Elements of Irony in Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’

Edgar Allan Poe is known primarily for his mastery of the Gothic genre. The author makes an intense use of symbolism and irony throughout the Cask of Amontillado, what makes the short story much more creepy, but, still, interesting and catching the reader’s attention, once they can predict what is about to happen, but the victim cannot. This paper aims at presenting some irony from the work of Edgar Allan Poe The Cask of Amontillado. It will present three types of irony from the work of Edgar Allan Poe “The Cask of Amontillado”. The three types of irony approached in this text are verbal irony, situational irony and dramatic irony. The paper was elaborated by Daniel Fahed, Edson Freire and Cláudia Oliveira using online references and discussions among all the members of the group.

Plot

The story takes place in an Italian city in the carnival season. The two main characters are Montresor, the protagonist and narrator who seeks revenge for thousands of non-specific injuries, and Fortunato, a wealthy man, who is a wine connoisseur proud of his skill. [5]

The genre of this short story is horror containing many examples of subtle and obvious ironies. The whole story happens on a single day and it focuses on only one activity, which is the planning for murdering Fortunato. The narrator is in the first person, therefore, he is unreliable. The themes in this short story are revenge, deception and pride.

The story starts with the following line: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” In the English culture there is a saying which goes: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”. Poe’s speaker states the opposite. He has suffered injuries without complain, but insults he will not abide. The protagonist Montresor has a name that means “my treasure”. He declares his intention of avenging on unfortunate Fortunato, who has committed some unspecified insult to Montresor’s name and reputation. Besides, “a wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes the redresser.” Montresor looks for not only to punish, “but to punish with impunity.” [6]

Montresor’s name translation parallels Fortunato’s in two ways.  First, in French origin, Montresor’s name “combines the words montrer (to show) and sort (fate)”.  Montresor’s name suggests that he shows Fortunato his fate.

We know that Montresor hates Fortunato, but Fortunato does not know about it. The condemned character is unaware that Montresor’s friendly attitude is a pretense of good will, that his smile is at the thought of Fortunato’s death. Even in the title of Poe´s work it is possible to extract irony. The word cask, meaning wine barrel, is derived from the same root word used to form casket, meaning coffin. Therefore, the cask figuratively represents Fortunato’s casket.

“My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met.” is one of the ironic statements of the story, because if he had not run into Montresor at all that fateful evening, maybe he would have had much better luck and been much more fortunate.

The story takes place during the carnival season of madness and joy. The drunken Fortunato is wearing motley and the cap and bells of a jester, but he is no wise fool. Montresor plays on Fortunato’s pride in his wine connoisseurship, asking him to verify if Montresor’s recent bargain-price wine purchase is an expensive Amontillado or an ordinary Sherry. Fortunato agrees over Montresor’s protests that it would be an imposition and a health hazard, since the vaults where the wine is stored are cold, damp. Montresor’s expressed concern for the other man’s well-being is in disagreement with his true intentions.

When Fortunato encounters Montresor, it is at a carnival; a festive time of light, happiness and celebration.  It is unlikely that anyone would expect of a carnival to be the culmination of a murder plan.This characterizes a situational irony.

The story is full of verbal irony.  Montresor says “my dear Fortunato” and pretends surprise how “luckily we met”.  Montresor’s pride has been hurt through some real or imagined insults by Fortunato, and Montresor intends evil for him, but he speaks words dripping with honey to disguise his own motives and appeal to Fortunato’s pride.

How did Montresor know that no servants would be present? He had informed them that he would be gone all night and “given them explicit orders not to stir from the house.” That, he knew, would be enough “to insure their immediate disappearance” as soon as he left. That is a combination of verbal and situational irony.

The two of them go down the catacombs, Montresor repeatedly expressing worry about the nitre-covered walls and exacerbation of Fortunato’s cough. The unfortunate victim-to-be says, “the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough.”

Another example of verbal irony takes places when Fortunato believes in Montresor’s best intentions during the journey through the catacombs and he states that the dampness of the caverns will have an ill effect on Fortunato´s health.

Fortunato was right – it would not be his cough that would kill him, but rather his adamancy that his cough would not. The final example of irony takes place when Montresor realizes that Fortunato is dead. After repeatedly calling Fortunato’s name, Montresor collects himself and says, “In pace requiescat,” which translates as “rest in peace.” While this itself does seem a bit ironic since Montresor kills Fortunato and then wishes him peace, it can’t yet be fully appreciated. In Italian “in pace requiescat” does translate as “rest in peace,” but the phrase, “in pace” by itself means a, “secure, monastic prison.” This description very well represents Fortunato’s final resting place – secure because it is deep underground and behind a brick wall, and monastic because it’s location is very secluded and almost has a religious air about it because of the human remains scattered about.

He is also proven to be a fool for believing Montresor has his best intentions in mind when, during their journey through the catacombs, his companion protests the dampness of the caverns will have an ill affect on Fortunato’s health and asks him to turn back.  As it turns out, the fake concern is all part of the artifice used to lure Fortunato deeper into the trap, for the more Montresor suggests turning back the more determined Fortunato becomes to continue onward.

Fortunato accepts a bottle of Medoc that Montresor has chosen from the many wines lying in the mould, Fortunato toasts “to the buried that repose around us,” unaware that he himself would soon be one of them. “And I to your long life,” responds Montresor knowing that Fortunato’s life is about to end.

Readers know Montresor is not being sincere as he toasts to Fortunato’s good health and long life. Actually, he is deceiving and mocking his victim. It is dramatic irony when the reader knows something the characters in a story are not aware of. Fortunato believes he is being praised in high esteem with appreciation for his good knowledge of wine, when the reader knows Fortunato will suffer the revenge of his acquaintance.

Fortunato asks about the Montresor coat of arms, which is “A huge human foot d’or, in a field of azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.” with the motto Nemo me impune lacessit “written in it – which in English means “no one can harm me unpunished”. The reader can recognize the relationship of arms and inscription to what is happening. The unfortunate one does not.

Fortunato drinks more wine. This second bottle is a flagon of De Grave (De Grave in English is a sepulture) – another word that has ambiguous meaning. Montresor makes sure Fortunato will continue by suggesting that they instead turn back to escape the bad air. A scene of low comedy follows as Fortunato asks whether Montresor is a member of the masons. Montresor produces a mason’s trowel from under his cloak. Fortunato thinks it a joke. The trowel was showed to indicate a mason icon, but, at the same time, as a tool used to murder Fortunato. They continue through the charnel house, passing the remains of generations of Montresors, to an interior recess. Coming to a small chamber Montresor has his drunken dupe in chains seconds later.

Building stone and mortar readily at hand, Montresor uses his trowel and begins walling up the niche. Even chained to the wall, Fortunato thinks it’s all a big joke and asks about the nonexistent Amontillado. Now, he is the ignoramus-term used to insult Luchesi, whom Montresor has several times suggested as a connoisseur who he would ask to check the cask of wine instead of Fortunato. Such name-calling may be the propensity for insult that has prompted Montresor’s deadly revenge after the thousand injuries he has absorbed. 

Still drunk, Fortunato starts screaming and struggling when he starts to realize what the situation is as the opening begins to close with each row of masonry. As the final stone is about to be placed, Fortunato laughs again saying it’s all been a joke they can share with the revelers at the palazzo. But it’s after midnight; shouldn’t we call it quits? My wife will be wondering where I am. “Let us be gone.”

When Montresor repeats that line, “be gone” has a different meaning. Fortunato has uttered his last words. Montresor hears only the jingling of the bells on his victim’s cap. “My heart grew sick,” he says.

Is this a suggestion of remorseful humanity in Montresor? Definitely not. This is a kind of irony that seems to be lost to many readers; Montresor says in the next sentence that his heartsickness had nothing in it of pity. It was just the dampness that was getting to him. Shaking off his malaise, he inserts the last stone, plasters it, and gets back to the displaced bones.

“For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them.” Montresor is joyful. He has been relating a grisly event of long ago. He has indeed punished with impunity, giving new meaning to the motto on his coat of arms. The final sentence echoes the Latin of the requiem mass. In pace requiescat: May he rest in peace. One can only imagine the painfully slow death by thirst and starvation, and the nitre which made him cough, Fortunato did not die in peace, and the sorrowful emotions of the requiem mass are absent. Montresor has punished with impunity.

The readers might think that this story is happening at the present time, but it happened fifty years in the past. It shows situational irony, which is used when the opposite will happen than is expected.

Conclusion

Edgar Allan Poe uses many plays on words and ambiguity to craftily create his work. Some of them are obvious to the reader and some are subtle. The use of this figure of speech, which is a contradiction of expectation between what is said and what is meant or an incongruity between what might be expected-by Fortunato, in this case, but not by the readers-and what actually occurs. As we could see Montresor is committed to the idea of killing Fortunato. The verbal irony is present in every word when Montresor, apparently worried about Fortunato’s cough and the effect of the nitre-covered walls of this wine cellar, says, “You will be ill and I cannot be responsible.” We also noticed the situational irony, which occurs when events turn out the opposite of what would ordinarily be expected. The fact that the story of a man of misfortune should be named Fortunato and the fact of the name of the story be “The Cask of Amontillado”, which leads the reader to believe that this barrel of wine probably exists are examples of situational irony; as well as the fact that the murder takes place during carnival season and the costumes the two men are wearing suits very well to their rolls in the story. At last, the use of dramatic irony allows the readers to feel the imminent danger and Montresor’s real intentions as they know more than Fortunato or are able to interpret more accurately what the characters have to say. Just like when Montresor repeats Fortunato’s “Let us be gone,” we understand a different meaning than does Fortunato.

 

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