In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” the story takes a look at the results of taking the act of justice into one’s own hands. This entire story is extremely unsettling, as Poe takes a hard look at communicating a horrific atmosphere that translates into the reader. He takes a hard look at human nature by using the cruel character, Montresor. This represents what a person will go through in order to exact revenge on another, and it isn’t only in the actions that Poe communicates his disturbing story, it is through the setting and through the use of irony.
It is interesting to note that the reader isn’t truly aware of why Montresor is dead set on finding retribution, but it could be craziness that has driven Montresor to this. Before detailing the use of setting and irony to communicate the horror of this story, let’s briefly review introduce the direction Poe is going with this story: Right from the opening, the reader becomes aware that Montresor is seeking revenge – “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge,” (56). The reader never really finds out what he is insulted by and what those thousand injuries refers to. Throughout the story, the reader tries to find out what wrong it is that Fortunato has committed against Montresor to justify the eventual murder. There is a chance that the actions of Fortunato deserved to be punished by murder. Montresor “…must not only punish, but punish with impunity,” (56). Montresor takes it upon himself to become the person who judges Fortunato and then decides that he deserves to die. He never thinks that he may face consequences for what he has done, as he is set on making sure that Fortunato dies. Poe tells the story half a century after the murder took place: “For half of the century no mortal has disturbed them,” (62). And still, as the story is being told, there is no indication why Fortunato deserves to die this way.
It is ironic that the setting in which the story takes place in Italy when the carnival is taking place. Typically, this is a time of celebration when people are having fun and enjoying food and beverages. In fact, Fortunato is wearing a dress that is the typical garb for this time of year in an event such as this. “The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells,” (57). Fortunado’s dress and general clothes that he wore to make him look motley also points to the fact that he was made to look like a clown, a fool who was tricked under Montresor’s malevolent intentions. The garb, which is quite laughable, is ironic because he is about to be taken to his death and he is wearing clothes that create a mood far from that of a man who is doomed. Additionally, he is intoxicated and in a rather pleasant mood, which is opposite to the emotions that a man who is going to die would likely feel. Also ironic, is the fact that Fortunato is dressed like a joker, but he is the one who is having a deadly joke played on him. The setting could point to the fact that the behavior of Montresor is a rouge for his true intentions. He deceives into trusting him by his general friendly nature towards him. This is similar to how masks are often worn in carnivals. I believe the choice that Poe made to create the setting during the carnival is intentional in providing the masked theme of the story.
The setting further plays a symbolic role as Montesor brings Fortunato to the catacombs, which is an underground descent on their journey. Taking him underground represents taking Fortunato to hell. “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 the bones had been thrown down, and lay promiscuously upon the earth, forming at one point a mound of some size,” (60). Taking Fortunato away from a bustling party and into a fortress of Montesor’s dead relative’s bones, represents the thrusting away from life that Montresor is about to subject Fortunato to. This deadly environment is the ultimate upheaval from the carnival that the drunken Fortunato was just enjoying. The livelihood of the part is taken from him and then the life is eventually halted.
I agree with Bruce Kirkham in “Poe’s Amontillado, One More Time,” in that Fortunato’s name is
ironic. It is ironic that Fortunato’s name is similar to the word “fortunate.” He is clearly not
fortunate, as he is about to die. In fact, Fortunato translates into “the fortunate one” in Italian. “Fortunato believes himself to be the ‘fortunate one’ in that he has been selected by Montresor to taste of the rare Spanish sherry, but he is also ‘fate’ to die,” (Stott 144) At the very beginning, the reader becomes aware that Fortunato’s life is about to be taken at the hands of Montesor. This is something that is far from fortunate, which creates the irony of his name. Irony is also apparent in the story when Montesor mentions that his heart feels sick. However, he does not credit this heartache to murdering a man; instead, he says that is due to the damp environment. This is a time when the reader believes they see a bit of humanity in the murderer, but it is quickly snatched away with his comments shortly after and it proves his lack of care for Fortunato’s life.
Poe does a good job at tying the setting and irony into the tragic tale of vengeance. Throughout the story the subtle cues worked together to provide a backdrop to the story that was rich with vengeance and horror. The clues of the setting and the irony worked together to complete this eerie tale.
St. John Stott, Graham. “Poe’s THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO.” Explicator 62.2 (2004): 85-88.
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