The Cask of Amontillado presents a variety of ironic acts and intentions, evident in both dramatic and verbal irony. The story’s setting also adds a sense of irony as it shifts from a joyful carnival scene to a gloomy cavern of death. To fully grasp the irony in this tale, it is best to explore its chronology. Through the naming, dialogue, characterization, and setting, the irony in The Cask of Amontillado is apparent and holds deeper significance.
Prior to their initial meeting, the narrator and readers are already aware that Fortunato is not fortunate. This knowledge is exclusive to the narrator and readers, and we also know that whatever events will unfold in the story have happened fifty years prior. The irony of Fortunato’s name becomes apparent to us even before we learn about the unfortunate fate that awaits him.
It is clear that Fortunato, being a man of wealth and reputation, has caused harm to our narrator. The exact nature of their conflict is open to interpretation, but evidence within the story suggests religious tension. Fortunato is a member of a clandestine group called the Freemasons, while the narrator, as described in the events, is not associated with them. It is possible that the narrator belongs to more conservative traditions that view the Freemasons as enemies. This is evident when the narrator gives Fortunato a bottle of De Grave as a gift. Fortunato responds by laughing and throwing the bottle upward in a manner that the narrator does not understand, surprising him. He repeats this gesture, which appears grotesque, indicating that it could only be interpreted as a secret code of the Freemasons. When Montresor is asked to show a sign of his membership, he cannot comply in the expected way. Instead, he takes out a trowel from under his cloak and displays it. Fortunato, assuming it to be a joke, believes Montresor to be a fellow member. The irony lies in the fact that Fortunato, who is indeed a Freemason, will eventually find himself walled up behind a wall using this very trowel. The narrator plays the role of a mason who executes the Freemason by enclosing him with bricks.
When the characters first meet at the carnival, the narrator expresses his happiness to meet Fortunato. They greet each other as friends, but the narrator secretly harbors a vengeful smile. This knowledge, known to the narrator and the reader but not to Fortunato, further demonstrates Poe’s use of irony. While the character in the story remains unaware, the narrator continues to smile in Fortunato’s presence, knowing that he plans to harm him. (p.1567) With their initial encounter established, the narrator’s next step is to lure Fortunato to his downfall. Both characters share a love for fine wines, and Montresor takes advantage of this by using it as bait to lure his victim. The offer of Amontillado, seemingly impossible to obtain during the festivities, astounds the drunken Fortunato. Montresor, anticipating this response, plays on Fortunato’s arrogance by suggesting that Luchresi would be a better judge of the wine’s quality: “If anyone has a critical turn, it is he. He will tell me…” (p.1568) Fortunato, arguing that Luchresi is inferior in wine knowledge, insists on tasting the pipe himself. Ironically, Fortunato is dressed as a fool and unknowingly plays into Montresor’s plan. From this point on, verbal irony sets the stage for Fortunato’s unfortunate fate.On every step and turn, it appears that he tries to persuade his victim not to follow him to his lair. Strangely enough, he seems particularly concerned about Fortunato’s health. The catacombs are damp and cold, and Fortunato is sick with a cold. At one point, the narrator argues that it is not in Fortunato’s best interest to come along to the Amontillado: “Come, I said, with decision, we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed” (p.1569). Little does Fortunato know that Montresor doesn’t care about his health nor that he will be missed for a very long time. One of the most memorable dialogues in the story occurs when the narrator once again tries to convince Fortunato to turn back from the unhealthy surroundings. Fortunato responds with “I shall not die of a cough. True – true, I replied” (p.1569). It is ironic to note that the reader knows Fortunato will not die of a cough. They continue further into the catacombs while enjoying other wines along the way. Fortunato drinks from a bottle of Medoc and toasts to the buried that rest around them (p.1569). Montresor responds with a toast to his victims’ long life. In an instant, both hunter and game toast to the dead walls. Shortly after this shared drink, Fortunato asks about the Montresor family arms and motto: “I forget your arms. A huge human foot door, in a field azure.”The foot steps on a serpent that is standing upright with its fangs stuck into the heel. And what about the motto? It is “Nemo me impune lacessit” (p.1569.) The irony in this situation is obvious yet amusing; it unveils the nature of the insult and poses the question of whether it was deliberate. Maybe Fortunato is unaware that he has insulted Montresor and therefore fails to understand the significance of the family motto. In the end, Fortunato will unknowingly become the ultimate fool for insulting the narrator, as Montresor believes he will get away with it without any consequences.
As the couple ventures deeper into the catacombs, Fortunato receives more warnings. However, he is unable to resist the temptation of the exceptional wine and disregards any advice regarding his well-being. Eventually, they reach the final chamber where they discover scattered bones on the floor. It becomes evident that these bones have recently been placed there, and one of the walls stands out as being conspicuously bare. On this bare wall, there is a small entrance, similar in size to an upright grave, which lures Fortunato to enter. Ignoring the warning signs and fueled by his arrogance and ignorance, he takes the treacherous steps. Although he notices the narrator carrying a trowel, he pays no attention to its significance. The mention of Luchresi and his taste in wines is the final trigger that leads Fortunato to fall into the trap. It is somewhat ironic that we anticipated something like this would happen, and had Fortunato been more perceptive, he might have understood his fate. It turns out that the sought-after Amontillado was merely Montresor’s triumph. Unfortunately, poor Fortunato finds himself chained in the grave he willingly walked into. Shocked, he declares “The Amontillado,” to which the narrator coldly responds, “True…the Amontillado.” Through their dialogue, it becomes apparent that Fortunato and the narrator have a vastly different understanding of what the Amontillado represents.Fortunato sees the Amontillado as a reward for a tiring walk, but he will never achieve this desire. In contrast, Montresor views the Amontillado as an opportunity to slowly kill his victim. The Amontillado is not actually a sherry, but rather a symbol of temptation that will lead to Fortunato’s downfall and Montresor’s triumph.
Fortunato does not fully understand the truth until he is about to be taken away from the outside world. As a final act of desperation, he lets out a creepy laugh, displaying dark humor in the hope that Montresor’s actions were just an elaborate prank. In a moment of despair and understanding, he pleads for mercy from both God and Montresor: “For the love of God, Montresor!” But there is no sympathy to be found, and Montresor chillingly responds, “Yes… for the love of God!” (p. 1571.) Here, we can hear echoes of their earlier conversation about the Freemason’s sign. In Montresor’s eyes, it is a divine duty to kill Fortunato in a place where his fellow brothers cannot save him, all in the name of God’s love. Ironically, Fortunato will meet his death through a trowel that once held symbolic significance and was trusted by him. In the end, he turns to the God he abandoned for a man-made group, only to be spiritually and physically abandoned in return. He will be left isolated and undisturbed in the depths of the catacombs for at least fifty years.
The final words of the man on his deathbed, “In pace requiescat” (p. 1572), may seem ironic as he cannot rest in peace upon his own departure. The Cask of Amontillado intricately weaves together multiple ironies, resembling a puzzle. The choice of naming Fortunato and his attire are examples of this irony. The dialogues between the two characters also exhibit irony, as Fortunato fails to comprehend their true meanings. Additionally, the setting itself is ironic, with the victim knowingly walking deeper into the darkest catacombs until he reaches his own grave. In essence, this tale epitomizes irony and serves as a teaching tool for its intangible definition.