Critical Interpretations of The Cask of Amontillado

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"The Cask of Amontillado": Critical Interpretations

Among Poe's most intriguing tales is "The Cask of Amontillado," first published in Godey's Lady's Book in November of 1847. A surface reading of that story reveals only a simple description by Montresor (the narrator) of how he kills another man who was called, ironically, Fortunato. Montresor exploits Fortunato's vanity concerning the connoiseurship of wine; specifically, Montresor pretends to want a wine cask of Amontillado verified as genuine. Montresor chooses a time when Fortunato is drunk to dupe him into going down the spiral stairs into the catacombs, which serve as a sort of family burial grounds for the race of Montresors. But rather than a mere cask of wine, Fortunato finds his death; for Montresor bricks him into a niche of the catacombs which has remained undisturbed for the fifty years since the murder was performed. How simple!

How simple, indeed--at least until we examine a group of irreconcilable paradoxes in the story. To begin with, the names Montresor and Fortunato are synonymous. (Hoffman 223) Secondly, we find that the motive for the crime was some unnamed insult. Motives for killing someone should be important enough to detail. Why does Poe have Montresor gloss over the motives? One view is that Montresor relates the details of the murder not to justify his actions, but as a form of confession. But if this be confession, where is the regret? Again, Poe leaves his readers mystified concerning the time and location for issuance of the narrative voice. If Montresor still lives, he must be a very old man. If so, the phantasms of his deed may have horrified him all of his life. Then why does he not seem horrified? If this be confession, then why does he seem not penitent?

Perhaps Montresor is coerced to confess his crime by his own imp, like the narrator of Poe's tale "The Imp of the Perverse," who lives for a time in apparent peace with his conscience, only to spill all the beans when his perverse spectre grabs hold of his will. One of the beauties of "The Cask of Amontillado" is that it will bear many interpretations. I do not lay claim to the definitive analysis of this tale. Instead I shall present diverse theories that support my general thesis: that Montresor and Fortunato represent a doppelganger illustrative of perversity.

Consider this ...

... middle of paper ... Fortunato ever deeper to effect this execution, is committing the murder of his father-figure in the act of possessing the mother's body.... So by interring Fortunato, Montresor at once has symbolically slain his own father and the rival for his mother's affection, and forever interred his own passion, his own fertility, his own vitality. (224-25)

Interesting assertions! They even fit Poe's biographical profile: the love of the mother closely associated with the images of death, Poe's interment of his own vitality, Poe's need to avenge the abuses of John Allan. In fact, Kenneth Silverman calls "The Cask of Amontillado" a "meditation on the art and passion of revenge" (316). Silverman believes that it is no accident that the Montresor family motto "Nemo me impune lacessit" is Scotland's national motto, and that as one of her son's, "'Scotch' John Allan, much resembled Fortunato in being a man 'rich, respected, admired, beloved,' interested in wines, and a member of the Masons." (316-317) Poe likely had Allan in mind when formulating the vengeance motif for the tale. Placing the cap and bells on Fortunato may have tickled Poe at the root.
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