Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
13 chapters | 131 lessons | 11 flashcard sets
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Heather teaches high school English. She holds a master's degree in education and is a National Board Certified Teacher.
'The Cask of Amontillado' - You might be thinking, 'Great. I don't even understand the title - how am I supposed to understand this story?' So before we can start exploring Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story, we first need to define a couple of words in his title. Amontillado is a very specific kind of Spanish sherry, sherry being a fortified wine. And a cask is a barrel. So if we put that all together, this story could be called 'The Barrel of Sherry,' but 'The Cask of Amontillado' has a much better ring, don't you think?
So, aside from being a story about a barrel of wine, Poe's short story is one of revenge and secret murder. It's a tale of terror starring two main characters: Montresor and Fortunato. Montresor is the narrator and the murderer. Fortunato is a wine connoisseur and the victim.
The story begins with the narrator Montresor explaining that a man called Fortunato has wronged him a thousand times over, but his insult is the final blow that has provoked his vow to revenge. He continues to assure us that he has given Fortunato no insight to the fact that he is plotting to kill him, and he plans to use Fortunato's knowledge of wine to lure him to his death.
Montresor continues to narrate his encounter with Fortunato at a carnival. He explains that Fortunato is dressed as a jester, in a striped outfit and a jester hat with bells. Fortunato is also very drunk, and he greets Montresor 'with great warmth.'
Very quickly, Montresor entices Fortunato to come to his home to see the pipe of Amontillado that he has acquired. A pipe is just a word for a barrel. Keep in mind; this is quite a large amount of Amontillado.
Montresor tells us that his servants are away from the house for the night, so they have the house to themselves. Montresor's home is large, and according to the details, we can assume it's been in the family for quite some time. When they arrive, they go into the catacombs via a winding staircase. Catacombs are underground passages that are often places where the dead are buried. In this case, these are the catacombs of the Montresors.
Remember, Fortunato is very drunk, and he begins coughing. Montresor says he is concerned for the man's health and offers him more drink. At this point, Fortunato is getting a bit goofy, jingling with all of his movements, and accuses Montresor of not being a mason. Montresor says he most certainly is a mason and shows him a trowel, which is like a small, somewhat-flattened shovel.
When they reach the most remote area of the catacombs, they find a smaller crypt that is lined with human bones. From there, they see a recessed area, about four feet deep, three feet wide, and seven feet high. Fortunato continues into this crypt with Montresor's urging him into the smaller space. Poor Fortunato is so drunk that he is confused as Montresor chains him to the area. Fortunato is still asking for the Amontillado while Montresor brings in stone and mortar. However, once Montresor starts building a wall at the entrance of the small area, Fortunato sobers up quickly. Montresor describes the sounds he hears as he builds, the jingling of Fortunato's bells and the clanking of the chains.
Once the wall is about half-way up, Fortunato begins screaming, and Montresor mocks him. Fortunato calms, and says, 'A very good joke indeed,' probably with his last bit of hope. Montresor humors him for a moment, but soon Fortunato realizes it's not a game. He screams, 'For the love of God, Montresor,' and Montresor repeats his words. There is silence.
Montresor, who wants Fortunato to continue to beg, becomes impatient and calls out to Fortunato, trying to provoke him. The man does not respond. In hopes of getting Fortunato to respond in some way, Montresor throws a torch into the only open area left. He hears the tinkling of bells. He says his 'heart grew sick' but only on the 'account of the dampness of the catacombs,' and he finishes building the wall. Then he says the events happened fifty years prior. He concludes his reminiscence with 'rest in peace.'
So, nothing like a story about burying someone alive, right? This particular short story is known as Poe's perfect piece, with each piece of information, each step of the plot, being intentionally prepared and executed (no pun intended). Poe called this the unity of effect. Everything is relevant, especially each part of the plot.
You might be familiar with the classic elements of plot and the plot diagram. Poe follows this concept intentionally, making each step of the story important to the next.
The exposition is the introduction to the story. Usually, this is where we learn about characters and setting. Poe sets the story as Montresor's memory. We discover the main characters and, more importantly, that Montresor has vowed to seek revenge for Fortunato's insult.
The conflict is what makes the story a story. It's the problem that must be solved. Montresor wants to seek revenge, but he's not quite sure how. His problem? He wants to seek revenge once and for all! He has a plan that begins as soon as he encounters Fortunato at the carnival.
The rising action is the detail in the story that leads us further into the characters and lets us explore the conflict. As Montresor and Fortunato descend into the catacombs, each step is bringing Fortunato closer to his death (of course, he doesn't know that).
The climax is the highest point of interest in the story. It's the point when the main conflict can be solved or not solved. Montresor is successful in chaining Fortunato to the wall. At this point, there is no escape.
The falling action is usually any after-effect of the climax. As Montresor bricks up the wall, we know it's all over for Fortunato, no matter how much noise he makes.
Finally, the resolution is the conclusion of the story. All of the problems are solved; all loose ends are tied. We learn that Montresor is old, and the events he described happened fifty years before. We know he was successful.
Because Poe was working to achieve the unity of effect, each part of his plot is relevant, building on the previous point and anticipating the next.
Part of what makes Poe's story so seamless is his use of irony. Irony is a technique where the author uses the characters or even the plot to imply an idea that is actually opposite of what is stated. The most obvious ironic element of the story is Fortunato's name. He's clearly not fortunate in this story - far from it! In fact, there's a lot that is ironic about Fortunato beyond his name. First off, Montresor waits for a carnival to track down Fortunato, and the poor man is wearing a jester outfit, complete with bells. Normally, we would associate carnivals and jesters with being carefree and full of life.
Even the bells on Fortunato's costume would have been ironic to those reading the story during Poe's life. Premature burial was not uncommon during Poe's time. Sometimes corpses were buried with bells on their clothing in case they were accidentally buried alive. If the body moved, the bells would be an alert to open the casket. Of course, Fortunato is intentionally buried alive, not accidentally. But Poe's craft does not end there.
Montresor tells Fortunato, 'Your health is precious,' knowing, of course, his plan to end his life. Fortunato even drinks a toast to the dead when they are in the catacombs, not knowing that he will be joining them shortly. While these details may initially appear to be simply interesting pieces of the story, we can see that they are far more intentional, adding to the overall effect.
Poe is the epitome of the Dark Romantic writer. 'The Cask of Amontillado' is a story of revenge and secret murder. There is no logic for this punishment. It is a tale of terror. Here Poe shows us the horrors of pure evil, a common theme, or a statement that the text seems to be making about the subject, in Dark Romantic writing. Montresor is evil. He is calculating and intentional in his planning for Fortunato's murder. Even in the end, he never really offers any sense of guilt. Even his reason for killing Fortunato seems so removed, an insult that is not defined and doesn't even to seem to be something Fortunato is aware of, being that he is quite welcoming and trusting when he encounters Montresor. Montresor is truly evil, and we, as the reader, should be horrified by his deeds.
To wrap it up, Edgar Allan Poe's short story 'The Cask of Amontillado' is the story of a man named Montresor who decides to seek revenge against a man named Fortunato, who has insulted him. He meets Fortunato at a carnival, lures him into the catacombs of his home, and buries him alive. Poe achieves what he calls the unity of effect by intentionally building each element of the plot, intertwining it with irony. The result is a story of revenge and secret murder. This is a chilling Dark Romantic tale to remind us that pure evil still lurks in the minds of men.
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Back To CourseEnglish 102: American Literature
13 chapters | 131 lessons | 11 flashcard sets