Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Casual Shorts & the ISFdb Top Short Fiction # 24: The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe, Edgar Allan. "The Cask of Amontillado." Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book 33, November 1846; New England Weekly Review, 14 November 1846.

This article is part of my attempt to read all the 155 stories currently (as of 1 November 2022) on the ISFdb's Top Short Fiction list. Please see the introduction and list of stories hereI am encouraging readers to rate the stories and books they have read on the ISFdb.

ISFdb Rating:   9.00/10
My Rating:        10/10

Illustration by Arthur Rakham,
for Tales of Mystery and Imagination,
J. B. Lippincott, 1935

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge."

One of literature's strongest opening sentences launches the reader into the confession of narrator Montresor's horrible act of vengeance against the insulting Fortunato.

As with "The Tell-Tale Heart," Poe does not directly state the motivation for the need to commit murder, and we can only speculate as to what this single insult was to drive Montresor to commit the crime, when a thousand other injuries did not. While the "thousand" is hyperbolic, it is understood through Montresor's descriptions that Fortunato, a well-to-do elite Italian with pride and an ego, is capable of injuring others in an offhanded way. Fortunato makes flippant comments without thought, and is entirely dismissive of the only other person mentioned in the confession, another Italian wine connoisseur by the name of Luchesi. In the brief narrative, Montresor is able to portray the arrogance of Fortunato, who sits atop social circles and despite regularly committing offences, appears otherwise friendly and accommodating, so that his behaviour, kind or offensive, is simply his natural self. He may not have disliked Montresor and simply caused injury in the wake of his stumbling, not always sober path, via flippant remarks not meant to injure others but instead to uphold his own pride. And yet this last insult must have been a doozy, as Montresor reveals himself to be a man of conscience and, unlike the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," of moral awareness. (More on this later.)

Montresor chooses to seek his revenge on carnival day, knowing Fortunato, a connoisseur of wine, would be inebriated and hence off his guard. He would lead the drunken Fortunato with the promise of some pure amontillado, a high quality Italian sherry. Montresor plays on the other's vanity, telling him he needs an expert to be able to identify whether he has purchased true amontillado or wasted his money on mere sherry, and plays on the man's ego by mentioning that he can instead seek the advice of competitor Luchesi. Clearly Fortunato is prideful and egoist.

In contrast, Montresor is overly sensitive. He refers to Fortunato as "my friend" and treats him as a  most beloved companion, though admits early that this treatment was part of his great plan. As they stumble through the catacombs, he says to Fortunato, "you are happy, as once I was," as though poking at him, insinuating that his own happiness left him at the moment of Fortunato's insult. A sensitive man, Montresor, who over an insult plots to kill a man, claims the insult is the reason for his unhappiness, and following the murder suffers a half-century of guilt. The man's disintegration is his sensitivity.

Despite leading Fortunato through his family catacombs, patiently and with intent, Montresor soon suffers pangs of guilt, and maintains that suffering for fifty years. After immuring Fortunato, Montresor is stricken with guilt over what he has done. "My heart grew sick," he says, just as the last stone of his plan has been laid. He attributes the feeling to the dampness of the catacombs, but the wiser reader is aware that the sickness he experiences is moral. Montresor concludes his narrative with: "For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!" Rest in peace. This solidifies the notion that Montresor, though he acted cold-heartedly, is now burdened with remorse. As some wise critics have indicated, by walling up Fortunato, Montresor has walled himself up, as he narrates this tale half a century after the events, and in that half a century has been burdened by the guilt of his actions.

At the time of its publication, "The Cask of Amontillado" was not among Poe's most popular stories. In fact, it was reprinted only once in his lifetime (compared with at least ten printings of "The Tell-Tale Heart" between 1843-1845, or fourteen printings of "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, 1845-1849). However, it has become among the most anthologized of his short stories, finding its way into anthologies for young adults, as well as horror, crime and literary anthologies for adults, and anthologies used in colleges and universities. For a glimpse of its popularity over the years, visit the story's ISFdb page. Its growing popularity may be that the story needs a closer reading to uncover the narrator's guilt, which is where the emotional impact of the story lies. The emotional impact in "The Tell-Tale Heart," to compare, lies perhaps in the dichotomy between the narrator's love of the old man, and the passionate need to kill him, which is more readily available than the subtler heart of "The Cask of Amontillado."

1 comment:

Todd Mason said...

It is, even given the melodrama, a less frantic story than many of Poe's best-remembered...

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