Search This Blog

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Reader's Guide to "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe

Read online.
The narrator, Montresor, says because Fortunato has insulted and injured Montresor, he will get revenge through the object of the title.

Analysis with Questions and Spoilers:
The summary since Poe's plots are often simple on the surface, at least. Like "The Tell-Tale Heart" (discussion here), we have a murderer who details his murder. Section XII analyzes further similarities.

II. Title
What function does the object of the title serve?

The amontillado is a MacGuffin, an object pursued but has no real purpose to the plot except to provide a lure for the protagonist.

III. Opening
The story opens this way, explaining why Montresor killed:

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge."

Does Montresor mean a "thousand" when he says that number? What kind of injuries are meant? physical, mental, imaginary, spiritual? Does Montresor show signs of injury in the narrative? When someone is injured and they obsess over it, how well do they remember details, in general? What does this suggest about Montresor?

Montresor cannot name his injuries, does not show injury (except mentally in his desire to torture and starve someone to death), and uses vague figures. This suggests his injuries are invented. Furthermore, Fortunato goes with Montresor willingly. Even if drunk and flattered, their relations must be cordial. Fortunato thinks this all a joke, even toward the end. He cannot see what has eaten away at Montresor. Montresor does nothing more than vague gestures.

IV. Character of Fortunato
"You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed."
What might Montresor's description of Fortunato indicate?

Montresor does flatter Fortunato, but Montresor's comments tend to be true. If Fortunato were truly unloved and unhappy (which goes against his name--see below), it seems probably that Fortunato might have become wary about Montresor. Note, too, the blunt honesty in "you are happy, as once I was." Montresor is deceptive but not a teller of lies. One witnesses this again when Montresor pulls out a trowel to indicate he is a mason (not a freemason), which Fortunato must be.

Perhaps this suggests Montresor's true motive: jealousy. See next section.

V. Character of Lechresi and Fortunato Defined by Wine
"As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchresi. If any one has a critical turn it is he. He will tell me --" 
"Luchresi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry." 
"And yet some fools will have it that his taste is a match for your own." 
"Come, let us go." 
What does this banter suggest about Fortunato and Luchresi?

Clearly, this is Montresor uses this as a ruse to goad Fortunato into coming. Fortunato does not argue that their tastes are equivalent. Are they equivalent in other manners?

What if Montresor had decided not to go, due to his illness? If Montresor is jealous about Fortunato's happiness, would Luchresi have done just as well?

VI. Dress of Fortunato
"The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells."
What does this costume suggest?

Fortunato is dressed as a fool, but is played for a fool, not vice versa. The repetition of the jingling bells makes this concrete, making for a potent finale.

VII. The Reader and the Soul
"You, who so well know the nature of my soul, "
What does the "you" suppose?

Collusion. Unlike "The Tell-Tale Heart", the reader is meant to vouch for Montresor. But maybe we do not have to, especially after hearing this story. This becomes fascinating later in the narrative. At first most readers may be dubious of his motives, but later we somehow do root for the murderer. We find him clever. We admire his craftiness. Note in the Wikipedia article how various scholars have tried to support the vague murderer. Why would we do that unless Poe's narrator hasn't brought us over to his side?

On the other hand, maybe the narrator is speaking with the devil, God, or some other being of the afterlife since "you" knows the nature of the soul. Later Montresor responds:

"For the love of God, Montresor!" 
"Yes," I said, "for the love of God!"

This may indicate Montresor believes he does this for the love of God.

VIII. Obfuscation
"You will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled --but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong."

What does "gave utterance to a threat" mean? Who threatened whom? Why write "it was resolved" and "is unredressed" twice? What kinds of sentences are these? What does "punish with impunity" mean?

The passage is overwritten. The sentences are so vague and passive that it is difficult to know who did what what to whom--actions without actors. Is it possible that, after all these years, that it was Montresor who had done the injuries? This is conjecture, but why else would he hide the actors?

When the narrator says, "punish with impunity," he wants to get away with slow torturous murder without any kind of punishment. Whatever injuries Fortunato may or may not have done, does that equal a tortured death?

IX. Names

What significance might the character names, Fortunato and Montresor, have? 

Fortunato means fortunate, which he is not in this story. Saints and martyrs have been named Fortunato.

Montrésor is a French castle whose 1493 owner, Imbert de Batarnay was a "skilful and cunning" councillor.

What seems a likely source of the name Montresor is Claude de Bourdeille, comte de Montrésor, who wrote memoirs and participated in intrigues. His memoirs are described by Encyclopedia Britannica interesting, naive, and frank.

American John Montresor wrote a Maine expeditionary guide that fell into the hands of traitor Benedict Arnold. Montresor also owned an island in New York which he named after himself. It was used as a British military post during the Revolutionary war and would later become a home to transported graves, asylums and hospitals.

Fortunato, then, is a (not so) fortunate martyr for amontillado. Montresor is frank if untrustworthy traitor, a likely insane conveyor of graves.

X. Fortunato's Achilles
"He had a weak point --this Fortunato --although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine..., but in the matter of old wines he was sincere." 
"Luchresi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry." [said by Fortunato]
If Amontillado is a Sherry, what does that tell us about Montresor's commentary on Fortunato and Fortunato's dialogue?

Montresor is correct. Pride in wine is Fortunato's downfall. A scholar says that the Amontillado is a Sherry; therefore, Fortunato is a true connoisseur. Possibly. This, however, disagrees with what Montressor believes. Another interpretation of the line is that Luchresi does not have refined enough tastes to distinguish an Amontillado.

XI. Montresor's Doubt
"I have my doubts." 
"No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so. I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position.... For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!"
Why does Montresor repeat "I have my doubts" three times? What does it mean that his heart grew sick? What significance can we attach to the last three words of the story?

Montresor repeats "I have my doubts" three times. The third time feels almost a poetic response compared to the other two instances, suggesting multiple meanings. Might he be suggesting more than doubts that the amontillado is genuine? Might he be having doubts about this entire venture?

That seems a dubious assertion in light of his opening lines, but what do we make of the last paragraph? He seems sad that Fortunato does not reply to his taunts. He admits his heart grows sick at this jingling of bells, but he assigns it to the dampness, which few of us probably buy. Finally, he bids his old enemy to rest in peace. If the narrator is confessing to a priest, God, or the devil, maybe he feels some regret he tries to obscure, to bury under other reasons. This matches his opening obfuscations and inability to describe what he's done.

XII. Cask vs. Heart: Comparative Literature

How does this narrative compare to "The Tell-Tale Heart"
  1. Both have unreliable narrators.
  2. Both rely on the reader as a participant.
    1. They differ in that we are not buy into "The Tell-Tale Heart"'s narrator
    2. Montresor does temporarily (or perhaps convincingly) get his readers to collude/condone his murder. There's something far more sinister in such a murderer.
  3. Both betray their victims, feigning kindness to kill them.

No comments:

Post a Comment