Professor Deirdre Frank
English Composition II
22 January 2017
Would to Have Drowned in Amontillado
The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allan Poe, was first published in 1846, in a US magazine. The piece has gone on to be considered a prime example of good literature in a short story. It is the narrative of one nameless aristocrat detailing how he murdered a wealthy Italian named Fortunato. The narrator, known only by his family name of Montresor, beguiles the drunken Fortunato to follow him into the catacombs beneath the Montresor mansion and entombs him there. The reader is forced to view this scene through the eyes of the murderer who betrays no sign of conscience, empathy, or remorse. Considering its distasteful nature, the Cask of Amontillado could be a cautionary tale or a social critique highlighting the depravities of idle wealth, the duplicities of pride, and the foolishness of alcoholism.
We are led to believe that Montresor knows Fortunato well, but that the latter tends to underestimate, injure, and insult the former. Montresor choses “the supreme madness of the carnival season” for his crime, knowing that Fortunato, who has a weakness for alcohol, will be quite drunk and unsuspecting. “He [Fortunato] prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine.” Montresor manipulates this pride by telling Fortunato that he has recently acquired a cask of wine and needs help to ensure that is in fact amontillado.
In the course of the story Fortunato says and does several things that indicate that he is really not very serious in his knowledge of wine and may be nothing more than an alcoholic. To start with, no connoisseur would go to a wine tasting while already drunk. He also remarks that a third party, Luchresi, "…cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry", when in fact amontillado is a type of sherry. Later “He emptied…” a flagon of De Grave “…at a breath.” Fortunato’s lust for consuming large quantities of alcohol rapidly is not consistent with someone who interests themselves with the delicate differences between fine beverages. It is far more consistent with an alcoholic. Had Fortunato not been so drunk it is much less likely that he would have fallen into Montresor’s trap. Fortunato’s alcoholism is what prevents him from perceiving his own precarious situation and prevents him from avoiding an untimely end.
The wealth of both Montresor, and Fortunato are made apparent throughout the story. But the simple point of being wealthy does not allow either Montresor to live in contentment, or Fortunato to avoid a humiliating end. Both men live in “palazzos”, an Italian word for palace or mansion. Fortunato is “rich, respected, admired, beloved”. Montresor has various attendants that he arranges to be away from the palazzo during the night of the murder. Montresor’s wealth is old family money as “The Montresors, were a great and numerous family” in the past. Now he seems to be the last of a vengeful line.
Part way through the duo’s journey into the depths of the crypt Fortunato asks Montresor to “remind” him of the Montresor coat of arms. Montresor humors the bumbling Fortunato and relates: “A huge human foot [of gold], in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent…whose fangs are imbedded in the heel." This imagery tells us something about the Montresor line. If we assume a snake with fangs to be venomous, then we can conclude both depicted injuries to be fatal. It would seem, at least, that the family understood that vengeance is destructive for both parties. Whether that observation dissuaded other members of the family from destructive behavior is unknown. But the family motto, “Nemo me impune lacessit”, Latin for “no one attacks (cuts) me with impunity”, suggests otherwise.
Despite the family’s wealth, the Montresor heir is decidedly miserable and destructive. Enough so that vengeful murder is vowed upon after apparent patient suffering. Montresor does not explain to us the reasons for his heinous act. We, as readers, are required to accept his private judgement as sufficient. It is a supreme act of pride to name one’s self to be judge, jury, and executioner over another human being.
The essential characteristic of pride is that of misrepresentation of the self, to oneself, and to others. It is comprised of believing that one’s self is somehow exceptional, or alternatively, considering one’s own needs, often trivial ones, to be more important than those of another person. Pride is inherently duplicitous because it requires one to aggrandize one’s virtues or ignore one’s faults. To do what he did, Montresor must believe both that he alone is adequate to judge Fortunato for his wrongs, and that the various “injuries of Fortunato” somehow justify a death sentence. Whether Montresor is sane enough to consider it justice or not, he does consider his own needs for emotional satisfaction to be paramount to the value of a human life. If we consider that Fortunato is “respected, admired, beloved…[and] happy, as once [Montresor] was”, it seems even less justifiable that the emotional needs of the last of a dying line of idle aristocrats trump the value of the life of one who seems to be a pillar of the community. Who could ever consider themselves to be such a judge?
Montresor and his house are highly duplicitous. Even though his house is described as a palazzo it contains, in its depths, an extensive, filthy, and unhealthful crypt. The juxtaposition of the house and crypt uses setting as a metaphor for Montresor’s own character. From the beginning of the story the reader is aware that Montresor is planning and executing his revenge against Fortunato yet he repeatedly refers to him as a friend. “I continued…to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.” When Fortunato is stricken with a cough after entering the catacombs, Montresor feigns concern for his health. When Fortunato insists on pressing on saying “it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough”, Montresor replies: “True --true”. Later, Montresor drinks “…to your long life.”
At the last Montresor chains Fortunato to the wall of a niche and walls it up. Such a death, by dehydration, or suffocation would, as planned, give Fortunato time to sober up and contemplate his situation. Montresor wants to “make himself felt as” an avenger, as such he would want Fortunato to suffer in his final hours. Montresor wants Fortunato to have time to consider his situation and how he arrived at it. He uses Fortunato’s drunkenness as weapon of revenge, knowing that Fortunato will be humiliated and feel himself a fool for falling into such a trap. He wants Fortunato to know he has been outwitted.
At the last, Montresor’s revenge may have been ultimately thwarted; Indeed, he may have “fail[ed] to make himself felt as [a redresser] to him who has done the wrong”. Though Fortunato certainly suffers in his last hours: screaming and pulling at his chains. Montresor never explains to Fortunato the reason for his act and thereby justify himself. He may have been intending to do so when he started to give a reason with: “Yes, for the love of God!”. But since he was never answered and never finished the conversation, he had to finish his wall and leave without satisfaction. Perhaps his “heart grew sick” not out of a belated sense of remorse, but rather, a realization that he would not be able to complete his plan as he imagined. We don’t know whether Fortunato had already succumbed and was unconscious, or he was intentionally withholding his conversation, but it seems clear that Montresor intended to continue the exchange before placing the final stone.
It could be said that Montresor demonstrated a certain level of intelligence by planning and executing a perfect crime. But consider that Montresor proved himself incapable of considering or controlling his own passions, of considering all the ramifications of his actions, of realizing that his act is ultimately self-defeating. No restoration of honor or glory for the house of Montresor was achieved. Whether he recognized or not the reality illustrated in his family arms, he chose to follow in the family tradition of mutually destructive behavior. Montresor grandly demonstrates a paucity of the intelligence necessary to consider one’s own motives and determine a course most likely to bring happiness and success. The type of intelligence that over the years has distilled such “common sense” philosophies as the golden rule, and “Thou shalt not kill.”
Fortunato’s, quite literally, fatal flaw is alcoholism disguised as connoisseurship, which makes a fool of him, and ultimately leads to his death. Montresor, in turn, is saturated in his own duplicity and pride. He is incapable of considering his own motives, or the realistic outcome of his actions. Though Fortunato is “a man to be missed”, he is incapable of saving himself from obvious destruction. Montresor’s revenge ultimately gave him no satisfaction and severely damaged both families. By burying Fortunato with his own ancestors Montresor makes a permanent link between the two. He is relating the story fifty years later. In fifty years Montresor has not been able to forget Fortunato.
Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Cask of Amontillado." Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature edited by Michael Meyer, Macmillan, 2017, pp.