Text: Richard P. Benton, “The Phantom Listener in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’; or, ‘Is There Anybody There?’,” Masques, Mysteries and Mastodons: A Poe Miscellany (2006), pp. 115-132 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 115, unnumbered:]


Richard P. Benton

“The Cask of Amontillado” (1846) is not a straight narrative but a tale-within-a-tale, the story of a revenge murder by burial alive framed by another story — the telling of the murder by the murderer to a silent addressee fifty years later. The narrator is identified as a French nobleman named Montresor, but the narratee is unidentified as to name, age, sex, social position or vocation. In this relationship of narrator as “I” and the narratee as “you,” two intriguing questions have haunted many readers: 1) What motivates “I” to tell the story of the murder fifty years later? And 2) who is “you” — man, woman, or child — and what is this person’s relationship to “I” other than playing the role of phantom listener?

The answers most commonly given have been 1) “I” is on his death bed and fears the fires of hell and 2) his story of the murder is his confession to his priest, who is the silent listener. However, there are signs in the text and traces in the intertext which when brought to light destroy the ideas that the frame story is the narrator’s death-bed confession for the purpose of obtaining pardon from God through the agency of the narratee priest. I hope to provide more reasonable answers to these questions than the prevailing ones.

These answers will be arrived at by the techniques appropriate to narrative transmission. The narration of “Cask” is presented on two levels, primary and secondary. The primary level frames the narration of the secondary level and takes place fifty years after that of the secondary level. It is not a simple mimesis — that is, the representation of an action, but a diegesis — that is, a discourse between the murderer Montresor and his silent companion fifty years after the event he describes. The narration of the secondary level is in the nature of a metadiegesis — that is, an exchange of superb dialogue between the murderer and his victim supported by description and meaningful gestures. These factors “go beyond” the diegesis of the primary level and amount to a discourse which produces the illusion of a mimesis that also goes “far afield” in time and place. I will pay particular attention to the ways by which a narrator can give clues to the character and identity of the narratee. Diegesis and metadiegesis are offered by the author without explanation, conclusion, or judgment. The metadiegesis, of course, is the main source of reader interest. But at its [page 116:] completion this central story is not framed by the resumption of the first level story to round out and enclose the second level tale. The second level story is left open-ended and the silent listener and observer is simply erased by the author. An effort to round out the whole by closing with reference to the first level narrative would no doubt have weakened if it would not have destroyed altogether the final impression which the author must have wanted to leave in the mind of the reader. “Cask” is a story done in “deep focus,” in which “objects both near and far away are simultaneously in focus” until the final “fade out” of the silent listener.

Since the pronouns “I” and “you” have no specific referents in themselves, they can signify only in discursive situations in which “I” implies a speaker to whom “I” refers and “you” implies a listener whom “I” addresses, whether “you” be singular or collective. In “Cask” “I” is to be identified mostly with the internal narrator, Montresor, both in the diegesis (the discourse between Montresor and his silent friend) and in the metadiegesis (the discourse between Montresor and his victim, Fortunato). At two places in the metadiegesis, however, “I” is Fortunato and “you” is either Montresor or Fortunato. In speaking of Fortunato, Montresor commonly employs the pronoun “he” in connection with adjective phrases such as “he was a man to be respected and even feared” and “in the matter of wines he was sincere.” Montresor addresses Fortunato as “you” in connection with adjectives descriptive of his social reputation and inner feelings: “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy. . .” In his discourse with Fortunato, Montresor is never frank or sincere but always speaks ironically or facetiously. He addresses him as “My dear Fortunato” and as “my friend” and “my poor friend.” At the end of his story of the murder, he refers to Fortunato simply as “the voice.”(1)

The phantom listener whom Montresor addresses as “you” is an unnamed and mysterious figure whose identity is sketched in a few strokes of the pen: “You, who so well know the nature of my soul. . .” “You,” therefore, is an intimate friend and one acquainted with Montresor for a fairly lengthy period. Having shared Montresor’s inner life, “you” must be an adult, whether man or woman, one whom Montresor trusts, who he is sure will understand and appreciate the story he tells, and be impressed favorably by it. If we are to learn more about the probable identity of the listener, however, should we not listen carefully to the “voice” of the narrator Montresor as he tells his story to the listener? Narration here amounts to an utterance which [page 117:] assumes a speaker and a listener. Such a discourse is a signifying transaction in which speaker and listener define themselves through the use of the pronouns “I” and “you.” The speaker always intends to influence the listener in some fashion. Although here the listener remains silent throughout the discourse, the speaker provides a minimal definition of him/her. But may not the silence of the listener have its own significance? Further, will not the discursive strategy of the speaker’s voice furnish some clues to the further identity of the listener?

Speakers pursue their discursive strategies in directions ranging between the opposite poles of respect and disrespect, compliment and insult, praise and blame. They may be polite or impolite, considerate or inconsiderate, sincere or deceitful. They may use gibes, irony, sarcasm, humor, exaggeration, tropes, logic, profanity, or other devices. Whatever discursive strategy is employed is more or less determined by the social and personal relation between the speaker and the hearer, their particular ideologies, and the circumstances of the discussion. The features that have the most important bearing on these factors are the equality of the interlocutors — whether equal or unequal, their age differences, and their sex differences. These elements involve both objective and subjective viewpoints. For instance, the interlocutors may be socially equal according to the society but unequal in the mind of one of the interlocutors. What, then, can be said about Montresor’s discursive strategy respecting his hearers, his enemy and victim of his youthful passion, the Italian Fortunato, and the listener and intimate friend of his old age? Before attempting to answer these pertinent questions perhaps it would be well to proclaim some distinctions regarding the various kinds of linguistic utterances, narrators and narratees, and voices to be found in writing.

In most cases when a speaker utters a sentence, he/she intends to say what is said. Although what is said is limited by the speaker’s personal lexicon and knowledge of syntax and grammar, he/she means what is said to affect the person or persons addressed. At the same time, a speaker may say what he/she did not intend to say and speak in violation of the rules of syntax and grammar. He/she, then, may not produce the effect desired — even produce the opposite effect from that desired. Although sometimes a hearer may be able to figure out what the speaker intended to say despite lack of clarity and violation of the rules of syntax and grammar, it is also the case that a speaker’s language may conceal more meaning than it reveals without him/her intending to be deceitful or uncommunicative in terms of conscious [page 118:] awareness. In unconscious concealment or distortion, certain persons engaged in the practice of psychoanalysis have laid claim to techniques designed to uncover latent content or secreted material as Freud, Lacan, and Abraham and Torok. In any case, British philosopher John Austin’s classification of discursive sentences into three categories 1) “illocutionary” — the intention of sentences; 2) “locutionary” — the grammar of sentences; and 3) “perlocutionary” — the effect of sentences is basic to the analysis of such references.(2)

“Narrator” here refers to the internal fictional narrator named Montresor, not to the author, Edgar Poe. “Narratee” refers to the silent hearer to whom Montresor addresses his tale, not to the “reader” or “readers” to whom Poe addressed “Cask.” Montresor’s narrating of his tale of vengeance by murder is not the same as Poe’s narrating of “Cask.” Nor is the biographical Poe to be identified exclusively as the narrator, for his everyday or pragmatic self was not the same as his literary or creative self. As the author of, this tale, Poe functioned principally as the magister artis scribendi.

This brings us to the question: What is “voice” in writing? The written script of most, if not all, natural languages carries phonetic freight. That is, the characteristic speech sounds of a natural language are represented by written symbols: letters, syllables, or words possessing standardized or conventional speech sounds. Ferdinand de Saussure called this aspect of language “la langue” as opposed to the characteristic speech sounds made by a particular person, “la parole.”(3) Although written script is literally silent, in the process of reading the reader directly “hears” its sound pattern in his/her “mind’s ear.” To this imaginary sound pattern we give the designation “stylistic voice.” Like voice in speech, stylistic voice in writing asks to be recognized as such. In this way a literary text may reflect the voices of its fictional characters. An important element of stylistic voice is “tone,” the expressive quality of voice which displays emotional feelings and attitudes. Although writing is not simply a transcription of speech, style in writing has been one way authors have sought to reduce writing to speech, a task, however, in which none has succeeded. Further, voices, especially the voice of the author, must have the ring of authenticity or they will fail to convince the reader of their truth. Stephen Owen has stated: “Voice is the incarnation of identity in words: it can be fostered, but it cannot be constructed.”(4) Actually voice is more than verbal and aural, because its identifying characteristics include [page 119:] narrative point of view, the centered interest, and the attitude adopted by the writer toward his subject and audience. In sum, in analyzing a story’s meaning it is important to determine the voice or voices presented as speaking and to whom it or they are addressed, for these factors all contribute to the story’s meaning.

In analyzing the narrator’s discursive strategy in “Cask,” attention to some of the more significant oppositions which range through the tale on the whole may help our understanding. These oppositions include the following: past/present; young/old; aristos/ bourgeois; country/city; pride/humility; honor/dishonor; duplicity/ frankness; French/Italian; carnival/everyday; vengeance/forgiveness; duellist/non-duellist; irony/plain talk; underground/aboveground; charm/ grossness; morality/amorality; murderer/victim; warmth/coldness; life/ death; damned/saved; speculative Mason/working mason, etc.

For instance, the opposites past/present, young/old, and country/ city are important to the tale’s structure. Fifty years separate Montresor’s act of vengeance from his narration of it to a phantom listener. When he commits the murder he is a youth in his early twenties, but when he narrates this past occurrence he is an old man in his early seventies. Further, various indicators in the text necessitate that the murder occur at a country château-fort in west-central France during the Ancien régime, whereas the narration of this murder takes place in Paris just prior to the French Revolution and the First Republic. The oppositions French/Italian, aristos/bourgeois, and carnival/everyday are also of first importance. The French name “Montresor” is not a surname but the name of a countship. Hence the protagonist is a French nobleman — the Comte de Montrésor. When young he lives in a château-fort located in the countryside along a river and close to a village — probably in west-central France in the old province of Touraine. When old he is living in retirement in the city of Paris, judging from the reference to that city’s “catacombs.” As a retired but poor nobleman he is perhaps living at the Tuileries, the royal palace, as the king’s pensioner. There were no “catacombs” in Paris before 1786, and the French Revolution began in 1789. As an aristocrat Montresor has the privilege of wearing a rapier (no doubt the refined version called the colichemarde) as part of his everyday dress. After about 1760 the pistol had begun to replace the sword for purposes of duelling. As part of his everyday attire Montresor also wears a heavy knee-length cloak called a roquelaire. This style of cloak was popularized in the early eighteenth century by Antoine [page 120:] Gaston Jean Baptise, the Duke of Roquelaire (1656-1738). It was the height of fashion in the 1730s and ‘40s. By the 1770s it had given way to a long, full-skirted overcoat called a redingote. The murder of Fortunato takes place during the carnival of Mardi gras, which celebration was discontinued with the establishment of the First Republic. On the basis of the above indicators the telling of Fortunato’s murder must have occurred around 1787-88, whereas the deceitful commission of his murder must have occurred around 1737-38. That Montresor cannot regard his neighbor Fortunato as his social equal is a critical factor in the former’s action. A member of the old feudal nobility, Montresor is a genuine noblesse d’épée. Fortunato, on the other hand, is evidently of bourgeois origin, having engaged in trade. He appears to be a nouveau-riche Italian who had purchased a title and coat of arms. As such he has no training in fencing and cannot be challenged to a duel by an aristocrat.

If class status is important in “Cask,” so is age and perhaps even gender. Elderly persons with a positive outlook on life typically exhibit a confident attitude towards the past, which they tend to idealize in and for itself. The Russian poet Pushkin remarked: “What passes will be sweet.” Such an attitude is evident both in Montresor’s choice of event for narration and in his telling of it. The tone of his narration that stems from the intonation pattern of the speaker imagined as sound displays exhilaration, self-satisfaction, and pride in concealed deceit and cold-blooded vengeance perpetrated against a person deemed getting his just desserts, and he savors once again his youthful accomplishment. In fact, he is so pleased with himself that he provides details of his treatment of Fortunato. He clearly regards himself as the hero of his story. But one must understand the ethical codes of the point d’honneur and the duello a la maza to assess properly the morality of his actions.(5)

At any rate, no sign in the text manifests itself to suggest that Montresor is contemplating his own death, feels guilty about these actions of his youth, and is penitent about them during this narration. He evidences no consciousness of mortal sin on his soul which might endanger his salvation. He does not seem to be speaking to a priest who is acting as his confessor, although his story assumes the fictional form of the “confession” invented by St. Augustine, given modern expression by Rousseau, and become a popular magazine form in the first half of the nineteenth century,(6) with the difference that [page 121:] Montresor’s tale-within-a-tale appears not to be aimed at the reader but rather at the phantom listener. When he realizes that he has succeeded at burying Fortunato alive, he confesses: “My heart grows sick.. . .” and perhaps here acknowledges a “prick of conscience” on his part, but this feeling was momentary and at any rate is a part of his past. Although Montresor addresses his mute listener as “You, who so well know the nature of my soul. . .,” he appears to refer to his own personality rather than to that theological entity regarded as the immortal part of the body, for who can “well know the nature” of that entity? Montresor seeks to assure his listener that his typical stance of masking his real emotions to prevent their scrutiny by others had been adopted and had not failed him even when he was a youth. However, he is on such intimate terms with his listener that he is quite willing to reveal his paradoxical passionate and at the same time cold-blooded nature. He is sure that his companion will admire him for this idiosyncrasy rather than otherwise. Montresor’s personality therefore conforms to the opposition of warmth/coldness that runs through “Cask” as a whole. Indeed, the main impact of the story on the reader depends on the surprise and horror he/she feels in “hearing” a gentleman so coldly yet warmly recount in careful detail a murder he so deceitfully wrought into a perfect crime. Although motivated by passionate revenge, this crime is executed in the most cold-blooded way, aided by the murderer’s careful planning, clever deceit, and personal charm. Apparently, Montresor’s estimate of his companion’s response is correct, for he/she remains silent and is seemingly unmoved.

Although Poe emphasizes the warmth/coldness combination in Montresor’s character, he also makes use of their opposition otherwise from the beginning of the tale-within-the-tale. From the moment Montresor and Fortunato descend the staircase into the underground corridors of the foundation of an earlier château-fort, upon which his present “palazzo” has been constructed in the Italian Renaissance style, the cold dampness of these underground passages is emphasized. Having participated in some Mardi gras festivities, Fortunato is attired in the costume of a medieval court fool, which is not warm enough to withstand the cold. On the other hand, Montresor is prepared to defend himself against the elements. He is dressed in a knee-length, heavy cloak called a roquelaire. This item is part of his everyday clothing, which includes a black silk mask to protect himself against the night air and a rapier to defend himself against criminal attack. In short, he is not dressed to accommodate the carnival season. Once underground, [page 122:] Montresor pretends to be concerned that the cold dampness will affect Fortunato’s health adversely. He assures Fortunato that they can return to the château if need be. When Fortunato declines to return, Montresor urges him to drink some wine to warm his blood, offering him some Medoc from his stores. As a result, Fortunato becomes intoxicated and is an easy dupe for Montresor’s murderous plan.

The aristos/bourgeois duality extends itself into the opposites of duellist/non-duellist, honor/dishonor, Freemason/non-Freemason, and freethinker/Roman Catholic, although the foundation and impetus of “Cask” depends on the class conflict of aristos/bourgeois. Aided by the policies of Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin (the latter an Italian), the French bourgeoisie enjoyed increasing power and prosperity by virtue of the centralizing policies of these ministers who played the bourgeoisie off against the rural aristocracy and catered only to a small clique of aristocrats whom they invited to the French court. In this way the rural aristocracy, or gentilshommes champêtres, lost power and declined in wealth. Two policies of the central governments especially irritated the gentilshommes champêtres: 1) the Crown’s sale to haut bourgeois of aristocratic titles and official positions; and 2) the Crown’s edicts which forbade duelling and promised banishment for the first offense and death for the second. This latter policy struck at one of the most cherished privileges enjoyed by the noblesses d’épées, who, educated in the martial arts, held the honorific civil right to wear a sword with everyday dress. They felt that this prohibition demeaned them by putting them on the same level as the bourgeoisie.

On this score the aristos were not unreasonable. Private duelling between two (or more) persons had been customary in settling questions of honor since the disappearance of the judicial duel about the middle of the fifteenth century. A code of behavior called “le point d’honneur” developed which was intimately bound to the code of the duello a la maza. Thereupon the day when a young gentleman girded himself with a duelling sword, he assumed the obligation to defend his honor with it whenever necessary. In this connection Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night: “The gentleman will, for his honor’s sake, have one good bout with you; he cannot by the duello avoid it” [III.4]. Both of these codes, it should be understood, were the exclusive property of the aristocratic class and had no application to the bourgeoisie. If Fortunato had been a true noblesse d’épée instead of a bourgeoisie who became an anoblis, or a commoner who had purchased a title and coat of arms from the Crown, Montresor could have redeemed his honor by [page 123:] challenging and besting him in a duel. But under the circumstances, the proper alternative was for Montresor to employ some thugs to beat him up. But, then, Fortunato was evidently a rich and powerful man and perhaps the latter course was not a realistic alternative. Hence Montresor’s plot to bury Fortunato alive.

English Freemasonry was introduced into France in 1725 by the Jacobite Lord Derwentwater. Aided by the popular English exile Count Anthony Hamilton and the Scots French resident Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsay, the new secret society caught on rapidly with the French. In Catholic Italy and Spain the Masonic organization enjoyed no status at all; in these countries the monarchies forbade it, the clergy condemned it, and the bourgeoisie simply dismissed it. But in Catholic France it was regarded as an adventure and an escape from the contentions between Catholics and Protestants, aristocrats and bourgeoisie, and republicans and monarchists. To many Frenchmen it offered a truly “catholic” religion, conducting mystic rituals, awarding degrees, and offering brotherhood for those who disbelieved in the authority of the monarchy and the dominion of the Church but believed in egalitarianism, natural rights, human freedom, and social progress. In France the monarchy simply ignored the Masonic movement, apparently unconscious that it presented a serious menace. Likewise the Church in France, alone among the Catholic countries, took no action against Masonry. This was so despite the issuance of papal bulls in 1738 and 1751, which saw the secret society as a distinct danger to Christianity and civil government.

In “Cask” Fortunato identifies himself to Montresor as a Freemason by means of a hand sign, which Montresor fails to understand. When Fortunato makes him understand that he means the “brotherhood,” Montresor denies that he is a “speculative Mason” but acknowledges — in one of the story’s key ironies — that he is a “practical mason” by withdrawing from beneath his cloak a trowel meant for scooping and smoothing mortar in masonry. (Later he will use this same trowel to wall up the imprisoned Fortunato, thus burying him alive.) Further, when Montresor earlier met Fortunato in the village apparently “by chance,” it is clear that this is a “chance meeting” only from Fortunato’s point of view, because Montresor, having previously placed the “building stone and mortar” at a spot in the underground vault where he intends to wall up the Italian alive, surely had prior knowledge of Fortunato’s whereabouts. Further, before the “chance meeting” he had provided himself with warm clothing and brought with [page 124:] him the mortar trowel. When the “chance meeting” takes place, Fortunato is dressed as a court fool and is partially intoxicated. Where had he attended a banquet for men only but at the local Masonic lodge! The early French Masonic lodges resembled the medieval organizations known as sociétés joyeuses, whose purpose was revelry, amusement, and entertainment. Their members dressed as court fools and their chief officers bore the title of either Prince des Sots or Mere Sotte. The activity at a Masonic lodge was divided into two parts: the time of “laboring” and the time of “refreshment.” Only those who were Freemasons were allowed to attend a Masonic lodge meeting.

At the same time, this so-called “chance meeting” between Montresor and Fortunato mocks the stratagem adopted by the French duellists of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as a result of the prohibition against duelling. The participants in a forthcoming duel were forced to adopt the stratagem called the “rencontre,” or “the meeting by chance.” Such a meeting, however, actually came about by pre-arrangement. At the so-called “meeting by chance” one participant would ask the other: “Will you walk in the woods with me?” His opponent would reply: “Yes, I’ll walk a little way with you.” Proceeding into the woods, they would select a spot suitable for duelling. Drawing their swords, they would fight without benefit of seconds until one was struck down. Later the survivor would report that he had killed his opponent in self-defense after having been attacked by him. Part of the irony in “Cask” is that it amounts to a duel of wits and words rather than of wits and swords. It is, nevertheless, a genuine duella a la maza, or “a duel to the death,” although but a rhetorical parody of the real thing.

Indeed, Montresor’s whole treatment of Fortunato extends the parody of Freemasonry to embrace the central theme of its traditional myths and legends. From the two men’s descent into the underground passages of the old foundation of the original château-fort to the conclusion of their quest for the precious cask of amontillado with the unexpected burial alive of the victim of vengeance, the Masonic legends of the first and second Jewish temples — the Temple of Solomon and the Temple of Zerubbabel — are drawn upon in Poe’s parody of the mythology of Freemasonry.(7)

In the Masonic system the legend of the Temple of Solomon is called “The Legend of the Three Degrees.” It is the story of the murder of Hiram Abif, the architect and builder of the Temple of Solomon, by the “Three Assassins,” the three unworthy craftsmen, because Hiram [page 125:] refused to divulge to them his masonic secrets. After murdering him, they spirited his corpse away from the Temple to bury it on a distant hillside. When Hiram’s disappearance was reported to King Solomon, he ordered a search party to look for him. Eventually they found his corpse and returned it to the Temple where it was buried in the Holy of Holies. Under the moral principle of lex talionis Hiram’s murderers were run down, captured, and executed. According to the Masonic system Master Hiram is the symbol of man as the dweller and worker in the world. His murder marks the fact of death in the life of man on earth; the discovery of his corpse signifies man’s ability to discover Divine Truth; and the burial of his corpse in the Holy of Holies symbolizes the mystic fact of man’s resurrection and eternal life. The punishment handed out to Hiram’s murderers symbolizes the working out of Divine Justice. When in Ancient Craft Masonry a brother seeks to obtain the Third Degree and thus become a Master Mason, he must ritually die to be resurrected into Masonry.

King Solomon’s Temple was utterly destroyed by the soldiers of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II. He captured Jerusalem in 586 B.C. and took many Jews to Babylon as captives. After the return of the Jews from their Babylonian exile, the city and the temple were slowly and painfully rebuilt. Under the leadership of Prince Zerubbabel a new and second temple was completed in 516 B.C. In the Masonic system legends concerning the Temple of Zerubbabel are connected to the higher degrees of Royal Arch Masonry and are summed up as “the Legend of the Royal Arch Degree.” This legend has to do with the Three Sojourners, the Secret Vault, the Stone of Foundation, the Tetragrammaton (Heb. shem ha-meforash), and the quest for and the discovery of the Lost Word.

When Zerubbabel decided to build a second temple on the foundation of the first, the rubble that had accumulated for nearly seventy years had to be cleared away. Three Sojourners recently returned from Babylon took part in the cleanup. Attracted by the sight of a keystone showing itself amidst the rubble, they investigated it and discovered Solomon’s Secret Vault and Stone of Foundation. This Stone of Foundation had been devised by the Jewish patriarch Enoch. God had revealed His Ineffable Name to him in a vision. Thus inspired, Enoch had the Tetragrammaton engraved on a triangular plate of gold. Having fastened this plate to a cubical stone, he had deposited it in a secret vault in the subterranean temple he had had his son, Methuselah, build for him on Mt. Moriah. With the destruction of the [page 126:] world by the Great Flood, however, all knowledge of the underground temple and its Precious Stone of Foundation was lost until the time of King Solomon.

When the foundation for Solomon’s Temple was being excavated, Solomon himself discovered the presence of the identical stone that Enoch had placed in his secret vault inside his subterranean temple. Solomon chose to build his temple upon the foundation containing the Stone of Foundation. He had the mystical stone placed in the floor of the Holy of Holies but raised above the floor by several inches. Thus it served as a pedestal to support the Ark of the Covenant. In anticipation of a future attack on the temple by enemies of the Jews, Solomon also constructed an underground tunnel beneath it containing a secret vault in which the sacred objects could be hid and preserved. When the first temple was set afire by the soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar, the sacred objects were hastily secreted in the subterranean vault. When the fire destroyed the temple, it rolled over the secret vault. Although actually preserved, to human knowledge the Omnific Word was lost again — for the second time.

When the foundation was to be laid for the second temple, Zerubbabel chose to use the stone of Solomon the Three Sojourners had discovered in the ruins. From the standpoint of the Masonic system, the significance of the Legend of the Stone of Foundation is its intimate connection with the Legend of the Lost Word, or the Tetragrammaton, or Ineffable Name, and its Substitute Words “Adonai” (“my Lord”) and “Elohim” (“God”), as opposed to its True Word (represented in the Modern Latin alphabet in such terms as the four consonants JHVH and YHVH), which Christians misread as “Jehoveh” or “Yehoveh” because they were unaware of the Jewish custom of adding vowels heard to consonants written, but which most Biblical scholars today think is close to the form “Yahaveh.” The founders of Royal Arch Masonry, about 1740, substituted the three code words of “Jah-Bul-Om” for the True Word, which they held was symbolic of Divine Truth. Therefore, according to Royal Arch Masonry, Zerubbabel’s Temple is a symbol of the discovery of Divine or Ultimate Truth as well as of the future life of man. It signifies that following his death man will be resurrected into eternal life.

“Cask” parodies these Masonic legends and mythology. At the same time, the tale also contains parodies of certain Roman Catholic rituals — namely, the Requiem Mass, or Mass for the Dead, and the Stations of the Cross.(8) Both of these rituals have to do with the Passion [page 127:] of Christ, i.e., with his death and resurrection. The Mass is mainly a representative of the Catholic sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. In this ritual Catholics believe that bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. Thus the Mass is a sacrifice having to do with the death and resurrection of the Savior of Mankind. In the Mass for the Dead the Latin words of dismissal for regular Mass, “Ite Missa est” (“Go, the Mass is ended”) are replaced by the words, “Requiesca(n)t in pace” (“May he, she [they] rest in peace” — normally speaking). But Poe reverses the form and has Montresor say, “In pace requiescat.” Further, instead of having Montresor address the unfortunate Fortunato, who at this point may be considered as good as dead, Poe has him addressing the pile of bones which constitutes his eminent ancestors, so that “Requiescat in pace” now is neuterized and means, “May it (i.e., the pile of bones) rest in peace.”

In this parody of Catholicism Poe apparently aimed to portray Montresor as a recusant Catholic, deist, freethinker, atheist, or anti-Christ who mocks his Catholic enemy from Popeland. Being dressed as a court fool, Fortunato is also, in Pauline terms, “a fool for Christ.” This treatment may further be modeled on the Judaic-Roman baiting of Christ the Fool that is presented in the Gospels and was portrayed in the medieval mystery plays. When Montresor walls up the chained Fortunato and reaches the seventh tier of masonry, he is startled and shocked by Fortunato’s outburst of “a sucession of loud and shrill screams” before lapsing into silence. Although momentarily unnerved — indeed perhaps having a brief pang of conscience for what he has done — he quickly recovers from such a weakness. He unsheathes his rapier and probes inside the recess of the wall with its blade to determine if Fortunato is alive. Here Poe parodies the piercing of Christ’s side by the Roman soldier at the Crucifixion because the soldier wished to satisfy himself that the Savior was dead. This episode is one of the “stations” of the Catholic liturgy called “The Way of the Cross” (although it is popularly known as “The Stations of the Cross”).

Whatever Poe may have done in the way of parody as a writer, it is Montresor’s voice the reader hears in the narrating. The tone of this voice displays vigor, pride, coldness of heart, remorselessness, and self-satisfaction in re-living again the success of his devious plot. So pleased with himself is he that he tries to reveal every act, word, and gesture he can remember. He clearly regards himself as the nonpareil hero of his own story and is confident he is thus impressing his [page 128:] phantom listener. He is not at all ashamed of his hatred, thirst for revenge, hypocrisy, deceit, and cold-blooded cruelty. Such Machiavellian ethics well become a nobleman of the Ancien régime, whose life was normally devoted to the service of the Crown, to political intrigue, to warfare, sometimes to illicit and secret amours. Such a man was ever ready to defend his honor in terms of the point d’honneur and the duella a la maza. Nowhere in Montresor’s narrating voice is there a sign that his murder of Fortunato has made him feel any permanent prick of consicence that prompted repentance. He is not dying nor does he fear an imminent death. He surely is not confessing his mortal sin to his father confessor. When he addresses his phantom listener as “You, who so well know the nature of my soul. . .,” he is referring to the listener’s sympathetic understanding of the kind of person that he really is, rather than to the immortal soul which from a Christian point of view requires God’s rescue from the consequences of sin.

Montresor’s narrative reveals opposing emotional and attitudinal states. While bathing in the sunshine of his own glory, he icily recounts a murder plot that could have sent him to the gallows. Proud of his deceit and clever rhetoric, he seeks to assure the listener that his ability to play the friendly wolf was practically genetically determined. He remarks that “it must be understood that neither by word or deed had I given Fortunato to doubt my good will.” His name “Montresor” literally means, of course, “mount of treasure.” He conceals his real secret from Fortunato by pretending that his “mount of treasure” is a cask of amontillado recently imported from Spain, whereas it is actually the bone pile of his aristocratic ancestors; insults of Fortunato which had injured him had also in fact, and to him even more seriously, injured his ancestors. Fortunato is everything that Montresor hates: He is an Italian swindler. He is a nouveau riche bourgeois with a purchased position and title. He is a gross man, ignorant of aristocratic lineages and values. Finally, he is a Roman Catholic Freemason who, advocates social egalitarianism and popular republicanism, the motto of French Freemasonry being “liberté, égalité, and fraternité.” Therefore, Montresor re-erects “the old rampart of bones” as a bastion against the new ideas. Hence his address to this bone pile is “In pace requiescat,” no doubt uttering it in an abnormal linear order for irony’s sake. At any rate, having accomplished the burial alive of Fortunato, Montresor feels that he has performed a genuine ritual sacrifice and a true immolation in honor of his ancestors. [page 129:]

The locale of Montresor’s narrating of his disposal of Fortunato is surely Paris and the time around 1787-88. Any later date is incompatible with the facts presented. The narratee — the phantom listener — apparently had never visited the Château de Montresor to see its underground tunnels and galleries, but is familiar with the “catacombs of Paris” by virtue of being a resident of that city, hence the narrator’s analogy between the two underground systems. The narrator apparently is now also a resident of Paris. Where might an elderly retired nobleman no longer wealthy live in Paris during the reign of King Louis XVI? If wealthy he most likely would live in his own hôtel de ville, but if relatively poor he might most likely have become the king’s pensioner and given an apartment in the Tuilleries Palace, the former royal palace that was burned down in 1871, whose locale is today the site of a public garden. Can Montresor’s faceless, silent narratee, who performs a valuable service to him and his narrating as well as a valuable service to the scriptor, Poe, and to the reader, be identified? Any answer to this question: Who is the phantom listener in “Cask”? must be arrived at on the basis of the total discursive strategy of the narrator, Montresor, for his narratee is bodiless, faceless, silent, and covert — taking no action, immobile, still, silent, like a figure in a painting.

The narratee is most likely of the same social status as Montresor — that is, a person of aristocratic lineage, to be his intimate companion and to have an understanding of the system of values and the moral and social codes by which he has lived. The narratee is probably also of the nobility.

The narratee is presumably considered younger than Montresor. An elderly man is far more inclined to tell a story of personal adventure of his youth to one of a later generation than to one of his own age. He likes to prove to a much younger person that he himself was not always old, lacking in manly strength and vigor, and unadventurous. The narratee is probably about thirty years Montresor’s junior, therefore about forty-two or forty-three years old.

The narratee is most likely a woman, very likely his mistress, who has been his intimate companion since he was in his forties and had more or less settled down. Since she understands his “soul,” she is willing to listen without question or comment — in silence and unshocked. She understands that the elderly man is trying to justify himself by re-living his clever, deceitful, and cold-blooded act of vengeance, which from his standpoint was a moral act, a just [page 130:] punishment for a thousand insults directed against him and his eminent ancestors. To us today, however, it is merely a dastardly though “perfect crime.”

French women of the aristocratic class in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries of the Ancien régime were important persons in their own right. Some were queens or the mistresses of kings. They were also arbiters of social form, fashion, and taste in art and literature. Some were hostesses of intellectual salons that attracted the leading authors and thinkers of the time. Some were important writers and thinkers themselvs and the authors of letters, diaries, memoirs, poems, and romances. Some were political manipulators, intriguers, and espionage agents on a par with men.

However much such women were also regarded as embodiments of the pleasure-ideal; their power and often their intellectual capacity were real enough, some having a genuine knowledge of men and affairs. If some were not the equals of the aforementioned, they were invariably charming, sensible, and skilled in the art of conversation; and not the least of their virtues was that they were good listeners. That the listener in “Cask” might be a woman would make Poe’s tale all the more richly textured because of featuring a woman who is not dead or dying, and whose role would undeniably maker her “beautiful” in the sense that she is a balancer or harmonizer to Montresor’s unbalanced or disordered state of being.



1.  The text of “Cask” is from M 3:1256-63.

2.  Austin’s terms are described by Seymour Chatman in his essay “The Structure of Narrative Transmission,” Style and Structure in Literature: Essays in the New Stylistics, ed. Roger Fowler (Ithaca, N.Y., 1975) p. 219.

3.  Cours de linguistique générale. Edition préparée par Tuliio de Mauro (Paris, 1972).

4.  Traditional Chinese Poetry and Poetics: Omen of the World (Madison, Wis., 1985) p. 94.

5.  Frederick Robertson Bryson, The Point of Honor in Sixteenth-Century Italy: An Aspect of the Life of a Gentleman (New York, 1935); [page 131:] Julian Pitt-Rivers, “Honor,” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. David L. Sills (New York, 1968).

6.  The genre of the “confession” in which an “I” narrator is purportedly frank and honest about his/her faults — even crimes — was invented by St. Augustine with his Confessions (A.D. 5th century) and his modern counterpart became Jean-Jacques Rousseau with his Confessions (1781). During the first half of the nineteenth century in England the confession became unusually popular in both magazine and book form, as Poe was well aware. The best examples of the English confessions are Leigh Hunt’s Confessions of a Drunkard (1813); Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822); James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824); Samuel Warren’s Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician (1838); and Charles Lever’s Confession of Harry Lorrequer (1839). To some critics the confession embraces also the autobiography and the autobiographical poem; the diary; the memoir; the journal; the personal essay; and the personal letter. It may also be fictional as well as non-fictional.

7.  The following works on Freemasonry in France were consulted: Jean-André Faucher, Histoire de la Grand Loge de France, 1738-1980 (Paris, 1981); Bernard Fa├┐, Revolution and Freemasonry, 1680-1800 (Boston, 1935); Mildred J. Headings, French Freemasonry under the Third Republic (Baltimore, 1949); and J. A. Leo Lemay, Deism, Masonry, and the Enlightenment: Essays Honoring Alfred Owen Aldridge (Newark/London, 1987). The following works on Freemasonry in general were also consulted: A. Coil, A Comprehensive View of Freemasonry (Oklahoma City, 1954) as wellas his Masonic Encyclopedia (Oklahoma City, 1962); Gottfried Joseph Gabriel, History of Freemasonry, from Its Rise Down to the Present Day, trans. from the German (London, 1866); Albert G. Mackey, Encyclopedia of Freemasonry and Its Kindred Sciences. 2 vols. (New York/ London, 1912) — especially valuable; William Morgan, Illustrations of Masonry. . . (Batavia, N.Y., 1826); Stephen Knight, The Brotherhood: The Secret World of the Freemasons (London, 1984); Jabez Richardson, Richardson’s Monitor of Freemasonry. . . (New York, 1860); J. M. Roberts, The Mythology of the Secret Socieites (New York, 1972); John J. Robinson, Born in Blood: The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry (New York, 1989); John G. Stearns, An Inquiry into the Nature and Tendency of Speculative Free-Masonry. 5th ed., rev. & corr. (Utica, N. Y., 1829); and Henry Leonard Stillson et al., eds., History of the Ancient and Accepted Masons and Concordant Orders (New York, 1922). On the Anti-Masonic political party in the United States, of which Poe was well aware, see William Preston Vaughn, The Antimasonic Party in the United States, 1826-1843 (Lexington, Ky., 1983).

8.  On the Ancient régime in France in general see Franz Funck-Bretano, The Old Regime in France, trans. from the French by Herbert [page 132:] Wilson (London, 1929). On the Roman Catholic Church in France see the Rev. W. Henley Jervis, A History of the Church in France. 2 vols. (London, 1872) — a genuine classic. On Roman Catholicism and Freemasonry see Dudley Wright, Roman Catholicism and Freemasonry (London, 1922); W. J. Whalen, “Freemasonry,” New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1966) VI. On Roman Catholic masses and rituals see Henry David-Rops, Fulton J. Sheen, and Yousuf Karsh, This Is the Mass., text trans. by Alastair Guinan (New York, 1958); Dom Gaspar Lefebre, O.S.B., of the Abbey of S(nt) Andre, Daily Missal, with Vespers for Sundays & Feasts (Lophem-near-Bruges/St. Paul, Minn., 1934); and Missale Romanum ex decreto sacrosancti concilii Tridentini restitum. . .Et novis Missis ex Indulto Apostolico hucusque concessis autum (Romae, 1714).






[S:0 - MMM, 2006] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Masques, Mysteries and Mastodons: A Poe Miscellany (The Phantom Listener in The Cask of Amontillado)