Stories of Edgar Allan Poe Commentary
"The Cask of Amontillado" is the one of the latest of Poe's popular short stories, published in the November 1846 edition of Godey's Lady's Book, based in Philadelphia. The cold winter had begun to set upon the Poe family, and Edgar reportedly did not even have money for coal to heat their tiny cottage in the Bronx after The Broadway Journal, where he worked as editor, went bankrupt earlier in the year. During the summer months, Poe had also been engaged in a vicious war of words with literary critic Thomas Dunn English after the two get into a fist fight, thus circulating rumors that Poe is a madman; Poe further criticizes English among others in a column entitled "The Literati of New York City," also hosted by Godey's Lady's Book. The battle waged back and forth between these two individuals, reaching its apex after The Evening Mirror willfully published a message from Thomas English taunting Poe to sue him. After no apology was given from the journal's publisher, Poe decided to file a lawsuit against them for libel, an offense clearly referenced in the Constitution , which forbids abuse of the First Amendment by intentionally defaming others through writing.
In contemplating this ongoing war that was in progress between these two men, it should be little surprise that the central theme in "The Cask of Amontillado" is one of vengeance. Poe had similarly used satirical writing as a catharsis for his inner angst, as with Dickens in "The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether" and "The Man That Was Used Up," and a similar theme is engaged here. Beneath the grotesque visions of skeletal remains lying about the underground vault, the reader feels little sympathy for Fortunato, whose elitist attitude clearly reveals itself when he mocks Montresor, saying "You are not of the brotherhood." The narrator wants to be a part of Montresor's "society" but this verbal exchange clearly indicates that such an event is unlikely, because Montresor does not respect him or view him as an equal; the only reason he wishes to follow him home is to drink from this "cask of Amontillado." Also, Amontillado is a type dry sherry manufactured in Southern Spain. The fact it is a rare, imported wine explains Fortunato's eagerness to taste its fluids for himself.
It is important to recall that countless opportunities are provided for Fortunato to leave at the narrator's insistence, but this man disregards them nevertheless, forever sealing his own fate; when the narrator proclaims his family motto to be "Let no one challenge me with impunity," and the description of his family crest as a snake biting into the heel that crushes it, all of these are clues that could potentially allow for Fortunato's escape. In recalling the image of the snake, it is Montresori who adopts this role in lashing out against the man who would relentlessly step upon him, demeaning him, as Fortunato had done so many times. Montresor's later display of a trowel is comical, especially after Fortunato's mention of the brotherhood of the Masons. The story lacks the seriousness of "The Tell-Tale Heart" or "The Pit and the Pendulum," but instead suggests a bit of satire directed at a particular individual for whom the narrator feels increasing disdain. This underlying resentment towards Fortunato could inversely reflect Poe's hostilities toward Thomas Dunn English, whom he had already criticized repeatedly in his critical essays also published in Godey's Lady's Book at this same time.
Thematically, this tale pursues many old ideas that Edgar Allan Poe had already adopted, transferred into a new setting, that of Italy during the carnival season, which is a real event that still occurs in celebration of the approaching Lent season, usually beginning sometime in October and continuing until shortly before Ash Wednesday. During these carnivals, people often dress fantastically in costumes, as Montresor dons an ominous black mask here and Fortunato bears what resembles a dunce cap with bells. The image may recall that of "The Masque of the Red Death," while the phenomenon of being buried alive is also witnessed in "The Premature Burial." The idea of a body being entombed in a wall is present in "The Black Cat," although the narrator's premeditated nature of his crime is more similar to "The Tell-Tale Heart" where he, too, concealed his hatred for the old man by gaily smiling, imagining that the old man was already dead. Montresor behaves similarly here as well, in deceiving Fortunato. Finally, the descent beneath the ground and the eerie landscape that greets this pair reflects some images also present in "The Pit and the Pendulum," but now it is the narrator who is the judge, rather than being the victim, and it is he who sentences the arrogant Fortunato to death.
Indeed, that is what sets "The Cask of Amontillado" apart from Poe's other tales, in that the narrator is not a raving alcoholic who becomes violently angry or a psychotic disconnected from reality. He knows exactly what he is doing, and at every moment he maintains that focus. He provides numerous opportunities for Fortunato to escape, but this man's arrogance interferes with his better judgment, blindly labeling Luchesi as an "ignoramus." It is this same arrogance for which Auguste Dupin faults the Prefect in "The Purloined Letter," and Poe draws attention to this human imperfection yet again. This tale stands as a source of dark humor, portraying the sobered Fortunato begging to be released while the narrator merely mocks him until only silence reigns, and that last brick is placed into the wall. It also serves as a warning to those who would tread upon the heads of other people, bullying them, because, like the venomous snake, these individuals will one day lash back in vengeance, as did Poe when he was awarded punitive damages for libel in 1847 by the courts after Virginia had died in January. The fact that he did not resort to murder in addressing his hostilities for Thomas Dunn English is irrelevant; all that matters is this quietly burning human emotion that Edgar Allan Poe conveys so masterfully in "The Cask of Amontillado," one of the final stories by Poe to grace the literary stage.