Often referred to as an example of the perfect short story The Cask of Amontillado was first printed in Godey’s Lady Book 1846. In this short story the narrator Montresor takes us on a journey of personal vengeance. His family motto “I must not only punish but punish with impunity” becomes his mantra as he leads Fortunato, the person who has supposedly wronged him, to his death.
From the very beginning we have the parallel of Montresor leading Fortunato, who is dressed as a jester, through the catacombs on their own private parade. Mirroring the carnival above them, the two figures wander along the underground path doing a twisted version of a macabre death dance. Almost like two opponents fencing, except Fortunato has no idea he is part of a symbolic ritual. Montresor attacks and parries with a back and forth play of the tongues in an exquisite game of cat and mouse.
The narrator plays to the audience (the reader) enticing them to come along and see where the parade ends. The reader follows with incredulous disbelief and a sense of daunting fear at the possibility of what Montresor might do.
Do you think he will?
Do you want him to?
A moral conundrum Poe likes to hide in a tale within a tale. The truth being that each man or woman is capable of acting upon the base instinct of to kill or be killed. The greater and more fearsome truth, however, is how many of us would act upon that instinct if we were pushed to the boundaries of our own compass; and how much quicker we would cross those lines if we could punish with impunity and never pay the price.
Montresor plays upon Fortunato’s vanity and ego to convince him to continue on towards his impending fate. A paradox of course, because it is the narrator’s own hurt pride that has brought about the events in question.
One must admire Poe for his sheer audacity at times and for his literary cojones at calling out the Freemasons and poking fun at them with the tools of his trade (pun completely intended).
“You? Impossible! A mason?”
“A mason,” I replied.
“A sign,” he said, “a sign.”
“It is this,” I answered, producing from beneath the folds of my roquelaire a trowe.
Of course there are meanderings that suggest his witty repertoire in regards to the Masons might well have been the beginning of the end for Poe, but that conspiracy theory is better left for another occasion…
By now you would have thought that Fortunato might just begin to question why they are looking for a bottle of Amontillado alone in an underground passage with only disinterested skeletons from previous centuries looking on. Gut instinct does catch up with him in the end; however, like every gentleman of that era he realizes that convention and etiquette come before gut. At this point Fortunato is on equal standing with the reader when it comes to the conscious train of thought.
It is not possible that a man of Montresor’s status would harm him in any way. The rules of the upper echelon of society do not allow for this avenue of thought. He is a gentleman, a man of honour and he is trustworthy.
The notion of the word gentleman dictates the behavior expected of the bearer. Fortunato holds on tightly to this idea of brotherhood, despite previously alluding to their inequality in status. Even chained to the wall he would rather believe in the slither of hope that they will both laugh at this absurd moment one day in the future.
The setting and timing of Montresor building the wall is exquisite in the minutiae of detail. Each layer of bricks corresponds with a reaction from Fortunato. Every stage of acknowledgement of his plight goes hand in hand with the bricks being placed with murderous efficiency. Again, what better way to slap the Freemasons round the head than by entombing one of their own with the tools and materials associated with one of their trades?
A bold statement, I seal you in.
I silence you.
Poe was known for using his articles and stories to send subliminal messages to others. This piece was written during an on-going altercation with Thomas Dunn English. English published a novel called ‘The Doom of the Drinkers’ which featured a character called Woolfe, a cruel caricature of Poe. Poe wrote ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ in response to those insults.
What better way to threaten a man than to publish a short story and pretend it is but mere fiction. Quite clever really, nobody would ever expect a public figure to publish a real threat. Telling everyone and his intended target that if he does not stop that he will make sure he stops.
Nemo me impune lacessit.
No one “cuts” (attacks) me with impunity.
No one can harm me unpunished.
Now doesn’t that make Poe seem a little less dark and sociopathic and a lot more like a man just taking care of business? There is great debate about the content of his pieces. The psyche of Poe in relation to his creations and the supposed madness that steered his pen. Was there a darkness within, that screamed to be heard or was it merely a man with a vast abundance of creative energy? I wonder if a century from now readers will suggest the same about Stephen King.
If this has whet your appetite for a deeper glimpse into the formidable mind of Poe, feel free to take a closer look. Here is a vintage visual take on the story starring Bela Lugosi and an audio book for those that enjoy sound over sight.
Free downloads of the books mentioned above:
Download to read The Cask of Amontillado at the Internet Archive or at Feedbooks.
Download to listen to an audio version of The Cask of Amontillado at the Internet Archive.
Download to view a video version of The Cask of Amontillado at the Internet Archive.
Download to read a sample of The Works of Edgar Allen Poe at the Internet Archive.
Download to listen a collection of poetry by Thomas Dunn English at Librivox.