"The Cask of Amontillado" is a story of revenge, but the reader is never told exactly what Fortunato did to warrant such vengeance. In fact, throughout the story, the reader gradually realizes that Montresor is an unreliable narrator; that whatever insult Montresor believes Fortunato committed is probably imagined or exaggerated. It's certain that Fortunato has no idea of Montresor's anger, and this makes the story even more tragic and frightening. The seemingly happy jangling of the bells on the top of Fortunato's cap become more and more sad the deeper the two venture into the catacombs.
In the beginning of the story, Montresor defines revenge. He says he must "punish with impunity." He states if the avenger is caught, or does not make the punishment known to he who committed the wrong, the wrong goes unavenged.
With this in mind, he sets the trap for Fortunato. He gives Fortunato numerous opportunities to back out, using the tricks of classic conmen by playing on Fortunato's greed and pride. In fact, it is Fortunato who insists they carry on to find the Amontillado, and this will no doubt torture him as he is buried alive. Montresor also provides hints as to what he plans to do with Fortunato. He seemingly miraculously comes up with a cask of Amontillado during carnival, which Fortunato can scarcely believe. He tells Fortunato, "You are a man to be missed," and after Fortunato says he won't die of a cough, Montresor agrees. His family motto is "No one insults me with impunity" and he is carrying a trowel. Yet Fortunato suspects nothing, and is so shocked when Montresor chains him to the wall, he doesn't even try to fight.
The structure of the story places the events 50 years in the past. Montresor, perhaps on his own deathbed, is telling someone, perhaps a priest, the story, but not with any remorse. He still believes Fortunato wronged him, and at the end eerily says "In pace requiescat," or "May he rest in peace."
2.1 Montresor`s thougts on revenge
2.2 Montresor`s indications
2.3 Is the revenge successful?
2.4 Poe`s personal revenge
The desire for revenge has always been a strong motive for the action of man. Battles have been fought and wars were waged because of one reason: revenge. A lot of stories are concerned with this mean instinct, and the american author Edgar Allan Poe often deals with this and other raw instincts. The crew of the Jane Guy in``Arthur Gordon Pym``has been slaughtered by natives because of some low reason. Or two entire families die because of a cruel feud in ``Metzengerstein``.
In ``The Cask of Amontillado`` the thirst for vangeance is responsible for the death of a man. Fortunato has to die because Montresor doesn`t want to accept an insult unpunished.
In the fallowing I will examine the different aspects of revenge in Poe`s tale. What are Montresor`s own reflections on revenge, is Fortunato able to escape from this vengeance because of several indications that Montresor utters? Is his deed really a comlpete success and to which degree is Poe personally involved in this literary revenge?
2.1 Montresor`s thoughts on Revenge
`` The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best as I could, but when he went upon insult I vowed revenge.``1 These are the first words of Poe`s tale ``The Cask of Amontillado.``They are also the first statement of the protagonist Montresor about the actual relation between his friend Fortunato and himself. This sentence also contains the reason for the evil and cunning plan he`s going to pursue. We`re not told what really happened between the two friends. So we can`t decide wether Fortunato`s punishment is adequate or if it is exaggerated. But the wordinsultshows that Montresor hasn`t been physically hurt. Probably his honour has been damaged by his companion.
Montresor says: ``The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could.``2 The word borne implies that he presumably has returned many of these injuries to perpetuate the cycle of vengeance, though it implies that he has merely endured them. But now Fortunato has ``ventured upon insult,`` and Montresor takes this literally as a moral affront, punishable by death.3
In the first paragraph of the tale Montresor talks about his his general thougts on Revenge:
I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself as such to him who has done the wrong.4
According to this revenge has to has two qualities. First it mustn`t be retributed. This means the act of revenge has to be unredressed. Second the person who gets punished has to know who punishes him. The avenger has to reveal himself.
The first paragraph contains an additional idea of revenge. Montresor says that he would be avengedat length. This means that he isn`t in a hurry. He wants to plan his deed carefully. This utterance also shows Montresor`s anticipated joy. He really seems to enjoy the planning of the revenge. He knows about Fortunato`s vanity, a fatal vanity. The avenger`s insight comer from a studied identification with his counterpart. For him vengeance is not only an act of low instincts, but an intellectual challenge5.
2.2 Montresor`s indications
While Montresor leads Fortunato through the vaults of his palazzo he makes some indications. Not only his words but also his action reveal his intentions. Fortunato overlooks these signs, because he doesn`t call Montresor`s friendship in doubt. But the reader who knows about the evil plan realizes these indications.
On page 1536 Montresor puts on a mask and draws his roquelaire closely about his person. By doing so he makes sure that nobody can see him together with Fortunato in the last night of his existance.
At the bottom of the same side7 the two friends descend into the cavern. Montresor calls Fortunato`s attention to the nitre on the walls and asks him about his bad cold. At this moment the reader gets an idea of how Fortunato will be punished, because the nitre won`t have a positive effect on Fortunato`s health.
On page 154 Montresor says:``you are happy, as I once was.``8 He tells Fortunato that something has changed his life to the bad, and the reader knows that Fortunato is responsible for that. But Fortunato doesn`t react to that, because he doesn`t feel guilty.
Then Fortunato says about his bad cough:``it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough.``9
And Montresor replies:``True-true.``10 Of coarse the inventor of this deadly revenge knows which kind of death Fortunato will encounter.
As they drink a bottle of wine Montresor toasts to Fortunato`s long life. This toast, of course, is ment ironically because he won`t have a long life, and Montresor knows that.
The most obvious indication is at the bottom of page 15411. Here Fortunato asks his friend about the coat of arms of his family. He replies that it was a huge human foot that crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel. This picture is an allegory of the relation between the two friends and of the future of this friendship. The foot is a symbol for Montresor and the snake stands for Fortunato: Montresor will destroy his friend who has betrayed him like the snake in the bible has betrayad Adam and Eve. The fact that the snake bites the foot shows that Fortunato has hurt his friend.
Now Fortunato also wants to know the family`s motto. Montresor answeres:`` Nemo me impune lacessit.``12 This means: no one shall insult me with impunity. This indication is so obvious that even Fortunato should have recognized it, but he is so self-assured that he doesn`realize this sign. This motto of the Montresors could also be the motto of the whole story.
Another indication might be the name of the wine Montresor offers to his friend:de Grâve. Transferred into English this could mean: from the grave. It indicates that these vaults are a tomb: Fortunato`s tomb. The description of the final room in the vaults reveals its real character:``Its walls had been lined up with human remains.``13 Then he even calls these vaults a crypt.
Finally Montresor`s name itself is an indication of what will happen in the story. The name that can be translated as ``my treasury`` implies that something or someone will be locked in.
2.3 Is the revenge successful?
At the end of the tale Fortunato gets immured by Montresor. The revenge seems to be a complete success because Montresor has destroyed his enemy. But if we remember Montresor`s commandmends of revenge, is then his deed really so successful?
Montresor says that the avenger has to be unpunished. This point has been fullfilled in means of law, because he tells this story fifty years after the deed and he doesn`t mention that he tells it from a prison cell, so he hasn`t been sentenced of this crime. But the fact that he tells this story shows that he still has to think about this.The picture in the arms of the Montresors was a snake that gets crushed by a human foot. The snake is still able to bite the foot and the poison now is affecting the soul of Montresor for half a century. He can`t forget what he has done and the way he ends his act of revenge reveals that he had doubts in his deed as soon as he finished it. On page 159 he says:``My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so.``14 Although he tries to deny his feelings by making the surroundings responsible for them the whole last paragraph shows Montresor`s true inner life: He hastenes to finish the wall that covers Fortunato. But he has no real reason for this hurry. Fortonato is dead and all the servants have left the building so that he won`t be disturbed by anyone. The true reason for his behaviour is his bad conscience. He wants to leave the place of his deed as fast as possible. The last sentence of the tale is: ``requiescat in pace.``15(may he rest in peace). It is the last sentence of every Catholic burial, but it isn`t the last thing Montresor says to somebody he hated so much. He knows that he has gone too far.
Montresor`s vengeance failed in another way, too: his second rule of revenge said that the avenger has to reveal himself to his victim. The victim has to know who punishes him and he has to know why he punishes him. But Fortunato has got no idea why this happens to him. As he slowly awakes from his drunkenness and realizes that he gets immured by his companion, he thinks that it is nothing but a bad joke:`` a very good joke indeed-an excellent jest.``16 He assumes that Montresor plays him a trick, like he played to other persons tricks himself. It seems that something like this is quite natural for Fortunato. That`s why he doesn`t feel guilty of anything he did to Montresor. The fact that he doesn`t apologize or feels sorry confirms this.
So Montresor`s vengeance failed because for Fortunato he didn`t appear as an avenger, but as a mean joker like he was himself. Viewed through Fortunato`s eyes, this brutal deed has been done without any reason. That`s why he implores Montresor before he dies.
2.4 Poe`s personal revenge
Poe`s tales often reflects his inner life. In his stories he deals with his own feelings, problems or expieriences. This is also the case in ``The Cask of Amontillado.`` In May 1846 something took place in New York that was called ``the War of the Literati``17. Poe`s main rivals in this war were Thomas Dunn English and the editor of theEvening Mirror,Hiram Fuller. At the peak of the dispute Poe sued them because of calumny. After Poe won the lawsuit both parties used more subtle weapons. English published the novel1844; or, The Power of >S.F.<that contained a satirical portrait of Poe. Poe stroke back with ``The Cask`` in which he described himself as Montresor, English as Fortunato and Fuller as Luchresi. Many allusions hint to the persons involved in the war and the dispute itself:
``The thousand injuries of Fortunato``. This is a hint that the dispute between Poe and English was at hand for quite a while.
``The man wore motley``. Here Poe makes fun of English by representing him as a fool. This description is meant both physically (his look) and psychologically (his foolish mind).
Fuller`s name in the story isLuchresi. The real meaning reveals itself through the pronunciation: look crazy. Here he hints to Fuller`s ridiculous appearance.
``And yet some fools will have it that his taste is a match for your own.``18 Poe wants to say that English and Fuller are of the same value. They supported each other in their attacks on Poe.
As mentioned before, Fortunato gets immured by Montresor. Poe has often dealt with the living burial. His stories ``Some Words with a Mummy`` or ``The Premature Burial`` show not only his interest in this topic but also his fear own of beeing buried alive himself. Poe not only chooses this way of death for his victim because live burial was a popular topic in his sensation-loving time. In ``The Cask of Amontillado`` he does that to his enemy what he fears most himself.
The tale of the cask of Amontillado contains several aspects of the theme revenge. The strongest viewpoint is without any doubt the personal involvement of the author. His dispute with English and Fuller is the reason for the origin of this story.
If we transfer Montresor`s criteria of vengeance to Poe, we can state that two of them are true of Poe`s literary deed. He has punished his rivals by making them ridiculous and by offending them in public (in the magazineGodey`s Lady`s Book19) and unlike Fortunato the Poe`s victims know their avenger.
A second criterion is fullfilled, because for Poe the revenge was an intellectual act: writing a piece of fiction that has been thought over very carefully.
In contrast to Montresor who has doubts after his deed, Poe is able to enjoy his written revenge because nobody has been physically hurt. But like Montresor who perpetuates the cycle of vengeance before his deed, Poe heats up his own dispute with this story.
1. Poe, Edgar Allan.Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Franklin Center, Pennsylvania: The Franklin Library, 1987.
2. Poe, Edgar Allan.Gesammalts Werke in 5 Bänden, Bamd III: Der schwarze Kater. Zürich: Haffmans Verlag, 1999.
3. Halliburton, David.Edgar Allan Poe: A Phenomological View. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1973.
4. Kesterton, David B.Critics on Poe. Coral Gables, Florida: University of Miami Press, 1973.
5. Kennedy, J. Gerald.Poe,Death and the life of Writing. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
6. Silverman, Kenneth.Edgar Allan Poe: Mournfuf and Neverending Rememberance.London: Weidenfald and Nicolson, 1992.
1 Edgar Allan Poe,Tales of Mystery and Imagination(Franklin Center, Pennsylvania: The Franklin Library, 1987) 151
3 J. Gerald Kennedy,Poe, Death and the Life of Writing(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987) 138
5 Kennedy 139
11 Poe, Tales154
12 Poe, Tales154
13 Poe, Tales155
17 Edgar Allan Poe,Gesammelte Werke in 5 Bänden, Band III: Der schwarze Kater(Zürich: Haffmans Verlag, 1999) 643
18 Poe,Tales: p.152
19 Poe:Gesammelte Werke643