Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Cask of the Amontillado tells a tale of revenge and murder justified for an unidentified insult. The narrator, Montresor, simply states that the insults he has had against him from Fortunato are many, and the he proceeds to tell the reader how he lured Fortunato to his death and buried him alive. Though the story is short and its characters are limited, Poe weaves several themes into it during its short duration. In the relationship between Montresor and Fortunato and the events that take place between them in the catacombs, Poe presents a theme of false friendship and cautions against not knowing who one’s real friends and enemies are.
Montresor never identifies his specific reasons for wanting to kill Fortunato. Instead, he begins by saying, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge” (Poe 89). He had put up with Fortunato’s offensive attitudes and behaviour long enough, but something pushed him over the edge and he decided to exact revenge against Fortunato. He does so, however, under the guise of friendship. This friendship is clearly false from the beginning, because his vow of revenge begins the story. The one kind thing that Montresor says about Fortunato is the one thing that he feels that they have in common: their knowledge of good wine. But instead of using this as a bridge to build a stronger friendship with the man, Montresor uses it to trick him and kill him.
Montresor uses Fortunato’s pride in his knowledge of wine against him by mentioning a mutual acquaintance, Luchesi. He tells Fortunato that he has purchased a bottle of Amontillado for the full price and is on his way to consult with Luchesi to see if he has been taken advantage of or if the bottle was worth what he paid. In another example of false friendship and two-faced backstabbing, Fortunato retorts repeatedly that, “Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry”, insinuating that Luchesi doesn’t know as much about wine as he does. Fortunato’s opinions of Luchesi, who is presented as a mutual acquaintance and fellow wine connoisseur, are similar to Montresor’s two-faced approach to his friendship with Fortunato and the way that he pretends to be concerned for Fortunato’s health and happy to see him and have his company while he confides to the reader how he plans to kill him. Though Luchesi never makes a physical appearance in the story, he functions as a foil for the relationship between the two men in the way that he is also a victim of false friendship and could have just as easily been the victim of someone’s vengeful desires.
Montresor’s guise of false friendship is kept up even for the reader, as he calls Fortunato, “my friend” (Poe 89) and says, “I was so pleased to see him, that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand” (89). This would seem like a gesture of being genuinely glad to see someone, except that the reader already knows Montresor is plotting revenge against Fortunato, so the gesture seems dangerous instead of friendly. He continues to inquire about Fortunato’s health even as he is leading him into the catacombs where he will trap and kill him, insisting, “Once more let me implore you to return” (Poe 94), asking Fortunato to leave the damp air and pretending to be concerned for his health and safety as he chains him to the brick wall and begins to wall him in.
The point of view of the story is very important during this conversation and throughout the dialogue between the two men. Montresor narrates the story, and as such Fortunato’s character and the story is told from only Montresor’s point of view. He tells it in a detached, emotionless, matter-of-fact tone that illustrates how false his friendship with Fortunato was and how little remorse he feels for killing the man. Even after he has buried Fortunato alive he says, “My heart grew sick – on account of the dampness of the catacombs” (Poe 95). This statement clearly shows that he feels justified in his actions and feels no remorse for what he has done.
The characterization of Fortunato by Montresor also serves to emphasize this theme. He has lured Fortunato to the catacombs by promising him an elusive bottle of Amontillado wine, yet he repeatedly describes Fortunato as already being drunk and stumbling into walls. A true friend would have expressed concern for his inebriated state and taken him home, but Montresor doesn’t even pause in his plan. He gives Fortunato his arm to lean on, but that’s only so that he can lead him further towards his death and so that Fortunato can’t get away. He also describes Fortunato as being dressed in a silly striped outfit and wearing a hat with bells on it that sounds like a jester’s hat, but he tells Fortunato to his face that he looks great. This two-faced approach to friendship is materialistic here when concerning clothes, but Montresor’s previous statements about Fortunato’s slights and insults indicate that Montresor’s true disdain and resentment for Fortunato run much deeper than making fun of what the man wearing.
Montresor blatantly lies to Fortunato while leading him into the crypt. When they share a drink, he toasts by saying, “And I to your long life” (Poe 92). He had previously stated, “You are a man to be missed” (Poe 91). When Fortunato says he is a mason, Montresor says that he is one too and the two men claim brotherhood to one another. He obviously does not mean any of these statements since he is planning to kill Fortunato. These repeated instances of lying and false proclamations of friendship and brotherhood serve to emphasize the ease with which false friendship can be presented as truth and with which it is accepted by those that want to believe in it.
The symbolism of the wine that the men drink during their walk towards Fortunato’s fate is symbolic of false friendship. The men are in the catacombs under the premise of sharing a bottle of Amontillado that is rare and priceless. The catacombs are also full of old and valuable wine. Yet Montresor repeatedly opens bottles and gives them to Fortunato to drink as if they were tap water. This illustrates that he has no real appreciation for the value of the wine when weighed against the importance of his own revenge. In this way, the wine can be seen as symbolic of Fortunato’s life. Montresor ends Fortunato’s life as easily as he drains a bottle of valuable wine. It doesn’t matter how valuable it was, because Montresor is using it as his means to an end that will satisfy him.
The state of the bones in the crypt can also be seen as symbolic for Montresor’s lack of value of friendship. When the two men arrive at the crypt where Montresor plans to bury Fortunato alive, the bones have been removed and scattered on the ground. It can be reasonably assumed that Montresor did this in preparation and anticipation of killing Fortunato. He premeditated other details of the murder, like bringing the trowel, so it is reasonable to think that he also prepared this abandoned section of the catacombs for Fortunato’s burial. He shows no concern for the desecration of the crypt, and rebuilds the bones up around Fortunato’s tomb after he is done burying the man alive. In these actions, the bones symbolize the personal motivations of revenge that fuel Montresor’s false friendship.
Montresor ends his retelling of his murdering Fortunato by indicating that it happened fifty years ago. In this statement he is telling the reader that he committed the murder many years ago and still obviously feels no remorse or guilt over the death of Fortunato. There is no reason given for his telling of the story, which further emphasizes that he still feels that he has done nothing wrong or, at the very least, that he feels justified in what he did. This time frame illustrates the repeated cycle in which false friendships can occur. He killed Fortunato over fifty years ago, and who knows what atrocities have been committed in the name of pretended friendship and kindness since then. Poe leaves the reader with the words, “In pace requiescat!” (95), or “rest in peace”. Fortunato is resting peacefully in death, and Montresor is at ease with an unfettered conscience. Montresor’s revenge was realized, and he is at peace. Montresor’s lies, like the fake crypt wall, remain undisturbed. The peaceful ending leaves the reader wondering what the eventual consequence will be, if any, for false friendship and Montresor’s lies and murderous actions. Poe’s illustration of the consequences of false friendship ends with the echoes of Fortunato’s screams and Montresor’s admission without guilt, proving the potential dangers of not knowing who your friends really are.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of the Amontillado”. Tales of Suspense. Pleasantville: Reader’s Digest Association, 1986.