|"The Cask of Amontillado"|
Illustration of "The Cask of Amontillado" by Harry Clarke, 1919
|Author||Edgar Allan Poe|
|Genre(s)||Horror short story|
|Publisher||Godey's Lady's Book|
|Media type||Print (Magazine)|
|Publication date||November 1846|
"The Cask of Amontillado" (sometimes spelled "The Casque of Amontillado" [a.mon.ti.'?a.ðo]) is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, first published in the November 1846 issue of Godey's Lady's Book. The story, set in an unnamed Italian city at carnival time in an unspecified year, is about a man taking fatal revenge on a friend who, he believes, has insulted him. Like several of Poe's stories, and in keeping with the 19th-century fascination with the subject, the narrative revolves around a person being buried alive - in this case, by immurement. As in "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart", Poe conveys the story from the murderer's perspective.
The story's narrator, Montresor, tells an unspecified person, who knows him very well, of the day he took his revenge on Fortunato (Italian for "the fortunate one"), a fellow nobleman. Angry over numerous injuries and some unspecified insult, Montresor plots to murder his "friend" during Carnival, while the man is drunk, dizzy, and wearing a jester's motley.
Montresor lures Fortunato into a private wine-tasting excursion by telling him he has obtained a pipe (about 130 gallons, 492 litres) of what he believes to be a rare vintage of Amontillado. He proposes obtaining confirmation of the pipe's contents by inviting a fellow wine aficionado, Luchresi, for a private tasting. Montresor knows Fortunato will not be able to resist demonstrating his discerning palate for wine and will insist that he taste the amontillado rather than Luchresi who, as he claims, "cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry". Fortunato goes with Montresor to the wine cellars of the latter's palazzo, where they wander in the catacombs. Montresor offers wine (first Medoc, then De Grave) to Fortunato in order to keep him inebriated. Montresor warns Fortunato, who has a bad cough, of the dampness, and suggests they go back, but Fortunato insists on continuing, claiming that "[he] shall not die of a cough". During their walk, Montresor mentions his family coat of arms: a golden foot in a blue background crushing a snake whose fangs are embedded in the foot's heel, with the motto Nemo me impune lacessit ("No one attacks me with impunity").
At one point, Fortunato makes an elaborate, grotesque gesture with an upraised wine bottle. When Montresor appears not to recognize the gesture, Fortunato asks, "You are not of the masons?" Montresor says he is, and when Fortunato, disbelieving, requests a sign, Montresor displays a trowel he had been hiding. When they come to a niche, Montresor tells his victim that the Amontillado is within. Fortunato enters drunk and unsuspecting and therefore, does not resist as Montresor quickly chains him to the wall. Montresor then declares that, since Fortunato won't go back, Montresor must "positively leave" him there.
Montresor reveals brick and mortar, previously hidden among the bones nearby, and proceeds to wall up the niche using his trowel, entombing his friend alive. At first, Fortunato, who sobers up faster than Montresor anticipated, shakes the chains, trying to escape. Fortunato then screams for help, but Montresor mocks his cries, knowing nobody can hear them. Fortunato laughs weakly and tries to pretend that he is the subject of a joke and that people will be waiting for him (including the Lady Fortunato). As Montresor finishes the topmost row of stones, Fortunato wails, "For the love of God, Montresor!" to which Montresor replies, "Yes, for the love of God!" He listens for a reply but hears only the jester's bells ringing. Before placing the last stone, he drops a burning torch through the gap. He claims that he feels sick at heart, but dismisses this reaction as an effect of the dampness of the catacombs.
In the last few sentences, Montresor reveals that 50 years later, Fortunato's body still hangs from its chains in the niche where he left it. The murderer concludes: In pace requiescat! ("May he rest in peace!").
"The Cask of Amontillado" was first published in the November 1846 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, which was, at the time, the most popular periodical in America. The story was only published one additional time during Poe's life.
Although the subject matter of Poe's story is a murder, "The Cask of Amontillado" is not a tale of detection like "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" or "The Purloined Letter"; there is no investigation of Montresor's crime and the criminal himself explains how he committed the murder. The mystery in "The Cask of Amontillado" is in Montresor's motive for murder. Without a detective in the story, it is up to the reader to solve the mystery.
Montresor never specifies his motive beyond the vague "thousand injuries" and "when he ventured upon insult" to which he refers. Some context is provided, including Montresor's observation that his family once was great (but no longer so), and Fortunato's belittling remarks about Montresor's exclusion from Freemasonry. Many commentators conclude that, lacking significant reason, Montresor must be insane, though even this is questionable because of the intricate details of the plot.
There is also evidence that Montresor is almost as clueless about his motive for revenge as his victim. In his recounting of the murder, Montresor notes, "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". After Fortunato is chained to the wall and nearly entombed alive, Montresor merely mocks and mimics him, rather than disclosing to Fortunato the reasons behind his exacting revenge. Montresor may not have been entirely certain of the exact nature of the insults for which he expected Fortunato to atone.
Additional scrutiny into the vague injuries and insults may have to do with a simple matter of Montresor's pride and not any specific words from Fortunato. Montresor comes from an established family. His house had once been noble and respected, but has fallen slightly in status. Fortunato, as his name would seem to indicate, has been blessed with good fortune and wealth and is, therefore, viewed as unrefined by Montresor; however, this lack of refinement has not stopped Fortunato from surpassing Montresor in society, which could very well be the "insult" motive for Montresor's revenge.
There is indication that Montresor blames his unhappiness and loss of respect and dignity within society on Fortunato. It is easy to ascertain that Fortunato is a Freemason, while Montresor is not, which could be the source of Fortunato's recent ascension into upper class society. Montresor even imparts this blame to Fortunato when he states, "You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was". This interchanging of fortunes is a suggestion that, since the names Montresor and Fortunato mirror one another, there is a psychological reciprocal identification between victim and executioner. This identification reciprocity is further suggested when one takes into consideration that Montresor entombs Fortunato in the Montresor family catacombs rather than dispatching him elsewhere in the city amidst the chaos of the Carnival. It is with this converging of the two characters that one is able to see the larger symbolism of the Montresor crest - the foot steps on the serpent while the serpent forever has his fangs embedded in the heel.
Upon further investigation into the true nature of character, double meaning can be derived from the Montresor crest. It is the position of Montresor to view himself as the owner of the righteous foot that is crushing the insolent Fortunato serpent and his "thousand injuries" that progress into insult. A more allegoric meaning of Poe's places the actors in reverse. The blind oaf Fortunato has unintentionally stepped upon the snake in the grass - the sneaky and cunning Montresor - who, as a reward for this accidental bruising, sinks his fangs deep into the heel of his offender, forever linking them in a form of mutual existence.
Though Fortunato is presented as a connoisseur of fine wine, L. Moffitt Cecil of Texas Christian University argues that his actions in the story make that assumption questionable. For example, Fortunato comments on another nobleman being unable to distinguish amontillado from sherry when amontillado is in fact a type of sherry, and treats De Grave, an expensive French wine, with very little regard by drinking it in a single gulp. Cecil also states that a true wine connoisseur would never sample wine while intoxicated and describes Fortunato as merely an alcoholic. Cecil also suggests that some people might feel Fortunato deserved to be buried alive for wasting a bottle of fine wine.
Poe may have known bricklaying through personal experience. Many periods in Poe's life lack significant biographical details, including what he did after leaving the Southern Literary Messenger in 1837. Poe biographer John H. Ingram wrote to Sarah Helen Whitman that someone named "Allen" said that Poe worked "in the brickyard 'late in the fall of 1834'". This source has been identified as Robert T. P. Allen, a fellow West Point student during Poe's time there.
Immurement, a form of imprisonment, usually for life, in which a person is placed within an enclosed space with no exit, is featured in other works by Poe, including "The Fall of the House of Usher", "The Premature Burial", "The Black Cat", and "Berenice".
An apocryphal legend holds that the inspiration for "The Cask of Amontillado" came from a story Poe had heard at Castle Island (South Boston), Massachusetts, when he was a private stationed at Fort Independence in 1827. According to this legend, while stationed at Castle Island in 1827 he saw a monument to Lieutenant Robert Massie. Massie had been killed in a sword duel on Christmas Day 1817 by Lieutenant Gustavus Drane, following a dispute during a card game. According to the legend, other soldiers then took revenge on Drane by getting him drunk, luring him into the dungeon, chaining him to a wall, and sealing him in a vault. This version of Drane's demise is false; Drane was courtmartialled for the killing and acquitted, and lived until 1846. A report of a skeleton discovered on the island may be a confused remembering of Poe's major source, Joel Headley's "A Man Built in a Wall", which recounts the author's seeing an immured skeleton in the wall of a church in Italy. Headley's story includes details very similar to "The Cask of Amontillado"; in addition to walling an enemy into a hidden niche, the story details the careful placement of the bricks, the motive of revenge, and the victim's agonized moaning. Poe may have also seen similar themes in Honoré de Balzac's "La Grande Bretèche" (Democratic Review, November 1843) or his friend George Lippard's The Quaker City, or The Monks of Monk Hall (1845). Poe may have borrowed Montresor's family motto Nemo me impune lacessit from James Fenimore Cooper, who used the line in The Last of the Mohicans (1826).
Poe wrote his tale, however, as a response to his personal rival Thomas Dunn English. Poe and English had several confrontations, usually revolving around literary caricatures of one another. Poe thought that one of English's writings went a bit too far, and successfully sued the other man's editors at The New York Mirror for libel in 1846. That year English published a revenge-based novel called 1844, or, The Power of the S.F. Its plot was convoluted and difficult to follow, but made references to secret societies and ultimately had a main theme of revenge. It included a character named Marmaduke Hammerhead, the famous author of "The Black Crow", who uses phrases like "Nevermore" and "lost Lenore", referring to Poe's poem "The Raven". This parody of Poe was depicted as a drunkard, liar, and an abusive lover.
Poe responded with "The Cask of Amontillado", using very specific references to English's novel. In Poe's story, for example, Fortunato makes reference to the secret society of Masons, similar to the secret society in 1844, and even makes a gesture similar to one portrayed in 1844 (it was a signal of distress). English had also used an image of a token with a hawk grasping a snake in its claws, similar to Montresor's coat of arms bearing a foot stomping on a snake - though in this image, the snake is biting the heel. In fact, much of the scene of "The Cask of Amontillado" comes from a scene in 1844 that takes place in a subterranean vault. In the end, then, it is Poe who "punishes with impunity" by not taking credit for his own literary revenge and by crafting a concise tale (as opposed to a novel) with a singular effect, as he had suggested in his essay "The Philosophy of Composition".
Poe may have also been inspired, at least in part, by the Washingtonian movement, a fellowship that promoted temperance. The group was made up of reformed drinkers who tried to scare people into abstaining from alcohol. Poe may have made a promise to join the movement in 1843 after a bout of drinking with the hopes of gaining a political appointment. "The Cask of Amontillado" then may be a "dark temperance tale", meant to shock people into realizing the dangers of drinking.
Poe scholar Richard P. Benton has stated his belief that "Poe's protagonist is an Englished version of the French Montrésor" and has argued forcefully that Poe's model for Montresor "was Claude de Bourdeille, comte de Montrésor (Count of Montrésor), the 17th-century political conspirator in the entourage of King Louis XIII's weak-willed brother, Gaston d'Orléans". The "noted intriguer and memoir-writer" was first linked to "The Cask of Amontillado" by Poe scholar Burton R. Pollin.
Further inspiration for the method of Fortunato's murder comes from the fear of live burial. During the time period of this short story some coffins were given methods of alerting the outside in the event of live entombment. Items such as bells tied to the limbs of a corpse to signal the outside were not uncommon. This theme is evident in Fortunato's costume of a jester with bells upon his hat, and his situation of live entombment within the catacombs.