Analysis of “The Cask of the Amontillado”

Analysis of “The Cask of the Amontillado”

A classic tale of terror by Edgar Allan Poe

Analysis by Emmanuel Paige

“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe displays a technique and style employed by a master of the macabre and weird tale. This is one of Poe’s best short stories as it is often anthologized and the subject of study in literature classes. It has a plethora of technique and fictional elements that can be observed by analyzing this story. This theme deals with revenge, murder, and death which are social issues and conditions as old as humankind. The first two are intentional acts inspired by ill will and feelings of hatred, spite, and malice, while the latter is unavoidable and the outcome of the human condition. “The Cask of the Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe reveals a theme of revenge and murder with symbolism and allegory that could be ripped from the headlines of a modern-day newspaper.

This story is dominated by a spirit of revenge and murder, and the setting is in a catacomb that creates an atmosphere of darkness and death. “Its walls had been lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris. Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner. From the fourth side the bones had been thrown down, and lay promiscuously upon the earth, forming at one point a mound of some size. Within the wall thus exposed by the displacing of the bones” (Poe 168). This is the establishing part of the story for the elements of death and gloom. “At the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious. Its walls had been lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris. Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner” (Poe 168). The gloomy setting is crucial to the tale. The murderous narrator must choose a brilliant location to enact his revenge and kill his victim. Any modern killer would be right at home in such a dark and deathly place. The catacombs are beneath the palazzo which represents the wealth and grandeur of the Montresor and his estate; however, in a modernized rendition of this tale, the mansion could be located anywhere, even right in Beverly Hills, California. Today, this setting of catacombs might be more suitably placed in the basement of a serial killer’s house, such as John Wayne Gacy or Jeffrey Dahmer, both of whom kept parts of their victims stored in their homes (much like the bones in the catacombs). The list of serial killers in the headlines today is frightfully large and every day it seems to grow longer. Currently, murder is more noticeable and commonplace because of the media, however, regardless of the period, be it Poe’s time or today, the final outcome is the same: death. It follows that there should be crime and punishment for such crimes, should the murderer be caught, but sometimes the crime goes unsolved. Today, there may be many killers at large that are walking as free men and women each having concealed their crimes effectively. In this tale by Poe, Montresor gets away with his crime and is proud of that fact.

This story also deals with themes of the sins and derisions of aristocrats, opulence, and decadence of an upper-class society that was very much part of Poe’s social structure during his lifetime. These same issues plague the modern world. Social class and wealth are not justifications for aristocrats to hold themselves above the law, despite the argument for “affluenza,” and no one is immune to punishment for crimes of passion, jealousy, and revenge. It may be argued that nowadays the news is rife with stories of wealthy people killing each other on episodes of shows such as Snapped, American Greed, and America’s Most Wanted.  Despite the era, mental illness and psychotic behavior have not changed, also behavioral issues such as drug and alcohol abuse that can lead to murderous acts have been around for millennia, but today these issues seem more prevalent in the current events and headlines. Poe was alleged to have suffered from problematic drinking and substance abuse, so this story may well be a direct reflection of his personal struggle with alcohol, money, and vile acquaintances he probably wished he could bury alive. The literary element Poe uses here are theme and point of view to create a fictitious world inhabited by characters that may reveal truths about his own life.  The motivating factor is revenge; trickery and deception which are the methods used to enact this revenge. Montresor knows that he can trick Fortunato, a connoisseur anxious to taste the Amontillado, and plots to dispose of him by burying him alive in the crypts and catacombs beneath his grand estate. “He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity, to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack, but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him materially; —I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could” (Poe 165). Montresor describes himself as being wealthy, but also asks about Fortunato’s coat of family arms. It may also be concluded that Poe named the character of Fortunato with an intentional inclusion of the word “fortune” which shows that wealth is an important aspect of the theme. “The Montresors,” I replied, “were a great and numerous family.” “I forget your arms.” “A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.” “And the motto?” “Nemo me impune lacessit” (Poe 167). In this last sentence the Latin motto translates to: “No one provokes me with impunity.” This shows the irony that Montresor is indeed going to provoke Fortunato with impunity. Montresor is not only going to kill Fortunato with impunity, he is going to find pleasure in the fact that he gets away with a foul and hideous murder that is never discovered. This crime could take place today, or tomorrow, and is not unique to Poe’s time during the nineteenth century. Sensational true crime docudramas are full of these kinds of storylines.

This story hinges on intentional acts inspired by ill will and feelings of hatred, spite, and malice, and the final outcome is a tale of murder told through the point of view of an unreliable narrator about the inescapable spirit of revenge that leads to murder. The vile intentions of Montresor are revealed when he fastens the chains and locks Fortunato in the crypt, and he begins placing the bricks in a row to block in the entry way. “With these materials and with the aid of my trowel, I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche” (Poe 168). Next, the narrator explains that it is a laborious task, and this shows how far he is willing to go to have his revenge. When fifty years pass, Montresor is pleased that he has gotten away with the crime. Fortunato has died too soon, and his bones lay forgotten with the other nameless human skeletal remains. “I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!” (Poe 169-170). Today, in modern news, this crime might play out in a setting such as a secure storage unit where the suspect kills his victims and locks them in with a padlock and leaves unnoticed, perhaps never to be found or brought to justice. This type of crime is discovered often and ends up in the headline news regularly. For Poe, during his time, he was creating an element of fiction that could really happen, and there is nothing fantastic about this tale; it is real and visceral much like modern day crimes of murder. For Montresor, this was a successful murder, and he has gotten away with it. Truth is stranger than fiction, and ironically, this type of thing may happen in truth more than most people know. It could be argued that fiction imitates life, and this tale is something that could have been ripped out of the headlines of Poe’s life and times. It is certainly a story that might be told on any nightly newscast today and would not be surprising in the least. The most dreadful point of the story and the climax is when the narrator states that “There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so . . .” (Poe 169). At this point it is obvious that Fortunato is going to die and has given up with the knowledge of this fact. This is a classic tale of psychotic behavior that leads to murder and time has no bearing on the primitive nature of this sort of crime. One of the oldest tales of this type is from the Bible in Genesis when Cain kills Able over jealousy and revenge (King James Bible, Gen. 4:8). Today, tales of this nature are told over and over in the media and it seems to be growing exponentially with the passage of time.

“The Cask of the Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe reveals a theme of revenge and murder with symbolism and allegory that could be stripped from the headlines of a modern-day newspaper. Poe intended to scare and thrill his audience by using an atmosphere of gloomy darkness and the theme of death, while exploring a revenge plot that would allow the protagonist to enact his cruel intentions on the victim and see him get his comeuppance for previous insults and injuries. This is a tale that deals with premature burial mixed with revenge and coldblooded murder and is a similar plot to other stories where Poe has explored the theme of being buried alive. The implication of wealth, opulence, decadence, and conspicuous consumption are obvious symbols that signify corruption and a sinful nature of aristocrats from the 19th century during Poe’s time and are directly reflected in this story. Emotions and retaliation from thoughts of revenge and malice are still commonplace today and this story could easily fit into a true crime segment of a modern docudrama.

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar A. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Edgar Allan Poe: The Ultimate Collection. 2016. pp 165-170. Print.

King James Bible. (n.d.). King James Version, Retrieved October 18, 2020, from https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org

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