"The Cask of Amontillado," which first appeared in Godey's Lady's Book in 1846, is a classic example of the use of an unreliable narrator. Montresor tells his tale of revenge smugly, as he invites the reader to applaud his cleverness much like the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart." By telling the story from Montresor's point of view, Poe forces the reader to look into the inner workings of a murderer's mind.
- By Martha Womack
Martha Womack, better known to Internet users as Precisely Poe, has a BA degree in English from Longwood College in Virginia, and teaches English and Theatre Arts at Fuqua School in Farmville, Virginia. When Martha first began teaching American literature, she found so much conflicting information about Edgar Allan Poe that she became confused about what to teach her students. As she began to research the author's life and literature, Martha discovered that a horrible injustice had occurred, and she became determined, like many others, "to set the record straight." "This mission" has lead to ten years of research and the creation of her web site, Precisely Poe. Martha is proud and pleased to be a part of the Poe Decoder, a continual project to dispel the myth surrounding Poe, the man and his literature.
Click here to email Martha Womack.
Printed publishing rights retained by the author, copyright pending. Internet publishing rights granted by the author to Christoffer Nilsson for use exclusively in Qrisse's Poe Pages. Any for-profit use of this material is expressly forbidden. Educational users and researchers must use proper documentation procedures, crediting both the publisher, Christoffer Nilsson and the author, Martha Womack.
"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge....At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely settled....I must not only punish, but punish with impunity." Now Montresor began to develop the perfect plan of retribution.
During this time, Montresor was careful not to arouse Fortunato's suspicions. "...[N]either by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued...to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his [destruction]."
Fortunato had a weakness which Montresor felt could be advantageous to implementing his plan. Fortunato prided himself upon being a connoisseur of fine wines. In this respect, they were equals. Montresor was "...skillful in Italian vintages...and bought largely whenever [he] could."
Around dusk one evening during the carnival season, Montresor encountered his friend Fortunato, who "...accosted [him] with excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much." Fortunato wore the costume of a court jester including a "...conical cap and bells." Montresor proclaimed how glad he was to encounter Fortunato since he had just purchased a large cask of "...what passes for Amontillado [a variety of dry sherry]," but he had his doubts about its authenticity. Fortunato also had doubts. "How?" said Fortunato. "Amontillado?...Impossible! And in the middle of the carnival!"
"I have my doubts," said Montresor; "and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain....As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchesi. If anyone [can tell genuine Amontillado], it is he."
Fortunato was outraged. Luchesi was not a connoisseur of Amontillado. Fortunato said, "Come, let us go....To your vaults...[to taste the Amontillado]."
Montresor responded by telling his friend that he could see that he had a prior engagement as well as he noticed that Fortunato was afflicted with a severe cough and cold. The dampness of the vault and the niter (white or gray salt deposit) with which the walls were encrusted, would not be good for Fortunato's health. Fortunato responded by saying, "Let us go, nevertheless. The cold is merely nothing. Amontillado! You have been imposed upon. As for Luchesi, he cannot distinguish [sweet] sherry from Amontillado."
Fortunato had taken the bait, and the plan was put into action. When they reached Montresor's palazzo (luxurious house), they found no one at home. The servants had departed according to plan. Montresor handed Fortunato a flambeaux (lighted torch) as he took one for himself, and they made their way to the catacombs of the Montresors wherein lay the wine vaults. Fortunato's gait was unsteady, and the bells upon his cap jingled as he walked.
Fortunato began to cough from the niter, and Montresor said that they must go back. "...[W]e will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter. We will go back; you will be ill, and I cannot be responsible. Besides, there is Luchesi--"
Fortunato said, "Enough...the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough." "True--true," said Montresor. "A draft of this Medoc [a French red wine] will defend us from the damps." Montresor knocked off the neck of the bottle of wine, and passed it to Fortunato. Fortunato raised the bottle to his lips as his bells jingled, and said, "I drink...to the buried that repose around us." Montresor said, "And I [drink] to your long life."
They now proceeded through the vaults. Fortunato had forgotten how great and numerous a family Montresor had. He asked about the Montresors' coat of arms. Montresor said that on the shield was "...[a] hugh human foot d'or, in a field of azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are embedded in the heel." The motto stated: "Nemo me impune lacessit [No one assails me with impunity]."
Montresor and Fortunato had now reached the "...inmost recesses of the catacombs." The niter was hanging "...like moss upon the vaults." They were "...below the river's bed. The drops of moisture trickle[d] among the bones." Montresor said, "Come we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough--" But Fortunato replied, "It is nothing...let us go on. But first, another draft of the Medoc."
Montresor opened another bottle of wine (De Grave) in the same manner as before, and handed it to Fortunato. "He emptied it at a breath. His eyes flashed with a fierce light. He laughed and threw the bottle upwards [while making a gesture that Montresor] did not understand." Fortunato repeated the movement, and when he saw that Montresor still did not understand, he said, " Then you are not of the brotherhood....You are not of the masons [the Freemasons, a secret fraternal order; also, bricklayers]." However, Montresor insisted that he was. Fortunato asked for a sign of some sort to prove that Montresor really was a mason. Montresor reached beneath the folds of his cloak and produced a trowel (the tool that would later seal Fortunato's fate). "You jest," Fortunato exclaimed. "But let us proceed to the Amontillado."
"At the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious. Its walls had been lined with human remains....Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner." However, the bones had been removed from the fourth wall, and scattered outside the crypt. By removing the bones, an interior recess "...in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven...." had been created. Montresor told Fortunato to proceed within, since "herein [was] the Amontillado."
Fortunato, who was extremely intoxicated at this point, did as he was instructed to do, only to realize that he had reached the extremity of the niche. In a moment, Montresor had chained him to the granite. "In its surface were two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet, horizontally. From one of these depended a short chain, from the other a padlock. Throwing the links about [Fortunato's] waist, it was but the work of a few seconds to secure it." Fortunato was taken by surprise, and was much too intoxicated to resist. Fortunato called out, "The Amontillado!" "True," [Montresor] replied; "the Amontillado."
As Montresor spoke these words, he continued with the last part of his plan of revenge. From beneath the scattered bones, he uncovered "...a quantity of building stone and mortar. With these materials and with the aid of [his] trowel. [Montresor] began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche."
Fortunato's intoxication was beginning to wear off, and "...a low moaning cry [came] from the depth of the recess." Montresor continued his work even though he could hear Fortunato struggling with the chains. When the wall had reached chest level, Montresor using his torch, peeked inside the niche. "A succession of loud and shrill screams, [suddenly burst forth] from the throat of the chained [Fortunato]." This initially shocked Montresor; but realizing that Fortunato could not be heard, he began to reecho, and finally surpassed the shrieks of Fortunato with those of his own until Fortunato was silent once more.
It was midnight,and the task was almost complete. Just as Montresor was inserting the last stone, a low laugh could be heard from the interior of the niche. It was followed by a somewhat sad voice, which said, "Ha! ha! ha!--he! he!--a very good joke indeed--an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo--he! he! he!--over our wine--he! he! he!" Montresor echoed Fortunato's laughter. Fortunato reminded Montresor that it was getting late, and that they would be missed. "Let us be gone," Fortunato said. "Yes, " [Montresor] said, "let us be gone." Fortunato cried out, "For the love of God, Montresor!" And he replied, "for the love of God!" Then all was quiet. Montresor called out Fortunato's name, but there was no reply. Again using the torch, Montresor tried to see inside of the niche. "There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells." Montresor grew sick at heart due to the dampness of the catacombs. He hurried to finish his task. The last stone was put and plastered into place. Against the new masonry, Montresor stacked the old bones. "For half of [a] century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!" (May he rest in peace!)
The story begins around dusk, one evening during the carnival season (similar to the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans) in an unnamed European city. The location quickly changes from the lighthearted activites associated with such a festival to the damp, dark catacombs under Montressor's palazzo which helps to establish the sinister atmosphere of the story.
Although several characters are mentioned in this story, the true focus lies upon Montresor, the diabolical narrator of this tale of horror, who pledges revenge upon Fortunato for an insult. When the two meet during the carnival season, there is a warm greeting with excessive shaking of hands which Montresor attributes to the fact that Fortunato had been drinking. Montresor also appears to be "happy" to see Fortunato since he is planning to murder him. Fortunato's clown or jester's costume appears to be appropriate not only for the carnival season but also for the fact that Montresor intends to make a "fool" out of him.
Point of View
Poe writes this story from the perspective of Montresor who vows revenge against Fortunato in an effort to support his time-honored family motto: "Nemo me impune lacessit" or "No one assails me with impunity." (No one can attack me without being punished .) Poe does not intend for the reader to sympathize with Montresor because he has been wronged by Fortunato, but rather to judge him. Telling the story from Montresor's point of view, intensifies the effect of moral shock and horror. Once again, the reader is invited (as was the case in "The Tell-Tale Heart") to delve into the inner workings of a sinister mind.
Style and Interpretation
Poe's story is a case of premeditated murder. The reader becomes quickly aware of the fact that Montresor is not a reliable narrator, and that he has a tendency to hold grudges and exaggerate terribly, as he refers to the "thousand injuries" that he has suffered at the hands of Fortunato. "...[B]ut when [Fortunato] ventured upon insult, [Montresor could stand no more, and] vowed revenge."
Montresor tries to convince the reader that his intentions are honorable in an effort to uphold his family motto. "Nemo me impune lacessit" is also the national motto of Scotland. Kenneth Silverman, in his book Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance, makes reference to the fact that it is not an accident or similarity that Poe chooses this particular motto. It is one that would remind Poe of another Scotsman, John Allan, his foster father. Allan, "much resembled Fortunato in being a man 'rich, respected, admired, beloved,' interested in wines, and a member of the Masons." Silverman continues by saying, that even the Allan name can be seen as an anagram in Amontillado. (Silverman 317)
Stuart and Susan Levine, editors of The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition, do not view Poe's story as just a clever tale of revenge, but instead, see it as an anti-aristocratic commentary. "Resentment against aristocratic 'priviledge' of all kinds reached a peak in Jacksonian and post-Jacksonian America....Poe's tale is related to innumerable articles in American magazines of the period about the scandalous goings-on of continental nobility." (Levine 454, 455)
"The Cask of Amontillado" is a carefully crafted story so that every detail contributes to "a certain unique or single effect." Irony, both dramatic and verbal, plays an important role in this process. Dramatic irony (the reader perceives something that a character in the story does not) occurs when the reader becomes painfully aware of what will become of Fortunato even though the character continues his descent into the catacombs in pursuit of the Amontillado. Poe further adds to this effect by calling the character Fortunato (who is anything but fortunate), and dressing him in a clown or a fool's costume since Montresor intends to make a fool of him as part of his dark plan.
There are numerous examples of verbal irony (character says one thing and means something else) within Montresor's words. Montresor expresses concern about Fortunato's health, and several times he suggests that they should turn back for fear that Fortunato's cough will worsen as a result of the cold and dampness of the catacombs. One of the most memorable lines of the story is given by Montresor in response to Fortunato saying, "I will not die of a cough." Montresor says, "True--true...." Other examples can be seen when Montresor toasts Fortunato's long life as well as when he says that he is a mason, but not in the sense that Fortunato means. "In pace requiescat!" ("Rest in peace!") is the last irony of a heavily ironic tale. "In pace" also refers to a very secure monastic prison.
By the end of Poe's story, Montresor has gotten his revenge against unsuspecting Fortunato, whose taste for wine has led him to his own death. Once again we are reminded of the coat of arms and the Montresor family motto. The insignia is symbolic of Montresor's evil character, who like the serpent intends to get revenge.
"The Cask of Amontillado" is a powerful tale of revenge. Montresor, the sinister narrator of this tale, pledges revenge upon Fortunato for an insult. Montresor intends to seek vengeance in support of his family motto: "Nemo me impune lacessit."("No one assails me with impunity.") On the coat of arms, which bears this motto, appears " [a] huge human foot d'or, in a field of azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are embedded in the heel." It is important for Montresor to have his victim know what is happening to him. Montresor will derive pleasure from the fact that "...as Fortunato slowly dies, the thought of his rejected opportunities of escape will sting him with unbearable regret, and as he sobers with terror, the final blow will come from the realization that his craving for the wine has led him to his doom." (Quinn 500) In structure, there can be no doubt, that both Montresor's plan of revenge and Poe's story are carefully crafted to create the desired effect.