By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is, in some ways, the quintessential Edgar Allan Poe story. It distils the essence of his most recurrent themes: revenge, murder, guilt, and live burial, to name but a few.
But Poe’s story also takes in a number of other, less obvious themes: the difference between the creative genius and the artist without talent, for example, can be glimpsed as one of the story’s subtexts. Let’s take a look at some of the most important themes of ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and explore how Poe presents each of them.
We have summarised the story and offered an analysis of its meaning in a separate post.
First and foremost, ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is an example of a revenge tale. But it is a less clear example than, say, ‘Hop-Frog’, another of Poe’s well-known tales on the theme of revenge. Just what is Montresor meant to be avenging, exactly?
One of the masterstrokes of ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is that Poe never reveals the motive for Montresor’s murder of his rival. All that Montresor tells us is that Fortunato had ‘ventured upon insult’: he had wronged or slighted Montresor in some way, but the precise details are never disclosed.
When the two men are together, Poe provides no explicit clues as to the nature of their rivalry. But there are several suggestive details. For one, there is the fact that Fortunato is a freemason, whereas Montresor – despite his joke with the trowel – is clearly not. (Montresor’s gesture to his trowel, as a ‘sign’ that he is also a mason, is probably a joke: he is a stonemason rather than a member of the freemasons, and he intends to use the trowel to dispose of his rival.)
So it’s possible that Montresor resents Fortunato’s success: a success which is hinted at by his name, which literally means ‘fortunate’ or ‘lucky’. Because ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is narrated in the first person by Montresor, the murderer, and he does not tell us the nature of the ‘insult’ that has been visited upon him, it remains possible that the ‘insult’ is all in Montresor’s mind.
Both Fortunato and Montresor are guilty of pride, which in Christianity has long been viewed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Early on in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, Montresor tells us that Fortunato’s one ‘weak point’ was that he ‘prided himself’ on being an expert in wine.
Montresor plays on his enemy’s weakness, telling him that he is going to let Luchresi try the amontillado if Fortunato isn’t interested. Of course, Fortunato clearly cannot bear the thought of the fine wine going to someone else, so he readily accepts Montresor’s offer – and so falls into the trap.
And throughout the story, Montresor employs a clever kind of psychological manipulation when dealing with Fortunato. To conceal the fact that he is leading his rival into a trap, Montresor insists they should go back because Fortunato’s poor health is clearly being made worse by the nitre in the catacombs.
But he knows that this – coupled with a few strategic references to the other wine connoisseur, Luchresi – will make Fortunato even more determined to continue deeper into the catacombs. He cannot bear the thought of someone else being the one to have the amontillado.
But Montresor himself has already revealed himself to be a proud man: in the opening paragraph of the story, he confides to us that he wants Fortunato to know who is the one responsible for his death. He takes time preparing his trap for his enemy, and takes pride in its execution.
Early on in the story, Montresor refers to Fortunato as both his ‘enemy’ and his ‘friend’: ‘I encountered my friend’, he tells us, during ‘carnival season’. Carnival is traditionally a time when the usual roles are reversed, and we might view Poe’s use of this as the backdrop to the story as an indication that the usual roles of Montresor and Fortunato are going to be reversed, with Montresor gaining the upper hand by eliminating his rival for good.
When Montresor refers to Fortunato as his ‘friend’, is this a knowing, ironic use of the word ‘friend’, because Fortunato assumes he and Montresor are on friendly terms? Or does it suggest the nebulous nature of the rivalry between the two men, which is entirely on Montresor’s side, with Fortunato bearing him, in reality, no ill will?
Guilt and remorse.
In many of Edgar Allan Poe’s other tales of murder and other crimes, the perpetrator is eventually forced to confront their crimes and come to terms with their guilt over what they have done. So in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, for example, the murderer’s remorse is exemplified by the sound of his victim’s heart beating under the floorboards where he has buried the body.
Whether this is his victim haunting him from beyond the grave, or a manifestation of the criminal’s guilty conscience, he is eventually overwhelmed by the incessant beating from beneath the floor until he confesses his crime.
But Montresor’s ‘confession’ is rather different. Although it is ostensibly a confession of his crime, he informs us of the details of Fortunato’s murder, and how he laid the trap for his enemy, with a calm rationality that appears to be devoid of remorse. Indeed, he seems to be proud of having pulled off the perfect crime, without ever having been caught and charged. (Since fifty years have elapsed since Fortunato’s murder, we can assume his account is something akin to a deathbed confession.)
Crime as art.
‘The Cask of Amontillado’ has been interpreted as a story about two very different kinds of artist: the lucky successful artist and the talented but overlooked genius. This interpretation of the story cannot be proved through reference to the story alone, but it becomes more persuasive when we bear in mind Poe’s fondness for writing ‘revenge tales’ which enact his own desire to pour scorn on his literary enemies.
In this interpretation, Montresor’s crime is itself a work of art, which he describes to us with evident pride. This is part of a nineteenth-century preoccupation with murder as a ‘crime’, something that Thomas de Quincey, in his 1827 essay ‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’, had helped to popularise (Oscar Wilde, in his ‘Pen, Pencil and Poison’, would re-popularise this notion at the end of the century).
If we grant that Fortunato has enjoyed more luck in his business ventures than the narrator of ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, we may view Montresor as the frustrated artist whose genius has been overlooked by the world, which has instead rewarded his unimaginative and less intellectually gifted rival with all of the success.
With this in mind, we can view Montresor’s narration of the events of the story as a parallel for Poe’s writing of the story itself: the criminal outlining the perfect crime is echoed by the author outlining the perfect crime which he, rather than the fictional Montresor, actually constructed.