The Cask of Amontillado
Edgar Allan Poe’s work, “The Cask of Amontillado” uses literary devices to create a dramatic and dark work of art full of irony, revenge, pride, and deceit. The detail and use of symbols will keep the reader’s senses on high alert throughout the story, to the last sentence. Edgar Allan Poe uses irony, in the form of symbolism and foreshadowing, to develop the plot of a man who seeks revenge, through dominance, pride, and deceit.
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The carnival, at the beginning of the story holds significant symbolic value. The carnival is a major social event or gathering for a time of partying. During the carnival people wore masks, both literal and figurative, hiding their true individualities. The irony begins immediately. Montresor pretends to be friendly to Fortunato, whom, of course, he had vowed revenge upon. The narrator describes Montresor’s mask as featured to have a huge smile, “I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation” (Poe 174). Fortunato is dressed in almost the opposite. Ironically, Fortunato is dressed as a fool, in a striped dress and bells, which is what Montresor plays him for. At the beginning of the story Montresor states his desire to seek revenge upon Fortunato. This sets off a certain chain of events within the story, and the reader gets an idea of what is to come. There is further symbolism when Montresor finds Fortunato at the carnival and ironically says, “you are luckily met” (Poe 174), this chance meeting is not so fortunate for Fortunato. Furthermore, the story is set late at night. From the context, we can derive it is set from dusk until midnight. In dark literature after the sun has fallen is when the evil deeds generally take place.
The story is set at a carnival in the country of Italy. Which is another important aspect of the symbolism found in the story. The country of Italy has always been known for its prestige in wine crafting, and pride in Italian family history. These aspects play vital roles in the plot of the short story. Shortly into the story the narrator makes the first mention of wine. The narrator says Fortunato, “prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine” (Poe 174). This mention has a very important semiotic meaning in the story. The irony of Fortunato’s pride will, in the end, lead to his departure. He can deceive Fortunato into following him down into the crypt where he intended to do him harm. He does this by playing into Fortunato’s sense of pride; he says to Fortunato that he was “silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you (Fortunato) in the matter” (Poe 174). Letting Fortunato believe that Montresor respected him as a superior wine connoisseur.
Which brings us to Luchresi, who is supposedly a wine aficionado. We know Luchresi is very wealthy and respected. Poe also hints at this character’s wealth by naming him Luchresi, because lucre is a word that means lucrative and rich. This is all an example of Marxist Criticism. This character serves an important purpose though he is never met by the reader. He serves as a foil character to Fortunato. Montresor uses this character to play into Fortunato’s vanity and pride so that Fortunato would follow him down into the catacombs. Montresor ultimately uses this sense of pride against Fortunato. Luchresi is used to trick Fortunato into being the one to taste the Amontillado. Poe says, “Luchresi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry” (Poe 175). Fortunato argues his wine tasting expertise is superior. He wants to be viewed as the best. At this point in the story, Fortunato is asking to be taken to the Amontillado, or ironically to his death.
As the men descend the catacombs there are many exchanges that have symbolic meaning to the plot or ending of the story. Another example of pride is mentioned when Fortunato comments on the vastness of the catacombs. Montresor makes sure that Fortunato knows that “the Montresor’s were a great and numerous family” (Poe 176). The excessive pride of the men is clearly seen throughout the story. We also learn as the men descend the catacombs that Fortunato is a member of the mason society. He speaks condescendingly to Montresor for not being in the exclusive group. It is this overwhelming sense of self-loving pride that leads Fortunato to his inevitable death. Another symbolic exchange on the decent down into the catacombs, Montresor mentions turning back because of Fortunato’s ill health, “we will go back; you will be ill, and I cannot be responsible” (Poe 176). This is profoundly ironic because the reader knows Montresor intends to lead Fortunato to his death in the catacomb. It is also ironic that the place in which Montresor decides to leave Fortunato to his death is a crypt, the very place where generations of his family have been placed after their death. At the very end, Montresor says the words “in pace requiescat” (Poe 179), which factually means rest in peace. This is ironic because Fortunato, being tricked, murdered, and left to die, will never be able to rest in peace.
Another one of the major literary devices that can be found in this short story is for shadowing. Like symbolism, for shadowing is a hint as to what is to come, when symbolism generally means an object representing another to change its meaning to something deeper. In the very first paragraph Montresor tells the reader what his intentions are as far as Fortunato is concerned. He tells the reader that he “must not only punish, but punish with impunity” (Poe 174). The costumes Poe dresses the characters in foreshadow the roles they play in the story. The costume Fortunato wears to the carnival festivities also foreshadows his foolishness. He does not seem to recognize the seriousness of his situation until the last brick is being placed. In contrast, Montresor is dressed in all black with a mask. His appearance has somewhat of a resemblance to the grim reaper. The author is a master of imagery. Imagery is defined as the figurative description of pictorial images. He goes into detail describing the costumes of the men so well, the reader can picture every element in their mind. This gives the reader a better understanding of the symbolism these things described hold. Poe says, “The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells” (Poe 174). The author also goes into detail describing the crypt of the Montresor’s. He depicts the “white web-work which gleams form these cavern walls” (Poe 175).
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The story reaches its climax when Montresor manages to overpower Fortunato and chain him up in the crypt. Doing this was very simple. The entire way down into the catacombs Montresor offered Fortunato wine to ease his cough. Fortunato also had already been drinking from the carnival festivities. Montresor proceeds to encase Fortunato in the crypt by building a wall up around his adversary. The way Montresor encased Fortunato was even ironic, because of the previous exchange about Fortunato being part of the mason society. The ending lines of the story indicate that 50 years later no one had disturbed the wall. Poe says, “for half a century no mortal has disturbed them” (Poe 179). This tells us that Fortunato was never saved, and his body was never found.
Although the reader only meets two characters in the short story Poe manages to tell a dynamic tale of revenge and murder. He uses excessive amounts of imagery and irony to give the reader a sense of the madness of Montresor. The way he portrays the pride in knowledge and the honor of family ties in Italian society is extraordinary. Fifty years after the murder of Fortunato, Poe still leaves the reader with an unnerving feeling.
- Poe, Edgar Allen. “Cask of the Amontillado.” The Norton introduction to literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, Norton & Company, 2016, pp. 173-179.
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