Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado: A Two-Minute Summary and Literary Analysis
Unlike “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Imp of the Perverse,” and “The Black Cat,” Poe’s final two murder tales – “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Hop-Frog” – were revenge fantasies. The previous three murder tales explored the psychological effects of guilt, the unexpected logic of insanity, and the perspective of madness, but the final two of Poe’s murder tales are unequivocal expressions of wish fulfillment.
Most critics and historians agree that the real Fortunato was a personal rival named Thomas Dunn English who wrote a brutal literary caricature of Poe called 1844, or the Power of S.F., in which the pretentious author of “The Black Crow” pines for his “Lost Lenore” and is characterized as a drunken wife-beater. Using imagery from 1844 (including the coat of arms, Fortunato’s sign, and the catacombs), Poe responded with what may arguably be his most popular murder tale, “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Writing about their tumultuous history, Richard D. R writes: “The relationship between Poe and English, ten years Poe’s junior, was a rocky one. The two had often been together in the years 1841 and 1842, with English being a frequent caller at Poe’s home. English published favorable reviews of Poe, and several times Poe sought English’s help. Yet English was highly critical of Poe’s drinking. In 1843 for instance, English began publishing serially in a temperance journal his novel ‘The Doom of the Drinker’ … in which Poe is unflatteringly portrayed as uttering ‘some brilliant jest’ while ‘under the excitement of the wine’ and as being a man of ‘a higher order than ordinary genius,’ yet one who appropriates the ideas of others and is ‘the very incarnation of treachery and falsehood.’ ‘The thousand injuries of Fortunato’ with which Montresor begins his story might also be considered the thousand injuries of English toward Poe…”
English would later be party to a social scandal in which Poe was accused of adulterous improprieties. A group of New York literary figures -- including English, feminist Margaret Fuller, poet Sarah Helen Whitman, and led by the vindictive Elizabeth Ellet (a married historian and poet, whose aggressive, romantic advances Poe had roughly rebuffed) -- actively spread rumors that Poe was pursuing two sexual relationships while his young wife lay at home dying of tuberculosis. When Poe wrote "The Cask of Amontillado," Virginia was three months away from death -- a death which he bitterly believed to have been hastened by the English/Ellet rumor mill.
English's role in the affair began when Poe asked him for a pistol to defend himself from Ellet's brother whom Ellet had enlisted to rough Poe up after he stole back a package of incriminating letters. English, however, was already a part of the Ellet faction, and chided Poe for his behavior, implied that he was a liar, and essentially told him to grow up and get over it. Enraged, in a scene which sounds to cinematic to believe, Poe assaulted English, and in the ensuing fistfight, Poe's face was badly sliced by one of English's rings. Poe stormed off, beaten and fuming, with fantasies of revenge undoubtedly billowing in his mind (in his own words he gave English a "flogging which he will remember until the day of his death," but other sources cast doubt on this claim).
After Virginia's death in January 1847, Poe would unleash a torrent of literary punishment on the band of meddlers, casting them as seven busy-body courtiers (English, Fuller, etc.) led by a brutal king (Ellet) whose mistreatment of the court jester's sweetheart would end with them burning alive, suspended from a chain and dressed in ludicrous costumes. But before her death, while Poe was merely resentful and not yet irate, it would be English alone who would suffer his literary vengance; and this time it would be Dunn who would be wearing the jester's motley, dying with a chain around his waist.
The story's principle theme is the revenge of a humiliated, underappreciated man of superior character (whose very name suggests that his reputation and character are the source of his identity) against his arrogant, unjustly elevated inferior (whose very name suggests that his success and happiness is merely the random luck of Fortune). By using his vanity -- and a splash of reverse psychology -- as the bait, Montresor tricks his enemy into following him into the bowels of his family crypt -- surrounded by the bones of his insulted ancestors -- and flips the tables on his rival. One supposes that Poe could only have imagined a similar fate for the younger man whose star seemed to be unjustly rising just as Poe's was unjustly fading...
The narrator, Montresor, is an Italian nobleman relating a story from fifty years ago about he sought to avenge himself against his friendly rival, Fortunato -- another noble who had a history of offending and annoying him. Montresor claims that he bore this with toleration, but when Fortunato insulted him in an unspecified incident, Montresor vowed revenge. He decides to execute his plan during the height of the Carnival (Mardi Gras) festival when the city will break out in revelry -- a season of controlled chaos when reality is subverted, roles are flipped, and everything is topsy-turvy.
Fortunato encounters Montresor dressed in a jester's motley costume -- complete with a pointed, jingly hat. He has been drinking heavily, as Montresor expected, and is in a rowdy, aggressive mood. Fortunato considers himself a connoisseur of wine (although he behaves much more like an alcoholic -- chugging rare vintages, confusing types of wines, and agreeing to a taste test while drunk), a supposed expertise which goes straight to his ego. Montresor uses reverse psychology to entice Fortunato by suggesting that he is going to ask Luchesi -- a mutual friend and another "connoisseur" -- to verify the authenticity of a recent wine acquisition -- a 130 gallon cask of rare Amontillado (uh-MOHN-tee-YAH-doh) -- a dry, oaky, nutty, toasty, brown-colored, sherry (white wine fortified with brandy at 17% alcohol). It would be hard to find such an exquisite purchase at the height of the Carnival, so both men doubt the veracity of the purchase, and Fortunato's pride is immediately stoked when Montresor agrees to let him taste test it (Luchesi, Fortunato scoffs, couldn't tell Amontillado from table sherry).
They leave the bustling heart of town at dusk and head for Montresor's wine cellar. He again used reverse psychology to ensure that his servants would all be gone, celebrating Carnival, and indeed, the palazzo is empty. Fortunato follows him into the home's catacombs -- a subterranean maze where the bones of the Montresors are stored in macabre piles. On the way, as they pass wine racks and stacked bones, Montresor offers Fortunato two rare wines, which the latter greedily quaffs. As they climb deeper and deeper into the winding basement, surrounded by shaggy webs of mold, Fortunato begins coughing: the heavy, damp air appears to be exacerbating his barely hidden tuberculosis. Montresor asks if Fortunato is unwell -- if he needs to go back -- but this only stokes the other man's ego, and he insists on going deeper into the pit.
As they continue down, Fortunato asks what Montresor's family arms are; significantly, Montresor describes a serpent burying its fangs into the heel stepping on it, with the motto: "No one offends me with impunity!" Deeply drunk by this point, Fortunato flourishes a wine bottle with a bizarre gesture. Noticing Fortunato's surprise, he gets in a dig at his friend's social status: Montresor must not have recognized the signal because he is not a member of the influential, elite fraternity of Freemasons. To the contrary, Montresor pulls out a bricklayer's trowel from under his cloak as proof that he is in fact a "mason."
At this point, they find themselves at a dead end, facing a shallow alcove just big enough for a man to stand in and turn around. Stupefied with drink, Fortunato stumbles into the niche where he expected to find the cask. Instead, he finds two iron staples with a length of chain attached. Montresor enjoins him to reach forward, but all he feels is the shaggy mold growing on cold stones. Before he can react, the chain is drawn around him and locked with a padlock. Montresor, thoroughly sober, turns to a cache of bricks and mortar placed nearby earlier. As Fortunato watches with childlike wonder, he begins laying down course after course of bricks -- walling up the niche.
Too soon, however, Fortunato's survival instinct sobers him up, and he begins shaking and struggling against the chain. Montresor is unphased. Now terrified, he starts to shriek and scream. Although this unsettles his murderer, Montresor retorts (in Buffalo Bill style) by screaming back at him even louder -- fully aware that their screams could never be heard outside of the crypt. Shocked into silence, Fortunato eventually responds with his most frightening reaction: a slow, steady, mirthless laugh as Montresor prepares the final course. Hoping that this has all been a joke, he nervously congratulates Montresor on his prank and welcomes him to his house to celebrate the success of such a diabolical joke. Montresor accepts his congratulations but continues his work.
"For the love of God, Montresor!" the jester begs. "Yes, for the love of God," the murderer retorts. He waits for a reply, but only hears the jingling of bells as Fortunato trembles in mute terror. Montresor calls to him several times but hears nothing. He drops one of the lit torches inside of the alcove before setting the last stone. His heart feels sick, but he writes this off as the damp. Back in the present, Montresor observes that his murder has gone unsolved for fifty years, and that the skeleton in motley is still hanging from chains in his basement -- closing with a quotation from the Roman Catholic Last Rites: "may he rest in peace..."
“The Cask of Amontillado” may be one of Poe’s most popular short fictions, but -- on the surface -- it falls quite short of the psychological complexity of “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Unlike these earlier works, “Amontillado’s” perspective of murder at first appears to be notably lacking in nuance, creativity, or literary quality. A cursory read might find it only remarkable for its eerie setting, chilling climax, and portrayal of a man being slowly and craftily lured to his death. In fact, besides its status as a revenge fantasy, some critics have found that “Amontillado’s” most winsome characteristic is its status as a study of reverse psychology. This, more than the horror and imagery, is a unique and creative literary contribution. But, as with Montresor's catacombs, there is more lurking beneath the surface than we may suspect.
Poe’s murderer does not pounce on his prey with violence or passion (like the narrator of “Black Cat”), rather, he uses a logical analysis of Fortunato’s own psychological tendencies to play them off of one another through a keen understanding of reverse psychology. Montresor’s calm, cool, logical murder is unsettling in the extreme, and it is his rationalism (apparently successful, by the way, unlike the narrator’s of “Imp,” “Cat,” and “Heart,” who are all exposed by their consciences, or some quasi-supernatural derivation thereof) which has earned “Amontillado” its following. But just how rational IS Montresor? So many readers take for granted his opening statement that they forget to question the story's most intriguing element: the motive.