Essay about “The Cask of Amontillado”
In “The Cask of Amontillado,” Edgar Allan Poe, the author, focuses on two characters that tie the reader’s attention to their revenge story. Taking place over the course of one night, Montresor chooses to get revenge on his bitter adversary who has insulted with him for far too long. Fortunato represents all that Montresor and his family have lost, and Montresor believes that he can regain his former life by destroying Fortunato. Poe incorporates subtle irony, resonant symbolism, crisp dialogue, and structural symmetry to engage readers and leave them on the edge of their seat. The power dynamic between the characters forms the core of the story’s horror, making it the controlling factor in its ethical undertone. The dialogue and description in the text indicate that “The Cask of Amontillado” is a story about power relations and social status.
In many ways, the reader can tell that Fortunato’s character represents the author. Poe was a man not born into wealth, instead he worked to rise in class ranks. Although Poe ended up rich and influential, he was constantly reminded by the elite around him that he was still inferior to those who were born noble (Massiet, 2013). Poe incorporates his life into his story by focusing on the main character. Montresor embodies the bloodline aristocrats as he constantly holds this belief of superiority over others. Montresor presents himself a person who holds to right to decide Fortunato’s faith by setting up the murder to replicate an execution. Montresor constantly mocks and ridicules Fortunato throughout the story to remind him of his original place in society. In writing this, Poe exposes the harsh retaliation that the aristocracy use to keep the rising middle class away from gaining positions of power.
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By analyzing the motive for revenge, readers are aware of the mental state of the narrator. Poe begins by offering readers the cause for revenge. As explicitly stated in the short story Montresor wanted revenge because Fortunato, “hurt me a thousand times,” and “laughed at my proud name,” (p. 866). Although mentioned the motive for murder is offered at the beginning of the story, many experts theorize that there was another influence. As quoted by Elena Baraban, Edward Wagenknecht argues that “Poe carefully avoids specifying the ‘thousands injuries’ that [Montresor] has suffered and there is absolute concentration on psychological effect,” (Wagenknecht, 1963, p. 32). Wagenknecht’s theory ties in with many other ideas readers have expressed. Because some readers are unable to find a logical reason to Montresor’s revenge, they settle on the narrator being a mad man. Additionally, Poe does not offer the nature of Fortunato’s insult, giving no opportunity to decide if the crime is justified. Therefore, many critics, rather than digging deeper into the text, follow the simple solution: Montresor insane murder with no reliable motivation. But that is far from the truth, instead of taking Poe’s silence on the matter a sign for mental instability, readers know it emphasizes that the insults alone are the base for revenge. Poe says in the passage, “[Fortunato] hurt me a thousand times,” the only time he elaborates on the specific pain inflicted is when he mentions how Montresor felt insulted, “he laughed at my proud name,” (p. 866). Poe’s intention in doing this was to eliminate the idea that Montresor is without a motive by illustrating the tension between the characters. Poe emphasizes the importance of power relations and social status between the characters in doing that.
In another way to emphasize the importance of power relations between the characters, Poe mindfully chooses the carnival season to be the setting of the story. A significant detail of the setting in this story pertains to Fortunato’s character, as Journalist Baraban (2004) states, “the traditional carnival symbolism helps Montresor undermine Fortunato’s position,” (p. 54). Montresor’s intention is to make a fool out of him, thus the murder appears to be an absurd event. Because Fortunato is in a “tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by a conical hat and bells,” (Charters, 2003, p. 866) he represents a joker and fool, while Montresor is dressed in a black robe and silk mask, reflecting an executioner. This is significant because there is an apparent decline in status for Montresor. A common tradition during carnivals is for the lower class to dress up as people of power, whereas the upper class ridicule the lower class by dressing poor (Baraban, 2004, p. 54). As Fortunato is a rising aristocrat, there is no shock to him dressing as a joker, yet Montresor goes for an executioner, someone that determines life or death, a very powerful person. Poe added this detail in the short story to emphasize the importance of power relations amongst the characters and offered another perspective on where the tension between the two characters originated.
Although Montresor is not dressed as the joker, his character is more similar to a jester than Fortunato. Throughout the story, Montresor is aware of the current situation of Fortunato and ridicules it with the use of double-sided jokes. As the dialogue of the two characters progres, the reader notices a deep sense of irony. As Charles Nevi (1967) points out, “[Poe] offers many examples of irony, from the very obvious to the very subtle…everything, from the characters names, to the setting, to almost every word Montresor utters” (p.463). In reference to the power gap that Montresor has created between the two characters, Nevi points out the presence of the irony. In the beginning, Poe references how Fortunato has previously laughed at and degraded Montresor’s family name, This becomes a direct cause for when he kills Fortunato. Montresor knows, and has the satisfaction, that he has “won.” The jokes and humor that Montresor uses symbolize the last laugh because in the end Montresor held all the power over Fortunato and Fortunato would not be able to make him feel inferior again.
As “The Cask of Amontillado” is a famous short story, it has many famous lines that are often debated about. The line, “I must not only punish, but punish with impunity,” (Charters, 2003, p. 866) is one of the most debated lines in the book. Critic Elena Baraban argues that this line indicates that Montresor believes he is carrying out a familial duty, by punishing Fortunato he will return the honor Fortunato stole. She also believes that Fortunato’s poor background compared to Montresor’s family background showed that he held no right to laugh at the Montresor name. Therefore when Fortunato used his power to degrade Montresor, he was in the wrong (Baraban, 2004, p. 52). Although Baraban was partially correct, Zachary Bennett implies a stronger argument when he points out, “This line represents his [Montresor] sadistic impulses,” Bennett, later on, explains how Montresor has a goal. His goal is to hold power over his enemies and do so in a way that restricts them, therefore demonstrating his superiority (Bennett, 2011, p. 55). As Montresor claims right to punish with impunity, he regains his dominance and power which he feels was stolen from him when Fortunato insulted his family.
The setting of the masquerade furthers the idea of dark fiction because the activities and behavior throughout the passage contrast the business of a commonplace. The same comparison can be seen in the two characters. Although Montresor refers to Fortunato as, “a man to respected and even feared,” (Charters, 2003, p. 866), throughout the story, Fortunato was a drunken camaraderie. As Don Sova (2007) mentions, even as he was intoxicated, Fortunato continuously flaunts and ridicules Montresor saying, “You are not of the masons…You? Impossible! A mason?” (para. 11). Fortunato insults Montresor by dismissing his strong family line and their aristocratic history. Instead, Fortunato takes time to express his sense of importance because of his alliances and patronize Montresor.
Although the narrator speaks of himself as strong and happy throughout the passage, his tone reflects his bitter attitude. He tells Fortunato, “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as I once was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter” (Charters, 2003, p. 868). Montresor comes off as vulnerable, feeling like he lost his birthright. In this monologue, Montresor believes that he lost the glory behind his name and all the ancestral value has disintegrated. As the story progresses, Montresor holds Fortunato responsible for the decreasing value of his family name. “No one insults me with impunity,” is an example of this. This motto pushes Montresor to be the intellectual master who will murder his adversary. As stated by Garnago (1967), Montresor re-establishes his familial power by giving dramatic value to the meaning of his coat of arms (p.136), a “serpent rampant whose fangs are embedded in the heel,” (p. 868).
Beyond Fortunato and Montresor being adversaries, the contrast between them is striking. Naming the characters, Poe made obvious implications in both names. Fortunato’s name is one of dark irony because his untimely death was not fortunate. But the name fortunato also references the power and money he owns. Meanwhile, Montresor’s name symbolizes his villainous character, the reader understands that he is a monster. In contrast, the French definition of Montresor is my treasure. Montresor’s treasure is his family name and pride compared to Fortunato whose treasure lies in his power and wealth. Moreover, a significant piece of Montresor’s treasure is his ancestral catacombs. The catacombs, in its extensive size and history, impress Fortunato. As he stood, surrounded by Montresor’s long line of ancestors, he realized how influential the family used to be. Montresor, too, knows that he holds a greater and more powerful aristocracy than Fortunato, it is showed when he narrates, “Fortunato possessed himself of my arm… I suffered him to hurry me to my plazzo,” (Charters, 2003, p. 867). Critic Elena Baraban (2004) states that during that time period it a minor aristocracy had no liberty of touching someone who had a more noble aristocracy (p. 51). Therefore Montresor “suffered” when Fortunato grabbed him because it lessened his social status. He would not allow any more public insults to his status and was eager to show Fortunato the “Amontillado.”
A major question that arises when reading “The Cask of Amontillado” is whether Fortunato understands the reason behind Montresor’s plan of vengeance. where he “punishes with impunity” and escapes punishment. Furthermore, A significant part of Montresor’s plan was to not kill Fortunato silently, but keep him aware of his fate. Montresor forms this plan in a way that his victim is completely aware of who is killing him. For Montresor, this is completely a power move, he wants Fortunato to know that his doom is a result of his arrogance and insults to a person of a higher status. In the end, Fortunato understands that he, himself, is the amontillado: a pile of bones gathered behind a wall in the Montresor catacombs.
All in all “The Cask of Amontillado” relates back to a story that expresses the dark elements of aristocracies. The author, Edgar Allan Poe does a wonderful job at using the elements of diction and foreshadowing to enhance the suspenseful tone throughout the story and making Montresor appear to be a conflicted character rather than a villain. Poe connects with his readers by setting the major parts of the short story in between the lines. As readers interact with the text to discover that Montresor is not a bloodthirsty killer, but rather a cunning man with a fondness for dark humor, they are hooked by the story and do not put the book down. Similarly, Poe builds his stories with aristocratic victims to eliminate sympathy the reader may feel towards them, thus forcing the reader to question their ethical assumptions. As Fortunato represents all that Montresor has lost, does Montresor have a valid cause for the murder of his long adversary?