“The Cask of Amontillado” raises a question pertaining to the multiple character of the self (Davidson 202); Can harmony of one’s self be restored once primal impulses have been acted upon? This question proposes the fantasy of crime without consequence (Stepp 60). Edgar Allan Poe uses first person point of view, vivid symbolism and situational irony to show that because of man’s inner self, revenge is ultimately not possible.
Edward Davidson suggests that Montresor, the main character of the story, has the power of moving downward from his mind or intellectual being and into his brute or physical self and then return again to his intellectual being with his total self being unimpaired (202). However, Poe tells this story from Montresor’s point of view. The use of first person narration provides the reader with insight into Montresor’s inner struggles. First person narration is Poe’s method of insuring the reader understands that Montresor is not successful at this harmony.
The thoughts and feelings of Montresor lead the reader to conclude that he is not successful at revenge. Montresor says in telling his story, You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however that I gave utterance to a threat (153). By communicating in this way, the question arises of who Montresor is actually speaking to, and why he is telling this story fifty years later. One can only conclude that it is for one of two reasons: he is either bragging or finally giving confession.
As he tells the story, it becomes obvious that he has not yet filled his need to win, and now a half of a century later, is still struggling with his conscience. As Gregory Jay states, Introspection produces a doppelganger who becomes a moral antagonist (84). This is similar to Ken Frieden’s theory that a rhetorical moment takes the place of a ghost and the speaker is driven to confess (144). Both of these thoughts are developed because of the fact that Montresor is telling the story himself. The means in which Montresor expresses himself expose his insecurities.
When he no longer hears Fortunato crying out, he says, there was a long obstinate silence (156). The personification of the silence by the use of the word “‘obstinate” projects the intent on Fortunato, implying that Fortunato is purposely depriving Montresor of satisfaction. But actually, Montresor seeks to escape from his own limitations by imagining them as imposed by outside force (Stepp 61). The force is a surrogate of the self. Every word goes to characterize the narrator, Montresor, and adds to the irony of the story.
Fifty years later he is confessing the story and taking particular delight in his cleverness, but is unaware he is revealing a desperate human emptiness. James Gargano makes a general statement about Poe’s narrators that applies perfectly to The Cask of Amontillado; he says, Poe assuredly knows what the narrator never suspects and what, by the controlled conditions of the tale, he is not meant to suspect–that the narrator is a victim of his own self-torturing obsessions (166). In this way, Montresor is a classic Poe character.
Poe’s use of symbolism gives the reader the opportunity to see the conflict between Montresor’s inner self and his outer being. The deep, dark catacombs below the surface represent the dark self that lies beneath Montresor’s surface. In attempting to bury Fortunato alive, Montresor is actually attempting to bury his inner self. He is attempting to destroy a primal evil that has driven him to revenge. On the surface, Montresor seems to have the appearance of a serious and intelligent man, but his alter ego that is symbolically demonstrated through Fortunato, wears the cap and bells of a jester.
Walter Stepp notes that there is perfect symmetry of opposition between Montresor and Fortunato and that Montresor had an obsessional wish to demonstrate that ‘he is not I’ and ‘I am not he'(57). The conflict of the selves comes to a horrifying climax as Montresor is trying to build the wall and bury Fortunato alive. For a few brief moments when Fortunato is silent (as is Montresor’s evil self), Montresor’s rational mind is reinstated and he hesitates from adding another tier to the wall.
It is then that A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust [Montresor] violently back (157). After a brief pause, he trembled and then replied to the yells. Montresor says I re-echoed–I aided–I surpassed them in volume and in strength (157). This battle of the soul continued until Fortunato no longer replied. At the end of the story when Montresor confesses his story, he very sincerely says, In pace requiescat! This phrase means may he rest in peace in Latin.
He is symbolically speaking of himself. Brian Barbour suggests that this statement demonstrates Montresor’s ability to finally rest in peace as a result of his confession (78). This entire event is foreshadowed by Montresor’s family arms of A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are embedded in the heel (155). The foot crushing the serpent represents Montresor attempting to take revenge on Fortunato, but the serpent’s fangs are embedded in the heel and they meet their demise together.
Even though Montresor has killed Fortunato (his alter ego), he also has killed his own humanity with this evil deed. The coat of Arms is also symbolic of the irony of the story. Poe weaves a complex web of irony and symbolism throughout the story. The motto of the Arms is Nemo me impune lacessit. (No one dare attack me with impunity). As the story unfolds it is apparent that the motto best fits the serpent, not the foot. Ironically, Montresor says, I must not only punish, but punish with impunity (153).
If punishing without impunity is Montresor’s criteria for success, he is not successful. Not only does he feel bits of remorse throughout his deed, he develops compassion for his victim and is tormented by his conscience. He follows that statement with A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes it’s redresser. It is equally unredressed, when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong (153). Ironically, Montresor is obsessed with revenge, but fails to ever tell Fortunato why he is killing him.
Also, Montresor plays on Fortunato’s naivete, but it is Montresor who is naive in thinking that he can act on the inner need for revenge without consequence. The names Fortunato and Montresor are the epitome of the symbolism / irony web. Fortunato means fortune and Montresor mean treasure; they are synonyms. They are symbols for Montresor’s outer self and his hidden inner self that is fighting to surface, but the irony is that neither is fortunate. Through symbolism Poe shows that it is Montresor’s inner evil that strives for revenge, and Montresor’s outer self strives to subdue those urges.
By burying Fortunato alive, Montresor kills the one who, in his mind, represents those evils. The irony is that by killing, Montresor has also killed the humanity of both his inner and outer self. As Montresor tells this story it becomes obvious that harmony can not be restored once a primal act has been acted on, and conscience makes it impossible to commit a crime without consequence. If one’s subconscious self is obsessed with an evil, the conscious must overcome it or a paradox will result in which both selves parish.