Uncovering the Cask
“Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is controversial in the sense that it can be interpreted in many different ways, depending on the reader’s point-of-view. The well known short story is about a man named Montresor who desires to enact revenge on a one-sided enemy, Fortunato. Montresor deceives Fortunato, luring him to his demise by using a tasteful wine called Amontillado. Charles Nevi (1967) has written that Poe “intends for his stories to have hidden messages” and how “many readers disregard the irony” in them (p.5) One facet in Nevi’s thesis is that along with “The Cask”, most of Poe’s stories have an underlying theme and message. Indeed, there is irony included in this story, but the author uses the irony to help readers understand how evil the crime really was; most would agree with the idea that there is a hidden theme because they think that the story was intended to teach a certain moral, or warn them of something. However, a close analyzation of the novel reveals that in fact, “The Cask” is quite uncomplicated: Montresor killed Fortunato because he wanted to, there was no true or clear motive behind it. In fact, Montresor makes it seem as if there is one to justify himself and take away from the fact that he is just evil.
Most critics overanalyze Montresor’s character and establish false reasoning behind his behavior. For example, Baraban’s (2004) “The Motive for Murder in ‘The Cask of Amontillado”, the author tries to support her claim with this quote: “Richard M. Fletcher, for example, maintains that Montresor’s actions are irrational and that therefore his is mad” (p.50). An irrational person is not always insane, because anyone can be irrational when faced with conflicts, so both Fletcher and Baraban have incorrect logic. Baraban has trouble establishing a true motive: “in other words, the conflict between the two characters arises from the sensation of incongruity between their current social standing and their right to prominence by virtue of their origin” (p.52). She continues to say that Fortunato’s disrespect towards Montresor serves as a “sufficient basis” for his vengeance (Baraban, p.51), which is indeed stated in the story, for Montresor says, “but when I learned that he had laughed at my proud name, Montresor, the name of an old and honored family, I promised that I would make him pay for this- that I would have my revenge” (Poe, 1988, p.68). However, if Montresor truly cares about avenging his family name, then he would have not killed Fortunato inside his esteemed family vault. He would have killed Fortunato on Fortunato’s own land if he genuinely wanted to honor his ever-so-proud family name. The motive that is stated in “The Cask” seems unbelievable because instead of respecting the burial ground of his ancestors, he disrespects it by killing his nemesis where they rest in peace; then, is he really trying to avenge Fortunato’s irreverence for his name or is there another reason?
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Sova in “The cask of Amontillado” (2007), says that Montresor recalls his actions without “providing any insight into the extent of the insult he has suffered or any significant justification of the crime” and that Poe’s story “contains instances of opposition and disharmony.” In summary, Sova is stating that the way Montresor tells the readers of his crime is not faultless, because no other person really witnessed this occurrence. There is evidence of this in “The Cask of Amontillado” because Montresor never tells anyone of his plans, and believes that he is doing the right thing in doing so (Poe, p.68). The fact that the entirety of the passage is told in Montresor’s point of view, adds to an air of uncertainty around, for the events that he claims happened may have happened differently, or maybe not at all. Evidence of Fortunato being guilty is not seen, nor can it be assumed because the story is only known as far as Montresor tells it. Additionally, Montresor wanted Fortunato to know “what he was paying” and “who was forcing him to pay” (Poe, p.68) but never told Fortunato of his grievances against him. That could mean that the “wrongdoings” that Fortunato may or may not have committed was just an excuse for something else, something that was not revealed to the audience of this short story. It could also mean that Fortunato did not actually do anything to offend Montresor, or that he didn’t know that his actions affected Montresor in that way. Baraban also explains her thoughts by relating to what another researcher, May, has discovered: “The reader has no way of knowing what these ‘thousand injuries’ and the mysterious insult are and thus can make no judgment about whether Montresor’s revenge is justifiable” (p.50). Based on those statements, it can be inferred that since Poe does not go into detail about the way Fortunato offended Montresor, there may not even be a valid explanation for what he did.
Additionally, Rea (1966) supports the idea that Fortunato may have been a good person, one not deserving of an untimely death: “Montresor refers to Fortunato as a friend and treats him as such, acknowledges that Fortunato is respected, admired, and beloved” (p.59). This is true, as both Fortunato and Montresor feel comfortable with each other. Psychologists say that one’s personality when drunk is basically their true personality when sober (Werber, 2017), therefore Fortunato might more likely be as kind as he seems toward Montresor during their interaction before he was killed. Other evidence points to this because even though Fortunato had many instances of where he could have left, he “continued to go forward, uncertainly” (Poe, p. 71). Rea also says that “Montresor tries to use perversity to lure Fortunato into the catacombs, but Fortunato goes with him out of perversity, which his intellect allows him to control, but out of courtesy, which also often makes one do what he should not” (p. 61). The very definition of perversity proves that both of these characters act the way that they do on purpose; Fortunato, even before he knew Montresor had amontillado, was still polite and friendly towards him. He seemed to have no ulterior motive, other than wanting to drink. Montresor took advantage of not only Fortunato’s passion for wines but his trust in someone that he probably considered a friend.
Gargano’s (1997) studies of Poe’s works conclude that he has “constructed his stories to expose his narrator’s limited comprehension of his own problems and states of mind”(p.57). Poe also does this to reveal that Montresor is a “deluded rationalist who cannot glimpse the moral implications of his own folly” (p.57). Based off of these studies, it could be assumed that since Poe purposely writes his narrators in this way, that Montresor is supposed to believe that his revenge will solve his problem. Montresor is a “compulsive and pursued man who thinks he has achieved the perfect revenge against Fortunato, but instead has condemned himself” (p.57) Gargano’s hypothesis is somewhat of a reach because it is true that Montresor is a deluded rationalist, but he is far from being compulsive. Another researcher makes a point in her analysis titled “Montresor”, that the narrator’s egoism is a major factor in “The Cask of Amontillado”. Instead of focusing on the events in the past or on the details of Fortunato’s contempt, he recounts the events of that specific night, and only from the moment he lures Fortunato to his catacombs, focusing on his own “reasons and reactions” (Jebb, 2008). He does not give us give the readers background information about what led up to that point of the story, nor does he tell readers how he so happened to find Fortunato on the street alone. Montresor also uses ironic humor to subtly hint at Fortunato’s incoming death and continues to illustrate that he feels no remorse over his actions. As Jebb says, he enjoys “his victim’s realization of his helpless state” and seemed as if he was in “full rational control” during the time he was committing the murder. Jebb further expounds on his viewpoint: “Montresor blurts out his responsibility for no other reason than his impulse for self-destruction.” This article could be looked at in various ways. Jebb’s research could be interpreted in the sense that Montresor is cold, heartless and that he doesn’t care at all that has killed a human being.
Montresor’s true personality is able to be seen by the way he cunningly planned the entire ordeal “I continued to smile in his face, and he did not understand that I was now smiling at the thought of what I had planned for him, at the thought of my revenge” (Poe, p.58). Montresor feels overjoyed that he was finally able to give Fortunato what he deserved, and this could be seen as normal, except for the fact that everything he did and said were meticulous; he even knew that Fortunato would drink “more wine than was good for him.” For that same reason, he bought Amontillado purposely, wanting to make Fortunato follow him with the promise of a wine he would consider tasteful. He also knew that there would be no witnesses, “I had told the servants that they must not leave the palace, as I would not return until the following morning and they must care for the place. This I knew, was enough to make it certain that they would all leave as soon as my back was turned” (Poe, p. 69) which could mean that he had been planning this for weeks, maybe even months. Montresor also tricks the audience into thinking that he may feel sort of guilt for his deeds, and Baraban states that when Montresor says “my heart grew sick- on account of the dampness of the catacombs” (Poe, p. 72), “he is perfectly aware of the effect the second part of the sentence produces on the listener” (Baraban, p.49). He makes it seem as if he is the good guy in this situation, but as the story progresses, it can be seen that he is probably the complete opposite, continuously mocking Fortunato.
DiSanza (2014) brings a new perspective to this argument, refuting Baraban by saying: “Despite a number of keen observations, though, Baraban fails to connect the question of motive to the question of audience. The motive for murder depends, either in part or entirely, on the motivation for the telling, and the purpose of the recitation depends almost entirely on the audience.” This statement is true; the person that the narrator is speaking to is unknown, and the reason that Montresor has decided to confess after 50 years of silence is unknown. It also cannot be certain that he is communicating with someone or if he is talking to himself. The possibility that Montresor is lying, or that he is interpreting the events in the way that he wants to remember them is very likely. DiSanza also implies that Montresor has a basis for committing homicide that can change depending on who is reading or listening, meaning that most of Montresor’s words cannot be trusted. According to a study conducted by Skelton (2018), it has been proven that suspects of a crime are more likely to commit a crime when something or someone that they care about can be used against them, such as family. It is obvious that his reputation is an important factor because the supposed reason for his revenge was because Fortunato laughed at his “proud name, Montresor” (Poe, p.68). To protect his or ruin Fortunato’s reputation, he may have fabricated some parts of his confessional, if it even is a confessional at all. Throughout the years, writers have discussed and thought about “The Cask of Amontillado” because Poe does an excellent job in maintaining the mystery around it. He leaves readers with many questions, with few answers. Nevertheless, most researchers have come to the conclusion that there is no conclusion, that the short story is for each and every person to understand in their own way, therefore no interpretation is completely right or wrong.
- Baraban, E. (2004). The motive for murder in “”The Cask of Amontillado”” by Edgar Allan Poe. Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, 58(2), 47-62. doi:10.2307/1566552
- DiSanza, R. (2014). On memory, forgetting, and complicity in “The Cask of Amontillado”. The Edgar Allan Poe Review, 15(2), 194-204. doi:10.5325/edgallpoerev.15.2.0194
- Gargano, J.W. (1973). The question of poe’s narrators. Critics on Poe: Readings in Literary Criticism, 56-62
- Jebb, J. F. (2008). Montresor. In Student’s Encyclopedia of American Literary Characters. New York: Facts On File. Retrieved April 30, 2019, from online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=99152&itemid=WE54&articleId=94889.
- Nevi, C. (1967). Irony and “”The Cask of Amontillado””. The English Journal, 56(3), 461-463. doi:10.2307/811596
- Poe, E. A. (1988). Edgar Allan Poe: Storyteller: Seven stories adapted from the original of Edgar Allan Poe. Washington, DC: English Teaching Division.
- Rea, J. (1966). Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”. Studies in Short Fiction 4, 57-69.
- Skelton, F. (2018). Suspects confess to crimes they didn’t commit – here’s why. Retrieved May 3, 2019, from https://theconversation.com/suspects-confess-to-crimes-they-didnt-commit-heres-why-101625
- Sova, D. B. (2007). “”The cask of Amontillado””. In Critical Companion to Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Facts On File. Retrieved April 30, 2019, from online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=99152&itemid=WE54&articleId=41525.
- Werber, C. “Psychologists say your drunk personality has a lot in common with your sober self.” Quartz, Retrieved May 5, 2019, from qz.com/996104/drinking-behavior-psychologists-say-your-drunk-personality-has-a-lot-in-common-with-your-sober-self/.”