“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe is a frequently anthologized short story and one of my favorites. This gothic/horror tale is set in Europe during the late 18th or early 19th century. It’s told by a first person narrator, Montresor, a nobleman. It deals with an idea that recurred in Poe’s stories—being buried alive in some form.
Following the text, there’s a summary, a look at themes and a few questions to consider.
“The Cask of Amontillado”
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled—but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. 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 felt as such to him who has done the wrong.
It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. 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.
He had a weak point—this Fortunato—although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine. Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit. For the most part their enthusiasm is adopted to suit the time and opportunity—to practise imposture upon the British and Austrian millionaires. In painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack—but in the matter of old wines he was sincere. In this respect I did not differ from him materially: I was skillful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could.
It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend. He accosted me with excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much. The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells. I was so pleased to see him that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand.
I said to him: “My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met. How remarkably well you are looking to-day. But I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts.”
“How?” said he. “Amontillado, A pipe? Impossible! And in the middle of the carnival!”
“I have my doubts,” I replied; “and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain.”
“I have my doubts.”
“And I must satisfy them.”
“As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchresi. If any one has a critical turn it is he. He will tell me——”
“Luchresi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry.”
“And yet some fools will have it that his taste is a match for your own.”
“Come, let us go.”
“To your vaults.”
“My friend, no; I will not impose upon your good nature. I perceive you have an engagement. Luchresi——”
“I have no engagement;—come.”
“My friend, no. It is not the engagement, but the severe cold with which I perceive you are afflicted. The vaults are insufferably damp. They are encrusted with nitre.”
“Let us go, nevertheless. The cold is merely nothing. Amontillado! You have been imposed upon. And as for Luchresi, he cannot distinguish Sherry from Amontillado.”
Thus speaking, Fortunato possessed himself of my arm; and putting on a mask of black silk and drawing a roquelaire closely about my person, I suffered him to hurry me to my palazzo.
There were no attendants at home; they had absconded to make merry in honour of the time. I had told them that I should not return until the morning, and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was turned.
I took from their sconces two flambeaux, and giving one to Fortunato, bowed him through several suites of rooms to the archway that led into the vaults. I passed down a long and winding staircase, requesting him to be cautious as he followed. We came at length to the foot of the descent, and stood together upon the damp ground of the catacombs of the Montresors.
The gait of my friend was unsteady, and the bells upon his cap jingled as he strode.
“The pipe,” he said.
“It is farther on,” said I; “but observe the white web-work which gleams from these cavern walls.”
He turned towards me, and looked into my eves with two filmy orbs that distilled the rheum of intoxication.
“Nitre?” he asked, at length.
“Nitre,” I replied. “How long have you had that cough?”
“Ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!—ugh! ugh! ugh!”
My poor friend found it impossible to reply for many minutes.
“It is nothing,” he said, at last.
“Come,” I said, with decision, “we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter. We will go back; you will be ill, and I cannot be responsible. Besides, there is Luchresi——”
“Enough,” he said; “the cough’s a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough.”
“True—true,” I replied; “and, indeed, I had no intention of alarming you unnecessarily—but you should use all proper caution. A draught of this Medoc will defend us from the damps.
Here I knocked off the neck of a bottle which I drew from a long row of its fellows that lay upon the mould.
“Drink,” I said, presenting him the wine.
He raised it to his lips with a leer. He paused and nodded to me familiarly, while his bells jingled.
“I drink,” he said, “to the buried that repose around us.”
“And I to your long life.”
He again took my arm, and we proceeded.
“These vaults,” he said, “are extensive.”
“The Montresors,” I replied, “were a great and numerous family.”
“I forget your arms.”
“A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.”
“And the motto?”
“Nemo me impune lacessit.” [“No one wounds me with impunity”]
“Good!” he said.
The wine sparkled in his eyes and the bells jingled. My own fancy grew warm with the Medoc. We had passed through long walls of piled skeletons, with casks and puncheons intermingling, into the inmost recesses of the catacombs. I paused again, and this time I made bold to seize Fortunato by an arm above the elbow.
“The nitre!” I said; “see, it increases. It hangs like moss upon the vaults. We are below the river’s bed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones. Come, we will go back ere it is too late. Your cough——”
“It is nothing,” he said; “let us go on. But first, another draught of the Medoc.”
I broke and reached him a flagon of De Grâve. He emptied it at a breath. His eyes flashed with a fierce light. He laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand.
I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement—a grotesque one.
“You do not comprehend?” he said.
“Not I,” I replied.
“Then you are not of the brotherhood.”
“You are not of the masons.”
“Yes, yes,” I said; “yes, yes.”
“You? Impossible! A mason?”
“A mason,” I replied.
“A sign,” he said, “a sign.”
“It is this,” I answered, producing from beneath the folds of my roquelaire a trowel.
“You jest,” he exclaimed, recoiling a few paces. “But let us proceed to the Amontillado.”
“Be it so,” I said, replacing the tool beneath the cloak and again offering him my arm. He leaned upon it heavily. We continued our route in search of the Amontillado. We passed through a range of low arches, descended, passed on, and descending again, arrived at a deep crypt, in which the foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame.
At the most remote end of the crypt there appeared another less spacious. Its walls had been lined with human remains, piled to the vault overhead, in the fashion of the great catacombs of Paris. Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner. From the fourth side the bones had been thrown down, and lay promiscuously upon the earth, forming at one point a mound of some size. Within the wall thus exposed by the displacing of the bones, we perceived a still interior crypt or recess, in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven. It seemed to have been constructed for no especial use within itself, but formed merely the interval between two of the colossal supports of the roof of the catacombs, and was backed by one of their circumscribing walls of solid granite.
It was in vain that Fortunato, uplifting his dull torch, endeavoured to pry into the depth of the recess. Its termination the feeble light did not enable us to see.
“Proceed,” I said; “herein is the Amontillado. As for Luchresi——”
“He is an ignoramus,” interrupted my friend, as he stepped unsteadily forward, while I followed immediately at his heels. In niche, and finding an instant he had reached the extremity of the niche, and finding his progress arrested by the rock, stood stupidly bewildered. A moment more and I had fettered him to the granite. In its surface were two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet, horizontally. From one of these depended a short chain, from the other a padlock. Throwing the links about his waist, it was but the work of a few seconds to secure it. He was too much astounded to resist. Withdrawing the key I stepped back from the recess.
“Pass your hand,” I said, “over the wall; you cannot help feeling the nitre. Indeed, it is very damp. Once more let me implore you to return. No? Then I must positively leave you. But I must first render you all the little attentions in my power.”
“The Amontillado!” ejaculated my friend, not yet recovered from his astonishment.
“True,” I replied; “the Amontillado.”
As I said these words I busied myself among the pile of bones of which I have before spoken. Throwing them aside, I soon uncovered a quantity of building stone and mortar. With these materials and with the aid of my trowel, I began vigorously to wall up the entrance of the niche.
I had scarcely laid the first tier of the masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off. The earliest indication I had of this was a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken man. There was then a long and obstinate silence. I laid the second tier, and the third, and the fourth; and then I heard the furious vibrations of the chain. The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labours and sat down upon the bones. When at last the clanking subsided, I resumed the trowel, and finished without interruption the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh tier. The wall was now nearly upon a level with my breast. I again paused, and holding the flambeaux over the mason-work, threw a few feeble rays upon the figure within.
A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment I hesitated, I trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess; but the thought of an instant reassured me. I placed my hand upon the solid fabric of the catacombs, and felt satisfied. I reapproached the wall; I replied to the yells of him who clamored. I re-echoed, I aided, I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamorer grew still.
It was now midnight, and my task was drawing to a close. I had completed the eighth, the ninth and the tenth tier. I had finished a portion of the last and the eleventh; there remained but a single stone to be fitted and plastered in. I struggled with its weight; I placed it partially in its destined position. But now there came from out the niche a low laugh that erected the hairs upon my head. It was succeeded by a sad voice, which I had difficulty in recognizing as that of the noble Fortunato. The voice said—
“Ha! ha! ha!—he! he! he!—a very good joke, indeed—an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo—he! he! he!—over our wine—he! he! he!”
“The Amontillado!” I said.
“He! he! he!—he! he! he!—yes, the Amontillado. But is it not getting late? Will not they be awaiting us at the palazzo, the Lady Fortunato and the rest? Let us be gone.”
“Yes,” I said, “let us be gone.”
“For the love of God, Montresor!”
“Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”
But to these words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called aloud:
No answer. I called again:
No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick—it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so. I hastened to make an end of my labor. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat! [In peace may he rest]
Published 1846, © Public Domain
Summary of “The Cask of Amontillado”
Montresor vows revenge against Fortunato over an insult, a revenge that he will take at the right time.
During a carnival they encounter each other. Fortunato has been drinking. Montresor says he has purchased a cask of amontillado but is uncertain of its quality. He is going to get Luchesi to taste it. Fortunato won’t hear of a rival wine connoisseur lending his expertise. He insists on tasting it himself.
They walk to Montresor’s palace which is empty of servants. They take torches and start down the long staircase leading to the vaults. They go slowly due to Fortunato’s intoxication and a persistent cough.
At the bottom is a deep crypt, its walls lined with human remains. Fortunato steps into a recess to find the amontillado. Montresor quickly chains him to the wall.
Moving aside the pile of bones, Montresor reveals stones and mortar. He starts to wall up the entrance of the recess. Fortunato screams and then implores Montresor to stop. He puts the last stone in place and piles the bones up against the wall.
He reveals that he exacted this revenge fifty years ago.
Revenge is the most obvious theme in the story, as the narrator makes his feelings on this point clear in the first paragraph.
Montresor makes his motivation plain from the start: “. . . when he [Fortunato] ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” The narrator tells us what the story he’s about to recount is all about. After hearing the full story, the reader can agree that the narrator was reliable on this point.
He goes on to outline his personal standard for revenge: “I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser.” To Montresor, true revenge must be free of consequences.
“It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” A secret, convoluted plot to destroy Fortunato’s life won’t satisfy Montresor. Even killing him with subterfuge isn’t enough. The man must know who has come for him.
A complete revenge must be calculated so the “redresser” exacts his vengeance conspicuously and without repercussions.
Montresor hasn’t given Fortunato any cause to raise his defenses. “Neither by word nor deed” did he indicate he held a grudge. He continued “to smile in his face.”
This theme is reinforced as they descend into the vaults and catacombs. Fortunato asks about the Montresor family coat of arms which translates to “No one wounds (or “attacks”) me with impunity.” There’s little doubt that Montresor intends to see his plan through.
Readers and critics have focused on the themes of remorse, guilt and atonement despite the dearth of supporting details.
Some readers are uncomfortable with the story if Montresor doesn’t regret the murder. This has given rise to interpretations that claim he’s sorry for what he did.
Some things used to support this include:
- the belief that he’s telling the story as a confession to a priest;
- reading a Christian interpretation into some of the story’s details; and
- his admission that “[his] heart grew sick” just before finishing the job, which he attributes to “the dampness of the catacombs.”
The matter of who Montresor’s telling the story to is dealt with below in question #1. Reading a Christian interpretation into various details seems perfectly reasonable. However, seeing these possible parallels as proof of a guilty conscience seems like an unreasonable leap to me. Likewise, the mention of a vague symptom like a sick heart just before finishing sounds like an odd way to express remorse.
Some things that suggest Montresor isn’t repenting over a wrong include:
- the lack of a direct acknowledgement of any wrongdoing, and
- the lack of an apologetic tone or any asides that justify his actions.
Of course, the omission of something by a narrator doesn’t mean a particular idea isn’t in a story. Still, if Montresor is recounting this episode to unburden his conscience, he doesn’t seem to make an effort to show any contrition. I would expect a remorseful narrator to express this unambiguously, if he was in his right mind.
Another possibility is that this point is unsettled so readers will discover their own view on the subject. Conversely, others can appreciate the story and not really care if he’s sorry or not.
In the end, the establishing conceit of the story is that it’s being told to someone who knows Montresor well. That someone is not any of us, so we’re missing some important information about his character that would make the motive behind the story clearer.
Theme: The Dangers of Alcohol
Poe was familiar with the dangers of alcohol. His older brother Henry died from causes related to alcoholism. Poe struggled with alcohol himself. Some think it caused his death, but this is uncertain. In any case, it was a long-standing problem for him.
This danger is evident in “The Cask of Amontillado”. Montresor’s revenge plot is carefully planned; part of it is choosing to strike at Fortunato when his senses are diminished. He picks a day when his target “had been drinking much.”
Throughout their interaction, incidents accumulate that might have become suspicious to a sober man, such as:
- the chance meeting,
- the “threat” of using a rival’s expertise,
- the deserted grounds and house,
- the piles of bones on the descent, and
- the trowel.
Even sober, it’s possible all these things wouldn’t have alarmed Fortunato, but when they reach the bottom the cask is nowhere to be seen. A man in full possession of his faculties might have realized he could be in danger, while Fortunato can only stand “stupidly bewildered”. A sober Fortunato could certainly have reacted faster when encircled with a chain, and offered some physical resistance.
Ultimately, Fortunato’s intoxication significantly shifts the balance of power. It all but guarantees Montresor’s success.
1. To whom is Montressor telling this story?
Montresor’s listener is described only as “You, who so well know the nature of my soul.” This tells us the person knows him very well; they probably have a long-standing relationship. Some possible identities for this person include:
- a priest,
- a wife or mistress, or
- a trusted friend.
My guess is that he’s talking to his wife, mistress or friend. I don’t see enough support for repentance to think he’s telling a priest.
2. Are there any examples of irony?
Among the ironic moments in the story are when:
- Fortunato, a “man to be respected and even feared” wears motley and striped clothing, and a jester’s cap with bells due to the carnival,
- Montresor smiles at Fortunato, not out of goodwill, but at the thought of his doom,
- Montresor refers to Fortunato as “my friend”,
- Montresor says “Your health is precious,” and that he “cannot be responsible” for risking it,
- Montresor agrees that Fortunato won’t die of a cough,
- Montresor drinks “to your long life”, and
- the bells jingle as Fortunato is walled in and dies.
3. Does Montressor have a valid reason for holding his grudge?
We don’t know for sure. He claims to have suffered “a thousand injuries” and an insult from Fortunato.
It’s noteworthy that Fortunato doesn’t ask Montresor why he’s killing him. I would guess that would be the first question that would come to someone’s mind—it’s what I would ask. The fact that he doesn’t implies he knows why, suggesting Fortunato has done something to injure or insult Montresor.
He begs for mercy. He says they could call it a practical joke and laugh about it later. This suggests he’s thinking clearly enough to try to save himself. Again, it sounds like he knows what he’s done to Montresor. It could be something so serious that he knows there’s nothing to gain by bringing it up.