Jun 21, 2012

Notes on "The Cask of Amontillado"

"The Cask of Amontillado" is a murder story – a tale of a "perfect crime." The narrator Montressor is our murderer and he is taking revenge on Fortunato. why? For revenge. He has suffered a "thousand injuries" but worse yet, he has been insulted. Is this enough of a reason to murder somebody? Probably not. But it makes for good fiction.

What is Montressor's greatest sin? Pride? A thin skin? He is determined not to be wronged with impunity. Fortunato must pay the price. Some of his character traits: deceptive, a liar, a man of premeditated calculation, proud, satisfied with his intellectual superiority, smug, clever, tricky. we assume he is wealthy, from a wealthy family. lives in a mansion somewhere in Europe (Italy? France? Spain?) We come to know this character through his actions, his own admissions, and his way of talking. 

Why is this crime so ingenious? 

(1)He hardly lays a hand on Fortunato. In fact, Fortunato unwittingly leads himself into the trap deep within the catacombs underneath the Montressor house. 

(2) He uses his understanding of Fortunato's character as a weapon against Fortunato. He plays upon Fortunato's pride – his knowledge of wine, his competitiveness with regard to Luchresi. Montressor often gives Fortunato the opportunity to turn back. He warns him of the dampness, the nitre (potassium nitrate; saltpeter, the chief constituent of gunpowder.  It is a white efflorescence which forms on new or damp walls, caused by saltpetre working through to the surface.) (para 35).

(3) Timing. Montressor chooses a perfect time to commit the crime. Carnival season. It's a mad time. People are out drinking, being festive, wearing costumes. Disguised. This enables him to don a disguise of his own (para. 23).  Also, Fortunato is drunk, more easily manipulated.  Montressor has managed to empty his house of all servants (para 24). He has a perfect alibi. He does not physically harm Fortunato. The only force he uses is when he chains him to the wall. After that, he sets to work on building a wall, leaving Fortunato to die a long and agonizing death. He has entombed himself and Montressor buries him alive. 

How is the story told? As a confession. Is there any point where Montressor experiences pangs of guilt or uncertainty about his work? 

Style and Interpretation
Is Montressor a reliable narrator? The reader becomes quickly aware of the fact that Montresor is not a reliable narrator, and that he has a tendency to hold grudges and exaggerate terribly, as he refers to the "thousand injuries" that he has suffered at the hands of Fortunato. "...[B]ut when [Fortunato] ventured upon insult, [Montresor could stand no more, and] vowed revenge." 

Stuart and Susan Levine, editors of The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition, do not view Poe's story as just a clever tale of revenge, but instead, see it as an anti-aristocratic commentary. "Resentment against aristocratic 'privilege' of all kinds reached a peak in Jacksonian and post-Jacksonian America....Poe's tale is related to innumerable articles in American magazines of the period about the scandalous goings-on of continental nobility." (Levine 454, 455) 

"The Cask of Amontillado" is a carefully crafted story so that every detail contributes to "a certain unique or single effect." Irony, both dramatic and verbal, plays an important role in this process. Dramatic irony (the reader perceives something that a character in the story does not) occurs when the reader becomes painfully aware of what will become of Fortunato even though the character continues his descent into the catacombs in pursuit of the Amontillado. Poe further adds to this effect by calling the character Fortunato (who is anything but fortunate), and dressing him in a clown or a fool's costume since Montresor intends to make a fool of him as part of his dark plan.

There are numerous examples of verbal irony (character says one thing and means something else) within Montresor's words. Montresor expresses concern about Fortunato's health, and several times he suggests that they should turn back for fear that Fortunato's cough will worsen as a result of the cold and dampness of the catacombs. One of the most memorable lines of the story is given by Montresor in response to Fortunato saying, "I will not die of a cough." Montresor says, "True--true...." Other examples can be seen when Montresor toasts Fortunato's long life as well as when he says that he is a mason, but not in the sense that Fortunato means. "In pace requiescat!" ("Rest in peace!") is the last irony of a heavily ironic tale. "In pace" also refers to a very secure monastic prison. 

By the end of Poe's story, Montresor has gotten his revenge against unsuspecting Fortunato, whose taste for wine has led him to his own death. Once again we are reminded of the coat of arms and the Montresor family motto. The insignia is symbolic of Montresor's evil character, who like the serpent intends to get revenge.

The story is a psychological portrait of a criminal mind. It permits readers to imagine what it is like to think like an evil person. 

Discussion questions: 

Did you derive enjoyment from this story, and if so, did you feel guilty about it? 

Is "The Cask of Amontillado" a parable of the artistic process? Does this murderer see himself as an artist or artisan? 
The author leads his audience into a world constructed with the sole purpose of imprisoning and entombing its victims. Part of the success of this entrapment lies in the fact that the audience/victim is the agent in his own destruction, in effect imprisoning himself.  Although I would not press this symbolism too far, I do think you can make some parallel associations between the role of the artist and the role of the murderer in this story.  Poe as Montressor.