Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” was first published in 1846, and it is widely recognized today as the best or one of the best short stories written by the author. It contains a story of revenge taken by an insidious and dark man named Montresor on his acquaintance named Fortunato; the former believe that the latter insulted him greatly, for which he should be punished by slow and painful death. Fortunato remains unaware of Montresor’s plans until the very end of the story. Like several other Poe’s short stories that involve murder, “The Cask of Amontillado” is a story told from the perspective of the murderer.
Being one of the most famous short stories in the history of world literature, the story features many details and hidden literary devices that make its composition harmonious and meaningful. This is why this text is particularly interesting in terms of literary analysis. To analyze the short story, its plot should be summarized, its setting, genre, tone, and style should be described, its main conflict should be examined, and its themes should be explored.
To ensure proper further analysis, it is necessary to summarize the plot of the story. At the very beginning, the reader learns that the narrator—that is, Montresor himself—“vowed revenge” (Kirszner & Mandell, 2016, p. 329). It is not clear what the insult is that Fortunato ventured and for which Montresor wants to kill him; however, the latter is determined to make his evil plans come true. During a carnival at which everyone celebrates Montresor invites Fortunato to his vault which is a wine cellar at the same time to taste fine amontillado, a kind of sherry.
Fortunato, who is considered to be an amontillado expert and aficionado, agrees. As they walk through underground tunnels, Fortunato asks Montresor for something to drink because he is not feeling well, and Montresor offers him some wine kept in the cellar; Fortunato toasts Montresor’s ancestors buried in the vault, and Montresor toasts Fortunato and his long life. At some point, Montresor tricks Fortunato into a small crypt, chains him to the wall, and starts building a wall to block the entrance. Until the very end, as Montresor lays stones to wall Fortunato in, Fortunato cannot believe that he is about to be buried alive and keeps asking Montresor to stop this joke. Then he starts to scream, but then silence falls; all this happened fifty years before the story is told by the narrator; for his crime, Montresor remained unpunished.
Setting, Genre, Tone, and Style
Crucial elements of the short story are its setting, genre, tone, and style because they shape the mood and the atmosphere that affect the reader’s perception and imagination. “The Cask of Amontillado” is set in an unnamed Italian city; like many romanticist authors (Fernández-Santiago, 2013), Poe preferred to set the stories he told not in a familiar environment but in foreign countries or times different from his own to make the action less realistic and more phantasmagorical. In terms of genre, Poe is considered to be a pioneer of horror stories and detective stories in the world literature; i.e. stories that scare you or keep you in tension until the very end because they are creepy and mysterious.
To achieve it, Poe employs various tools; for example, he emphasizes details that contrast with the general tone and make the story terrifying. As Montresor and Fortunato walk around the vault, little bells on Fortunato’s cap jingle; he is coming from a carnival, but the celebration is outside; underground, the festive jingling of the bells sounds sinister. From Poe’s description, the reader really can feel being alone in the vault with Montresor who, as the reader knows, is planning to murder his victim, of which Fortunato himself does not know.
There are many ways to define the short story’s main conflict, but if the main conflict is something that keeps the reader in tension until it is resolved, then the main conflict is between Montresor’s evil plan and Fortunato’s unawareness of it. From the very first lines, the reader knows that Montresor is planning to take vengeance; Fortunato, however, keeps following his future murdered without having any idea about the trap. When Fortunato toasts Montresor’s ancestors, it is chilling because the reader knows that Fortunato is going to be buried among them, but the man himself cannot even imagine it yet.
Montresor’s toast is chilling, too; wishing long life to someone you are planning to murder that same night is particularly cynical. Concerning the conflict that made Montresor want to kill Fortunato, as it was mentioned, this conflict is not explained, and Montresor’s reasons are not clear. Moreover, Fortunato does not seem to be aware of how he insulted Montresor; otherwise, he would not be following Montresor to the vault. This makes the entire story even more frightening: the rationale behind the evil deed is not explained; Poe seems to hint that evil cannot be justified, and this is one of the things that make it evil.
Major themes of the short story include revenge, impunity, and irony. Revenge is Montresor’s obsession, and he demonstrates outstanding craftiness and intelligence in plotting it; for example, he lets all of his servants off for the night so that they do not see his guest (Fortunato), and this is not suspicious because it is the night of the carnival. Montresor planned the timing perfectly. In terms of impunity, Montresor must remain unpunished for his crime; it contrasts with the motto that Montresor himself declares (Pinsent, 2016).
At some point in the story, Montresor says to Fortunato that the motto of his (Montresor’s) family is “No-one attacks me with impunity.” Finally, there are many ironic details that Poe seems to stress. Apart from the toasts that were mentioned above, even the name of the victim is ironic: Fortunato means “fortunate” in Italian; the character, however, is rather very unfortunate. At another point in the story, Fortunato shows Montresor a trowel, a sign of the Masons; he does not know that Montresor is a Mason himself, and he does not know that he (Fortunato) is going to be immured, of which the trowel is a sinister augury.
To analyze “The Cask of Amontillado,” its plot, setting, genre, tone, style, conflict, and themes were analyzed. The short story is an example of a horror story that keeps the reader in tension, which was achieved by Poe through the use of contrasts and details. Recurring themes, such as impunity, and ironic plot elements make the short story particularly appealing and impressive. “The Cask of Amontillado” is considered one of the best short stories ever written because it manages to deliver strong emotions to the reader and has many layers that can be analyzed and interpreted.
Fernández-Santiago, M. (2013). Edgar Allan Poe’s narrative use of literary doubling. Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, 4(1), 71-82.
Kirszner, L., & Mandell, S. (2016). Compact literature: Reading, reacting, writing. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.
Pinsent, H. (2016). The men we love to hate. Verso: An Undergraduate Journal of Literary Criticism, 2016.