In The Cask of Amontillado Edgar Allan Poe takes us on a trip into themind of a mad man. The story relates a horrible revenge made even more horribleby the fact that the vengeance is being taken when no real offense had beengiven. Even though this is a short story, Poe creates a nightmare, almostguaranteed to give the reader a sleepless night. The plot of the story issimple. Montresor takes revenge on his friend Fortunato by luring him into thetunnels under the family estate. There he leads Fortunato into the depths of thecatacombs where he buries him alive by walling him into a recess in the wall.
The story is told in first person from the point of view of Montresor himself.
The exposition of the story occurs when Montresor tells us that he wants to takerevenge on Fortunato because he ventured upon insult(191). We also learnthat he intends to go unpunished for this act of vengeance. The narrator informsus that he is going to continue to smile in Fortunatos face, but use thepride his victim has in wine to lure him into the catacombs to taste some of hisnon- existent amontillado. At this point, the reader knows the conflict will beone of man versus man. It is an external struggle because Fortunato andMontresor are in a life and death fight. However, the conflict is largelyinternal, because Montresor has a fierce hatred that Fortunato is unaware of.
The narrative hook seems to occur when Fortunato follows Montresor into thevault. Even if the reader was confused by the language of the first paragraph oris puzzled by the motive of the narrator, he/she is curious to know what willhappen next. Knowing that revenge is at hand the reader wonders what it will be.
Why is he taking him underground? The climax of the story is when Montresorchains Fortunato to the wall and begins to layer the bricks. It is the highpoint of emotional involvement. It is at this point that the reader may askthemselves if this is really about to happen. The conclusion lets us know thatMontresor was never punished for this crime. Fifty years has passed and he is anold man telling the story on his deathbed. The true horror is that Fortunatodied a terrible death, utterly alone, and his killer was never brought tojustice. Perhaps the theme in the story is the least important feature. Afterall, it is about a senseless crime, and what sense can be made of such horror?Perhaps the idea behind the story is that no one can find refuge from a derangedmind, or that terrible crimes can be committed when an imaginary offense canfester into a deep hatred. Perhaps Poe is saying that there have always beengreat crimes that go unsolved. How many undiscovered remains are there in thewalls of medieval buildings? In this story the character of Montresor isrevealed through his own words. When he reveals he is going to punish Fortunatofor merely insulting him, that he has planned the whole act of vengeance, andthat he has been playing as being Fortunatos friend, we know we are dealingwith a demented personality. His character is also revealed with references tohis family. It is almost as if Poe has Montresors ancestors tell the readerhow nicely he fits into the family tree. His legacy from his family motto Noone attacks me with impunity(193) and a coat of arms that depicts a serpentwhose last wish before death is to poison the foot that crushed it. Does thefruit of ever fall far from the tree? Montresor is as evil as his forebearswere. He shows no remorse about what he has done, even in old age. When he says,May he rest in peace(196) at the end of the story, the reader gets thefeeling he means, I hope you stay there and rot rather than, I hopeyou found joy and peace in heaven. We dont really know much aboutFortunato: just enough to know that he must not have really known the true heartof his friend. He must not have been a guarded person. He must have said toomuch to make Montresor think he was insulting him and he must have boasted abouthis knowledge of wines. You feel that Fortunato was probably a bit too sociableand a bit foolish. He was an unfortunate man who found himself in contact withthe wrong person. The setting Poe chose for the story adds to the horror. Hesets most of the story in a dark, damp series of winding tunnels piled withbones. By taking Fortunato into the vaults, he cuts him off from help. The twocharacters are underground and isolated. As Montresor leads his friend throughthe vaults, we feel as if we are being led through the crazed corridors ofMontresors sick mind. Using the carnival as a backdrop is also skillfulbecause it is a time when everything is in chaos and people have lost theirself-control. There is noise in the street, the servants are gone, and Fortunatomight have sensed something evil about Montresors intentions and left thevaults before it was too late. Poes style is what makes this a masterpiece ofhorror. He uses imagery to help the reader experience of the catacombs. We seethe vaults encrusted with niter(193), the walls piled withbones(194), the glow of the flambeaus(194), and the mask of blacksilk(192) Montresor wears. We hear the jingle of bells on Fortunatos cap,his hacking cough, and his laughter of despair as he is buried alive. We feelthe dampness of the catacombs. Poe uses irony throughout the story. There issituational irony in the fact that the crime takes place during a celebration,that Fortunatos name means good luck, and that Fortunato is dressed like ajester. What is about to happen is just the opposite of what you would expect.
Just about everything Montresor says is verbal irony. He says just the oppositeof what he means. He keeps inquiring about Fortunatos health and says he willnot die of a cold. The greatest use of irony is when Montresor says he is amember of the masons. Fortunato thinks he means he is of a fellow member of asociety when what he really means is that he is a bricklayer about to brick himin for all eternity. This conversation also provides foreshadowing in the story.
This is the first clue the reader gets about how Montresor will punish Fortunato.
The overall mood of the story is one of horror and impending evil. The ending ofthe story is filled with suspense. What will happen now that Fortunato ischained to the wall? Will Montresor come to his senses and have mercy onFortunato? We see Montresor carefully construct each tier of the wall. Why doeshe hesitate at the end? Will he react to the desperate cry of Fortunato? Whenthe last brick is set in place, we know Fortunatos doom has been sealed. Ifind that this story makes the hairs on my back of my neck rise every time Iread it. There is no real violence in the modern sense of the word, it is almostmore horrifying because rayther than see it with our eyes we se it with ourimagination.