“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe (Reading and Analysis for Writers)

“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe (Reading and Analysis for Writers)

How would you take revenge against your greatest
enemy? Or perhaps “enemy” is too strong a word, and it’s someone who’s just so
annoying that you’d like to see them…disappear. In one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous
stories, we’ll inhabit the mind of a monstrous man bent on vengeance. After reading the tale,
we’ll explore what writers can learn about the craft from this story. And now… “The
Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe. 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 I 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.” “Amontillado!”
“I have my doubts.” “Amontillado!”
“And I must satisfy them.” “Amontillado!”
“As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchesi. If any one has a critical turn, it is he.
He will tell me—” “Luchesi 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.” “Whither?”
“To your vaults.” “My friend, no; I will not impose upon your
good nature. I perceive you have an engagement. Luchesi—”
“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 Luchesi, he cannot distinguish
Sherry from Amontillado.” Thus speaking, Fortunato possessed himself
of my arm. 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
on 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,” said he. “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 eyes 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 Luchesi—”
“Enough,” he said; “the cough is 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.” “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 walls of piled bones, with casks and puncheons intermingling, into
the inmost recesses of 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 Grave. 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.”
“How?” “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 a trowel from beneath the folds of my roquelaire.
“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 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 Luchesi—” “He is an ignoramus,” interrupted my friend,
as he stepped unsteadily forward, while I followed immediately at his heels. In 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 clamoured. I re-echoed—I aided—I surpassed them in volume and in
strength. I did this, and the clamourer 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 shall 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—
“Fortunato!” No answer. I called again—
“Fortunato—” No answer still. I thrust a torch through
the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in reply only a jingling
of the bells. My heart grew sick on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened
to make an end of my labour. 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!
I’ve read this story many, many times, and I notice something new with each reading.
First, let’s touch on the story’s background and historical context.
“The Cask of Amontillado” was published in 1846. Poe was well into his literary career
when this story was published, having already sold “The Raven” and “The Tell-Tale
Heart” not long before. Poe is credited with being the father of detective fiction,
and the Edgar Award is now given to authors of distinguished mystery fiction. “The Cask
of Amontillado” is a story that showcases the perpetrator of a crime rather than a victim
or heroic detective. The mystery lies in what the narrator’s revenge will entail and what
drove him to such madness. At the time of writing this story, Poe had
a feud with fellow author Thomas Dunn English. English created a caricature of Poe as a drunkard
in one of his novels, and in revenge, Poe modeled Fortunato after his enemy…and then
buried him alive. As the saying goes, “Don’t piss off a writer. They’ll put you in their
book, and then they will kill you.” The historical context can help us make sense
of certain details. “Immurement” is a form of imprisonment or execution where a
person is trapped inside a space with no exits—which is obviously what happens to Fortunato. The
fear of being buried alive was a common one in the nineteenth century, since physicians
of the era had a harder time distinguishing between a comatose state and actual death.
Poe played on that fear most famously in his short stories “The Premature Burial” and
“The Fall of the House of Usher.” Some safety coffins had a bell that could be rung
from the inside using a rope. The bell on Fortunato’s jester costume references that
ringing ironically, since the person hearing his desperate chimes has little desire to
save him. Amontillado is obviously another important
element, given it’s in the story’s title. According to the website Sherry Notes, amontillado
was a type of sherry, one “in the style of Montilla, Spain” which is a lighter wine.
They elaborate, “In any case, Amontillado was considered an exclusive wine, which is
why Montresor is worried he may have paid the price of Amontillado for a cask of regular
sherry.” The cask of amontillado deserves to be highlighted as the title because it’s
the catalyst for the story as the pretense Montresor uses to draw Fortunato into the
catacombs. It also brings to mind the word “casket.” That’s one of Poe’s many
clever touches. “The Cask of Amontillado” can teach writers
a lot about having narrative focus, using purposeful details, building suspense, writing
from a murderer’s perspective, and leaving room for mystery.
Number One: Narrative Focus Narrative focus is especially important in
short stories, as you have to present a cohesive narrative in a smaller number of words. This
often means focusing on one point of conflict and limiting the number of characters. Here,
we have only two characters, and the plot is fairly straightforward: a man leads his
frenemy underground and kills him. “The Cask of Amontillado” is on the shorter side,
even by short story standards, wrapping up under 2,400 words, proving how much can be
accomplished in a few pages. We can outline the narrative structure using
a standard plot graph. Exposition and Conflict: Montresor opens by
saying, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured
upon insult I vowed revenge.” From that very first sentence, the reader knows he has
ulterior motives when he tells his friend about the wine. We’re about 650 words into
the story at this point, the 27% mark. Rising Action: They travel into the catacombs
beneath Montresor’s house, commenting on their surroundings and Montresor’s family.
We get a sense of atmosphere and suspense because we know something bad is going to
happen. There are some hints about why he’s committing this act of revenge. This is an
additional 900 words or so—65% of the way through the story.
Climax: Montresor chains Fortunato to the wall. He then mortars him in, with Fortunato
hoping it’s all a joke. This takes 720 words, bringing us to the 95% mark.
Falling Action/Resolution: The last paragraph ties up the story in around 80 words—the
final 5%. The concluding sentences let us know what happened after Montresor killed
Fortunato. Did he get caught? Nope. Did Montresor regret it? Probably not.
Not all stories will hit these points at the same percentage marks, but we can see how
Poe presents a clear narrative arc. Number Two: Purposeful Details
When you examine the devil in the details, you can tell that Poe’s choices of setting,
imagery, and dialogue all serve to generate suspense. The story takes place during carnival
season, a time when people abandon social order and masquerade as someone they’re
not. But the two characters’ outfits exaggerate their core qualities. Fortunato is wearing
a jester hat—he’s literally dressed as a fool, with the tinkling bells and his drunkenness
befitting how annoying Montresor finds him. Montresor himself is wearing an ominous black
silk mask. The dark, quiet catacombs are in direct contrast
to the colorful party going on above, as if they’re descending into Hell itself.
What’s more, there’s immense irony in Fortunato’s name, which means “the fortunate
one.” Montresor’s family motto and coat of arms also foreshadow his revenge plot.
The motto “Nemo me impune lacessit” translates to “No one attacks me with impunity.”
In his coat of arms, “the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in
the heel,” just as Montresor is the foot crushing the irritating snake that is Fortunato.
A writer on eNotes observes, “‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is one of the clearest examples
of Poe’s theory of the unity of the short story, for every detail in the story contributes
to the overall ironic effect.” Poe called this “unity of effect,” and he wrote about
the concept in an essay entitled “The Philosophy of Composition,” which dissects his process
for writing poetry, particularly “The Raven”: “In the whole composition there should be
no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established
design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted
which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest
satisfaction.” Poe seemed to know what emotional effect he
wanted the story to have. So, the setting, dialogue, and character details all contribute
to a single purpose—that of evoking dreadful irony. The important thing is that Poe never
points out his own cleverness; he adds in foreshadowing and trusts that the reader is
smart enough to figure it out for themselves. For instance, when Montresor first begins
talking to Fortunato, he tells him, “As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchesi.
If any one has a critical turn it is he. He will tell me—” But Fortunato cuts him
off to attest, “Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry.” This exchange is a calculated
move on Montresor’s part, who further strokes Fortunato’s ego by adding, “And yet some
fools will have it that his taste is a match for your own.” He already knew that Fortunato
thought Luchesi a lesser connoisseur, and so he emotionally manipulates Fortunato by
playing on his desire to prove he’s better than his rival. Montresor identified pride
as his friend’s weakness, and pride is ultimately what leads to Fortunato’s demise.
Poe could’ve had Montresor internally state something like, “But I only mentioned the
other wine connoisseur to play on Fortunato’s ego and ensure he followed me to the catacombs,
at risk of me calling upon his rival’s expertise.” Instead, Poe lets the dialogue speak for itself,
with Montresor’s intentions being implied. Number Three: Building Suspense
Poe’s unity of effect creates an atmosphere of dread and anticipation. In this story,
the characters’ conversation topics contribute to building that suspense. The reader knows
Montresor is plotting revenge against Fortunato, but not what exactly he plans to do or why.
This knowledge imbues the dialogue with a strong subtext—a hidden double meaning behind
Montresor’s words. The eNotes writer points out how Montresor
secretly taunts Fortunato in the dialogue using verbal irony:
“For example, when Fortunato says he will not die of a cough, Montresor knowingly replies,
‘True, true.’ When Fortunato drinks a toast to the dead lying in the catacombs around
them, Montresor ironically drinks to Fortunato’s long life. When Fortunato makes a gesture
indicating that he is a member of the secret society of Masons, Montresor claims that he
is also and proves it by revealing a trowel, the sign of his plot to wall up Fortunato.”
So, Montresor’s replies sound innocent enough on the surface, but given what we know about
his intentions, they take on the tone of a veiled threat. The essence of suspense is
the intense feeling of uncertainty as you wait for the outcome of an event. Here, the
dialogue is a constant reminder of the revenge to come.
Number Four: A Murderer’s Perspective The story is told from the perspective of
a first-person unreliable narrator, but two sentences in particular change how we view
the story. In the second sentence, Montresor addresses a specific person, saying, “You,
who so well know the nature of my soul.” And in the second-to-last sentence, he states,
“For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them,” referring to Fortunato’s
remains. These sentences suggest that Montresor is
recounting this story to someone close to him fifty years after the murder. It’s hard
to tell how Montresor feels about killing Fortunato in retrospect. His last sentence
declares, “In pace requiescat!” or “Rest in Peace.” But is his tone genuine or sarcastic?
There’s almost a sense of guilt at the very end as Montresor seals up the bricks: “My
heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so.” Montresor takes
care to say it’s the catacombs making him feel that way, but if our murderer is an unreliable
narrator, can we trust what he tells us about his feelings?
Montresor’s insistence that he feels no guilt connects to his definition of the perfect
revenge at the beginning of his tale: “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.”
Montresor succeeds in punishing Fortunato with impunity, in that he never faced the
legal consequences of his crime. The third sentence implies that Montresor wanted Fortunato
to know that this was a punishment as well as who was responsible for his death, rather
than hiring someone else to assassinate him in a dark alley or something.
But the ambiguity in the phrase “when retribution overtakes its redresser” could mean that
Montresor has not truly achieved revenge if he feels even a twinge of regret. In his mind,
revenge is only a success if he faces no suffering or penalty for his actions. He doesn’t dare
admit to any feelings of guilt, even when his heart grows sick as he listens to the
jingling of Fortunato’s bells, perhaps because admitting regret means that retribution has
overtaken him. Writing from the perspective of an unreliable
narrator allows Poe to create emotional ambiguity, making Montresor feel more complex. Our characters
might not recognize certain truths about themselves. Number Five: Room for Mystery
The ending leaves Montresor’s motives a mystery. Although Montresor mentions bearing
a “thousand offenses” from Fortunato, the slights are never specified. Maybe Fortunato
was just an annoying person who constantly bragged about his social status and expertise.
We don’t know if the punishment was equal to the crime, and we only have the narrator’s
word to go on. There’s a sense of horror in the fact that someone could kill you over
petty differences. In most mystery novels, the killer not having
a clear motivation might be unsatisfying, but that lack of knowledge is what adds to
the horror in this story. In real life, we’re obsessed with motives. We want to know why
someone would murder someone else. Our storytelling brains have an intense desire for cause and
effect; we want to create a narrative where behind every reaction is an action that caused
it that could be controlled to prevent future crimes. If a man is abusive, perhaps he’s
that way because his father was abusive. Or maybe a woman grew up in a cult with no control
over her life, so now she controls others. In this story, the absence of an understandable
motivation is more disturbing than if Montresor had had a particular reason for killing Fortunato.
It’s that uncertainty that’s terrifying. How can we protect ourselves from that type
of murderous rage when we don’t know the cause? In the words of horror writer H.P.
Lovecraft, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest
kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” The dark beauty of “The Cask of Amontillado”
lies in the horror of uncertainty. As a writing exercise, try crafting a story where the reader
knows a secret another character doesn’t—yet. Fill your dialogue with subtext, where one
character is secretly manipulating and taunting the other. Make your readers feel a sense
of anticipation as they wait for the unwitting character to discover the truth.
A big thank you, thank you to Shelley Costa Bloomfield for reviewing my script for this
video. She’s the author of the Everything Guide to Edgar Allan Poe as well as the Val
Cameron and Italian Restaurant Mystery series. There are a lot of wonderful graphic novel
adaptations of Poe’s works, and in this video, I’ve featured ones by Gareth Hinds,
Manga Classics, and Graphic Classics illustrated by Pedro Lopez. If you want to read the text
version, I recommend Poe Stories, which is linked in the description. And to Edgar Allan
Poe, I say, “in pace requiescat!” What are your thoughts on this story? Rant
and rave in the comments. Whatever you do, keep writing.


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