The Cask of Amontillado Summary

Edgar Allan Poe

The Cask of Amontillado

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
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The Cask of Amontillado Summary

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In his short story “The Cask of Amontillado,Edgar Allan Poe reveals in the first paragraph the primary motivation, as well as the thoughts that twist and turn in the mind of the character, Montresor. Stylistically, it is an interior monologue in that Poe provides no grammatical markings to Montresor’s narrative.

Montresor ponders his act of revenge and with it, his plans for the murder of an acquaintance named Fortunato. Fortunato means “the fortunate one,” his reference in the first sentence the beginning of Poe’s unrivaled skill at macabre humor and twists in the mind of someone willing to commit murder. In this case, the murderer lures the reader in as Montresor makes clear his retribution will be carried out on the basis of an insult.

Our curiosity is stirred when Montresor does not reveal what the specific insult was, only that it was egregious enough to warrant the most extreme form of retribution. We are left to wonder how Montresor will carry out his deed, and if it will be successful.

The story’s setting is not named, but is likely in an Italian city. Written in 1846, the manners comport with 19th century manners of the time. Montresor has cleverly chosen to carry out his revenge during “carnival season,” mentioning the supreme madness of the carnival festivities. Revelers imbibe an abundance of wine and adorn themselves with outfits that reflect no concern for their station in life.

It is in this context that Montresor greets the object of his revenge, Fortunato. Fortunato is wearing a parti-colored dress and a conical cap adorned with bells, such as the Fool would wear in a Shakespeare play.

Montresor lures Fortunato with a “pipe” of Amontillado. A pipe is 130 gallons. Amontillado, a premiere sherry aged far longer than other sherries, has a superior taste and aroma compared with other sherries in Italy and the bulk of Europe. Montresor tells Fortunato that he took the risk of purchasing the sherry, as Fortunato could not be found for consultation.

Fortunato is wildly beside himself. The very fact that Montresor has Amontillado in his possession is seemingly more than he can bear as he repeatedly bellows “Amontillado!” As he does, Montresor attempts to dissuade Fortunato from taking his time to bother with the purchase. Montresor tells Fortunato that he was on his way to see Luchesi – a notable connoisseur of wines – which does nothing but raise the ire of Fortunato to get to the Amontillado himself.

Montresor tries again to push Fortunato away, which of course, only reels him back in with more intent. Montresor notes that he does not want to importune Fortunato, as it is clear he is otherwise engaged.

When Fortunato resists, Montresor confesses that he can see that Fortunato is suffering from a cold and the wine vaults are insufferably damp and encrusted with nitre—a compound of potassium nitrate, which grows in damp environments and can induce coughing.

When Montresor has exhausted his initial attempts to prove to Fortunato that his desire is not to get him in the dank and clammy environs of his family’s catacombs, Fortunato enveloped Montresor as they made their way to the vaults. As they entered, Montresor grabbed two bottles of wine, in large measure to enhance Fortunato’s already steadily increasing inebriation.

Montresor had already planned for his attendants to not be at home for the evening. They willingly took advantage of the opportunity to join the festivities of the carnival.

Fortunato and Montresor enter the catacombs. Poe uses character action to bring to life the dramatic change in venue. Fortunato goes into a fit of coughing that seems endless. He cannot speak for many minutes.

In their exchange, Montresor concurs it’s the nitre. Again, Montresor makes sport of the prey he is hunting through miscues, manipulation, and the feigning of concern. As he insists that they hasten from the catacombs, Montresor hints at his malevolent thoughts when he notes that Fortunato is “rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy as I once was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter.” Montresor makes clear that his family has lost its prominence, respect, and wealth. Once again, he attempts to get Fortunato to return with him back outside. He mentions Luchesi, again prompting a bellicose response from Fortunato that Luchesi is a dunce when it comes to wines.

As they push on, deeper into the catacombs, Montresor wants to ensure their safety against the elements. He grabs a Medoc, knocks off the top, and they both imbibe. Once again, Montresor mentions that his family was a great and numerous family. Fortunato has forgotten what their family arms were. Montresor informs him they were “A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel. He tells Fortunato the motto was: “Nemo me impune lacessit,” or “No one can attack me without being punished.”

Montresor reaches for a flagon of De Grave. Fortunato inhales the wine in one breath. He makes a most unusual gesture. He can tell Montresor does not understand the motion, proving he is not a Mason—a clear indication of his withered status in society. Montresor counters Fortunato’s gesture by removing a mason’s trowel from beneath the folds of his clothing, a disclosure, which has no impact.

The two men trudge on to where the cask of Amontillado is stored. The walls and the ceiling grow smaller as they continue on a path of descent, redolent with foul air. They come upon a sight that reminds them of the catacombs of Paris—piles of human bones. Suddenly, they find themselves in front of an interior crypt where the bones are piled high. It seemingly has no purpose. It is four feet deep, three feet wide, and six or seven feet high. The two men keep walking until Fortunato can go no farther as there is a granite wall before him. In a quick, deft fashion, Montresor has Fortunato wrapped in a chain and padlocked.

Moving the pile of bones aside, Montresor reveals a quantity of stone and mortar. He vigorously plies his trowel, building a wall to seal the entrance to the niche. Montresor no longer hears the bellowing of the drunken man, but a long and obstinate silence. Suddenly, Fortunato played – or wasn’t playing at all – the card that Montresor so forcefully thrust upon him during the evening. Fortunato finds his predicament to be laughable, hysterically laughable. He reminds Montresor that it is getting late and they should be getting back.

Montresor throws a torch through the remaining aperture. All he hears is the jingling of the bells. He forces the last stone in place and plasters it. He then re-piles the bones in front of the walled in niche, taking consolation in the fact that those very bones had not been disturbed for 50 years. In pace re quiescat! May he rest in peace.

Theme

Analyzing the genius of Edgar Allan Poe, the progenitor of the detective novel, can be a daunting task. One can sing the praises of his technical virtuosity—quite notable in “The Cask of Amontillado.” No doubt, Fortunato will writhe in agony considering the multiple chances he had to escape. The irony is that he died in an attempt to prove himself, and in pursuit of the finest of sherries.

Yet, as with all geniuses, their very work grows with the work of the Critical Theorists. At the turn of the century, and still in vogue today, is the seminal work of Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. For the purposes of this short story, it is as simple as to suggest that we in fact are not in touch with our unconscious minds and the narratives that impact our dream world as well as our perceptions of reality.

However, we can concur with Poe that a successful short story will thus necessarily show a more harmonious relationship of part to whole, and part to part, than it is usual ever to find in a novel. “The Cask of Amontillado” is certainly representative of Poe’s most trenchant insight.