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Fortunato in “The Cask of Amontillado” by Poe

In a story as concise and rightly packed as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” every little detail serves to highlight and stress the piece’s main conflict. This certainly applies to the story’s secondary character – the protagonist’s perceived arch-nemesis Fortunato. There are two symbols clearly related to Fortunato in “The Cask of Amontillado” – his symbolical presence on the Montresor family crest as a golden foot crushing a serpent and his carnival outfit as a fool. The story begins with an extensive emphasis on the first symbol, but the more it goes on, the more the foolish side of Fortunato and the fool aspect of his destiny comes to light. In the course of the story, Fortunato is reduced from the powerful notable to a tormented soul, as the fool aspect of his character’s dual symbolism takes precedence over the gilded one.

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One thing that becomes clear about Fortunato from the beginning of the story is that he is a prominent notable who lacks nothing in either wealth of influence. To begin with, his name literally means “the lucky one” or “the fortunate one.” However, the author does not limit himself to this indication and provides many additional references to Fortunato’s power and prominence, both direct and indirect.

It is worth mentioning that Montresor himself describes Fortunato as “a man to be respected and even feared” (Poe). Yet, most importantly, Fortunato has a symbolic presence in Montresor’s family crest, which is a golden foot that “crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel” (Poe). As noted by Saxton, “the foot d’Or, or the golden foot, is a fitting symbol for the prosperous Fortunato” (138). The gold is commonly associated with wealth, which lines up perfectly with Montresor’s description of Fortunato as “rich, respected, admired, beloved” (Poe). Hence, it makes sense to read the golden foot on the Montresor family crest as a fitting symbol for Fortunato and his affluence.

Another crucial characteristic of Fortunato established early on is that he has offended Montresor on many occasions in the past – which is also reflected in the protagonist’s family crest. The narrator refers to “the thousand injuries” that Fortunato brought upon him and the insult that finally moved him to avenge in the very first sentence of the story (Poe). The imagery and motto of Monresor’s heraldry also stress Fortunato’s role as someone who uses his high status to offend those beneath him. As mentioned above, the golden foot is depicted stomping upon the serpent – using the fact that it is on top to degrade the one beneath.

The motto – “Nemo me impune lacessit” – also stresses the theme of insult and vengeance as inherently rooted in Montresor’s crest. There is, certainly, the problem of the unreliable narrator, especially since the narrator “never specifies the nature” of the insult that moved him to kill Fortunato in cold blood (Baraban 50). Still, as far as Montresor is concerned, Fortunato is an offender, and the Montresor family crest serves as a symbolic codification of this perception.

What is particularly interesting in this situation is that Fortunato is blissfully unaware of the depth of Montresor’s hatred toward him – or even its existence. In fact, Fortunato’s “ignorance of Montresor’s actual feeling toward him” is the main factor that allows Montresor to lure his enemy into the elaborate trap (Elhefnawy 104). On the one hand, it is simply the testimony of Montresor’s dedication to the idea of perfect revenge that presupposes impunity.

As the protagonist explains, he “must not only punish but punish with impunity,” which means avoiding risks and maintaining the pretense of friendship. On the other hand, though, it suggests that Fortunate considers himself too high above Montresor hierarchically to even pay attention to the latter’s feelings. Once again, the Montresor family crest is of great symbolic value. It is hard to imagine that the owner of the foot that crushes the serpent under its heel is concerned with the snake’s thoughts on the matter – it is too much beneath him. Thus, the story sets Fortunato early on as a powerful and affluent man too high above to note Montresor nurturing his grudges, whether real or perceived.

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This image of power and the high station begins to degrade when the second symbol directly related to Fortunato comes into play, as, at the carnival, the latter is wearing a fool’s costume. The narrator describes Fortunato as wearing motley – that is, the outfit of a court jester – and then elaborates further. Specifically, the costume includes a “tight-fitting parts-striped dress” and a “conical cap and bells” (Poe). It is hardly a coincidence that the image described by Montresor corresponds perfectly to that of the Fool from the Tarot. In this light, it only makes sense to explore the symbolic meaning of this card as it might relate to Fortunato as a character.

According to Axelrod-Sokolov, the Tarot fool symbolizes the sudden degradation of one’s life, which “will fall unexpectedly across even the most carefully ordered life and bring the luckless subject to unhappiness or destruction” (4). Considering Fortunato’s impending fate at the hands of vengeful Montresor – the fate he is completely oblivious of! – this meaning is entirely appropriate to his situation. The card symbolizes the folly of a person stricken by an unexpected danger, which is exactly what will happen to Fortunato.

Apart from being dressed as a fool, Fortunato soon reveals himself to actually be one – and in the matter in which he prides himself to be an expert. The story sets Fortunato as someone who takes great pride in his knowledge of wine in the first few paragraphs. When explaining the origin of his elaborate plan, Montresor specifically mentions that “few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit,” but Fortunato certainly perceived himself as one of these in all matters related to wines (Poe).

Yet the story shows this supposed expertise to be no more than a pretense. When discussing Amontillado with Montresor, the inebriated Fortunato claims that a poor connoisseur would not be able to “tell Amontillado from Sherry” (Poe). The bitter irony of this statement is that “sherry” is an umbrella term for a type of fortified wine that includes “Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Oloroso, and Cream sherries” (Axelrod-Sokolov 5). While Fortunato styles Amontillado as something to be distinguished from sherry, it is a sherry. This statement further strengthens the symbolism of Fortunato’s motley costume: he is a fool not only in appearance but in substance as well.

As Fortunato follows Montresor to his catacombs, the Tarot fool aspect takes precedence over the golden foot aspect. As the two go deep into the vault, Fortunato tries to habitually mock Montresor for the fact that he is “not of the masons” – in other words, not allowed into a prestigious secret society (Poe). However, Montresor’s reaction – claiming that he is a mason and demonstrating the trowel he carries – only reveals Fortunato’s lack of understanding of the current situation. This understanding only comes when it is far too late, and Fortunato bursts into “loud and shrill screams” when finally aware of his dreadful predicament (Poe).

The underground setting and human bones scattered throughout the catacombs invoke hellish associations, likening Fortunato’s shrieks to “the screams of a damned soul,” which is, arguably, the worst fate imaginable (Saxton 142). Thus, Fortunato comes from a proud notable to the most dreadful and powerless state in a single night’s span – all because of his folly to recognize the threat posed by Montresor. This degradation is swift and, from his perspective, utterly unpredictable, in full accordance with the symbolic meaning of the Fool Tarot card.

As one can see, Fortunato’s character in Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is best explored through its relation to two symbols – the Montresor family crest and the Tarot fool costume he is wearing. Fortunato’s defining characteristics are his high station and affluence, and the golden foot that steps on a serpent in Montresor’s coat of arms invokes both. Moreover, the motto – “Nemo me impune lacessit” – further strengthens the association between Montresor and the snake and, thus, Fortunato and the foot.

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This imbalance of power is so great that Fortunato does not even perceive the possibility of Montresor nurturing a grudge against him. Yet, for all his riches and power, Fortunato proves to be a fool in form, by wearing a jester outfit, and in substance, by proving ignorant in his supposed area of expertise. His dreadful end is the triumph of the Tarot fool – the unpredictable calamity that can strike down even the most influential and prosperous of people.

Works Cited

Axelrod-Sokolov, Mark. Madness in Fiction: Literary Essays from Poe to Fowles. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Baraban, Elena V. “The Motive for Murder in “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, vol. 58, no. 2, 2004, pp. 47-62.

Elhefnawy, Nader. “Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”.” The Explicator, vol. 76, no. 2, 2018, pp. 103-105.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Poe Stories. Web.

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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