American Literature

Literary Analysis Irony in the Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe

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The irony in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Cask of Amontillado begins with the opening sentence, and thereafter is reinforced almost constantly.

THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.

One expects some variation on the childhood playground phrase, “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.” Instead the narrator says the opposite: "physical attacks [injuries] don't bother me, but attack my name or reputation [insults] and I will seek revenge."

Additionally, the antagonist in the story is named Fortunato or the lucky one. The protagonist bears the French surname Montresor. His name (reputation) is his “treasure.” Fortunato’s name is verbally ironic. The lucky one is doomed to a horrible death at the hands of a man whose treasured reputation he has impugned.

Montresor says, “I continued . . . to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that smile now was at the thought of his immolation.” This is an example dramatic irony – Fortunato’s not knowing the meaning of Montresor’s smile as do the readers or hearers of the tale.

Yet another subtle example of irony is Montresor’s pretense of not knowing the quality of wines. Fortunato’s knowledge was for him a point of justifiable pride. But Montresor is his equal in that respect. He remarks, “I was skilful in the Italian vintages myself.”

That and other remarks in the paragraph about Italians and not about “us” are an indication that Montresor, though dwelling in Italy, is not himself Italian. As mentioned earlier, his name is French.

The ironies grow more numerous. It is the carnival season - not a suitable time for a gruesome tale of revenge. Fortunato wears the costume of a jester. The man is drunk. He is not the wise fool of legend and literature but is ironically appropriately garbed. He doubtless could not in his state distinguish fine wine from rotgut. 

When they encounter, Montresor says, “You are luckily met.” He describes the wine he has purchased but about which he has doubts. He says he will solicit Luchesi’s opinion, knowing that the psychology will work on Fortunato who considers himself more expert.

Montresor then worries that Fortunato has another engagement and that the damp air and nitre in his catacombs will be bad for the man’s health.  He has ensured that no servants will be in the palazzo by (ironically) mentioning that he will be away and warning them not to leave.

When Fortunato has a coughing fit, he insists again that they should return and Montresor should get Luchesi’s opinion. “I shall not die of a cough,” says Fortunato. True.

They proceed, drink a bottle of Medoc, and toast the surrounding  dead whom Fortunato is about to join. Fortunato questions Montresor about his family coat of arms. "A huge human foot d'or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel."

"And the motto?

"Nemo me impune lacessit." (No one can harm me with impunity.)

Another bottle of ironically named De Grave wine is consumed. Montresor is questioned about his brotherhood of Freemasonry and produces the trowel of a stone mason.

 Finally they reach a rock wall with chains. Fortunato now sounds sober as he realizes he’s imprisoned. His screams move Montresor to draw his rapier and probe about, but he is reassured that they are alone. The entombment is one brick short of completion when Fortunato attempts to make a joke of the situation. It is no joke.

Montresor’s “heart grew sick.” Is the madman feeling guilt?

No. It was just the nitre getting to him.

Rest in peace, Fortunato. And so he has for fifty years.

Poe has successfully written a story exhausting every variety of irony. Montresor has punished with impunity. His satisfaction has only grown over the last half century.

More about this author: Kerry Michael Wood

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