An Introduction, from Owl Eyes

“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”

This is the only explanation Montresor offers as a motive for the vicious revenge he enacts against Fortunato in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” Like many of Poe’s protagonists, Montresor seems pathologically obsessed with a single objective that he pursues without clear reason or rationale—to murder Fortunato by burying him alive in catacombs beneath an Italian palazzo.

In writing “The Cask of Amontillado,” Poe’s intent is to horrify readers, and in this he succeeds. But it is not only the subject matter and atmosphere of the story that achieves this effect. Poe’s story, his words and the images they create, has the ability to sink into the reader’s subconscious, to enter the mind and rattle the bones, because every element of the story is woven together to achieve Poe’s singular objective: achieving a horrific effect.

In 1846, Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature and Art published an essay Poe had written called “The Philosophy of Composition.” In it, Poe offers guidelines that both instruct writers how to write great poems and illustrates the careful planning and precision that he claims went into his own work. Using his famous poem “The Raven,” Poe argues that each element in a story should contribute to “unity of effect or impression,” creating in readers a particular emotional response. For this reason, he believed that all great literary works must begin with a singular intention and consideration of effect; only with the “denouement” in view can the writer give consequence, cause, or unified tone to the development of a story. This unity of impression can only be achieved if readers can experience the work in one sitting. Therefore he claims that short works, poems and stories, are the most effective. 

Poe justifies his use of melancholic themes by discussing beauty, “the sole legitimate province of the poem. In exploring beauty, a poem can bypass the intellect and heart and elevate the soul.” He contends that supreme beauty (and its supreme development by a skilled writer) will always evoke feelings of sensitivity and powerful emotions. Thus only melancholy can be the appropriate tone for a beautiful poem. This theory perfectly matches “The Raven,” a heartbreaking work about a man mourning the loss of his beloved Lenore and contemplating his own mortality when faced with a “supernatural” speaking raven. 

Yet, when Poe’s claim about beauty is considered in the tradition of the macabre short stories that would follow this great work, it seems less clear. Can there be beauty in vengeance, murder, and insanity? The answer to these questions posed to any reader would most likely be “no.” However, the meticulous planning that Poe lays out in “Philosophy” begins to offer an explanation of how carefully constructed words can lend beauty to even the darkest of places. What Poe is getting at in this essay is the coherence of thought, the almost pathological (perhaps obsessive) focus on a single tone and objective to which all words, sentences, characters, settings, and even word sounds must cleave. 

Using countless revisions and clear intentions, Poe created unity throughout all of the elements of his short stories. And there is no better example of this technique than the “Cask of Amontillado.” The methodical way Montresor plans and carries out his scheme to punish Fortunato is mirrored in the deliberate use of verbs and adjectives that have ominous connotations which underscore the unspoken elements of the story. Carnival is not chaotic, it is “madness”; the catacombs do not smell bad, they are filled with a “foulness of the air”; Fortunato does not stop at the end of the tunnel, his progress is “arrested by the rock.” These word choices are not accidents but the result of a carefully crafted “development of intention.” Poe uses such words, sounds, and atmosphere to create a palpable image within the reader’s head that evokes a visceral response to the story’s effect. As Neil Gaiman states, “It is beautiful and it is the stuff of nightmare.”

The horror in the narrative is developed through not only Montresor’s act of revenge, but the ambiguity surrounding this grisly event. Montresor lures Fortunato into the catacombs beneath an Italian palazzo by promising him a taste from the cask of an extremely rare Amontillado sherry. Fortunato’s arrogance and foolish nature make it possible for Montresor to succeed in carrying out his carefully crafted scheme. Poe juxtaposes Montresor’s gruesome thoughts with Fortunato’s innocent, drunken obliviousness to create dramatic irony that increases the audience’s horror. Furthermore, even the motivation for Montresor’s actions are as unclear as his reasons for sharing the story. Varying interpretations of Montresor’s tone and confessional style have divided scholars on the character’s mental state and purpose of the story: Does he visit the vault fifty years later because he is tormented by guilt and driven to confession? Or does he take pleasure in recounting his successful vengeance? As the story explores the depth of Montresor’s depravity in avenging a personal insult, we descend deeper into his disturbed mind, having become intimate accomplices to his actions from the very beginning:

“You, who so well know the nature of my soul.” 

Montresor begins with this direct address to simultaneously absorb the audience as his confidant and obscure the details of the story. From the beginning, he withholds information from the reader, speaking to us as if we already know why he murdered Fortunato, and as if we are complicit in his actions. This obscurity adds to the irony of Montresor’s narrative style. He juxtaposes meticulous descriptions of the setting with cryptic presentations of both characters, their relationship, and the very motive for the savage murder. The first person narration makes the story more intimate and believable. So much so that the reader momentarily forgets the impossibilities within Montresor’s account: his perfect reconstruction of the dialogue fifty years later, his ability to remember every detail of the catacombs, his precise memory of Fortunato’s last words and facial expressions. Montresor’s narration is eerie, almost monstrous, in its perfection. 

The reader witnesses gruesome revenge at the the end of the story with no other explanation than what can be inferred about Montresor’s motives and character from the psychopath’s own twisted words. Readers are, in a sense, just as much ensnared and misled by the end of the story as Fortunato is to his tomb.

This chilling effect is a result of the haunting situational and verbal irony that permeates the story. It begins situated in the boisterous celebrations of Carnival. Poe juxtaposes the joyful setting of Carnival with the dark, damp catacombs were Montresor will enact his heinous revenge. The irony in this juxtaposition permeates even the basic elements of the story. For instance, Fortunato’s name means “fortunate one.” His untimely demise makes his name grimly ironic, as does Montresor’s greeting when he first sees him: “you are luckily met.” Fortunato remains ignorant to Montresor’s motives throughout the story, adding to the irony with his actions. He toasts the dead of the catacombs not knowing that he will shortly be one of them; he mocks Montresor using a sign of the masons, not realizing that Montresor intends to kill him because of such insults. Montresor ironically uses a trowel the symbol of the masons—to entomb Fortunato; he kills Fortunato with the very insult lodged against him. 

Poe expertly uses these ironies to move past the logical conclusions of the text. This creates a cryptic feeling throughout the story that forces the reader to question everything Montresor has claimed to be true. Nothing is what it seems. Without a logical conclusion or motive for the main action, the reader begins to question whether or not they are themselves trapped in ironies and being led through a tangled catacomb just as Fortunato is, with nothing but dead ends without answers waiting for them. 

A classic tale of deception and revenge, “The Cask of Amontillado” undoubtedly showcases Poe’s mastery as a storyteller. His pathological attention to detail and deft use of irony arrests the reader’s imagination in order to evoke a palpable feeling of revulsion. Poe creates the perfect short story as every sentence and word contributes to the tale’s overall theme and effect and forces us to examine human nature and the darkness to be found in the human psyche. For this reason, “The Cask of Amontillado” has served as a basis for many conventions of the modern short story form.

References

Gaiman, Neil. “Introduction: Some Strangeness in the Proportion. The Exquisite Beauties of Edgar Allan Poe.” Tales of Mystery and Imagination. New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 2011. Print.