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Substance in Sadism: Edgar Allan Poe's “The Cask of Amontillado”


It could be easily argued that Edgar Allan Poe's story, “The Cask of Amontillado, has little business in enduring as a classic of the genre.   For one thing, there is an undeniable sensationalism to the story which should serve to remove it from the canons of fine literature; it is nothing more, really, than a gruesome anecdote.   Nonetheless, and with deceptive subtlety, the author manages to create a scenario in which the most extreme circumstance of violence is rendered strangely explicable.   Poe succeeds in making the story a classic by creating a murderous sadist who is, essentially, as much of a victim of destiny as the man buried alive.  

Conundrum of the Story

The facts of “The Cask of Amontillado” are unambiguous, and laid out in a straightforward, cold-blooded manner, as the narrator asserts from the start that he will have his revenge.   Poe employs a simple device to render the reasons for this impulse moot; the reader is assumed to be a comrade of Montressor, the narrator, and therefore knows the history.   All that remains, then, is for the scheme of luring his enemy into the catacombs, and interring him alive therein, to be done.   This is, in very few pages, accomplished.

This sensationalist aspect, then,  inherently eviscerates subtlety, which is desired in any short fiction.   The tale moves along as perfectly as Montressor has planned that it would, and there are no moments of remorse, regret, or ambiguity within.   Consequently, an interpretation could be reasonably made that the story exists for the sole purpose of shocking the reader by its horrific, simple plot.    Moreover, if such extremes of violence are more known to modern audiences, they were truly alarming to the readers of Poe's day, and the author might well be accused of pandering to base instincts to capture attention.   The trap is laid, the victim falls into it, and the reader is invited to hear his screams as he confronts his own, unthinkably dreadful, end.

The question arises, then: what is there in “The Cask of Amontillado” that continues, generation after generation, to draw readers?   No plain, ugly story of a violent murder should acquire such a longevity in American literature, yet this is what the story possesses.   The answer lies in a great deal that the author leaves unwritten, and a little in what he only minimally suggests.   “The Cask of Amontillado” is a highly skilled piece of fiction because it does what great fiction must do: it demands that the reader make an imaginative leap into the scene, and forge meaning out of what is seemingly meaningless and one-dimensional.  Most of all, it draws the reader into a world wherein all men, good and evil alike, are little more than instruments in the hands of an all-encompassing fate.

Poe achieves this through a technique so skillful as to be imperceptible.   In a sense, he deliberately employs a plain, factual, reporting style to both reinforce the single-mindedness of his protagonist and to simultaneously allow doubt to enter in the reader's mind.   That is, Montressor makes his case clearly, and he does not commit the mistake of over-embellishing his victimhood; simply, he has been effectively ruined by Fortunato.   Moreover, it is insult, and not actual harm, that prompts Montressor to his revenge.   It is implied that, had his enemy been content to merely destroy him as a man, Montressor would not have felt the need to go to such violent extremes.   It is his honor that cries out for vengeance, and this is how Poe introduces doubt.   Basically, with an awareness of something awful in readiness, the reader seeks early on to find chinks in Montressor's sanity and/or motivations.  Poe provides none, and in doing so he fully invites the reader to share in the inevitability and harsh justice of Montressor's scheme.   Had his hero been a raving madman, it is unlikely that the story would have endured.

Fatalism as Core

Then, Poe systematically and perfectly reinforces both the reader's uncomfortable trust in Montressor's motives and agenda, and the impending justice of the vengeance, by having the hero attempt to save his own victim, and twice.   Certainly, the key Montressor is relying upon is the lure of the fine Amontillado wine waiting in his cellar.   He knows, of course, how intense a draw that is for his enemy.   Nonetheless, he gambles his own, desperately desired revenge.   Before the men descend into the caverns, Montressor tries to dissuade Fortunato, and points out how miserable the vaults are.   The attraction of the wine is strong, but the reality is that even Montressor could not certainly know that the bait would be taken under the circumstances.   Then, once within the caverns, he makes an impassioned plea that they exit, as the damp will make “his friend” ill.   Here again, Montressor is relying upon a degree of avarice he cannot be absolutely certain exists.   By way of grotesque joke, the offer of escape is repeated once more, after Fortunato has been chained to the wall. 

All of this, including the final moments of the success of the murder, evince a fatalistic power through the very monolithic, blatant course of the tale.   Poe is determined to secure his reader through and to this sadistic episode, not unlike Montressor's own seduction of Fortunato into the vaults.   Poe is asking that his reader walk with a vile murderer; he is asking, moreover, that the reader calmly exit with him, and this is achieved through the careful foundation of justifying Montressor's outrage.   As noted, there is never any suspect, exaggerated anguish or fury from Montressor.   It is cold fact, as cold as the stones of the cellar, that Fortunato has mercilessly humiliated him.   As the story moves on, there is no single instance wherein this foundation may  be questioned, for Montressor never betrays any other motive.   Then, the reader is further more accepting of Montressor's truth because no madmen out for a terrible revenge offers his victim several opportunities to avoid it.   Lastly, there is another note sounded when, realizing his doom, Fortunato cries out, “For the love of God!” and Montressor coolly replies, “Exactly.”   This indicates a murderer who has completely accepted the inexorable nature of destiny, even if it should bring about his own destruction.  In a very real sense, this, and not the entombment of Fortunato, is the real power of “The Cask of Amontillado”, in that Poe forces his reader to at least somewhat comprehend the feelings and mind of his killer as an “everyman”.  


There are no apologies and there is no regret in Poe's story.   There is a protagonist taking the reader by the hand and having him witness a horrific revenge, and it is done in such a way that the reader is compelled, not to shrink in horror from Montressor, but to question the nature of justice and vengeance themselves.   Poe succeeds in making the story a classic by revealing his murderous sadist as, essentially, as much of a victim of destiny as the man buried alive.

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