The Cask of Amontillado is one of the Poe’s shows of creativity in writing short stories. The piece of work is precise and representative of the society. Several literary tools are used to expose the characters and themes. The setting of the story is unique but resonates Poe’s literary expertise. In fact, the story is told from a first-person perspective. A critical evaluation of The Cask of Amontillado portrays the complex nature of humanity in mind and deeds. The inexplicable wickedness of the mind, the urge for revenge as well as the difficulty in reconciling a facial expression with one’s thoughts dominate in the work (Poe 11). The plot of the short story is flowing and emphatic on the main themes at each stage. However, Poe’s application of literary tools forms the backbone of interpretation and understanding of the story as well. The creative use of irony, engaging symbolism as well as the mix of imagery in The Cask of Amontillado blends together to present it as an entertaining and informative story about the complex nature of the humanity.
In a short review of the story, Montresor, a vengeful character, plots a despicable plan to entomb Fortunato, a winemaker. The narrative is given by Montresor fifty years after the evil act. The development of the story is hinged on the major theme of revenge. It is worth to note that thematic focus of the story is strongly supported by symbolism, imagery as well as irony.
Symbolism is a key literary tool used in Poe’s short story with an overwhelming effect on the composition and message of the narrator (Whalen 98). In The Cask of Amontillado, almost each object has a symbolic meaning. While Montresor is leading his victim, the winemaker, through the vault, they come by and have a talk over the family coat of arm. In the first place, Montresor’s plan is revenge against Fortunato whom he claims to have been insulting his family. In that case, the instance Fortunato tells Montresor that he cannot remember how their family coat of arm looks like, the former consider that statement as a continuation of the insulting. In a flash of Montresor’s thoughts, he gives a vivid description of the coat of arm to communicate to the reader. The coat of arm has the picture of a shield which bears another picture of a giant “human foot” resting on “a field azure”. The giant foot is crushing the head of a wild crazy “serpent”. In fact, it is evident that the fangs of the serpent are completely buried in the heel of the giant foot. In a symbolic interpretation, Fortunato is the serpent who has been biting Montresor. In that respect, the giant foot symbolizes Montresor’s deadly revenge plan, hence, the crushing is the impending death of Fortunato.
The motto of the coat of arm states: “Nemo me impune lacessit”, which translates to “no one attacks me with impunity” (Bloom 31). In essence, the coat of arm is an overall symbol of revenge which the family of Montresor glorifies. The motto and the features of the coat of arm are a match to the evil fantasy of Montresor that dominates in Poe’s short story. A critical review of the azure color, which is bright blue, is a symbol of the sky; in turn, the sky symbolizes freedom. In the context of The Cask of Amontillado, the color of the coat of arms symbolizes Montresor’s imagination of gaining freedom after entombing Fortunato.
As Montresor tactically leads Fortunato to the script, they recall the nobility of a freemason. While Fortunato in his drunk status expresses his superiority over Montresor in regard to the freemason membership, Montresor brings out a symbol of the group – a trowel. In explaining different sceneries, the narrator uses such terms as “carnival” to symbolize a season of rejoicing and partying. Besides, the vault in its quietness is a symbol of the environment of the dead. In fact, as the two walks through the vault, Fortunato toasts to the dead relatives of Montresor. Symbolism plays a key role in the overall plot development, thematic emphasis and setting of the short story (Griffith 78).
Irony dominates in this story forming the basis of Poe’s literary approach (Frank, et al.65). From the beginning of the narration, Montresor tells Fortunato, “My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met,” as an expression of complement and friendship while as the narration unfolds, he means a fate with the death to Fortunato. It is equally ironical to note that Fortunato means fortunate, but the tragic end of his life is opposite of the meaning. The narration explains that the revenge mission was planned and executed at the eve of a carnival. This is a season of celebration and the timing of Montresor’s plan is an ironical twist to the reader. The situational irony which characterizes this story is countless. In such cases, what is expected turns out opposite when it happens. As the plot of the story indicates, Fortunato is dressed in a jester that symbolizes an ultimate joy and happiness. However, this attire is a complete opposite of the tragedy that awaited him in the catacomb. Fortunato is a wine maker and the word used in the story is cask. Instead, the entombing of Fortunato is representative of a casket.
Dramatic irony is also notable in the plot development of The Cask of Amontillado. In this case, as Montresor guides Fortunato to his death; they pass through a niter which makes Fortunato cough. In a show of self-belief, Fortunato assures Montresor that a cough cannot kill him and he cannot die, while in Montresor’s mind, Fortunato will ultimately die. Fortunato says, “the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I will not die of a cough.”, upon which Montresor replies, “True-true”. A reader of this story at this point is mesmerized at Montresor’s height of wickedness as he actually harbors the secret of Fortunato’s ultimate death despite the assurance to his friend.
Verbal irony is widely used in The Cask of Amontillado. In this case, what Montresor tells Fortunato is always opposite of what he does. When the two are traveling through the catacombs, Fortunato asks Montresor if he is a mason, Montresor agrees and confirms through the trowel while in actual he is a craftsman who will entomb him with stones and mortar. Montresor also portrays a spirit of friendship, compassion, and care of Fortunato by assuring him that he will be taken back safely as his health is precious. However, deep in Montresor’s mind, he is sure Fortunato will not see the daylight again. This aspect explores the depth of the hatred Montresor holds against Fortunato. At one point, Montresor toasts to Fortunato inside the catacomb claiming that it is meant for long life while he actually toasts Fortunato to death.
Imagery is also employed in this literary work in several instances. In fact, the plot of the story is significantly boosted by imagery. As Montresor attends the carnival to lure Fortunato to his death, he puts on a mask of black silk which is an image of biased and uncouth justice. On the other hand, Fortunato puts on a motley-colored costume of a Jester which is representative of a court fool. In fact, this is realized when Montresor easily lures him through the reverse psychology into the catacomb and entombs him. The characters themselves describe the vault as a cold and insufferably damp which is an image of a lonely place likened to death. In reality, the vault is a burial place for Montresor’s family members which Fortunato eventually joined alive. The dialogue between Montresor and Fortunato explores an application of imagery with much emphasis on the dead end of the catacomb (Poe 14). The vault is an image of the shadow of the underworld. Although Fortunato is not aware, the choice of Montresor’s supposed wine location is a literal image of a fateful end. In fact, as Fortunato finally enters the tomb and makes the last effort to free himself, Montresor seals it with stones and mortar as an image of the final resting place.
Poe has used other literary tools, such as allegory, but not to the extent of a significant effect on the overall interpretation of the work. The creativity in this story reflects Poe’s understanding of human behavior and the delicate balance between the reality and the appearance in interpersonal interaction.
Bloom, Harold. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and Other Stories. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2009.
Frank, Frederick S, Tony Magistrale, and Edgar A. Poe. The Poe Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1997. Internet resource.
Griffith, Kelley. Writing Essays About Literature: A Guide and Style Sheet. Boston, Mass: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Cask of Amontillado. 1st ed. Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Library Electronic Text Center, 1993. Print.
Whalen, Terence. Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America. Princeton University Press, 1999. Print.