The nature of Montresor’s revenge in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is controversial; critics disagree upon several applicable questions. Is Montresor’s revenge a success or a failure? Is Montresor remorseful about murdering Fortunato? What is Fortunato’s insult and Montresor’s murder motive? The ambiguity of Montresor’s revenge has prompted numerous conflicting responses to these questions; however, the story’s evidence and certain critics’ insights suggest that Montresor’s revenge scheme ultimately fails, he is unremorseful, and his motive is based on religious-politico issues (yet somewhat ambiguous).
Unsuccessful and Unremorseful
Montresor’s revenge scheme is unsuccessful because it does not ultimately fulfill either of his two rules of revenge: “I must not only punish, but punish with impunity” and “the avenger [must] make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong” (Poe 848). Marvin Felheim maintains that since the crime has gone undetected “for the half of a century” (854), Montresor successfully implements his first rule. However, James E. Rocks asserts that Montresor is punished by fifty years of angst over the murder, “even if he cannot define those feelings nor experience genuine remorse” Sam Moon takes Rocks’ assumption a step further, asserting that Montresor experiences a lifetime of genuine and haunting remorse.
Moon claims that Montresor’s final phrase, “Rest in peace,” infers that, in confessing, he finally finds serenity (301). Many critics support Moon’s theory, but it is implausible. First, Montresor states that revenge is his motive, and a lack of remorse points more directly to a revenge motive than to any other; vindication for a perceived offense is easier to justify (thus, less likely to be regretted). Moreover, Montresor does not appear to be remorseful; his detailed recollection of every evil laugh and taunt underlines cruel arrogance, not remorse. He is careful to outline not the horror, but the genius in his scheme. In addition, Moon mistakes one of Montresor’s statements as evidence of remorse: “My heart grew sick – on account of the dampness of the catacombs.” There is a more compelling reason for Montresor’s heart to grow sick, that coincides with both his failed revenge and remorselessness.
Jay Jacoby points out that ironist critics generally find Montresor’s comment deceptive (e.g., the horror of his crime suddenly sweeps over him, but he tries to hide it from himself or his listener) (344). Jacoby offers a different perspective:
“… a stronger case can be made for another emotion underlying Montresor’s hasty rationalization: sudden disappointment as his carefully planned drama of revenge aborts at the untimely end of its main character … who dies still unaware of Montresor’s motives and before suffering the slow suffocation that would provide him time to fathom these motives.” (344)
Under this interpretation, the final bell jingling Montresor hears from Fortunato’s costume (followed by silence) suggests neither madness (as Moon asserts) nor comprehension of his insult and resignation to his fate (as Felheim insists) (Felheim, Moon, and Pearce 300), but immediate death caused by exposure to the cold, damp catacombs during illness. This unexpected turn of events would foil Montresor’s plan to fulfill his second rule of revenge, that “the avenger [must] make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong” (Poe 848). Jacoby continues: “Montresor’s choice of the mode of execution – slow-suffocation – suggests that he did not expect Fortunato to recognize his motive immediately, but to sober up and then, in walled in solitude, to discern gradually the cumulative result of the ‘injuries’ he had perpetrated on Montresor” (343). The terror of Fortunato’s situation (portrayed by a “succession of loud and shrill screams”) (Poe 853) combined with his persistent cough could initiate sudden death. Jacoby also claims that Montresor is troubled by the possibility when his final mocking words go unanswered (344):
But to these words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called aloud –
“Fortunato!” No answer. I called again –
“Fortunato!” 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. (Poe 854)
Montresor subsequently hears only the sound of chains from Fortunato; he then sits upon the bones, to “hearken to [the sound] with the more satisfaction.” (Poe 853). Jacoby suggests that Montresor’s perverse gratification “… remains incomplete if Fortunato ultimately fails to recognize his tormentor as an ‘avenger’ per se, which Fortunato gives no explicit indication of having done prior to his final silence.” This explains Montresor’s increasing impatience for a reply; his revenge scheme necessitates a conscious victim. Jacoby claims that Montresor thrusts a torch at Fortunato’s head and allows it to fall at his feet in a “… final effort to arouse his victim, suggesting that he is beginning to suspect that Fortunato is already dead.” The jingling of bells that follows, under this interpretation, is not a sign that Fortunato is still alive, but evidence that Fortunato has fallen to his death: “Surely a conscious Fortunato, no matter how stoic, would have cried out in response to the flame.” Jacoby also proposes that Montresor’s subsequent haste “… implies a recognition that the ‘satisfaction’ to be derived from his victim has ended.” Montresor’s second rule of revenge, making his vengeful purpose known to Fortunato, fails (344).
Jacoby also suggests that Montresor’s “rationalization” for his sick heart (“… on account of the dampness of the catacombs”) infers that he recognizes the irony of his self-defeat, but cannot directly admit it. He suggests that Montresor’s final words, “Rest in peace,” are more sincere than many critics assume – an indirect admission of Fortunato’s “one-upmanship” (344). Jacoby insists that Montresor has been tormented for a lifetime, not by remorse, but by his comprehension of F’s final victory; hence, his first rule of revenge, to “punish with impunity” (Poe 848), fails. Within Jacoby’s incisive theory, neither of Montresor’s rules of revenge succeeds.
Montresor’s Motive / Fortunato’s Insult
Jacoby’s theory, supporting Montresor’s unsuccessful revenge and remorselessness, seems most consistent with the story’s evidence; however, it does not define Fortunato’s insult, left ambiguous by Poe. Many critics seem hesitant to conjecture about the nature of the insult, while others maintain diverse opinions about it. Felheim’s theory of a religious-politico based motive, supported by Rocks but criticized by others, warrants further consideration. Although Poe does not disclose Fortunato’s specific insult, it seems to be associated with religious-politico issues.
Felheim and Rocks believe that Fortunato’s affiliation with Freemasonry is the fatal insult. While definitive evidence for this theory is weak, the historic CatholicMasonic conflict seems significant to Montresor’s revenge (in light of Montresor’s Italian, presumably Catholic descent and Fortunato’s “grotesque” Masonic gesture) (Poe 851). Freemasonry, though not a religion, embraces religious elements (Lewis 113), some of which conflict with Catholicism. Rocks states: “Although the time of Poe’s story is unclear, it could be set during the period of forthright Catholic reaction against Freemasonry: by the eighteenth century some Masons of the French, Italian and other Latin lodges were hostile to the Church… .” He also points out that the oaths and rituals of FreeMasonry were seen as a threat to church and state. In such a context, Montresor might view Fortunato as not only a heretic, but a political enemy of Catholicism’s secular domination.
John Freehafer disputes this theory: “Since Montresor had no prior knowledge that Fortunato was a Mason, he could not have used Masonry as an excuse for his premeditated crime.” (317). However, Freehafer’s only evidence that Montresor was previously unaware of Fortunato’s affiliation is Montresor’s surprise at the Masonic gesture; Masonic signs are secretive, so the gesture might have startled Montresor whether or not he was aware of Fortunato’s membership. Even so, Masonry membership is probably not the entirety of Fortunato’s insult. While acknowledging the general religious-politico foundation of the murder motive, Shannon Burns asserts: “… Montresor does not propose to kill Masons as a general religious principle. In the nature of Italian revenge his injury is specific: ‘… when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge’ … Fortunato must have directed his insult against Montresor’s family…”. This seems reasonable, since the story focuses on both Catholicism and Montresor’s family. The two could be interconnected; an insult against Montresor’s family might likewise defame his religion, and vice versa. Hence, the “thousand injuries of Fortunato” (Poe 848) are likely related to the religious-politico conflict, but the fatal insult is a more specific defamation against Montresor’s family and religion. It need not be precisely defined, beyond those terms. Perhaps the decades of conjecture surrounding Fortunato’s insult would amuse Poe; he may have intended that it remain relatively ambiguous.
Other critics have devised various murder motives for Montresor that are weak or flawed in logic. Joy Rea asserts that revenge is not Montresor’s motive, and that Montresor murders Fortunato simply because Fortunato genuinely loves him. She claims that Montresor only speaks of revenge to direct attention away from his perverse need to destroy a friend (306-07). Although Rea’s theory is reminiscent of the murderers of “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” (who kill people with whom they have warm relationships), it glosses over Fortunato’s two offensive insinuations: “I forget your arms” and “You? Impossible! A mason?” (Poe 850-51). If Fortunato indisputably loves Montresor, why would he intimate that the Montresor family is easily forgotten in its social exile, and that Montresor is not of the elite Masonic brotherhood (an aristocratic society, in the eighteenth century) (“Freemasonry”)? Moreover, Montresor is different from Poe’s other murderers: his narrative is calm, he is not delusional, he asserts a revenge motive, and he confesses in his old age. It follows that Montresor’s motive might be different, as well. Rea’s theory also necessitates the construction of some ulterior reason for which Montresor verifies revenge as his motive; directing attention away from another motive is merely a conjecture – a weak one, at that.
Although John H. Randall aptly suggests that the specific nature of Fortunato’s insult is irrelevant, he maintains that Fortunato deserves his fate because, despite his high birth, he merely presumes to a gentleman’s code held by “a little band of undisputed aristocrats” in the Middle Ages. Randall claims that the code, which depends not only on birth but also on “personal bravery and coolness,” allows a gentleman to personally “redress” any affront to his personal honor (seeking lawful recourse is below aristocrats) (302).
Randall claims that Montresor devises a series of “tests” to see if Fortunato is a true gentleman. For example, Montresor gives Fortunato repeated chances to escape his fate and shows him the murder weapon, as gentlemanly revenge requires, but Fortunato is not wise (hence, not gentlemanly) enough to recognize the hints. That Montresor is evaluating Fortunato is unlikely; no gentleman could pass such tests (particularly if intoxicated). Montresor is friendly to Fortunato and never utters a threat (Poe 848), so Fortunato is not necessarily unwise or ungentlemanly when he misses Montresor’s so-called cues. Further, Montresor has “definitively settled” his deliberate method of revenge in advance (Poe 848); if the certainty of Fortunato’s death was contingent upon his display of gentlemanly graces, Montresor would have included such a significant stipulation in his list of revenge rules. Moreover, Fortunato’s final plea, mimicked heartlessly by Montresor, indicates that more than mere class distinction is involved – the murder motive pivots on religion: “For the love of God, Montresor!” (Poe 854).
A third critic, James W. Gargano, maintains that Montresor’s motive arises from his fragmented psyche (312). He assumes Montresor is divided against himself, hence, unable to see the binding qualities of his resemblance to Fortunato (portrayed by mirroring symbolism, such as Montresor’s imitation of Fortunato’s supplications). Gargano believes that the revenge’s failure is not caused by remorse, but “… an inability to harmonize the disparate parts of his nature …” (313) – though he sees Montresor as remorseful as well as insane (an unlikely combination). It is clear that the story includes mirroring symbolism, but Montresor’s fragmented psyche (insanity) does not necessarily follow. Gargano himself points out that Montresor neither “loudly and madly proclaims his sanity” (as in “The Tell-Tale Heart”) nor suffers agonizing hallucinations that lead to self-betrayal (as in “The Black Cat” and “Ligeia”), but tells his tale with “outward calm and economy” (311).
Though Gargano claims that Montresor’s rational demeanor is deceptive, it would more likely represent interior sanity. The presumption many critics (including Gargano) make – that the same motive drives each of Poe’s murderers, hence, each must be insane – disregards the complexity and individuality of Poe’s characters.
Gargano also claims that Montresor’s internal discord distorts his reality, creating double meanings in his mind: wine vaults double as burial vaults; Fortunato’s Masonic sign contrasts with Montresor’s sinister pun; Montresor alters meaning as he mimics Fortunato’s words; etc. (313). However, Poe provides no indication that these clever dualities are hallucinations, or that they stem from inner conflict. They could merely be symbols of an ironic, simultaneous resemblance and divergence between the men, perhaps intended to highlight their joint membership in a brotherhood that transcends religious-politico differences: humanity. Gargano also argues that Montresor’s divided psyche causes him, following Fortunato’s vociferous screams, to tremble and unsheathe his rapier (314); however, Montresor might hesitate merely from fear that someone might hear the screams and discover his criminal activity. (This fear is momentary; as he feels the “solid fabric of the catacombs,” he is satisfied that no sound will penetrate them) (Poe 853).
Since Montresor is sane, his revenge motive must be somewhat rational (unlike fear of an evil eye as in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” or a cat’s bewitching in “The Black Cat” – or the need to remunerate love with murder, in both). Moreover, if Montresor’s motive draws from a religious-politico foundation, one might expect the presence of religious symbolism. That Montresor’s motive stems from the coherence of revenge based on religious-politico conflict precludes his insanity more than Rea’s theory (a murder motive of love), or Gargano’s theory (a split psyche). Felheim’s theory regards Montresor’s sanity but shows the revenge as successful, even fitting (300). Though Randall’s theory is also consistent with Montresor’s sanity, and is accurate in its stance that the Italian code of revenge coincides with Montresor’s rules of revenge (Burns), it focuses too sharply on social distinction and fails to account for the religious symbolism throughout the story.
For example, Montresor’s coat of arms is a Satanic serpent bruising the heel of a human foot (Poe 851); moreover, Montresor speaks of his ritualistic, profane act as an “immolation” (Poe 848). Elements of Christ’s passion are also introduced: the carnival parallels the Passover; the method of ensnaring Fortunato is intimate betrayal (resembling Judas’ kiss); like Fortunato, Christ is led to a “place of skulls” (Golgotha); and the wine they seek has sacred and sacrificial overtones (Amontillado means “from the mountain”) (Felheim, Moon, and Pearce 301). These symbols suggest a parody of biblical events, underlining the significance of Catholicism in Montresor’s motive.
These contrasting theories, while barely touching on the plethora of critical opinion over Montresor’s revenge, illustrate the extent of divergence surrounding the story. Regardless of the persistent controversy, few critics dispute that “The Cask of Amontillado” ranks as one of Poe’s superlative achievements.
Burns, Shannon. “‘The Cask of Amontillado’: Montresor’s Revenge.” Poe Studies 7.1 (June 1974): 25. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.
Felheim, Marvin, Sam Moon and Donald Pearce. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Notes and Queries 1.10 (Oct. 1954): 447-49. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna Nesbitt. Vol. 35. Boston: Gale Group, 2000.
Freehafer, John. “Poe’s ‘Cask of Amontillado’: A Tale of Effect.” Jahrbuch für Amerikastudien Ed. Ernst Fraenkel, et al. N.p.: 1968: 134-42. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Ann Nesbitt. Vol. 35. Boston: Gale Group, 2000.
“Freemasonry.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia.
Gargano, James W. “‘The Cask of Amontillado’: A Masquerade of Motive and Identity.” Studies in Short Fiction 4.2 (Winter 1967): 119-26. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna Nesbitt. Vol. 35. Boston: Gale Group, 2000.
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Lewis, James R. Witchcraft Today: An Encyclopedia of Wiccan and Neopagan Traditions. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1999. NetLibrary. National U Lib. System, San Diego, CA.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1996.
Randall, John H. III. “Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and the Code of the Duello.” Studia Germanica Gandensig 5 (1963): 175-84. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna Nesbitt. Vol. 35. Boston: Gale Group, 2000.
Rea, Joy. “Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’.” Studies in Short Fiction 4.1 (Fall 1966): 57-69. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Anna Nesbitt. Vol. 35. Boston: Gale Group, 2000.
Rocks, James E. “Conflict and Motive in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’.” Poe Studies 5.2 (Dec. 1972): 50. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, Inc.