“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge” (Martin 302). So begins Poe’s short story “The Cask of the Amontillado,” a nightmarish and grotesque tale of vengeance. Written in 1846, “The Cask of the Amontillado” plays upon Poe’s own fears of being buried alive and he ably captures that fear in the claustrophic vaults in an underground winery, complete with all the requisite gothic details.
“The Cask of the Amontillado” owes a great deal to Italian revenge plays, as well as the aforementioned Romantic and Gothic tales of centuries past. The fact that the story takes place in Italy during the Middle Ages is the first sign of Poe’s own influences in the creation of this tale. The story begins when the narrator decides to avenge himself against the insults of Fortunato, the hapless victim in the tale. What this insult entailed, we are never told, but the narrator’s own response to it offers a glimpse into his mindset: “I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong” (ibid). The narrator’s rigid sense of morality and how easily he is offended when one crosses the line of right and wrong sets the stage for his vengeance against Fortunato. The narrator sees himself as judge and jury, one who is appointed the duties to “redress” what he perceives are slights against his moral dignity. In his opinion, his vengeance against Fortunato is therefore justified.
The story becomes not the why of the narrator’s vengeance, though, but the how and Poe seems to take particular delight in revealing how the narrator’s act of revenge slowly unfolds. Herein “The Cask of the Amontillado” follows in the same vein as Shakespeare “Othello,” another work of art inspired by Italian revenge plays, and whose Iago likewise takes delight in slowly setting the trap in which to cause the titular character’s downfall. While Shakespeare does address how Othello’s downfall was determined by his sense of inferiority within the white Venetian society to which he wanted to belong, “The Cask of Amontillado” avoids such sociological and historical aspects and focuses on the Gothic and suspenseful elements in his tale. His narrator highlights Poe’s focus when he states that “[i]t must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation” (ibid). Like Iago, who warned Othello of the cunning and deceitful nature of Venetians, the narrator takes especial delight in his own cunning, his ability to trick Fortunato into the vaults where he will literally seal the doom of his victim.
Throughout the rest of the tale, which is told mostly through dialogue, we see Montresor’s trickey in bold display. As though winking and nodding at the reader, Montresor uses double entendres and word games that highlight his own villainy. After he offers a draught to Fortunato who is overcome with a coughing fit, the narrator toasts a drink “to your long life” (305), a signal to the reader that the victim’s doom has now been sealed. Montresor also employs reverse psychology on Fortunato, telling him that his friend Luchesi can examine the sherry which he presumes to have stored in the vault instead, all the while teasing Fortunato with the possibility of tasting the rare vintage. Montresor likewise implores Fortunato to return aboveground when he is overwhelmed by the nitre that covers the cold and damp vault walls. All the while, Fortunato foolishly buys into Montresor’s false sentiments, determined to travel further into the vaults to sip the Amontillado. Clearly Montresor knows Fortunato well enough to stroke and tease his ego.
Italian revenge tales often played on the ideas of masking or concealing one’s intentions and Poe’s story also takes a page from that conceit. But Poe goes further and uses images of masks as a analogy for this concealment. Indeed, Montresor puts “on a mask of black silk” (304) just before he leads Fortunato down into the damp vaults, thus signaling to the reader his true intentions and character. Concealment, both literal and figurative, is a theme that is woven throughout the story, with an actual concealment by the story’s end when Montresor imprisons his enemy in a tomb. While Montresor’s true nature is hidden by the foolish Fortunato (who likewise wears a motley, a multicolored costume associated with the Fool), it is never hidden by the reader, who clearly bears witness to his act of vengeance.
The Gothic elements of the story are highlighted by the damp and cold vault walls, the bones of the Montresor ancestors who are buried within, and the close and claustrophic atmosphere Poe creates in his story. These elements add necessary suspense. While the reader is made aware of Montresor’s vengeful plan, Poe again conceals certain details in the story (the reason for Montresor’s revenge, what his exact plans are for Fortunato) until the end, adding only enough elements to the story to whet the reader’s appetite. We learn that Fortunato’s insult might have some bearing on the Montresor family emblem. The Gothic elements offer the reader clues as to what the narrator has in store for his enemy.
Poe’s skillful use in withholding certain information to the reader also adds to the theme of concealment. He begs the reader to question what she knows and whether what she knows is in fact the truth. As he ends his tale, Poe writes: “[f]or the half of a century no mortal disturbed [Fortunato’s bones]” (307). The concealment of Fortunato’s death is likewise a play on what we know or don’t know and how much we don’t know is concealed from us. By telling the story from first point of view of his narrator, Poe also implicates the reader in this act of concealment and forces us to draw the line in our sympathies with either the vengeful narrator or the foolish Fortunato.
Taken together, all the elements Poe puts together in his tale brings together the themes of deceit, concealment, and revenge in a brief but satisfying way. Poe, who clearly mastered the short story form, was at his own element in “The Cask of the Amontillado,” creating a chilling tale that horrifies and fascinates all at once.
Source: Martin, Wendy. “The Art of the Short Story.” New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 2006.