself in contact with the wrong person.
The setting Poe chose for the story adds to the horror. He sets most of the story in a dark, damp series of winding tunnels piled with bones. By taking Fortunato into the vaults, he cuts him off from help. The two characters are underground and isolated. As Montresor leads his friend through the vaults, we feel as if we are being led through the crazed corridors of Montresor’s sick mind. Using the carnival as a backdrop is also skillful because it is a time when everything is in chaos and people have lost their self-control. There is noise in the street, the servants are gone, and Fortunato might have sensed something evil about Montresor’s intentions and left the vaults before it was too late.
Poe’s style is what makes this a masterpiece of horror. He uses imagery to help the reader experience of the catacombs. We see the vaults “encrusted with niter,” the “walls piled with bones,” the glow of the flambeaus,” and “the mask of black silk” Montresor wears. We hear the jingle of bells on Fortunato’s cap, his hacking cough, and his laughter of despair as he is buried alive. We feel the dampness of the catacombs. Poe uses irony throughout the story. There is situational irony in the fact that the crime takes place during a celebration, that Fortunato’s name means good luck, and that Fortunato is dressed like a jester. What is about to happen is just the opposite of what you would expect. Just about everything Montresor says is verbal irony. He says just the opposite of what he means. He keeps inquiring about Fortunato’s health and says he will not die of a cold. The greatest use of irony is when Montresor says he is a member of the masons. Fortunato thinks he means he is of a fellow member of a society when what he really means is that he is a bricklayer about to brick him in for all eternity. This conversation also provides foreshadowing in the story. This is the first clue the reader gets about how Montresor will punish Fortunato.
The overall mood of the story is one of horror and impending evil. The ending of the story is filled with suspense. What will happen now that Fortunato is chained to the wall? Will Montresor come to his senses and have mercy on Fortunato? We see Montresor carefully construct each tier of the wall. Why does he hesitate at the end? Will he react to the desperate cry of Fortunato? When the last brick is set in place, we know Fortunato’s doom has been sealed.
I find that this story makes the hairs on my back of my neck rise every time I read it. There is no real violence in the modern sense of the word, yet it is more horrifying because of all the things you don’t see with your outward eye but the with inward eye of the imagination.
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