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Edgar Allan Poe is famous for his prowess in gothic-themed literature. In “The Cask of Amontillado”, Poe brings out the dark side of the story by employing intense symbolism and irony throughout the story. The readers find the short story interesting amidst the juxtaposition that is brought out by the heavy use of symbolic elements in the story. In “The Cask of Amontillado”, the main character Montresor is seeking revenge amidst the gothic atmosphere that is created by Poe. Montresor is a noble Italian who has resolved to exact revenge against Fortunato, a haughty character who unknowingly walks to his death. Through the short story, it becomes clear that the main character’s diabolical aims are subject to manipulation by various symbolic elements that are strategically laid out by the author. Nevertheless, the main character’s quest for revenge remains unexplained by the author although it dominates the events of the whole story.
The only hint about the main character’s unbridled quest for revenge comes when he claims that Fortunato is responsible for his “thousand injuries” (Poe 611). In Poe’s story, the main character sets out to exact his plan of revenge by burying Fortunato when he is still alive. Consequently, revenge becomes the central theme in Poe’s story. When Montresor is seeking revenge against Fortunato by leading him to his grave, the irony of the whole exercise is highlighted by various elements. Poe uses heavy symbolism to intimate the theme of revenge to the readers. The use of these symbolic elements is also responsible for the horror and gothic motifs in the short story. This essay explores various symbols of irony that are used by Poe to symbolize the complexity of the situation surrounding Montresor’s quest for salvation through revenge. These symbols include names of characters, pieces of attires, catacombs, carnival, and the title of the essay, and they all relate to the main theme of revenge in the story.
Character names as symbols
In “The Cask of Amontillado”, the names of characters bear meanings that contrast the personalities of those who bear them. Furthermore, the names symbolize the main character’s reason for seeking revenge against Fortunato. Although the author of the story does not reveal straightforwardly the reasons behind Montresor’s quest for revenge, the name of his victim (Fortunato) symbolizes the good fortune of the targeted character. The play on the name is meant to inform the readers that Montresor is irked by Fortunato’s good fortunes. Consequently, Montresor seeks to repress the fortunes that are attributed to Fortunato by burying him alive. One scholar claims that through his revenge “Montresor reveals his internal quarrel with fortune itself” (Clendenning 15).
It is also possible that Montresor desires and despises wealth at the same time. In the short story, Fortunato is the recipient of respect and fear as a result of his good fortune. The name Fortunato is a symbol of the genesis of Montresor’s plan for revenge. The name also represents the inner conflict that is the root cause of the main character’s drive for revenge. Montresor reveals that ‘Fortunato’ either in the past or in the present is responsible for the latter’s thousand injuries. The fact that Fortunato’s status is making him feared among men is the trigger for Montresor’s revenge plan. The love of money being the ‘beginning of all evils’ becomes an underlying motif in Montresor’s plan to exact on Fortunato, whom good fortunes appear to have rattled his aggressor. Therefore, “Montresor needs to repress Fortunato as a defense mechanism to protect his soul from damnation” (Cooney 195). There is also an element of irony that is carried by the name ‘Fortunato’ because what happens to this character does not represent any aspect of good fortune. The readers are given the chance to experience the symbolic irony that is carried by the victim’s name.
Montresor’s name is also subject to some aspects of symbolic juxtaposition between revenge and its justification. When translated, the name Montresor, which is French in origin “combines the words montrer (to show) and sort (fate)” (Sweet 11). Consequently, Montresor’s position as a shower of fate appears to justify his revenge plan. For instance, Montresor is living up to his expectations when he plans to bury the pompous Fortunato alive. Furthermore, how Montresor carries out his plan indicates that there is nothing out of the ordinary when it comes to his actions. Poe writes that Fortunato does not receive any “utterance to a threat” in his interactions with Montresor including the incidence when he is led to his grave (Poe 612).
This situation signifies that revenge is connected to the fate that befalls Fortunato. On the other hand, both the aggressor and his victim are fulfilling their fate (Baraban 48). For example, when Montresor carries out his revenge plan he is part of a bigger plan. Throughout the story, there is the possibility of Montresor and Fortunato being two faces of the same coin. The other possible translation of Montresor is French ‘mon Tresor’, which translates to ‘my treasure’ (Sweet 12). The author could be using this symbolic name to reveal that Montresor is another dimension of Fortunato. Therefore, Montresor seeks to protect his treasured personality by getting rid of his fortunate side. According to the narrator, salvation is only possible when vanity is substituted for real substance.
Attires as symbols
Another symbol that is used in “The Cask of Amontillado” is Fortunato’s attire. The attire is a symbol of Fortunato’s unknown stature as a sacrificial victim. Although Fortunato holds a respectable position in society, his attire does not reflect this position. It is hard to explain how a respected member of the society ends up wearing “a tight-fitting parts-striped dress and his head [is] surmounted by the conical cap and bells” (Poe 614). The attire is reflective of Fortunato’s indulgence in the carnival season. The attire is also symbolic of the sacrificial element that applies to Montresor’s revenge. The bell crown reminds readers of the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was being crucified. Therefore, the symbolic elements introduce a new dimension to the ordeal that Fortunato goes through.
For instance, Montresor’s motivation to carry out revenge against Fortunato is inexplicable to most readers. Consequently, Fortunato’s ordeal introduces a new dimension to an engagement that is accompanied by the environment of a carnival. The dress is the ultimate symbol of the ceremonious nature of Fortunato’s predicament. By carrying out his revenge plan against Fortunato, Montresor “attempts to squelch the aspect of his psyche that relishes stature and power” (Baraban 49). On the other hand, Fortunato’s stature exerts pressure on Montresor’s soul. The salvation that motivates Montresor’s plan of revenge becomes clear through the ceremonial attire that is worn by Fortunato. It also becomes clear that Montresor’s role as the seeker of revenge is more complex than what the readers expect. Fortunato’s dress also accentuates Montresor’s plan to be absolved through his revenge.
The symbolism of the main characters’ attire extends to Montresor’s priest-like dress. Montresor’s priest-like dress is similar to the costumes that were worn by clergy during funeral ceremonies. Montresor intends to perform a funeral-like activity by burying Fortunato alive. Revenge is not an activity that randomly falls on Montresor’s lap. However, revenge is a ritual that Fortunato is qualified to perform. The symbolism of Montresor’s ceremonial attire is also highlighted by the irony of his refusal to pardon Fortunato or by offering him the chance to repent. On the other hand, it is clear that Montresor considers Fortunato to be ‘dead’ and burying him is a final right that has to be performed dutifully.
The carnival symbolizes a period of carefree attitude that is one of the motives behind Montresor’s plan of revenge. Montresor uses the carnival setting to carry out his revenge plan against a drunk and unsuspecting Fortunato. Through the mood of the carnival, Montresor can lure his victim into his well-laid plans of revenge. On the other hand, Montresor can delve into the carnival spirit by doing what he terms as a carefree and liberating act of burying Fortunato alive. Carnivals are synonymous with indulgencies of both the human spirit and desire. The indulgencies of Montresor provide him with a setting that offers him the freedom to carry out the ultimate act of revenge against Fortunato. The sentiments of the aggressor are that he “must not only punish but punish with impunity” (Poe 612). The carnival atmosphere is a time when levels of indulgence are often higher than normal. Consequently, Montresor’s plan for revenge fits perfectly within the carnival spirit.
The catacombs are another prominent symbol in “The Cask of Amontillado” and they intimate us to the inner state of Montresor’s mind. Fortunato is lured into the catacombs that are ‘lined with human remains’ with the promise that he will be able to drink the wine that is contained in the cask of Amontillado. According to one literature scholar, the catacombs are a symbol of Montresor’s state of mind (Cooney 195). Consequently, the dark and deathly nature of the catacombs suggests that Montresor is in a state of mind that can only yield death and horror. On the other hand, the aggressor is only replicating his inner state of mind through his quest for revenge. According to Poe, the catacombs are family-owned. Therefore, Montresor’s state of mind might indicate that his mental problem is inter-generational. The fact that the real reason behind Montresor’s quest for revenge is not revealed explicitly might have to do with the fact that it runs back to a few generations.
The cask of Amontillado is in itself a symbol of the unresolved issues that apply to Montresor’s plan to seek salvation through revenge. In the story, Montresor is narrating the events that occurred fifty years ago through a process that resembles a confession. Thereby, the confession exercise includes the words “you, who so well know the nature of my soul” (Poe 611). The fact that Montresor’s exercise is a confession should mean that he is guilty of something. However, he starts by acknowledging that he is by no means burdened by the things he did fifty years ago. The conflicting nature of Montresor’s actions is symbolized by the cask whose contents have remained unexamined for a long period. It is also clear that “an element of Montresor’s conscience knows that Fortunato’s burial is an evil deed and that is why he ends his confession with ‘in pace requiescat’, thereby suggesting that he needs forgiveness for a certain crime” (Clendenning 13). Furthermore, it is unlikely that Montresor receives any pardon for his underlying sins without an admission of guilt. The cask symbolizes Montresor’s need to hold on to contents that can neither be absolved nor be justified.
Symbols are heavily used in “The Cask of Amontillado” with the view of conveying the grim and complex nature of Montresor’s quest for revenge. The symbols also carry a substantial element of irony as they serve to develop the theme of revenge in the story. Fortunato’s good fortunes are unfortunately overshadowed by the fact that he ends up being buried alive. Montresor’s name symbolizes a person who delivers fate, hence his engagement in the devious revenge plan. Other prominent symbols in the story include the carnival that mimics Montresor’s spirit, the dressing styles of the main characters, and the catacombs that inform the readers about the narrator’s state of mind. All these symbols develop the theme of revenge and its connection to the narrator’s obsessive need for salvation.
Baraban, Elena. “The Motive for Murder in” The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 1.2 (2004): 47-62. Print.
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Clendenning, John. “Anything Goes: Comic Aspects in’The Cask of Amontillado’.” American Humor 4.2 (2013): 13-26. Print.
Cooney, James. “” The Cask of Amontillado”: Some Further Ironies.” Studies in Short Fiction 11.2 (1974): 195. Print.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Ed. Thomas Arp and Greg Johnson. Boston: Thompson/Wadsworth, 2006. 611-616. Print.
Sweet, Charles. “Retapping Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado”.” Poe Studies‐Old Series 8.1 (2005): 10-12. Print.