Poe’s ‘Cask of Amontillado’ depicts dominant themes of the times in which the essay is set, 19th Century Europe with the plot denoting Italian aristocracy. Revenge of insults real and imaginary and burying people alive were two themes of the era. Poe was alive to these trends and hence has very effectively capitalized on the same throughout the plot. The theme thus revolves around an aristocrat; Montresor seeking revenge on an Italian nobleman Fortunato who he feels has insulted and not just injured him. As an member of the aristocracy of noble birth Montresor is reconciled to an injury, but his vanity cannot tolerate insult and he thus seeks revenge.
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Poe’s allusion to revenge as the centrality of the plot is direct and forthcoming. The opening paragraph of, ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ highlights this to the reader in no uncertain terms stating that the protagonist, will seek avenge at length. (Poe, 1991). This is emphasized throughout the paragraph in various forms. Revenge is indicated as a definitive issue to be settled for being scorned.
To underline the theme further, Montresor states that the nature of his soul being such, revenge has not been uttered by him as a mere threat but something which will be carried to conclusion. The intent of retribution is also indicated with the emphasis on punishment not just being given but done so with impunity. But perhaps the final sentence in the opening paragraph appears to seal the argument of the plot which indicates that if revenge overtakes the redresser as well as when it is not felt as such by the wrong doer the wrong is not addressed properly.
The setting of the plot is also appropriate to the theme of revenge. Poe provides an interesting backdrop in the form of contrast between the carnival and dark catacombs. The carnival represents joy and happiness which is central to the occasion; on the other hand the labyrinthine catacombs represent death. By transforming his victim from a location representing joy to one representing death, the impact of revenge is heightened through the stark contrast. Montresor’s family motto, "Nemo me impune lacessit", literally translated means, “No one can attack me without being punished”. This is another indication of vengeance being the foundation of the story. (Silverman, 1991). This comes about some where in the final paragraphs leaving no doubt in the minds of the reader that this is a story of revenge.
Tales of revenge amongst the aristocracy of the 19th Century in Europe have been many. The motto of many people of high birth has been render punishment to those who have personally scorned them. That this reprisal can be for reasons which are not so substantial is indicated by the author through lack of evidence for Montresor’s ire against Fortunato only indicating it as a series of vile invectives imposed upon him over a period. This is also typical of the times, when aristocrats found reasons to despise each other and indulge in scandalous activity in Europe in the 19th Century. (Levine, 1990). The plot of revenge thus fits in well with the flavor of the times as well as environment of aristocracy in which Poe has placed it.
The ironic twists in the plot are both dramatic as well as verbal. Dramatic irony is indicated by the reader becoming aware of the fate of Fortunato much before he himself does so. This is indicated by Poe in the opening paragraph with Montresor not only speaking of revenge but the finality and certainty of it. Fortunato on the other hand remains oblivious of his fate for which the author provides a veneer of partial inebriation as the story unfolds and gradually more so as they descend down the catacombs. The name Fortunato indicating the fortunate is also ironic, as the reader is aware that he is likely to be sacrificed to the vile intent of the protagonist, Montresor.
Of verbal irony there are many examples however the most significant one could be that of Montresor vehemently agreeing with Fortunato when he indicates to him that he will not die of cough. Perhaps he knew too well that this was not to be, given the plans for burying alive that he had for his victim. The use of mason is also ironic. While Fortunato refers to it as the society of Masons, for Montresor it is literal, a role which he has planned for himself in burying Fortunato. Similarly the final words, “In pace requiescat” are also ironic. They seem to indicate not just rest in peace but respite in a monastic prison.
There are many more examples of dramatic irony indicated in the plot weaved by Poe. The dress of Fortunato who has come to attend the carnival with bells on his cap is symbolic of this sarcasm. It perhaps represents a man going to his death bed with bells tolling past. The narrative brings out ringing of the bells as a symbol of derision many times of over. Is the man ringing in his death, some readers may seem to derive. As the two go deeper into the labyrinth, the reader may sense certain sinister forebodings in the jingling of bells each time.
In another sense too the dress could be considered as ironic.
Fortunato is dressed as a jester or a clown, most appropriate for the carnival but hardly correct for a man going to his death bed. The irony is two fold. As Montresor chains and buries Fortunato, his feeling that it was just a jest may not be too far fetched, given the overall mood of the occasion of the carnival and his dress as a clown. On the other hand the dress is also representative of the fact that Montresor was making a, “fool” out of Fortunato.
Another indication of irony is the snub on Italians who Montresor calls as lacking virtuoso spirit and always attempting to suit their audience be it from Austria or Britain particularly when they are rich and wealthy. The fondness and taste of Italians for wine receives special mention by Poe, underlining their vanity. The irony is also evident as he takes Fortunato into the vault. At each stage, he highlights to him that he is of rich taste, high birth and endearing. A false sense of self importance and greatness is created so that he is taken on by this aura and then led deeper into the burial chamber to achieve revenge.
This impact is also subtly highlighted by Poe by interjecting Fortunato’s persistent cough. This provides Montresor a reason to suggest to Fortunato, that he should not go into the vault which is damp thereby aggravating his cough. But this only increases Fortunato’s anxiousness to taste Amontillado further. As they proceed through the great labyrinth of vaults, Montresor offers Medoc to relieve the cough.
As Fortunato remarks that he drinks to the spirit of those buried around them perhaps ominously without knowing that he would also be one of them in a short while. On the other hand irony is also evident with the words of Montresor who drinks to the long life of the person whom he was about to kill. The reader in the meanwhile may remain curious to know the ultimate outcome at each interjection of cough and suggestion to call off their descent.
Montressor offers to return even as the dampness in the cellars increases and uses Fortunato’s cough as a medium for the same. The irony of the situation where he is taking a man down to his death while at the same time inducing him to return is not lost on the reader. And this is what creates suspense. Will Fortunato follow Montresor to the death chamber or not?
Will he fall to the repeated minions of Montresor to turn back or his own lure for the elusive wine? The suspense slowly unfolds as the two men go down the labyrinthine tunnels. Fortunato’s final call not for mercy but to relieve him of the jest as the mistress would be waiting also represents dramatic irony as well as suspense. As they move down, Montressor shows him a mason’s trowel in an offensive gesture, and the reader is left wondering if Fortunato will get the hint. But it is not to be, the suspense hangs on as they proceed further down the vaults.
At each stage of the move down the cellar, Montressor fortifies his victim with more wine to prepare him for the final journey so that when they reach the final crypt, Fortunato is sufficiently inebriated to fall easily into the trap laid out for him. Thus as he finds himself at a dead end facing a rock; Montressor easily chains him without much difficulty. And then Poe narrates the arduous manner in which Montressor buries his friend erecting tier upon tier slowly and steadily. At each stage he has a look within and the reader has a feeling that he may stop the masonry and rescue Fortunato, but that is not to be and the suspense hangs on.
The suspense of the plot also lies in the reader expecting the reason for Montresor’s revenge, yet till the end there is not even a hint of the same. This may give an impression that the revenge sought by Montresor was not so grave and could be an imaginary grouse, perhaps a statement against the aristocracy of the times intended by Poe. Yet as Poe maintains anxiety, even as Montresor is burying Fortunato brick by brick covered elaborately in narration, the reader could have possibly been given an inkling of the underlying cause of the rivalry which has led to this misfortune. Poe keeps us waiting leading to the surmise that the cause may not be very grave and also that the narrator may not be wholly stable.
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