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Evil and Vengeance in The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe

The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most astonishing short stories that has been interpreted in numerous ways. Most notably, the work is considered to be an allegory due to the biblical image painted through the human foot crushing the head of a serpent (Saxton 139). It is hard to disagree with such interpretations because the actions of Montresor are undoubtedly evil. However, a basic question that remains relatively unexplored is from where all this evil comes. Since the actions of Montresor are vengeful, victims are in some cases the architects of the evils done unto them.

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Firstly, it is important to accept that the actions of Montresor are evil. Such scholars as Cutitaru have expressed that the story illustrates something more than a gruesome murder (203). Further, Cutitaru notes that the succession of events is more like those often undertaken in a perfect crime (203). The evidence of these arguments can be found in Montresor’s decision to send workers home and make sure no one will be around to witness the crime. Additionally, Montresor understands that Fortunato would not want Luchesi to be held in the same regard as him, which is what makes Fortunato follow Montresor to the vaults without being forced. The cunning nature of Montresor is perhaps what makes him appear evil, even though the gruesomeness of his deeds is manifested by the bones in the vaults and how accomplished his murder. Therefore, there is no doubt that Montresor is an evil person.

Secondly, the actions of Montresor can also be perceived as vengeful. The opening statement of the story states that Montresor has suffered a thousand injuries from Fortunato, which he has so far endured as best as he could (Poe page?). Additionally, Montresor states that it is when Fortunato ventures into an insult that Montresor decides to take revenge. Therefore, those authors who have labeled The Cask of Amontillado as a revenge story are right because the main motif of the main character is to avenge the insults from Fortunato (Min 56). There are several other aspects of the story that can be used to further illustrate that the actions of Montresor were entirely in pursuit of vengeance. According to Min, the family emblem of the Montresor family is a symbol of the theme of revenge and represents the conflicts between serpent and man (56). Therefore, Montresor is an inherently vengeful person, which means that all his victims are those who have wronged him. While this description does not eliminate the idea of evil, it hints at the fact that the actions of Montresor are driven by the need for retribution.

Consequently, the evil reflected in the story does not start with Montresor but with the people who have offended him. The family motto states that Nemo me impune lacessit, which means that no person hurts him and escapes punishment. Additionally, the evil seen in his actions is indeed impunity with which he deliberately decides to accomplish his revenge. According to George, his manner of taking revenge depicts him as a psychotic killer (1693). Such an expression is not extreme because Montresor does not commit murder as most killers do. Indeed, he takes Fortunato to a damp and cold place where he gets him stuck in the catacombs and walled up the entrance. In other words, Montresor left Fortunato to die in gruesome conditions knowing that his health situation will only make the murder even more awful. Additionally, the bones he keeps mentioning in the vaults indicate that it is not his first murder in a similar manner. As such, Montresor can easily qualify as a psychotic person keeping the skeletons of his victims in his vaults.

The argument that evil does not begin with Montresor stands because of the acts of vengeance. The evil first begins when one person offends another prompting revenge. The scholars who express the story as a religious allegory can also be seen holding the same views. For example, Saxton argues that Montresor’s family crest shows the struggle between good and evil (138). The symbol of the serpent has also been interpreted using the basic nature of snakes. In other words, snakes are known to bite back at those who cause harm to them, for example, by stepping on them. The family crest shows a foot crushing the head of a snake with fangs embedded in the heels. Therefore, the basic understanding of this crest is that the Montresor family are like snakes biting back those who offend them and turning themselves from victims to perpetrators. These arguments by Saxton also illustrate that Montresor can be viewed as a person consumed by vengeance and is represented by the serpent (13). The snake is also described as the greatest avenger in nature, thus explaining its symbol in the crest.

The tale of the serpent as an avenger can help understand why the perpetrators of vengeance are not the root causes of evil. One can imagine that a snake will hardly attack human beings or other animals unless it has been provoked. The image of the foot crushing its skull means that it is the person who has caused it harm, which could be an evil deed in itself. Therefore, the fangs embedded in the heel should not be simply dismissed as a snake attack on the person. Rather, it can be viewed as a defensive or retaliatory move. Poisonous snakes tend to offer some of the most painful and agonizing deaths to the victims. It can be argued that the pain and agony are deliberate acts of impunity from the serpent. Therefore, Fortunato has done so much harm to Montresor that he could no longer persevere. Like the snake in the story, Montresor should not quickly be dismissed as an evil person without taking into account what has been done to him. The expression of a thousand injuries means that Montresor has turned from victim to perpetrator.

Even though it is easy to perceive Montresor as the victim turned perpetrator, the audience will never get to know the actual harms that Fortunato has done against Montresor to earn the death he got. Therefore, it can be understood that the lack of this knowledge leads to many simply viewing Montresor as inherently evil and psychotic. Additionally, the notion of evil is built around the interpretations of the crest and the image of the foot crushing the head of a snake. According to Cutitaru, the motto and the arms of the crest tend to revive some Biblical metaphors of the Old Testament, especially the book of Genesis (205). In Genesis, the images are depicted as symbols of the triumph of good over evil. Many authors agree that the serpent is the representative of the devil in many Biblical accounts (Saxton 139). However, there is a disagreement as to whether Montresor is the snake or the foot. Like the snake, he can be seen as a person out to inflict evil upon others. However, the crushed head means he has not triumphed as opposed to the events of the story.

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On the contrary, perceiving Montresor as the foot crushing the snake’s skull means he has triumphed over evil. While the position that Montresor is evil still remains, it would be difficult to label him as the source of evil in the story. Fortunato could be the snake who, despite inflicting harm to Montresor, has been crushed. Such an interpretation means that while the actions of Montresor are evil, he did not cause the evil in the first place as he is only a victim seeking retribution.

In conclusion, the story The Cask of Amontillado can be used to support the argument that the victims are in some cases the architects of the evils done unto them. Such an incident has been manifested in the actions of Montresor who has been hurt by Fortunato to the extent that he cannot persevere any longer. While it remains difficult to understand the harm done to him, the nature of his family as illustrated by the motto and the crest means that all those people who hurt the Montressors will not escape punishment. Therefore, Montresor is simply a victim who has swiftly progressed to become the perpetrator in the search for retribution.

Works Cited

Cutitaru, Codrin. “The Art of Dissimulation. The Good Christian vs. the Loyal Freemason.” Philologica Jassyensia, vol. 2, no. 26, 2017, pp. 203-209.

George, Kevin. “The Eldritch Storyteller: Revisiting Edgar Allan Poe’s inimitable oeuvre.” International Journal of English, Literature and Social Sciences, vol. 4, no. 6, 2019, pp. 1692-1694.

Min, Yu. “The Ironic Double of Sin and Revenge: Concept of Revenge in Edgar Allen Poe and Nathanial Hawthorne.” Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 18, no. 2, 2019, pp. 55-60.

Poe, Edgar. The Cask of Amontillado. Godey’s Lady’s Book. 1846.

Saxton, Audrey. “The Devil’s in the Details: A Characterization of Montresor in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”.” Criterion: A Journal of Literary Criticism, vol. 10, no. 1, 2017, pp. 137-145.

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