Essay, Research Paper: Cask Of Amontillado

Literature: Edgar Allan Poe

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In “The Cask of Amontillado” Edgar Allan Poe takes us on a trip into the
mind of a mad man. The story relates a horrible revenge made even more horrible
by the fact that the vengeance is being taken when no real offense had been
given. Even though this is a short story, Poe creates a nightmare, almost
guaranteed to give the reader a sleepless night. The plot of the story is
simple. Montresor takes revenge on his friend Fortunato by luring him into the
tunnels under the family estate. There he leads Fortunato into the depths of the
catacombs where he buries him alive by walling him into a recess in the wall.
The story is told in first person from the point of view of Montresor himself.
The exposition of the story occurs when Montresor tells us that he wants to take
revenge on Fortunato because “he ventured upon insult”(191). We also learn
that he intends to go unpunished for this act of vengeance. The narrator informs
us that he is going to continue to smile in Fortunato’s face, but use the
pride his victim has in wine to lure him into the catacombs to taste some of his
non- existent amontillado. At this point, the reader knows the conflict will be
one of man versus man. It is an external struggle because Fortunato and
Montresor are in a life and death fight. However, the conflict is largely
internal, because Montresor has a fierce hatred that Fortunato is unaware of.
The narrative hook seems to occur when Fortunato follows Montresor into the
vault. Even if the reader was confused by the language of the first paragraph or
is puzzled by the motive of the narrator, he/she is curious to know what will
happen next. Knowing that revenge is at hand the reader wonders what it will be.
Why is he taking him underground? The climax of the story is when Montresor
chains Fortunato to the wall and begins to layer the bricks. It is the high
point of emotional involvement. It is at this point that the reader may ask
themselves if this is really about to happen. The conclusion lets us know that
Montresor was never punished for this crime. Fifty years has passed and he is an
old man telling the story on his deathbed. The true horror is that Fortunato
died a terrible death, utterly alone, and his killer was never brought to
justice. Perhaps the theme in the story is the least important feature. After
all, it is about a senseless crime, and what sense can be made of such horror?
Perhaps the idea behind the story is that no one can find refuge from a deranged
mind, or that terrible crimes can be committed when an imaginary offense can
fester into a deep hatred. Perhaps Poe is saying that there have always been
great crimes that go unsolved. How many undiscovered remains are there in the
walls of medieval buildings? In this story the character of Montresor is
revealed through his own words. When he reveals he is going to punish Fortunato
for merely insulting him, that he has planned the whole act of vengeance, and
that he has been playing as being Fortunato’s friend, we know we are dealing
with a demented personality. His character is also revealed with references to
his family. It is almost as if Poe has Montresor’s ancestors tell the reader
how nicely he fits into the family tree. His legacy from his family motto “No
one attacks me with impunity”(193) and a coat of arms that depicts a serpent
whose last wish before death is to poison the foot that crushed it. Does the
fruit of ever fall far from the tree? Montresor is as evil as his forebears
were. He shows no remorse about what he has done, even in old age. When he says,
“May he rest in peace”(196) at the end of the story, the reader gets the
feeling he means, “ I hope you stay there and rot” rather than, “I hope
you found joy and peace in heaven.” We don’t really know much about
Fortunato: just enough to know that he must not have really known the true heart
of his friend. He must not have been a guarded person. He must have said too
much to make Montresor think he was insulting him and he must have boasted about
his knowledge of wines. You feel that Fortunato was probably a bit too sociable
and a bit foolish. He was an unfortunate man who found himself in contact with
the wrong person. The setting Poe chose for the story adds to the horror. He
sets most of the story in a dark, damp series of winding tunnels piled with
bones. By taking Fortunato into the vaults, he cuts him off from help. The two
characters are underground and isolated. As Montresor leads his friend through
the vaults, we feel as if we are being led through the crazed corridors of
Montresor’s sick mind. Using the carnival as a backdrop is also skillful
because it is a time when everything is in chaos and people have lost their
self-control. There is noise in the street, the servants are gone, and Fortunato
might have sensed something evil about Montresor’s intentions and left the
vaults before it was too late. Poe’s style is what makes this a masterpiece of
horror. He uses imagery to help the reader experience of the catacombs. We see
the vaults “encrusted with niter”(193), the “walls piled with
bones”(194), “ the glow of the flambeaus”(194), and “the mask of black
silk”(192) Montresor wears. We hear the jingle of bells on Fortunato’s cap,
his hacking cough, and his laughter of despair as he is buried alive. We feel
the dampness of the catacombs. Poe uses irony throughout the story. There is
situational irony in the fact that the crime takes place during a celebration,
that Fortunato’s name means good luck, and that Fortunato is dressed like a
jester. What is about to happen is just the opposite of what you would expect.
Just about everything Montresor says is verbal irony. He says just the opposite
of what he means. He keeps inquiring about Fortunato’s health and says he will
not die of a cold. The greatest use of irony is when Montresor says he is a
member of the masons. Fortunato thinks he means he is of a fellow member of a
society when what he really means is that he is a bricklayer about to brick him
in for all eternity. This conversation also provides foreshadowing in the story.
This is the first clue the reader gets about how Montresor will punish Fortunato.
The overall mood of the story is one of horror and impending evil. The ending of
the story is filled with suspense. What will happen now that Fortunato is
chained to the wall? Will Montresor come to his senses and have mercy on
Fortunato? We see Montresor carefully construct each tier of the wall. Why does
he hesitate at the end? Will he react to the desperate cry of Fortunato? When
the last brick is set in place, we know Fortunato’s doom has been sealed. I
find that this story makes the hairs on my back of my neck rise every time I
read it. There is no real violence in the modern sense of the word, it is almost
more horrifying because rayther than see it with our eyes we se it with our
imagination.
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