The Cask of Amontillado
By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849
It is dusk on a day during the annual carnival celebration in an
Italian city. People are eating, drinking, and making merry before the
beginning of the 40-day Lenten season.
But one of the city’s residents, Montresor, is not at all merry. Some time ago, a man named Fortunato–a wine connoisseur–wronged Montresor. In fact, according to Montresor, who is the narrator of the story, Fortunato had committed numerous offenses against him–the last one an intolerable insult. Montresor now plans revenge against Fortunato. A man can stand only so much.
When he encounters Fortunato on the street, Montresor does not let
on that he is angry or means harm to Fortunato, who, in keeping with the
carnival festivities, is tipsy.
Use of Irony
Throughout the story, Poe uses verbal and dramatic irony to build suspense, foreshadow the ending, and add a touch of macabre humor. Here are some examples irony:
The Title: The word cask,
meaning wine barrel, is derived from the same root word used to form casket,
meaning coffin. Thus, the cask figuratively represents Fortunato’s
Fortunato’s Name: The Italian name Fortunato suggests good fortune, luck. However, Fortunato is anything but fortunate; he is going to his death.
Fortunato’s Costume: Fortunato dresses as a court jester. His festive outfit contrasts with the ghastly fate that awaits him. From time to time, the bell on his cone-shaped hat jingles–a nice comic touch from Poe.
Reference to Masons: Fortunato asks Montresor whether his is a mason, meaning a member of the fraternal order of Freemasonry. Montresor says he is indeed a mason. However, he is using the word to mean a craftsman who builds with stone and mortar (because he will be building Fortunato’s “tomb,” a stone wall.)
Poe also uses irony frequently in the dialogue. For example, when Montresor runs into Fortunato, he says, “My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met.” Later, when Montresor pretends to be concerned about Fortunato’s hacking cough as they descend into the vaults, Montresor says, “We will go back. Your health is precious. Your are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as I once was. You are a man to be missed.” Fortunato then tells Montresor not to worry: “The cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I will not die of a cough.” To this reply, Montresor says, “True–true.” The reader at this point can almost see a devilish gleam in Montresor’s eyes, for he knows exactly how Fortunato will die.” Later, Montresor opens a bottle of wine and toasts Fortunato: “To your long life,” he says.