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"The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe

The short story by Edgar Allan Poe "The Cask of Amontillado"1 was first published in the
November 1846 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, a popular American literary magazine for
women. The story follows the Gothic style which evokes in the reader the feelings of horror and
close death by many scary details and gloomy atmosphere, which was very fashionable in the
Victorian society, concerned with madness, death, mysterious crimes and, in particular, burial
alive.

In short, the story tells about the murder committed by the main character, Montresor, a
descendant of a noble but recently poor or less influential family, recounted by the murderer
himself fifty years after the crime happened. He killed his friend Fortunato, who, as Montresor
believed, had offended him and his family, by luring him into the vine cellar under Montresors’
family castle, chaining him there and laying a brick wall around the poor victim, thus burying
clueless Fortunato alive.

The story is set in some unnamed medieval-looking city which is described in little detail, except
for the stock images and conventional elements which allow the reader, already familiar with
similar literature, to easily visualize the place, such as “vaults,” “catacombs,” “great stone
palace,” coat-of-arms of a noble family. “Carnival” and both characters’ wearing motleys also
adds to the sharp contrast of the initial and final setting and the horror of transition from having
fun in the busy streets during a carnival to the lonely death in a dark, wet cellar. The atmosphere
of gloom condenses, and the intentions of Montresor become more evident along with the two
main characters’ movement downwards – to the vaults under Montresor’s palace and the time
passing from evening to night.

The reader may infer that the setting is Italy, as in the very beginning of the story, three names of
the characters are mentioned – Montresor (which sounds rather French), and two Italian-
sounding names, Luchresi and Fortunato. The time of action is not specified as well, and the
story feels as if in the timeless world of fairytale. At the first impression, the mentioning of old
families, castles with wine cellars, coats-of-arms and revenge might let the reader imagine that

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In this analysis is used the following source: Poe, Allan Edgar. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Available at:
https://poestories.com/read/amontillado

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the story is set in the medieval Italy; however, there is no reason why the carnival might not
happen even in the 21st century, as both the noble families and the ancient castles still exist.

In fact, the setting should be considered a conventional, schematized decoration for a play rather
than a description of some really existing place in Italy; it plays the role as the background for
action, creating the atmosphere of condensing menace and gloom. It appears that the author
understands that for the intended readers, the setting evokes the associations with mysteries,
crime, and revenge, and this might result not only from the Gothic literary tradition, but already
from the times of Shakespeare who used this Italian setting for his dramatic plays, for instance,
Romeo and Juliet.

The narrator of the story is Montresor, the murderer, who, as it seems, tries to justify his crime at
least in his own eyes, in a monologue, which, most probably, is imaginary, that is, spoken to
himself, as an inner speech or flow of consciousness. Apparently, telling the story to someone
would endanger the safety of the murderer, who announces in the very beginning of the story
that “I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution
overtakes its redresser.”

Montresor proceeds to fervently argue that Fortunato has offended him, “The thousand injuries
of Fortunato I had borne as I best could” and that, finally, “when he [Fortunato] ventured upon
insult, Montresor “vowed revenge” which he would fulfil in a secretive manner, so that nobody
would even suspect him. Montresor addresses his imaginary listener, “You, who so well know
the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat.” Montresor
explains that his moral qualities stem from the traditions of his ancestors as shown in the family
coat-of-arms, “A huge human foot d'or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant
whose fangs are imbedded in the heel,” with the motto, "Nemo me impune lacessit" which is
Latin for “No one provokes me with impunity". Montresor had planned the revenge in cold
blood, showing off as Fortunato’s best friend, “It must be understood that neither by word nor
deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile
in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.”

However, the nature of the offense is never mentioned and stays unknown to the end of the story.
Even Fortunato himself has no idea that Montresor feels offended and might revenge, which
adds to the horror of the story, as the intentions of Montresor are contrasted to trust, gullibility,

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and carelessness of his victim. There is dramatic irony in the dialogue between Montresor and
Fortunato, as every phrase bears a double meaning, gaining sinister sense in the context of
further events. An additional touch of horror is added by the willingness and insistence of the
victim to follow to his death, combined with Montresor’s pretending to ask him to go back while,
in fact, fueling his wish to see the rare wine by mentioning Fortunato’s rival wine connoisseur,
Luchresi. It might be that the name of the victim, Fortunato, also is somehow ironic, because it is
indeed no good luck to die buried alive.

Fortunato is shown as a cheerful, thoughtless person who, having such qualities, might have
indeed said something that Montresor, feeling already humiliated by the poor state of his family,
might perceive as offense. Montresor, however, describes Fortunato as “a man to be respected
and even feared” but having only one “weak spot” – thinking that he is the best connoisseur of
wines. This weakness Montresor uses to kill his victim, as he lies to him that he has a cask of
rare wine, said to be Amontillado, which needs checking by a real connoisseur to prove it;
furthermore, Montresor makes Fortunato insist on going to check the wine by expressing the
wish to show the cask to Fortunato’s rival, named Luchresi, who is also thought to be a specialist
on wines. The following words of Montresor explain his feelings towards Fortunato, most likely,
hate, envy, and an obsessive idea that his own problems were somehow caused by Fortunato; the
urging to go back is only a trick to lure the former friend to the place of crime, as Montresor
mentions the name of Luchresi,

"Come," I said, with decision, "we 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 Luchresi -"

Consequently, Montresor appears as a ruthless villain in the best tradition of Shakespeare’s plays
or of Machiavelli’s prince, or a Borgia-like plotter who is very sensitive to slightest perceived or
imagined offenses, and whose mind is full of hate and satisfaction because of a successful
murderous plot. To have such a character as the narrator means that Poe used the technique of
unreliable narrator – one who is mad, drunk, ignorant or who for some other reason is not able to
present an objective account of the events, for instance, because of a strong emotional
involvement, as is the case. First, such a narrator’s judgment may not be trusted; for instance, he
believes that it was perfectly right killing Fortunato. Second, he does not describe the situation

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adequately and there are many facts never mentioned to the reader. Indeed, if speaking to himself
or an imaginary listener, a person would not explain every detail. Yet, the fact that there are
many questions unanswered also adds more suspense, which is not relieved even in the end of
the short story. The reader may expect to learn about the reason for this revenge when Fortunato
is already chained to the wall, as it seems logical; however, it is not revealed and Montresor only
mocks his former friend who to the end believes that it is a “jest”, and then, probably, either goes
insane or dies on the spot.

It must be noted that the use of an insane narrator also adds to the building of suspense and
horror, which was characteristic of Victorian horror stories, such as Gothic tales. In conclusion,
the short story is designed as to create the atmosphere of gloom and threat in some conventional
horror-story setting, and the static characters are used only to promote the action.