Text: Charles A. Sweet, Jr., “Retapping Poe’s ‘Cask of Amontillado’,” Poe Studies, June 1975, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 8:10-12


[page 10, column 2, continued:]

Retapping Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado”

Eastern Kentucky University

Montresor’s motive is generally taken to be the punishment of historical transgressions. James Rocks believes “Montresor’s act of killing Fortunato is motivated . . . by a faithful Catholic’s hatred and fear of the brotherhood of Freemasonry” (1). James Gargano decides that Montresor “regards himself as the vindicator of his ancestors” who “feels that Fortunato has, by ignoring his ancestral claims, stolen his birthright and ground him into disgrace” (2). Critics have not considered, however, that while these may be Montresor’s conscious motives, unconsciously he may view Fortunato as a present, personal symbol of his own true self, a mirror image.

Sam Moon has hinted in passing of Poe’s technique of creating “an ironic parallel between Fortunato and Montresor, so that by the end they are virtually identified” (3). Although Gargano too has noted some of the similarities between the two men, he has not realized that the parallels serve to exhibit the unconscious psychological process of transference and hence to elucidate Montresor’s motivation. Montresor unconsciously projects himself into Fortunato. Montresor’s revenge, then, is not a ritual of sacrifice, but of scapegoating.

Poe begins this unconscious process of transference by establishing surface parallels between his two characters (4). Both are dilettantish Italian noblemen with long heritages, and Poe develops this dilettantism into one of the keys to the story. Early Montresor mentions in “painting and gemmary, Fortunato, like his countrymen was a quack. . .” (5). Consciously Montresor, after noting Fortunato’s connoisseurship of wine, explains “I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself, and bought largely whenever I could” (p. 168). Immediately to entice his victim, Montresor relates “I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado . . . and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price . . .” (p. 168). What Poe implies is that Montresor believes Amontillado to be an Italian wine rather than the Spanish wine it is. Twenty years ago Jacob Adler noted this discrepancy as well as the fact that “the wines he [Montresor] drinks in the catacombs [page 11:] are French” and labeled it a flaw, “a detail which contributes nothing” (6). Because of Poe’s insistence that every element contribute to the “certain unique and singular effect,” it seems more likely that Poe intended the detail to establish Montresor as a false virtuoso, a man lacking conscious self-awareness. Poe clearly shows, then, both men as quacks; himself a dilettante, Montresor believes Fortunato another and unconsciously despises the parallel with himself.

Poe establishes other parallels between the two. When Montresor first encounters Fortunato — both names refer to wealth — he immediately notes his friend’s sycophancy or “excessive warmth” (p. 168); in the next breath, however, he remarks on his own pleasure at seeing him that “I thought I should never have done wringing his hand” (p. 168). Here Montresor obviously imitates Fortunato.

Both men wear masks. Fortunato has donned the costume of the fool while Montresor assumes not only the guise of friend but subsequently “a mask of black silk” (p. 169). Poe also employs the device of repetitive rhetoric whereby the two reiterate each other’s words. When Montresor observes he has received “a pipe of what passes for Amontillado” (p. 168), Fortunato exclaims “Amontillado? A pipe?” (p. 168) and repeats the name of the wine three times. When Montresor claims “He [Luchresi] will tell me . . . ,” Fortunato says “Luchresi cannot tell . . .” (p. 168). Montresor argues “I perceive you have an engagement” and Fortunato replies “I have no engagement” (p. 169). “Nitre” asks Fortunato, and Montresor replies, “Nitre” (p. 170). As the two men continue on their journey, Poe again stresses the parallels. Each man carries a torch. To fortify themselves against the cold, both partake of Medoc wine. When Montresor gazes into his companion’s eyes, he notes “two filmy orbs that distilled the rheum of intoxication” (p. 170); a short time later Montresor admits that his “own fancy grew warm with Medoc” (p. 171).

Their journey culminates with a series of terrifying parallels which Poe uses now to emphasize the process of transference that has unconsciously occurred in Montresor’s mind. After partially walling his victim within the catacombs, Montresor hears a “succession of loud and shrill screams . . .” (p. 174). That Montresor identifies with his victim is indicated by his next act. Although unable to explain why in retrospect, Montresor admits “I replied to the yells of him who clamoured. I reechoed, I aided, I surpassed them in volume and in strength” (p. 174) . Montresor’s behavior can be viewed as an unconscious attempt at cathartic exorcism of the despised self as personified in others, much in the same manner as Robin’s laughter at the sight of his uncle in Hawthorne’s “My Kinsman, Major Molineux.” Rather than severing the psychic bond between the two men, however, the act has the ironic effect of reinforcing the link, as does Montresor’s subsequent repetition of Fortunato’s words three times: “Amontillado,” “let us be gone,” and “for the love of God!” (p. 175).

Poe employs another familiar device to provide further insight into Montresor’s mind and motives for unconsciously transferring his self into Fortunato. In stories such as “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Ligeia,” and [column 2:] “William Wilson,” buildings represent characters’ states of mind. Similarly, Montresor’s choice of location for his crime is revealing. He might have extracted revenge by stabbing Fortunato amidst the crowd during the carnival, by setting fire to his home, by abducting Lady Fortunato, and so on; in each case to fulfill the requirements of the successful avenger Montresor could have informed Fortunato of his conscious reason, the “thousand injuries” and the “insult” (p. 167). Instead he chooses a time when the supposed connoisseur (and himself) are intoxicated, a state that contradicts their connoisseurship. Secondly, Montresor’s crime takes the form of an unconscious projection of his psychic problem. Montresor’s premature burial of his mirror self in the subterranean depths of his ancestral home (house equals mind in Poe) paints the psychological portrait of repression; the physical act of walling up an enemy in one’s home duplicates the mental act of repressing a despised self in the unconscious (7). Montresor acts very similarly to Hawthorne’s Reuben Bourne in “Roger Malvin’s Burial.” Both men transfer unwanted feelings to another, then do away with the other in a scapegoating process of purgation. An important difference between the two stories, however, is that, while Bourne shoots his son, Montresor only buries alive his scapegoat. As a Catholic Montresor knows that suicide (the potential murder of Fortunato) is a mortal sin; thus, his unconscious dictates that if suicide is impossible, then only repression (the premature burial) is possible. In Montresor’s unconscious mind he is not murdering Fortunato, but burying/repressing that dilettantish side of himself he can no longer endure, that side symbolized by Fortunato.

Repression, however, is only a temporary measure. Fifty years later Montresor the Catholic appears to be confusing the whole story on his deathbed to a priest, “You, who so well know the nature of my soul” (p. 167). The guilt engendered by the Catholic conscience and troubled by this unsuccessful attempt at repression pours out after half a century. Montresor has failed to satisfy his own first requirement for a successful avenger because the guilt of “retribution overtakes its redresser” (p. 167). He also misses his second requirement of the successful avenger for he fails to “make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong” (p. 167). On Montresor’s conscious level, Fortunato is the one “who has done the wrong” (p. 167). When Fortunato begs “for the love of God” (p. 175), he can only surmise general religious reasons for Montresor’s vengeance. When he grows silent and finally offers only “a jingling of the bells” (p. 175), Poe indicates that Fortunato the fool goes insane and thus provides the last similarity with Montresor. On the unconscious level, however, Fortunato is only Montresor’s objectification of his dilettantish self; the real question, then, is whether Montresor “makes[s] himself felt” (p. 167) to himself? Certainly his confession is a recognition of the guilt stemming from his act of incarceration, not from his sense of a self-suicide. So finally Montresor must be viewed in an ironic light; as the “In pace requiescat “ (p. 175) indicates, it is relief from guilt, not forgiveness for a crime, he ultimately desires. Self-knowledge eludes the unrepentant Montresor until the end, as does the absolution he seeks.


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(1) “Conflict and Motive in ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’” Poe Studies, 5 (1972), 50. Kathryn Harris in “Ironic Revenge in Poe’s ‘Cask of Amontillado,’” Studies in Short Fiction, 6 (1969), 333-335, also comments on Montresor’s Catholicism.

(2) “ ‘The Cask of Amontillado’: A Masquerade of Motive and Identity,” Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (1967), 122.

(3) “The Cask of Amontillado,” Notes & Queries, 199 (1954), rpt. in Controversy in Literature, ed. Paul Davis et a1. (New York: Scribner’s 1968), p. 57. Joseph Moldenhauer in “Poe’s Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision,” PMLA, 83 (1968), 293, also notes a “psychological identification,” but likewise does not explore its ultimate ramifications.

(4) Marie Bonaparte in The Life and Works of Edgar Allan Poe (1949; rpt. New York: Humanities Press, 1971), p. 535, comments that “Both [Montresor and the friend-narrator of ‘Never Bet the Devil Your Head’] are sedate doubles of their dare-devil friends,” but she is much too involved in her psychoanalytic-biographical approach to pursue her idea.

(5) The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (1902; rpr. New York: AMS Press, 1965), VI, 167. Hereafter, such references will appear in the text.

(6) “Are There Flaws in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’?” Notes & Queries, 199 (1954), rpt. in Controversy in Literature, p. 55.

(7) Leslie Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Dell, 1966), pp. 126-141, notes that the Gothic castle and the exploration of its subterranean chambers are archetypal representations of the journey into the unconscious.


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