Text: Jay Jacoby, “Fortunato’s Premature Demise in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’,” Poe Studies, December 1979, Vol. XII, No. 2, 12:30-31


[page 30:]

Fortunato’s Premature Demise
in “The Cask of Amontillado”

University of North Carolina — Charlotte

“The Cask of Amontillado” is occasionally read as a perverse success story of a perfectly executed revenge in which crime does pay (1), and, more frequently, as a tale of cosmic and psychological retribution akin to “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” and “The Imp of the Perverse.” Critics of the latter persuasion often point to the tale’s pervasive irony, particularly Montresor’s frustrated expectations of revenge. Early in the tale, Montresor posits two conditions for revenge. To fulfill the first, he “must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser” (Works, III, 1256) . Critics have often discussed the irony involved with this condition, noting the set-up of the tale as a death-bed confession and the mortal nature of Montresor’s sin (2). But they have neglected the second conditionC that a wrong “is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong” (Works, III, 1256; italics mine) — even though it occasions further elucidating irony.

While Fortunato has been inebriated during much of his journey through the vaults, his intoxication quickly wears off after Montresor chains him in the recess. Fortunato is thus able to perceive the threat in Montresor’s actions, but some question remains whether or not he recognizes Montresor as an avenger “as such.” Regarding Montresor’s motive, Fortunato is figuratively and literally left in the dark. It is to his auditor, not to Fortunato, that Montresor intimates his motive in alluding to the “thousand injuries of Fortunato” and his “insult.” On this matter, Dorothy Foote argues that because Fortunato never received “an expressed or implied bill of redressment,” he dies without fully comprehending Montresor’s motives, thus leaving the second condition for revenge unfulfilled (3). This interpretation is insightful but incomplete, for it fails to take account of the implicit strategy of Montresor’s revenge and the irony that emerges from its premature frustration.

Montresor’s choice of the mode of execution — slow suffocation — suggests that he did not expect Fortunato to recognize his motive immediately, but to sober up and then, in walled-in solitude, to discern gradually the cumulative result of the “injuries” he had perpetrated on Montresor. The size of the recess — ”in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven” (Works, III, 1261) — is large enough to accommodate a lingering death and therefore Fortunato’s dawning recognition of Montresor’s motives. In terms of such a strategy, things start to go awry after Montresor echoes his victim’s final cry, “For the love of God, Montresor! “ (4).

What accounts for Fortunato’s silence? Perhaps now wholly sober, he is resigned to his fate and unwilling to give Montresor the satisfaction of pleading for mercy, although this explanation is inconsistent with the multiple [column 2:] ironies that run through the tale and improbable after Montresor suddenly thrusts a torch at his victim. Francis Henninger speculates that Fortunato has gone mad and thus that Montresor’s “vendetta is being worked out upon an animal” (5), an explanation which accords with the theme of frustrated expectations; but nothing in the story prepares us for sudden madness in Fortunato, much less for silent madness. A more likely hypothesis — one consistent with Montresor’s responses — is that Fortunato’s silence is due to his death, which occurs long before his tormentor desires.

The terror of Fortunato’s situation, which precipitates a “succession of loud and shrill screams” (Works, III, 1262), and his physical condition, indicated by a persistent cough described at length earlier in the tale, could well combine to bring about his death. That Montresor is troubled by such a possibility explains his actions after his final mocking repetition of Fortunato’s pleas goes unanswered:

But to these words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called aloud —

“Fortunato! “

No answer. I called again —

“Fortunato! “

No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick — on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labor. (Works, III, 1263)

Poe foreshadowed this scene with Fortunato’s earlier silence, which Montresor then interpreted as “obstinate.” When his victim subsequently vibrated his chains, Montresor ceased work on the masonry and sat upon the bones so that he “might hearken to [the sound] with the more satisfaction” (Works, III, 1262). But such “satisfaction” remains incomplete if Fortunato ultimately fails to recognize his tormentor as an “avenger” per se, which Fortunato gives no explicit indication of having done prior to his final silence. Hence, Montresor’s growing impatience for a reply in the above scene: his plan for revenge requires that his victim be conscious.

When Montresor thrusts a torch through the remaining opening in the new masonry, he makes a final, even frantic effort to arouse his victim, suggesting that he is beginning to suspect that Fortunato is already dead (Fortunato, whose name can be translated as “the lucky man,” in dying quickly may be considered relatively lucky). Since the opening is six or seven feet above the floor and four feet from the back of the recess, Montresor’s act is brutally direct: the flaming torch is thrust toward the victim’s head and allowed to drop to his feet in the confined space. The jingling of the bells that “came forth in return” is often interpreted as a sign that Fortunato is still alive, but it seems more probable that here, as elsewhere, they jingle involuntarily, either struck by the torch or shaken when Fortunato slumps in death. Surely a conscious Fortunato, no matter how stoic, would have cried out in response to the flame. Montresor himself appears to interpret the sound as a death knell, his subsequent haste implies a recognition that the “satisfaction” to be derived from his victim has ended. Thus, the jingling bells may suggest, in light of the traditional role of the fool from Shakespearean drama through Poe’s own “Hop-Frog,” that Fortunato ultimately gets the best of his adversary, if only by dying too soon. [page 31:]

Finally, this reading of Poe’s tale suggests a new perspective on Montresor’s often-glossed emotional response to these bells: “My heart grew sick — on account of the dampness of the catacombs.” Ironist critics of the tale generally agree that Montresor’s explanation is deceptive. Robert Fossum, for example, argues that “the sudden nausea of guilt, of the horror of his crime,” causes Montresor’s heart-sickness (6). But a stronger case can be made for another emotion underlying Montresor’s hasty rationalization: sudden disappointment as his carefully planned drama of revenge aborts at the untimely end of its main character (and, until fifty years later, its only audience) who dies still unaware of Montresor’s motives and before suffering the slow suffocation that would provide him time to fathom those motives.

Montresor’s rationalization suggests that he is fully cognizant of the irony of his own self-defeat but unable, even after fifty years, to acknowledge it directly. In light of his predilection for irony, however, he may indirectly admit that final gesture of one-upmanship which Fate bestows upon Fortunato (whose name can also be translated as “the fated man”), for the last words of Poe’s tale — “In pace requiescat! “ — are probably spoken with more sincerity than has generally been supposed.



(1) See, for example, Terence Martin, “The Imagination at Play: Edgar Allan Poe,” Kenyon Review, 28 (1966), 196-197; John Freehafer, “Poe’s ‘Cask of Amontillado’: A Tale of Effect,” Jahrliuch fur Amerikastudien, 13 (1968), 134-142; and Charles M. Nevi, “Irony and ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ “ English Journal, 56 (1967), 461-463.

(2) See G. R. Thompson’s Introduction, Great Short Works of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), pp. 19-20; William H. Shurr, “Montresor’s Audience in ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’” Poe Studies, 10 (1977), 28-29; James F. Cooney, “‘The Cask of Amontillado’: Some Further Ironies,” Studies in Short Fiction, 11 (1974), 195-196; and Arthur Waterman, “Point of View in Poe,” CEA Critic, 27 (1965), 5. Waterman contends that like the serpent in his family’s coat of arms, and like Satan, Montresor is destroyed as he destroys and will be condemned to hell for his arrogant murder. It is worth noting that, in having Montresor state that “I followed immediately at his [Fortunato’s] heels” (Works, III, 1261), Poe reinforces the identification of Montresor with the serpent rather than the foot on the coat of arms. For another interpretation of how “in a Christian universe no private vengeance can be exacted with impunity,” see Kent Bales, “Poetic Justice in ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’” Poe Studies, 5 (1972), 51.

(3) “Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ “ Explicator, 20 (1961), Item 27.

(4) Works, III, 1263. On the significance of this line as providing a “declaration of motive [which] silences Fortunato,” see Kathryn M. Harris, “Ironic Revenge in Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 6 (1969), 333-335; Marvin Felheim, “ ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ “ Notes & Queries, 199 (1954), 447448, and James E. Rocks, “Conflict and Motive in ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’” Poe Studies, 5 (1972) 50-51. These critics contend that Montresor’s revenge was motivated by the hostility that existed between the Brotherhood of Freemasons (of which Fortunato is a member) and the Roman Catholic Church (of which Montresor is ostensibly a member), and that Fortunato would recognize this hostility as the cause of his death. Even if this view of Montresor’s motivation can be reconciled with his stated reasons for the revenge, there is no clear evidence that Fortunato grasps such a meaning in this line, or, indeed, any rationale whatsoever behind Montresor’s action.

(5) “The Bouquet of Amontillado,” South Atlantic Bulletin, 35 (1970), 39.

(6) “Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ “ Explicator, 17 (1958), Item 16.


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