By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
.......It is dusk on a day during the annual carnival celebration in an Italian city. People are eating, drinking, and making merry before the beginning of the 40-day Lenten season.
.......But one of the city’s residents, Montresor, is not at all merry. Some time ago, a man named Fortunato–a wine connoisseur–wronged Montresor. In fact, according to Montresor, who is the narrator of the story, Fortunato had committed numerous offenses against him–the last one an intolerable insult. Montresor now plans revenge against Fortunato. A man can stand only so much.
.......When he encounters Fortunato on the street, Montresor does not let on that he is angry or means harm to Fortunato, who, in keeping with the carnival festivities, is tipsy. Fortunato is wearing a court jester’s motley outfit and a cone-shaped hat topped with a bell that sometimes rings when he moves his head. After Montresor greets Fortunato and shakes his hand, he tells Fortunato that he recently came into possession of a pipe (126 gallons) of Amontillado, a prized amber dry wine from Spain. However, Montresor says, he is not sure whether the wine is the genuine article. Proud Fortunato, eager to demonstrate his knowledge of wine, immediately agrees to take up the challenge of determining whether the Amontillado is the real thing.
.......After they arrive at Montresor’s palazzo (a sumptuous private residence), they descend into the cold, damp vaults where the wine is kept. The vaults are part of a network of catacombs containing the bones of long-dead members of the Montresor family. Several times, Montresor pretends to be concerned about the health of Fortunato, who has a cough, and suggests that they turn back. But Fortunato says, “The cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me.”
.......“True–true,” Montresor answers without outward show of the inner glee he must have been feeling.
.......Montresor takes a bottle of Médoc from a shelf, opens it, and gives Fortunato a quaff against the cold. He toasts Fortunato, saying, “To your long life.” Moments later, Montresor presents Fortunato a flagon of De Grâve (an interesting name for a deadly occasion). Fortunato empties it. His mind now swims in groggy joy.
.......When they arrive at a wall at the end of their subterranean journey, Montresor quickly claps his drunken companion in chains attached to iron staples in the wall, then turns the key of a padlock attached to the chains. “The Amontillado!” Fortunato says, failing to comprehend his predicament.
.......With stone and mortar that had been ensconced nearby, Montresor walls up Fortunato. There are screams from the niche, then laughter. Fortunato thinks he is the victim of a joke. Montresor continues to work on the vertical tomb. When he completes his task, he hears the jingling of bells on Fortunato's cap. Then Montresor erects a rampart of bones against the wall.
.......Fifty years pass.
.......Fortunato remains behind the wall, resting in eternal peace.
It is early evening in an Italian city during a carnival immediately preceding Lent.
.......Montresor, a deranged man who seeks revenge.
Short story in the horror genre, although careful readers will note that the story contains a great deal of subtle humor. Poe was one of the developers of the short story as a literary genre. He defined a short story as a narrative prose work that (1) is short enough to be read in one sitting, (2) takes place in one locale on a single day, (or even in a few hours), (3) centers on a single line of action, and (4) maintains a single mood. Every word or phrase should contribute to the theme and the mood.
First-Person Unreliable. Montresor tells the story in the first person, meaning he uses pronouns such as I, me, my, and so on. He is called an “unreliable” narrator because he is mentally unbalanced; his narration may be untrustworthy. For example, he could have imagined that Fortunato wronged him.
Fortunato had committed many offenses against Montresor, the last one an insult, according to Montresor.
To lure Fortunato into the catacombs, Montresor deceives Fortunato, telling him he wants to taste some wine to determine whether it is genuine Amontillado.
Fortunato readily accepts Montresor's invitation to taste wine and determine whether it is genuine Amontillado, for Fortunato believes himself to be a great wine connoisseur. So proud is he of his ability that he takes on the challenge even though he has a cough and is already somewhat drunk.
Throughout the story, Poe uses verbal and dramatic irony to build suspense, foreshadow the ending, and add a touch of macabre humor. Here are some examples irony:
The Title: The word cask, meaning wine barrel, is derived from the same root word used to form casket, meaning coffin. Thus, the cask figuratively represents Fortunato’s casket.Poe also uses irony frequently in the dialogue. For example, when Montresor runs into Fortunato, he says, “My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met.” Later, when Montresor pretends to be concerned about Fortunato’s hacking cough as they descend into the vaults, Montresor says, “We will go back. Your health is precious. Your are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as I once was. You are a man to be missed.” Fortunato then tells Montresor not to worry: “The cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I will not die of a cough.” To this reply, Montresor says, “True–true.” The reader at this point can almost see a devilish gleam in Montresor’s eyes, for he knows exactly how Fortunato will die.” Later, Montresor opens a bottle of wine and toasts Fortunato: “To your long life,” he says.
Fortunato’s Name: The Italian name Fortunato suggests good fortune, luck. However, Fortunato is anything but fortunate; he is going to his death.
Fortunato’s Costume: Fortunato dresses as a court jester. His festive outfit contrasts with the ghastly fate that awaits him. From time to time, the bell on his cone-shaped hat jingles–a nice comic touch from Poe.
Reference to Masons: Fortunato asks Montresor whether his is a mason, meaning a member of the fraternal order of Freemasonry. Montresor says he is indeed a mason. However, he is using the word to mean a craftsman who builds with stone and mortar (because he will be building Fortunato’s “tomb,” a stone wall.)
Following is a glossary of difficult words used in the story:
Amontillado [uh MON te YAH doh] Dry, amber wine. The word Amontillado is derived from Montilla, the name of a Spanish town. The suffix ado means in the style of. Thus, Amontillado is a wine in the style of the kind made in Montilla, Spain.Author Information
Carnival Festival just before Lent. It is called Mardi Gras in some western countries. The word carnival is derived from the Latin words carne (meat) and vale (farewell). Thus, it literally means “farewell to meat.” During Lent, Roman Catholics do not eat meat on Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays thereafter, until Easter.
Catacombs Uunderground burial places.
Circumbscribing Encircling, surrounding; tracing a line around.
Fetter Shackle, chain, bond.
Flambeau Torch; plural, flambeaux.
Hearken Listen carefully.
Immolate - Kill a person as a sacrifice.
Imposture Deception, fraud.
Impunity Freedom from punishment; exempt from punishment.
Médoc Red wine from the Bordeaux region of France.
Motley Apparel of many colors; jester’s costume.
Nemo me impune lacessit [NAY moh MAY im POO nay lah CHESS it] Latin for No one injures me with impunity. This sentence appeared on coins of James I of England.
Nitre Potassium nitrate.
Palazzo Palace; splendid home.
Pipe Cask holding 126 gallons.
Puncheon Cask holding 84 gallons.
Rapier [RAY pe er] Two-edged sword.
Rheum [ROOM] Watery discharge.
Roquelaure [rok uh LAHR or rok LAHR] Knee-length, often fur-trimmed cloak after Duc de Roquelaure (1656-1738)
Sconce Bracket on a wall for holding a candle or a torch.
Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple–John Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned
with the Allans to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies at either school. After beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844.
All the while, he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an outstanding literary critic. Despite the acclaim he received, he was never really happy
because of his drinking and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore on October 7, 1849.
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