Written around March 2001
Edgar Alan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is a confession by a man called Montresor to a murder that he committed fifty years previously, in an un-named European city. In the confession, Montresor explains how he killed his “friend” (192), Fortunato, over a “thousand injuries” (191) and a final unspecified insult.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines dramatic irony as ”the effect achieved by leading an audience to understand an incongruity between a situation and the accompanying speeches, while the characters in the play remain unaware of the incongruity.” Poe employs this kind of irony to emphasize his character’s carefully thought-out plan to maximize the pain of his friend’s demise. He uses ironic layers of perception to lead the reader though Fortunato’s final realization of how a double layer of possible interpretation of meaning underlies the events that take place over the period leading up to his death.
The title, “The Cask of Amontillado” demonstrates the theme of irony throughout the short story. Forunato’s desire to share some of the dry Spanish sherry with his friend leads to his ultimate demise, and the “cask” literally becomes his casket. Montresor’s wine cellars are his family’s catacombs, though which he leads Fortunato to his death saying: “herein is the Amontillado”(195). Fortunato drinks a toast “to the buried that repose” (193) around them, not yet realizing the irony in his words, in that he will soon be joining them.
Another example of Poe’s dark use of irony is the exchange between Fortunato and Montresor about the secret fraternity of the Freemasons. Fortunato believes that it is “impossible” (194) for Montresor to be a mason, to which he responds by “producing from beneath the folds of [his] roquelaire a trowel” (194), the symbol of the masons. This is actually the tool that he will use to wall up a stone niche – with Fortunato inside.
As Montresor is sealing up the niche with his “friend” chained inside, Poe briefly shows how the revenge is made even sweeter through the use of irony. At that moment, when Fortunato realizes that his fate is sealed, he begins to remember all the chances he had for escape. Many times Montresor presented him a way out, with offers of not wanting to “impose on [Fortunato’s] good nature” (192), of “we will go back; your health is precious” (193) and “Come. We will go back ere it is too late” (195).
Finally, what must hurt the most is Fortunato realizing as the last brick is put in place that he was led to the cask(et) by his own obsession for alcohol, similar in severity to Montresor’s own obsession for upholding his family motto: “No one insults me with impunity” (193). Fortunato must once again be able to see, in retrospect, that Montresor carefully used his weakness against him as he trudged through the cold, damp catacombs, ignoring his cough, in search of the sherry and saying “Cold is merely nothing. Amontillado!”(192).
Poe’s dark sense of dramatic irony turns Fortunato into the audience who finally becomes aware of the incongruity between Montresor’s actions and motives, delivering the worst possible blow.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Cask of Amontillado” Literature: Reading Reacting, Writing. Eds. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen G. Mandell. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1994. 191-196.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996.