"The Cask of Amontillado": Critical InterpretationsAmong Poe's most intriguing tales is "The Cask of Amontillado," first published in Godey's Lady's Book in November of 1847. A surface reading of that story reveals only a simple description by Montresor (the narrator) of how he kills another man who was called, ironically, Fortunato.
Montresor exploits Fortunato's vanity concerning the connoiseurship of wine; specifically, Montresor pretends to want a wine cask of Amontillado verified as genuine. Montresor chooses a time when Fortunato is drunk to dupe him into going down the spiral stairs into the catacombs, which serve as a sort of family burial grounds for the race of Montresors. But rather than a mere cask of wine, Fortunato finds his death; for Montresor bricks him into a niche of the catacombs which has remained undisturbed for the fifty years since the murder was performed.
How simple!How simple, indeed–at least until we examine a group of irreconcilable paradoxes in the story. To begin with, the names Montresor and Fortunato are synonymous. (Hoffman 223) Secondly, we find that the motive for the crime was some unnamed insult.
Motives for killing someone should be important enough to detail. Why does Poe have Montresor gloss over the motives? One view is that Montresor relates the details of the murder not to justify his actions, but as a form of confession. But if this be confession, where is the regret? Again, Poe leaves his readers mystified concerning the time and location for issuance of the narrative voice. If Montresor still lives, he must be a very old man. If so, the phantasms of his deed may have horrified him all of his life. Then why does he not seem horrified? If this be confession, then why does he seem not penitent?Perhaps Montresor is coerced to confess his crime by his own imp, like the narrator of Poe's tale "The Imp of the Perverse," who lives for a time in apparent peace with his conscience, only to spill all the beans when his perverse spectre grabs hold of his will. One of the beauties of "The Cask of Amontillado" is that it will bear many interpretations.
I do not lay claim to the definitive analysis of this tale. Instead I shall present diverse theories that support my general thesis: that Montresor and Fortunato represent a doppelganger illustrative of perversity.Consider this explanation which springs from Poe's choosing synonymous names for the story's two characters. Montresor has become so alienated from his physical reality that he must murder that side of himself. The fact that Fortunato easily succumbs to the pleasures of the flesh would seem to reinforce the view that Montresor and Fortunato constitute another of Poe's divided personalities; they are actually but one person divided against himself. In addition, we have Montresor, the judging side of the personality, emblematic of the Imp of the Perverse.
So far, so good. Montresor preys upon Fortunato's tendency to drink, as well as upon his vanity. Fortunato, representative of the flesh, dons the fool's cap and is led by Montresor to a pitiful death. He walls Fortunato the fool in himself into a niche in the catacombs; the voice that speaks to us comes from beyond the grave. Yet still it must confess–only to suicide!The suicide thesis would preclude that Poe has purposefully encoded the story.
This encoding would suggest that he has deliberately diddled his readers, or that he wants the story to serve as litmus for the intuition, or both. So, are there more clues to support the suicide thesis? We have Montresor's coat of arms, a foot crushing "a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel." What symbol could better suggest the action that Montresor has taken.
The foolish side of his nature plants its fangs in his heel; thus he must destroy it, lest it destroy him. Very similar is Montresor's situation to that of William Wilson–except that the narrators are reversed. William, who narrates that tale, resembles Fortunato. Both are tempted by the follies of the flesh.
Wilson, on the other hand, is a dead ringer for Montresor, the ever-judging agent of the perverse.But what of the serpent? Do not its fangs, too, represent perversity? According to Daniel Hoffman, "each side of the split ego has its own Imp of the Perverse." (213) Further, "What makes Wilson fail but the betrayal of his impulse to do evil by his equally uncontrollable impulse to judge himself?" Applying Hoffman's hypothesis to "The Cask…
," one can speculate that no matter which side of Montresor's nature acts, the other will counter perversely to spoil the action of that side. Thus, both the fangs of the serpent and the crushing action of the foot suggest self-immolation..