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How does Edgar A. Poe Build up Suspense and Tension in The Cask of Amontillado?

“The Cask of Amontillado” begins with the narrator introducing Fortunato, with the only details being that he had caused the narrator “a thousand injuries” and that the narrator had “vowed revenge” for this. This instantly creates suspense and tension as we don’t actually know what Fortunato has done and how the narrator will get his revenge. The narrator is named Montresor, though we don’t find this out until later on in the story. Both names seem to have a bit of a meaning; Fortunato sounds like ‘fortunate’, which is ironic considering that he has been through several unfortunate events by the end of the story. Montresor sounds like a ‘monster’, which is representative of his thirst for revenge. Montresor says he will punish with impunity, leading to further curiosity from the reader of exactly what he will do. We are then told that Fortunato is oblivious to anything he may have done, and Montresor has made sure it stays that way by continuing to “smile in his face”.

This, weirdly, creates tension from the fact there is no tension between the two characters. We know whatever his revenge is; it could be quite extreme if Montresor has gone to the trouble of making sure Fortunato doesn’t suspect anything. Next, we are given some background information on Fortunato and a little on Montresor. Fortunato is a wine expert; he can get drunk, but he is also very proud of himself and his expertise. Montresor “was skilful in the Italian vintages” himself. This obviously links to the title, making us, the reader, excited to see how the Amontillado fits into the story and its importance. Edgar A. Poe then adds tension by giving us a setting. It is “dusk, one evening”. It’s set during “the supreme madness of the carnival season”. This, combined with the mention of “Italian vintages” and the characters’ names, we can deduce that “The Cask of Amontillado” is most likely set in Italy.

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There is also the use of Latin phrases and words, such as palazzo, roquelaure, in pace requiescat and the family arms/motto, so this backs up our assumption. Describing the carnival season as mad creates a sinister atmosphere while still keeping it subtle. Fortunato’s character is described as being drunk and wearing a jester outfit. Jesters are often known as ‘fools’, portraying Fortunato’s unawareness of Montresor’s hatred of him. After that description, Montresor seems to know a little regret; he was “so pleased to see him that” he thought he “should have never done wringing his hand”. The first line of spoken dialogue comes from Montresor, greeting Fortunato. He is very friendly, and even compliments him. This leads Fortunato into a false sense of security, though why shouldn’t he feel safe and secure? Montresor, supposedly, is a good friend of his. He then tells Fortunato that he has bought Amontillado, but he has doubts about its authenticity.

This is the basis of the plot and Montresor’s hook on Fortunato. Fortunato expectedly (due to the rarity of Amontillado) is shocked; he claims it is “impossible”, especially “in the middle of the carnival” season. Montresor makes sure Fortunato sees that Montresor feels victimised when it is actually just a ruse to lure Fortunato in. Next, Montresor asks for Fortunato’s help to identify the Amontillado. By doing this, he is essentially complimenting Fortunato’s connoisseurship in wine, fuelling his ego and drawing him in. He then pulls the final string by mentioning Luchresi, another wine expert that is competitive with Fortunato. Montresor says it seems as if Fortunato is “engaged”, so he will go to this Luchresi, but Fortunato won’t have it. His ego makes him determined to help Montresor over Luchresi, claiming that “Luchresi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry”.

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Fortunato triggers the next event, telling Montresor he has no plans and that he will go to his vaults to go help him, even though Montresor comes off as being polite, saying he does not want to impose on Fortunato’s “good nature”, and that he is worried for his health, Fortunato doesn’t accept this and insists on going to Montresor’s vaults. This is where the suspense really begins to build, as we now know Montresor has Fortunato in his grasp, and we are tense over what he’s going to try and do if he’s going to pull it off and if he’s going to get away with it. Montresor puts on a black mask and a roquelaure (a cape), keeping himself hidden from everyone else. I believe Montresor did not do this earlier because he wanted Fortunato to know who was getting revenge on him. At Montresor’s house, there are no people; his servants weren’t there, as Montresor had told them to stay, knowing they would leave to go to parties as soon as his back was turned.

This is very clever, as Montresor further demonstrates his knowledge of the human mind, along with what he has shown while trying to lure in Fortunato. People not being at his house creates silence. The silent atmosphere makes everything more tense and creepy, as anything could happen at any moment, and only Montresor and Fortunato would hear it. They then go down into the vaults, with only torches as light sources. This limits the sense of sight, creating even more suspense and tension because Fortunato would be unaware for a few seconds of anything that may happen to him. Finally, they go “down a long and winding staircase,” symbolising, to me, a descent into hell, as these vaults held many dead bodies. The catacombs are very dark and damp; combine this with all the dead bodies, creating an eerie atmosphere.

The nitre on the walls causes Fortunato to cough, and Montresor insists they go back not to cause Fortunato any further trouble. Fortunato further insists for them to go on after Montresor mentions Luchresi once more. The odd thing about Montresor’s behaviour is that even when he is narrating, he refers to Fortunato as his “friend”, his “poor friend” – several times. This leaves us wondering whether this is due to who he is narrating to or if his mind is torn between two different feelings towards Fortunato. However, Montresor eventually accepts Fortunato’s wish to proceed when Fortunato exclaims, “I shall not die of a cough”, to which Montresor replies, “true – true”. While it’s already suspected, this sinister play on words almost confirms to us that Montresor will kill Fortunato for his revenge and that it will be nothing less than that.

Montresor tries to hint to Fortunato that he has made Montresor unhappy; “you are happy, as once I was”. However, this could be unrelated to what Fortunato did to him. Montresor makes Fortunato more helpless in the catacombs by offering wine. This obviously reduces Fortunato’s awareness level, making us further suspenseful, knowing Montresor could do just about anything at this point in the story. Montresor continues to toy with Fortunato, saying, “I drink to your long life”. At this point, we still have no idea how Montresor is actually going to kill him, though we can assume it won’t just be a normal death because it wouldn’t fit with Montresor’s sick and clever ways. Montresor explains that his family were once “great and numerous”, maybe hinting that his current situation means he is not as respected as the rest of his family were.

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His family arms represent “the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are embedded into the heel”, or to rephrase it, someone who causes us harm will come out of it in a worse state, which is obviously reminiscent of what Montresor is doing. And the motto is “Nemo me impune lacessit” – meaning ‘no one provokes me with impunity’. The bells of Fortunato’s costume are mentioned again, which I believe shows how Fortunato was a fool not to see an underlying message in what Montresor just told him. However, Montresor did not tell Fortunato his arms and motto unprovoked, so he had no reason to believe Montresor was hinting at something.

As we journey through the catacombs, more mention is made of the nitre, and Montresor fakes, persuading Fortunato to go back once more. I believe he continues to do this to make Fortunato feel as if Montresor is trying to take care of him so that Fortunato won’t suspect anything. Fortunato takes more of the wine, and by now, he must be very drunk. Fortunato performs a gesture, a secret gesture to symbolise being part of the masons, a secret society of stonemasons that used to help each other get things accomplished, using their respective areas of expertise. Montresor doesn’t comprehend this, and so Fortunato sees that Montresor is not a mason. He argues against this and shows his trowel as a sign of being a mason.

Whether Montresor is faking it, joking, or is actually a mason, we never find out. If he is, though, there could be an underlying story there, but since we never find out, it adds to the mystery in the story. All of this mystery, including the one introduced at the very start (what Fortunato did to Montresor), keep the suspense and tension high, even while little is going on. As they get deeper into the vaults, the “foulness of the air” caused their torches to dim and made breathing more difficult. There was a tiny area, just enough to fit a man in, but a man would likely feel very claustrophobic in there.

Moreover, it was very dark, especially with the “dull torch” Fortunato was carrying; he wouldn’t have been able to see much at all. He peered into this space, told that “herein is the Amontillado”, and then rushed in by the mention of Luchresi. Once Fortunato had hit the back of the small area, Montresor tied him to the granite and tied him to two iron staples; “from one of these depended on a short chain, from the other a padlock”. Now that Montresor has taken action, it all becomes very tense, wondering what he will do… Will he torture him? Leave him? We’re not quite sure, which makes it all the more suspenseful. Montresor begins to tease Fortunato’s life; “once more, let me implore you to return. No? Then I must positively leave you”, this kind of behaviour obviously comes from a distraught mind. But it also seems very childish, maybe portraying what Fortunato could’ve possibly done to Montresor as a child, though this is just speculation.

Fortunato is still in shock, shouting, “the Amontillado!” He is obviously overwhelmed by what Montresor has just done and oblivious to why especially considering he’s drunk. Montresor continues mockingly to go along with Fortunato’s shock. Montresor uncovers a pile of building stone and some mortar. He begins “vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche”. Now we know his punishment; it is a form of torture – burying somebody alive. This relieves some tension but also adds a whole new layer to it. Will he actually do it? Will the guilt lead to him changing his mind? Will he get away with it? These are all questions that were running through my mind. After laying the first wall, Fortunato began to sober and began to cry, moan and scream. At this, Montresor reacts incredibly awkwardly. He sits down to enjoy the screaming, which shows just how sick and mentally deranged this person is, yet he maintains his obvious intelligence.

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As Montresor builds more wall layers, the “succession of loud and shrill screams” continues throughout. This creates a very awkward and unsettling atmosphere for the reader, but it seems like that is exactly what Edgar A. Poe wanted to make with “The Cask of Amontillado”. Montresor is enjoying (almost) every bit of it. At one point, he “hesitated”, he “trembled”, though after calming down again, he felt “satisfied”, which is a very sick adjective to describe oneself while killing somebody. He then begins to tease and mock Fortunato again, re-echoing what he’s screaming, and enjoying it. We get an updated time setting; it’s midnight. While being a self-explanatory and unoriginal setting for the death, it fits perfectly, and it makes everything a little tenser and more enthralling. Montresor finished up the wall, and then Fortunato begins to laugh. He laughs and tells Montresor it was “a perfect joke, indeed – an excellent jest”.

I interpret this as rather than Fortunato turning a little unstable, to be more of a last-ditch attempt at getting Montresor to change his mind. Montresor doesn’t give it any attention and mocks Fortunato again, repeating Fortunato’s pleads in a sick, sinister fashion. Montresor stopped getting a reply from Fortunato; he called out his name without anything thrust back. The only thing he heard was the “jingling of bells”. At this point, Montresor’s “heart grew sick”, while I believe it was guilt and disgust, he claimed “it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so”, and it could have been, but I interpret it as guilt because he has felt guilt and regret earlier on too. Montresor “forced the last stone into its position”. He says that “for half a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!” The Latin phrase means ‘rest in peace’. This gives us hints yet still leaves us in mystery. We don’t know why Montresor recalls this event 50 years on, it could be an explanation to the authorities, a confession, or it could be as sick and shallow as showing off.

After the story is finished, Edgar A. Poe still leaves much to the imagination. We still don’t know what Fortunato did, why Montresor recalls this, and if he actually regrets it. He continuously refers to Fortunato as his friend, doesn’t seem to regret it, and doesn’t try to hide anything he did, so what could it possibly be for? He would, of course, try to hide something; in a confession, he would feel completely regretful, which only leaves boasting. If it is that, it seems like a sick, sick thing. But from what we have read, we can’t expect much less from Montresor. In conclusion, Edgar A. Poe builds and maintains suspense and tension in “The Cask of Amontillado” through character development, setting, language and dialogue. Still, most of all, he builds tension through the ever-mounting mystery. It is what has made people wonder, be disturbed, scared and shocked by “The Cask of Amontillado”, still to this day.

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How does Edgar A. Poe Build up Suspense and Tension in The Cask of Amontillado?. (2021, Aug 31). Retrieved January 30, 2023, from