Poe’s Use of Irony in “The Cask of Amontillado”
Julie R. Hess
Writing for the Arts and Humanities
Dr. Charles W. Carter
December 2, 2005
Poe’s Use of Irony in “The Cask of Amontillado”
STATEMENT OF PURPOSE: The purpose of this critical essay is to demonstrate how Edgar Allan Poe uses irony to develop his theme in “The Cask of Amontillado.”
STATEMENT OF THESIS: In “The Cask of Amontillado,” Edgar Allan Poe uses irony to develop his theme of a man who seeks salvation through repression.
OUTLINE OF ARGUMENT:
I. Poe’s Use of Irony in “The Cask of Amontillado”
A. Theme of the Story and Irony Used to Develop Theme
B. Statement of Thesis
II. The Symbolic Irony of the Characters’ Names
III. The Symbolic Irony of the Characters’ Dress
IV. The Symbolic Irony of the Settings
VII. The Symbolic Irony of the Title
A. Summary of Argument
B. Restatement of Thesis
Poe’s Use of Irony in “The Cask of Amontillado”
In “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe, Montresor is out for revenge. Poe’s Gothic story might lead the reader to believe that Montresor is diabolical and calculating. Montresor’s only concern appears to be exacting revenge with impunity. Montresor never clarifies why Fortunato deserves punishment. The only clue Montresor offers is that Fortunato causes him “a thousand injuries”until “[venturing] upon insult” (Poe 1). As a result, Montresor plans to bury Fortunato alive. Unwittingly, Fortunato becomes a sacrificial lamb being led to slaughter. Montresor carries out each detail while he smiles in the face of his victim. Montresor doesn’t smile at the thought of Fortunato’s “immolation” because of viciousness. Montresor smiles because the sacrifice of Fortunato he believes brings him a great reward. Fortunato is merely a symbolic character of “a despised self in the unconscious” of Montresor (Sweet Jr. 332). Fortunato is ironically the “mirror self” of Montresor (Sweet Jr. 332). Montresor’s desire to bury Fortunato alive “paints the psychological portrait of repression” (Sweet Jr. 332). The burial of Fortunato represses Montresor’s evil nature. The reward for repression is salvation. In “The Cask of Amontillado,” Edgar Allan Poe uses irony to develop his theme of a man who seeks salvation through repression.
Poe uses character names which have parallel meanings to suggest that Fortunato and Montresor are different aspects of one personality. The meaning of Fortunato’s name also reveals Montresor’s motive for repression. The name Fortunato is a pun on the word fortune. Therefore, the Fortunato side of Montresor, symbolizes fortune. Ironically, Montresor’s desire to repress Fortunato “stems from his quarrel with ‘fortune’ itself” (Gargano 314). Since “the love of money is the root of all evils,” to possess a fortune would “plunge [a man] into ruin and destruction” (1Timothy 6:9-10). Clearly, the Fortunato side of Montresor’s personality desires wealth. The wealth Fortunato achieves makes him a man that is both respected and feared. By acquiring wealth, Fortunato causes Montresor “a thousand injuries”(Poe 1). However, when Fortunato’s wealth gains the fear of others, he “[ventures] upon [insulting]”God (Poe 1). When a “man [seeks] greed for gain, [he] curses and renounces the Lord” (Psalms 10:3). Therefore, Montresor needs to repress Fortunato as a “defense mechanism” to protect his soul from damnation (Wikipedia.com). By burying Fortunato alive, Montresor represses the aspect of his personality which insults God. Fortunato, whose name also translates as “the lucky one” or “the fated one,” suffers a fate that is hardly lucky (Freehafer 316).
Montresor’s name translations parallel Fortunato’s in two ways. First, in French origin, Montresor’s name “combines the words montrer (to show) and sort (fate)” (Clendenning 336). Montresor’s name suggests that he shows Fortunato his fate. Ironically, Fortunato receives no “utterance to a threat” about his fate (Poe 1). Montresor does not warn Fortunato because “repression is the psychological act of excluding desires and impulses . . . from one’s own consciousness and attempting to hold or subdue them in the subconscious” (Wikipedia.com). If Montresor warns Fortunato, the act is suppression. By not showing Fortunato his fate, Montresor demonstrates that Fortunato’s live burial is an act of repression. Secondly, the exact French derivative of Montresor’s name also parallels Fortunato’s name. Since “mon tresor” translates as “‘my treasure,’” Poe demonstrates Montresor is the mirror image of Fortunato (Pittman 327). Once Montresor represses Fortunato, Montresor believes himself worthy of the treasure of salvation.
Fortunato’s dress is ironically symbolic of a sacrificial victim and suggests that salvation is what Montresor seeks. Fortunato’s dress is ironic for a man with his stature in society. Fortunato is a man with stature who is “rich, respected, admired” (Poe 35). Yet, Fortunato wears a “tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head [is] surmounted by the conical cap and bells” for the carnival season (Poe 4). Instead of the cap representing Christ’s crown of thorns, the cap represents Satan’s role as “Prince of Fools” (Pittman 328). When Montresor represses Fortunato, he attempts to squelch the aspect of his psyche that relishes stature and power. Fortunato makes Montresor’s soul impoverished and foolish. Through Christ’s sacrifice, Christians receive salvation. Through Fortunato’s sacrifice, Montresor seeks salvation.
In comparison, Montresor dresses unlike the festive carnival season and more like a priest. Montresor’s black roquelaire symbolizes a priest’s black cope worn during a funeral mass. Montresor’s dress reveals that he intends to bury Fortunato. Ironically, as a symbolic priest, Montresor buries Fortunato alive “without a chance for confession” (Cooney 325). Because Montresor serves as a symbolic priest for Fortunato’s burial, suggests that Montresor’s repression of Fortunato appears to have a holy sanction. Through Fortunato’s repression, Montresor seeks to wear the holy garb of salvation.
The carnival setting ironically suggests a time for sins of the flesh. The carnival season consists of the “last indulgences in the pleasures of the flesh” (Pittman 328). The carnival provides Montresor with the opportunity to solicit his sacrificial victim. Montresor ironically lures a drunken Fortunato, a mirror image of Montresor’s evil side, with Fortunato’s sense of pride to his own burial. Fortunato’s sins of the flesh make him an easy victim of repression. The word carnival “is traceable to the Italian carne + levare (to put away the flesh)” which demonstrates symbolic irony of Montresor’s intent for Fortunato (Clendenning 336). Montresor intends to use the carnival season to put away the flesh desires of his life and prepare himself for a lenten season of life. By repressing the sinful flesh of Fortunato, Montresor makes his flesh worthy of salvation.
The catacombs are an ironic symbol of Montresor’s mind. The sacrificial repression begins when Montresor draws Fortunato down into his family’s catacombs with the ruse of Amontillado. Sweet Jr. notes that “Montresor’s premature burial of his mirror self in the subterranean depths of his ancestral home . . . paints the psychological portrait of repression ” (11). That the catacombs are “lined with human remains” suggests generational family troubles (Poe 67). Ironically, Fortunato descends to his burial a willing fool who is lured by his own sins of the flesh.
The wall symbolizes the completion of the sacrificial repression. Ironically, the wall forms Fortunato’s burial crypt. Montresor’s “physical act of walling up an enemy in one’s home duplicates the mental act of repressing a despised self in the unconscious” (Sweet Jr. 11). Montresor encloses his evil in darkness because he seeks salvation. Yet, salvation occurs when sins are repented. Once Fortunato realizes his burial and cries out “For the love of God, Montresor!,” Montresor confirms, “Yes, . . . for the love of God!” (Poe 83-84). However, Fortunato does not repent. Montresor believes that Fortunato’s sacrificial repression shows his love for God and demonstrates Montresor’s worthiness of salvation.
The cask symbolizes a confessional. Montresor tells the story fifty years later in a confession tone. When Montresor says, “You, who so well know the nature of my soul, ” he implies a priest receives his confession (Poe 1). Montresor ironically believes that Fortunato’s burial is good. Therefore, Montresor demonstrates no remorse as he confesses. Yet, Montresor confesses. An element of Montresor’s conscience knows Fortunato’s burial is an evil deed. Montresor ends his confession with “In pace requiescat” (Poe 89). Montresor’s prayer suggests that he desires “relief from guilt, not forgiveness for a crime” (Sweet Jr. 11). Ironically, the absolution Montresor seeks from his confession appears to escape him. For a confession to receive absolution, the confessor must demonstrate the conviction of remorse. Therefore, Montresor ironically fails to achieve salvation he seeks through repression.
The Amontillado symbolizes the blood of Christ in communion. The blood of Christ offers the salvation that Montresor seeks. Yet, Montresor lures Fortunato with the sin of pride to taste the Amontillado. Ironically, the pursuit of the Amontillado leads Fortunato to his burial. In addition, Poe’s choice of wine displays a deeper sense of irony. Wikipedia notes that “[a] cask of fino will be reclassified as amontillado if . . . [fino] is intentionally killed by non-replenishment or additional fortification” (Wikipedia.com). Ironically, even the wine Fortunato seeks is intentionally killed and made darker. Fortunato seeks to drink the wine for pride. Montresor seeks the sacrament of communion and salvation.
Poe’s uses ironic symbols throughout “The Cask of Amontillado.” Through the ironic symbols, Poe develops a theme of a man who seeks salvation through repression. Fortunato’s character represents the dark side of man easily lured by his sins. Montresor represents a man who seeks the light of salvation but sacrifices a part of himself in vain. Fortunato represents the sinful side of Montresor which he should bring to the light and confess. Montresor, however, chooses to wall up Fortunato in darkness and thereby ironically ensures his own permanent darkness.
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Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britian. The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. Catholic Ed. Charlotte, NC.: C.D. Stampley Enterprises, Inc., 2001. 505, 1195.
Clendenning, John. “Anything Goes: Comic Aspects in ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’” Short Story Criticism. Vol. 35. Ed. Anna Sheetz Nesbitt. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. 335-341.
Cooney, James F. “‘The Cask of Amontillado’: Some Further Ironies.” Short Story Criticism. Vol. 35. Ed. Anna Sheetz Nesbitt. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. 324-325.Freehafer, John. “Poe’s ‘Cask of Amontillado’: A Tale of Effect.” Short Story Criticism. Vol. 35. Ed. Anna Sheetz Nesbitt. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. 314-319.
Gargano, James W. “‘The Cask of Amontillado’: A Masquerade of Motive and Identity.” Short Story Criticism. Vol. 35. Ed. Anna Sheetz Nesbitt. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. 311-314.
Pittman, Philip McM. “Method and Motive in ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’” Short Story Criticism. Vol. 35. Ed. Anna Sheetz Nesbitt. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. 325-330.
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Sweet, Jr., Charles A. “Retapping Poe’s ‘Cask of Amontillado.’” Short Story Criticism. Vol. 35. Ed. Anna Sheetz Nesbitt. Detroit: Gale Group, 2000. 331-332.
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