15 February 2007
A Carnival Internment
Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is a portrayal of a man who focuses his entire wrath for alleged and mysterious injuries on one man. Set in Italy during the celebration of carnival, the reader is chaperoned through an evening of deception, mystery, and ultimately, murder. “An eye for an eye” and “what goes around, comes around” are not the form of justice the narrator/murderer has in mind. A penalty of death is executed as the narrator becomes judge, jury, and henchman. A “gentleman” sets the stage for the homicide within the catacombs beneath his family home and then releases his staff for the evening so that his plan can go forward without interruption and detection. This vengeful man lures his drunken, costumed sitting duck to his home with the ruse of sharing a bottle of fine wine. Then, when his prey is deep within the bowels of his home’s vaults, the deranged operate chains his captor in a small crypt and buries him alive. In Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” the main character and narrator of the story describes a murder he committed and fails to realize that he has suffered a mental break and pursues a deed borne of false assumptions, deception, and insanity.
The narrator of the story is Montresor, a man who suffers from the delusion that an acquaintance, Fortunato, has brought “the thousand injuries” (Poe 108) upon him and states, “I must not only punish but punish with impunity” (Poe 108). Consider for a moment whether or not Fortunato was responsible for any of Montresor’s troubles, surely death does not befit the redress Montresor so desires. Montresor has become the victim of his own obsession for revenge. Montresor claims that he “did not differ from him materially” (Poe 109), yet somehow he feels slighted by his target and exhibits irrational delusions and conclusions. This slanted view that Montresor adopts and plots a crime behind are the signs of his madness.
Montresor is careful to give no overt clues to Fortunato that any ill will exists between them. He perpetuates this façade when he writes “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” (Poe 109). Immolation is a proper and even pleasant way to say sacrifice (Webster’s). The use of this word is Montresor’s vehicle to objectify Fortunato as an impersonal defendant for the injuries Montresor feels he has suffered. Thus, he exposes himself as corrupt, sadistic, and void of humanity.
Montresor promulgates deceit and dementia in several statements preceding the murder. “My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met. How remarkably well you are looking to-day” (Poe 109) is his counterfeit greeting to the unsuspecting lamb. In addition, the bogus friendship continues when Montresor further baits Fortunato by saying, “My friend, no; I will not impose upon your good nature” (Poe 109). In Montresor’s madness, he keeps his friends close and his enemies even closer. As the two men approach Montresor’s empty home, Montresor again enlists deceit by suggesting to Fortunato that they not enter the crypts to avoid the nitre within; “Come, I said, with decision, ‘we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy as once I was. You are a man to be missed’” (Poe 110). Of course, Fortunato is inebriated and he will not forego the opportunity to partake in yet another bottle of wine. As the pair continues to descend to the Montresor vaults, Montresor describes his family arms to the unwitting Fortunato. “A huge foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel” (Poe 111). In Montresor’s twisted reality, Fortunato represents the serpent and Montresor is the golden foot. Furthermore, Montresor shares his family motto with Fortunato when he states “Nemo me impune lacessit” (Poe 111), which means, “No one provokes me with impunity” (Poe 111). Consequently, Montresor hints that someone is about to be punished, that he will get away with the murder and oddly enough, he will hold Fortunato responsible for the alleged insults. It is not a very fortunate situation for Fortunato.
As the assassination grows closer, Montresor continues to weave his web of lies. The two reach the readied crypt and Montresor tricks his drunken friend into believing that the bottle of Amontillado is inside a small, dark recess. “Proceed,” I said; ‘herein is the Amontillado. As for Luchresi-‘” (Poe 112). Montresor has now become a machine for manslaughter. The premeditated plan for a live human interment now becomes a cold description of how the sacrificed individual is detained and concealed. “A moment more and I had fettered him to the granite” (Poe 112). Montresor continues his innocuous small-talk with Fortunato,”pass your hand,’ I said, ‘over the wall; you cannot help feeling the nitre. Indeed, it is very damp. Once more let me implore you to return. No? Then I must positively leave you’” (Poe 112). Montresor has no intention to free his captor. “With these materials and with the end of my trowel, I began vigorously to wall up the entrance to the niche” (Poe 112) is the matter-of-fact description that Montresor gives as his plan comes to conclusion. Furthermore, Montresor separates himself from the thoughts of Fortunato as a specific person. “I replied to the yells of him who clamoured. I re-echoed, I aided, I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamoures grew still” (Poe 113). Montresor was heckling his captive! With great virulence and trickery, Montresor had successfully abrogated his friend. Fortunato starts to giggle nervously from within his tomb, “he! he! he!- he! he! he!- yes, the Amontillado. But is it not getting late? Will they not be awaiting us at the palazzo-the Lady Fortunato and the rest? Let us be gone” (Poe 113). Montresor retorts,”Yes, I said, ‘let us be gone’” (Poe 113). They are both gone, indeed!
At the very end, Montresor grows impatient with the entombed Fortunato, “But to the words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called aloud- “Fortunato!” No answer. I called again- ‘Fortunato!’ No answer still” (Poe 113). Fortunato never speaks another word to anyone. Montresor plasters the last stone in place, re-erects a wall of bones to cloak the new masonry work, and leaves.
The tale of the murder is not revealed for fifty years. Even as the chronicle is unveiled and perhaps a “missing person” mystery is solved, it would appear that Montresor is quite elderly by that time and that the purging of the story was just an attempt to release the dark secret from his past and perhaps even boast about his clever deed to whomever he shared the event. The final words of the written story are “In pace requiescat!” (Poe 113), which means “May he rest in peace!” Not only is this statement meant to sound as if it is for Fortunato, it may also be a means for Montresor to plea for absolution. Personal injuries to Montresor were not “redressed” and Fortunato suffered an unfair fate at the hands of a miscreant. Retribution did not “overtake its redresser” (Poe 109), as Montresor had hoped because an insane man cannot know peace or regret.
The imagery and tension created by Poe in “The Cask of Amontillado” sets a scenario that commands the reader’s attention. Montresor, with his fine tooling of the English language and colorful description of the evening, may initially fool the reader to believe that he must have a good reason to feel so victimized. Yet, his true persona emerges and hints of madness, treachery, and brutality reveal his true nature. Poe’s Montresor was a man who lost his mind, lost control, and lost his soul.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Cask of Amontillado.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Portable ed. Alison Booth, J. Paul Hunter, and Kelly J. Mays. New York, W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2006. 108-113.
“Immolation.” Webster’s Student Dictionary. Revised Ed. 1999.