A commentary on a classic Poe story
‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is one of Poe’s shorter classic tales. It was first published in 1846 in a women’s magazine named Godey’s Lady’s Book, a hugely popular magazine in the US in the mid-nineteenth century. (The magazine had published one of Poe’s earliest stories, ‘The Visionary’, twelve years earlier.) ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is one of Poe’s ‘revenge stories’, and the way he depicts the avenger’s psychological state is worthy of closer analysis. You can read the story here.
First, a quick summary of the plot of ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, which is our way of saying ‘those who wish to avoid spoilers please look away now’. The story is narrated by the murderer, Montresor, who takes revenge on a fellow Italian nobleman, Fortunato, during the carnival season. Fortunato, drunk and dressed in motley, boasts that he can tell an amontillado from other sherry, and so Montresor lures his rival down into Montresor’s family catacombs, saying that he has some amontillado for Fortunato to taste. When they arrive down in the catacombs, Montresor chains his drunken rival to the wall and then proceeds to wall him up inside the family vault, burying the man alive. Fortunato at first believes it to be a jest, but then realises that he has been left here to die. Fifty years later, Montresor says that the body of Fortunato is still there in the vault.
Why does Montresor want revenge on Fortunato? This is where we see Poe’s genius (a contentious issue – W. B. Yeats thought his writing ‘vulgar’ and T. S. Eliot, whilst praising the plots and ideas of Poe’s stories, thought the execution of them careless) can be seen most clearly in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’. For Montresor has every reason to confide to us – via his close friend, the addressee of his narrative, who is our stand-in in the story – his reason for wishing to kill Fortunato. But instead of getting a clear motive from him, we are instead given a series of possible reasons, none of which quite rings true. It may be that Poe learned this idea from Shakespeare’s Othello, where the villainous Iago’s reasons for wishing to destroy Othello’s life are unclear, not because Iago offers us no plausible reasons for wishing to cause trouble, but because he offers us several, the effect of which is that they all cancel each other out, to an extent.
This is made clear in the opening words of the story:
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled – but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. 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.
That opening sentence is like a literal enactment of the familiar phrase, ‘to add insult to injury’. This provides a key clue to the motivation – shaky and vague as it is – of Montresor. His revenge is not motivated primarily by any tangible harm that Fortunato has done him, so much as a sense of resentment, a way Fortunato has of making Montresor feel inferior. There are several clues offered by Poe in the story which suggest this as a plausible analysis of Montresor’s character and motivation. First of all, there is Fortunato’s name, suggesting fortune (wealth) but also being fortunate (luck), two qualities which don’t tend to enamour people to you, even though one’s possession of one or both of them hasn’t necessarily harmed anyone else. As F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby, put it: ‘Nothing is as obnoxious as other people’s luck.’ Although ‘Montresor’, the narrator’s name, suggests literally a ‘mountain of treasure’, the fortunate Fortunato still has the edge: as we know from such stories as Lawrence’s ‘The Rocking-Horse Winner’, money is worth little without luck, for luck is how one acquires more money (though hard work doesn’t go amiss, of course). Another clue comes when Montresor fails to interpret a gesture made by Fortunato:
He laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand.
I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement – a grotesque one.
‘You do not comprehend?’ he said.
‘Not I,’ I replied.
‘Then you are not of the brotherhood.’
‘You are not of the masons.’
‘Yes, yes,’ I said; ‘yes, yes.’
‘You? Impossible! A mason?’
‘A mason,’ I replied.
‘A sign,’ he said, ‘a sign.’
‘It is this,’ I answered, producing from beneath the folds of my roquelaire a trowel.
‘You jest,’ he exclaimed, recoiling a few paces. ‘But let us proceed to the Amontillado.’
This moment suggests a further underlying reason for Montresor’s desire for revenge: Fortunato insults him by belittling him and reminding him that he is not part of the same ‘club’ as Fortunato. It may be that Montresor – his name perhaps suggesting acquired wealth rather than first-rank nobility like Fortunato (who has inherited his wealth and name by being ‘fortunate’ enough to be born into the right aristocratic family) – is not quite of the same pedigree as Fortunato, and so has had none of the advantages and benefits that Fortunato has enjoyed. Poe makes his point by some subterranean wordplay on mason: Fortunato refers to the freemasons, that secret elite society known for its mutual favours and coded signs, gestures, and rituals, but Montresor’s trowel suggests the stonemasons, those artisans and labourers who are not aristocrats but possess great manual skill. This pun is confirmed later in the story by Montresor’s reference to the ‘mason-work’ when he is walling his hapless rival up inside the catacombs.
‘The Cask of Amontillado’ can be productively linked – via comparative analysis – with a number of other Poe stories. Its murderous narrator links the story to ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ and ‘The Black Cat’; its focus on revenge and the misuse of alcohol links it to ‘Hop-Frog’; the alcohol motif is also seen in ‘The Black Cat’, while the use of jester’s motley also suggests a link with Poe’s other great revenge tale, ‘Hop-Frog’, where the title character is a jester in the employ of a corrupt king. The live burial motif is also found in Poe’s story ‘The Premature Burial’ and ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’.