Theme of Revenge in Poe's 'The Cask Of Amontillado'

Theme of Revenge in Poe's 'The Cask Of Amontillado'

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The perfect revenge is an action so many scorned have attempted and what so many more have lusted after. Apt punishment for the offender, success without being discovered and fulfillment without regret are all elements for satisfactory vengeance. All were present in "The Cask of Amontillado." However, despite Montresor's actions seeming to be perfect, he does not fulfill the criteria for flawless revenge. Poe doesn't quite allow readers to feel convinced of his main character's peace of mind. Subtle indications are strewn throughout the story that suggest otherwise. Though Montresor intended to cleanse his honor of Fortunato's insults, it may very well be that he only succeeded in creating, for himself, a guilty conscience, forever depriving himself of the sweetness of revenge.
"The Cask of Amontillado" is told in the first person by Montresor. In the opinion of John Gruesser, Montresor who "lies on his deathbed, confessing his crime to an old friend, the You' of the story's first paragraph" (129) is signifying his guilt fifty years after the murder. It does not appear that he is disclosing this sin to someone out of revel, but rather out of regret. It is highly unlikely that he is still experiencing the murderous level of hatred for a foe who is now just the pathetic skeletal remains of a man who met his demise on account of the drink he loved.
Gruesser further speculates that Montresor may in fact be speaking to a priest to relieve his conscience of the dread he experienced each day since he murdered Fortunato (130). Such a theory is further demonstrated when Montresor calmly echoes Fortunato's exclamation, "For the Love of God" (Poe, 1597). Fortunato is not just crying for mercy during the last few moments that he has a chance. He is also warning Montresor to think of his own demise and the next world thereafter (Delaney, 130). Therein lies the source of Montresor's half a century of dread. He was so blinded by his hatred and lust for revenge that he failed to think of his own soul. Only when it is too late does he realize to how great of an extent he may have actually affected his own life.
Furthermore, just as Fortunato's words may have caused Montresor years of distress, as does both characters fulfillment of Montresor's coat of arms. Montresor is the heel, crushing and ending the life of a serpent, which fittingly represents Fortunato.

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However, in the serpent's last few moments, it bites the heel, sinking its venom into its assassin. Walter Stepp put it more eloquently: "… the emblem represents a scene of mutual destruction. Allegorically speaking, the foot and the serpent are locked together in a death embrace: neither can escape" (448). While Montresor may have ended Fortunato's life, Montresor was forever inflicted with the metaphorical venom Fortunato imposed in the last moments.
Even as Montresor beckons Fortunato down into the catacombs, there is evidence foretelling that he will not leave with his anticipated peace of mind. Montresor provides his victim with constant opportunities to turn around. Upon Fortunato's fit of coughing, Montresor feigns concern. Though it is evidently sarcasm, and obvious that Montresor is playing with Fortunato, he still took that chance. He keeps providing him with chances to escape his fate, and though he is fairly confident Fortunato will not return to the party, it nonetheless is still a risk. If Montresor was as dead set on his mission as he expressed, he would not have allowed the slightest hint of returning cross his lips.
Even if Fortunato had consented to abandon the promised amontillado, it would still be impossible for Montresor to undo everything, regardless of how far it had escalated. If he had forced Fortunato to return after his fit of coughing Montresor would have probably again been subjected to Fortunato's insults. Throughout the story, Fortunato unwittingly insults Montresor again and again, as in when he scoffs at the idea of Montresor being a mason. Were Montresor to experience more insults, his fury would emerge renewed. Or, perhaps Montresor would have had a change of heart once he witnessed the terror in Fortunato's eyes upon being chained. Even then, he could have faced imprisonment or even execution. Montresor had to realize that there would be no turning back once he set in motion the actions of revenge.
It is in the last paragraph of the tale that the reader can seriously begin to doubt if Montresor accomplished his goal; that is, of avenging his honor with a clear conscience and feelings of justification, not just avenging successfully. Just before placing the last stone that will imprison Fortunato forever, Montresor calls out to him a few times but receives only a "jingling of the bells" (Poe, 1597) in reply. In recalling the moment to his friend or priest, Montresor claims that "my heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so" (Poe, 1597).There would really be no purpose to mention such a feeling if it were just on account of the catacombs. It was possibly a blunder in Montresor's case, revealing his buried guilt, something that he had to quickly eradicate by blaming the atmosphere of the catacombs.
Furthermore, he claimed that he had to force the last stone into place. It was difficult not just physically but emotionally as well. The onset of the story, where he discusses his absolute need for vengeance, would lead the reader to believe he would = thrust the last stone into place in a joyous manner. But that was not so. Again, perhaps it goes back to knowing he could not undo what he had done. Therefore, even if he found the final stone to be a struggle, he still needed to finish the task not for vengeance's sake but for his own well being.
In Poe's review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice Told Tales, he explains that all stories need to have a "preestablised design" (Delaney, 40) that produce one effect, which can be complex and not limited to one emotion. In "The Cask of Amontillado," solely revenge was not complex enough. Therefore, the story needed to include how the actions affected Montresor beyond satisfaction over unredressing a wrong. Upon punishing Fortunato, Montresor is now capable of feeling pity for him and possibly regret (Delaney, 40). The compassion Montresor felt for his victim fifty years after the crime is evident when he says that no one has disturbed the remains of Fortunato. It is significant that he used disturbed rather than discovered. Montresor placed him there, so it could signify that he considers himself the sole "conscientious custodian" (Delaney, 40) of Fortunato's body. Furthermore, the last line of the tale, which is in Latin, translates to "may he rest in peace." It's possible that is not sarcasm but genuine. Even if that ownership of Fortunato, as well as compassion for him, and guilt over his death did not arise immediately, Poe was wise enough to realize that the narrator is a changed man half a century after his crime. Montresor is no longer the same man that entombed Fortunato fifty years before and, as aforementioned, couldn't possibly harbor the same ill feelings towards him (Delaney, 41).
The single effect in "The Cask of Amontillado" was not just vengeance, but the complex elements of his confession. The reader is left with the sense that even though he was avenged he did not fulfill his purpose. That is, he was not able to walk away without a guilty conscience or compassion for his victim. Someone as twisted as Montresor, who would murder someone in a way that promotes great suffering merely over an insult, would not be expected to feel guilt or compassion. Whichever it may be, many consider Montresor to be an epitome of evil. However, sometimes even the most evil individual can experience remorse despite themselves.

Works Cited
Delaney, Bill. "Poe's The Cask of Amontillado." The Explicator
Vol. 64 (2005): 39-41.
Gruesser, John. "Poe's The Cask of Amontillado." ¬The Explicator
Vol. 56 (1998): 129-133.
Poe, Edgar Allen. "The Cask of Amontillado." The Norton Anthology of American
Literature. Comp. and ed. Julia Reidhead. New York: W.W Norton and Company
2003. 1592-1597.
Stepp, Walter. "The Ironic Double in Poe's ‘The Cask of Amontillado." Studies in Short
Fiction Vol. 13 (1996): 448-453.
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