The story of “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allen Poe is full of conflict from beginning to end. Being that this is said to be one of Poe’s best pieces, it contains a chilling plot weaving themes tied to character, setting, and a haunting narrative voice. Montresor makes a vow of revenge against Fortunato with no hint as to what the insults are. Before this story begins, like many of Poe’s works, this is a piece of gothic literature.
Poe is known for using Gothic conventions in his stories which mostly includes the atmosphere of mystery, oppressiveness to create terror but interestingly he subverts the Gothic conventions by having human beings, instead of a supernatural element, creates most horrible deeds. Poe tries to achieve that horror via the capabilities of humans. Gothic literature is usually defined as “writing that employs dark scenery, startling and melodramatic narrative devices, and an overall atmosphere of mystery and dread. With the concepts displayed throughout the short- story, The Cask of Amontillado is a cornerstone for what gothic literature truly is.
“A thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” (Poe 101)
Let’s start out with the plot of the story. Montressor, our narrator, is a man that you wouldn’t want to be around. He’s a ruthless killer who thinks it’s necessary! He’s unreliable. Who would trust a man who’s capable of plastering his friend Fortunato into a vault? Montresor has been Fortunato’s friend for years, but their relationship is not a healthy one. Fortunato has mentally tortured and abused Montresor for years, and one day it seems he has crossed his limit. Montresor vows to return the favor and plans to kill Fortunato one day. The two then meet somewhere in the city. Montresor tells him that he has bought a cask of Amontillado. Amontillado is simply a type of sherry wine. Fortunato tells him that this is not a season of Amontillado and would like to taste it to confirm its authenticity.
In addition to Montresor being a killer, jus like any other classic horror story, he’s an unsympathetic character. I’m not denying that he’s a character totally unknowable to readers, but he is definitely someone that many wouldn’t associate themselves with or as. Similar to Montresor, we all have vengeful urges. Thankfully, we don’t all follow through with the urge leading to murder. Yet, he got away with what he did without getting caught or in any trouble. Which is why he told his story 50 years later! Everyone has a skeleton or two in their own closet. Regardless of what they are, the longer our secrets remain undetected, the longer we can tell ourselves that we’ve gotten away with it.
Elena V. Baraban wrote in the Fall 2004 issue of The Rocky Mountain Review,
“The reader is perplexed by a seeming absence of a motive for this crime. Unable to find a logical explanation of Montresor’s hatred for Fortunato, most commentators conclude that Montresor is insane. Such interpretation, however, seems to make certain details in the elaborate structure of the story unnecessary and this, in turn, goes against Poe’s approach to composition”
“’The Cask of Amontillado’ is a mystery, for at its heart lies an intriguing question: “why did he do it?”” (Baraban 47)
If a story line like the one we are studying doesn’t scream “GOTHIC LITERATURE” to you, then I don’t know what will.
The setting of “The Cask of Amontillado” also stands as an epitome of gothic writing. In most pieces of “Gothic Literature”, the setting is called the “Interior.” Most people go back and forth between feeling free and feeling trapped. The Gothic Interior is meant to make the reader most aware of certain emotions through careful attention to the setting. This story takes place starts off somewhere in Italy. It’s the season of the carnival. The carnival is meant to make people feel free, it’s a literal celebration of freedom. The majority of the story takes place at midnight, the perfect time for Gothic stories, and remains the rest of the night in Montresor’s catacomb wine cellar. As the two make their way through the catacombs, they move through spaces that seem to keep getting smaller and an awfully foul smell that continuously gets stronger. This can suggest that the farther they move from fresh air, the closer they are to confinement, and the farther they are from freedom.
“Come,” I said, with the decision, “we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy as once I was…” “Enough,” he said; “the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough.” (Poe 102)
In my opinion, irony plays a large part in both gothic literature and The Cask of Amontillado, as well as the setting. Fortunato is coughing due to the Nitre. In the catacombs, Fortunato says, “I will not die of a cough”. In reply, Montresor says “True-true,” because he knows exactly what is about to kill Fortunato in a few moments. It’s ironic that Fortunato believes his cough is just a little something, when in fact it’s leading up to his death. Fortunato toasts the many people buried in the catacombs, not knowing that he is shortly to become one of them. Montresor toasts to life as well. He toasts to the life of Fortunato that will soon end.
On the behalf of irony, Hutchins stated,
“In reading irony, in events, it is usual to imagine Fate (or whatever idea of casualty we may hold) as a deliberate deceiver: if there is mockery there must be a mocker, and we assume that there must be planning behind a process which first arouses expectation and then neatly reverses it.” (Hutchins 353)
Next we will look at Fortunato’s punishment. Though this story is free from violence and blood, it still has an element of death. This is not the death that someone would consider Gothic. But if looks at the overall picture of a person bringing their friend down to his basement and then building a small mound of bricks around him and making him suffocate to death, I would consider it be very much gothic. The last Gothic element, or one of the most effective one occurs at the very end after Montresor has almost walled up Fortunato but has left enough of an opening to stick his torch through to see what Fortunato is doing.
“A very good joke, indeed – an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo…. Let us be gone”, Fortunato said to Montresor, hoping that the newly- built walls around him were just part of some sick, cruel joke.
“Yes,” Montresor said, “Let us be gone.”
“For the love of God Montresor!,” Fortunato shrieked with his last few breaths.
“Yes,” Montresor said, “For the love of God.”
When Montresor looked back into the last remaining opening for brick, the only sound to be heard was a jingling of bells, reminding us that Fortunato was dressed in a court jester costume. Montresor tells us that his heart grew sick. This was not out of remorse, not at all.
In Volume 25-Number 3, James W. Gargano explains;
“Poe intends his readers to keep their powers of analysis and judgement ever alert; he does not require or desire complete surrender to the experience of sensations being felt by his characters. The point of Poe’s technique, is not to enable us to lose ourselves in strange or outrageous emotions, but to see these emotions and those obsessed by them from a rich and thoughtful perspective.” (Gargano 178)
Throughout the short-story, we are given ample evidence of how both “The Cask of Amontillado” and the author- Edgar Allan Poe, are whole-heartedly the epitome of Gothic literature. It is full of conflict and suspense from beginning to end. Being that this is said to be one of Poe’s best pieces, it contains a chilling plot weaving themes tied to character, setting, and a haunting message.