The Cask of Amontillado has been universally considered as one of the most impactful stories written by Edgar Allan Poe. Set in an unnamed Italian city, the story is about the narrator, Montresor, taking deadly revenge on his former friend, who, allegedly, insulted him. During a carnival, the protagonist lures his rival, Fortunato, into a wine tasting to get his friend intoxicated and proceeds to bury him alive by building a brick wall around a niche in which the poor man was chained. The story is both ironic and tragic since the murder did not have to happen, and the insulted friend could have confided in Fortunato to express his feelings, which could have led to a resolution. The diabolical scheme of revenge that Montresor develops should have been explained by the significant magnitude of the offense that he has experienced, but there is none. As with many things in life, there is no explanation for the irrational behavior of the protagonist, while his ironically unfortunate friend Fortunato rests in peace while doing nothing without causing his demise. In the story, irony plays a defining role in shaping the interactions between characters as well as leading readers to the inevitable demise of Fortunato.
Irony, Irony, and More Irony
The story is riddled in both situational and verbal irony that is present in every plane of the storyline. Irony is a tool that is being used for forecasting terrible events that will eventually take place in the story (Bradford 89). From the beginning, there is a stark contrast made between the fun and the joy of the carnival and the catacombs underneath the house of Montresor. As Montresor meets Fortunato, he smiles continuously at the man who thinks that he is met with welcoming warmth and friendliness. Montresor states, “it was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend” (Poe 212). In reality, however, the smile represents the evil plan that Montresor created to capture and ultimately murder Fortunato.
Likewise, the first words that Montresor says to his enemy are “you are luckily met,” and the ironic reversal comes true and the man will no longer be in luck but entombed alive by Montresor through his sinister plan (Poe 212). Therefore, while the name of the character represents luck and fortune, his life ends tragically, showing that the exact opposite is true. The irony ruins the expectations of readers that the luck of the character can get him away from Montresor in a fortunate escape; however, the author makes a point to ensure that the irony holds up.
Besides, the author chooses to use irony when describing the way in which Fortunato is dressed. He is dressed as a jester to fit the carnival theme as the man expects to have a night of fun and revelry, “the man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting party-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells” (Poe 212). Fortunato is literally dressed as a fool, and the irony is that he does not suspect that in several hours he will be made a fool of by a man who should have been his friend. The overall intention to have a good time prevents Fortunato from initially taking the actions of his friend seriously, and he thinks that all that is happening is “a very good joke indeed” (Poe 213). The costume adds to the irony when Montresor throws a torch over the wall to get a response from Fortunato who is quiet, and all that can be heard in response is the bells tinkling on his hat. Also, the methods through which the murderer lures his victim into to house is also an example of the latter being treated like a fool, which further contributes to the dark irony that is being traced throughout the entire story.
The seemingly subtle exchanges in the dialogue between the two characters are also indicative of irony. For instance, when Montresor hears as Fortunato coughs, he asks, “how long have you had that cough?” (Poe 214). The irony of this supposedly caring question is that the does not actually care about the health of his friend but tries to seem caring and attentive while also planning to wall Fortunato up alive in the catacombs. This quote is also indicative of the overall evil nature of Montresor – while he is about to murder his friend though the most inexplicably cruel way, he plays a game to intentionally subvert the attention of Fortunato, so the latter does not suspect anything.
In a similar ironic episode in the story, despite indeed having a terrible cough, he continues drinking and makes a toast to the people who are buried in the catacombs, as a sign of respect: “I drink… to the buried that repose around us” (Poe 214). Although, the character does not realize yet that he also drinks makes a toast to himself being murdered as he is soon buried alive in the catacombs, which is quite ironic. Later in the scene, Fortunato, who is a freemason according to the story, asks Montresor in disbelief as to whether he is a mason, to which the latter answers by showing a trowel he is concealing from his friend. The irony is that Fortunato realizes what skills do Montresor possess as a mason and soon discovers that the latter will build a wall in the catacomb and leave him to die there. After burying Fortunato alive, Montresor states that “for half of the century no mortal has disturbed them [the people buried in the catacombs]. Rest in peace” (Poe 217). This statement is ironic since Montresor intentionally left his friend alive to suffer and die in agony. Besides, it also signals the end of the life of Fortunato, whether he is dead or alive, he will never be able to escape the catacombs.
In The Cask of Amontillado, the literary tool of irony could have played a character in the story itself since its presence is undeniable and can be traced in the majority of the episodes and dialogues between the characters. What is important to point out is that Poe uses irony not only as a dark comedy tool that enables the audience to foresee the demise of Fortunato but also as a reminder that real life is not fair at all. The constant use of irony, such as the continuous drinking of wine that leads Fortunato to his death or the carnival atmosphere juxtaposed to the catacomb burial. No matter how ‘fortunate’ a person has always been, there may be evil people like Montresor who wish others ill will with no reason for being angry or mad at them. What is ironic about the story is that Montresor never gives any reasonable explanation as to why he is angry at Fortunato and wants him dead. As with many interpersonal interactions between people, some reasons for disliking or even hating other people are inexplicable, and that is just human nature because some feelings cannot be controlled. However, Edgar Allan Poe takes this notion to an extreme level, showing the absurdity of human behaviors and the consequences of not addressing one’s negative emotions peacefully and through dialogue.
Bradford, Adam Cunliffe. “Communities of Death: Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Nineteenth-Century American Culture of Mourning and Memorializing.” PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) Thesis, University of Iowa, 2010. Web.
Poe, Edgar Allan. Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Works, Deluxe Edition. Gramercy, 1990.