In “The Cask of Amontillado” Edgar Allan Poe takes us on a trip into the mind of a mad man. The story relates a horrible revenge made even more horrible by the fact that the vengeance is being taken when no real offense had been given. This concept sets the mood for true evil.
The plot of the story is simple. Montresor takes revenge on his friend Fortunato by luring him into the wine cellar under the family estate. There he leads Fortunato into the depths of the catacombs where he buries him alive by walling him into a recess in the wall.
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This story is told in first person, from the point of view of Montresor. The exposition of the story occurs when Montresor tells us that he wants to take revenge on Fortunato because “he ventured upon insult.” What this insult was we do not know. We do know that he intends to go unpunished for this act of reprisal. Montresor then informs us that he is going to continue to smile in Fortunato’s face while using Fortunato’s pride in his knowledge wine to lure him into the catacombs to taste some of his imaginary amontillado.
At this point, the reader knows the conflict will be one of man versus man. It is an external struggle because Fortunato and Montresor are in a life-and-death fight. However, the conflict is largely internal, because Montresor has a fierce hatred that Fortunato is unaware of.
The climax of the story is when Montresor chains Fortunato to the wall and begins to layer the bricks. It is the high point of emotional involvement. It is at this point that the reader may ask themselves if this is really about to happen.
The conclusion lets us know that Montresor was never punished for this crime. Fifty years has passed and he is an old man telling the story on his deathbed. The true horror is that Fortunato died a terrible death, utterly alone, and his killer was never brought to justice.
The theme in the story is perhaps the least important feature. After all, it is about a senseless crime. Maybe the idea behind the story is that no one can find refuge from a deranged mind, or that a terrible crime can be committed when an imaginary offense can fester into reality.
In this story, the character of Montresor is revealed through his own words. When he reveals he is going to punish Fortunato for merely insulting him, that he has planned the whole act of vengeance, and that he has been playing as being Fortunato’s friend, we know we are dealing with a demented personality. His character is also revealed with references to his family. It is almost as if Poe has Montresor’s ancestors tell the reader how nicely he fits into the family tree. His family motto is “No one attacks me with impunity” and a coat of arms that depicts a snake whose last instinct before death is to poison the foot that crushed it. Montresor is as evil as his forebears were. He shows no remorse about what he has done, even in old age. Montresor’s malice toward Fortunato is highlighted when he says, “In pace requiescat!”* This sarcastic comment at the end of the story truly shows Montresor’s hatred and total disregard for Fortuato’s life.
The setting Poe chose for the story adds to the horror. He sets most of the story in a dark, damp series of winding tunnels piled with the bones of dead family members. By taking Fortunato into the vaults, he cuts him off from help. The two characters are underground and isolated. Using the carnival as a backdrop is also skillful because it is a time when everything is in chaos and people have lost their self-control. There is noise in the street, the servants are gone, and Fortunato might have sensed something evil about Montresor’s intentions and left the vaults before it was too late.
Poe uses irony throughout the story. There is situational irony in the fact that the crime takes place during a celebration, that Fortunato’s name means good luck, and that Fortunato is dressed like a jester. What is about to happen is just the opposite of what you would expect. Just about everything Montresor says is ironic. He says just the opposite of what he means. He keeps inquiring about Fortunato’s health and says he will not die of a cold. The greatest use of irony is when Montresor says he is a member of the masons. Fortunato thinks he means he is of a fellow member of society when what he really means is that he is a bricklayer about to brick him in for all eternity. This conversation also provides foreshadowing in the story. This is the first clue the reader gets about how Montresor will kill Fortunato.
The overall mood of the story is one of impending evil. The ending of the story is filled with suspense. You see Montresor carefully construct each row of stone. At this point, Montresor is fully committed to finishing his horrific deed even at the desperate pleas from Fortunato. When the last brick is set in place, we know Fortunato’s fate has been sealed.
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