Decanting Poe's Amontillado
Updated: Mar 10, 2020
It's Fat Tuesday (a.k.a. the day prior to Ash Wednesday) !
You should read Edgar Allan Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado”. The short story takes place, “one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season,” in other words, on Fat Tuesday. It is a great story but if I were to confess to, "you who so well know that nature of my soul," there is a treasure hidden inside the story itself. That is, if one wants to take the time to savor it.
*Years ago I wrote a literary analysis of Poe’s short story of wine and revenge. Here, in February of 2018 I realized that my original work and close reading were not quite on the mark. I didn’t realize that Poe had actually written an extended metaphor of such grand proportions. I now present to you what I believe is the true meaning behind Poe’s Cask!
If you have never read the story or want a refresher, Poe's "Cask of Amontillado" story text can be found here:
Decanting Poe’s Amontillado
(Looking beyond the literal)
Pushing the nail sharp tip of a coiled key into an awaiting cork can be the beginning of one of adulthood’s truest pleasures. Watching the luscious red liquid pour out is the beginning of patience. As one awaits the decanting wine, clarifying and aerating in order to soften the tannic bite. All the while air persuades the more intricate aromas and flavors to emerge for the palette. Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” is like a fine wine that, when opened and decanted, will allow the reader to embark into a fascinating redemption story couched inside a horror filled with anger and ultimate revenge. Poe’s cask of wine is rare and stocked full of various allusions found in names, setting, and religion. As the story’s more intricate and complex attributes emerge one may wonder, is Poe simply manipulating symbols for his amusement, or is he making some sort of deeper connection?
There seems to be strong evidence within the story itself that Poe is using a grand metaphor to tell us something deeper about the idea of Lent, about humanity.
The story is told in first person, narrated by Montresor. Within the first few lines the reader needs to notice that the narrator is confessing to an anonymous someone known as, “You who know my soul so well.” Thus the “you” must indicate some sort of priestly figure, a person who would know souls and acts as a father confessor. Due to the first person narrator the “you” becomes the reader who is now the judge of good or evil.
The names Poe chose for his main characters Montresor and Fortunato contain many implications. Montresor’s name can be understood as “My Treasure” (Mon Tresor). Whose treasure might he be? Yet his name seems to work another way. What if one considered the sound of the name and then it might become “Monster”. Fortunato also has some deeper things going on. The name can mean, “Fortune” or “Fortunate”. On the first read it may appear that by the end of the story the monster Montresor buries a “fortune” in the catacombs. There is something bigger going on though.
On the literal surface, above the catacombs, it was “during the supreme madness of the carnival season.” Carnival, also known as Mardi-Gras is the party thrown right before Lent in the liturgical calendar. It is often called by its colloquialism, “Fat Tuesday”. This festive atmosphere is in stark contrast to the darkness which will soon transpire directly underneath the ground in the catacombs below the street. This dual level is represented through the happy smiling face of Montresor. “I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face…” concealing his murderous intent, “he [Fortunato] did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.” Montressor makes his reason for pursuing Fortunato clear. He says that Fortunato has continually insulted him or hurt him. “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could.” What are these injuries?
After Montresor lures Fortunato into the catacombs there is an intriguing description of the Montresor Coat of Arms. The imagery described is, “A huge human foot d’or in a field of azure the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are embedded in the heel” (d’or means gold and azure means blue). This descriptor is an allusion to the Bible. Specifically in Genesis 3:15, “…he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” Biblically, the “he” refers prophetically to the Christ and the “you” refers to the serpent that deceived Adam and Eve, or Satan. Poe did not put this image in by mistake. It is intentional. In addition to the verbal picture there is this Latin slogan, “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit” which translated means “No one hurts me with impunity.” This seems to coincide with Montresor’s motive from earlier, possibly the idea of revenge.
According to Montresor, Fortunato is full of the empty “gesticulations” of the Masons, which are “grotesque” to him. Fortunato is also a drunk. Through his coughing readers can see that Fortunato has a deep-seated sickness. And what of these gesticulations? It is said that Montresor observed that, “He [Fortunato] laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand.” Fortunato repeats the gesture and Montresor’s thought is that it was in fact, “grotesque.” Fortunato recognizes that Montresor does not understand so he asks,
“You do not comprehend?"
"Not I," I replied.
"Then you are not of the brotherhood."
"You are not of the masons."
"Yes, yes," I said "yes! yes."
"You? Impossible! A mason?"
"A mason," I replied.
Montresor means a stonemason or bricklayer. Fortunato means a Freemason ( a pseudo-religious group with empty rituals). Montresor says he is a Mason and produces an actual trowel to prove it. This tool of a bricklayer makes Fortunato laugh as he ironically drinks down a bottle of De Grave. Through this trowel however —Poe could be pointing out that the actions/rituals of this pseudo-religious group do not have any real appeal. There is no fortune in empty rituals and secret gesticulations. There is nothing real or concrete for them as there is in working with a trowel and mortar.
Who is who in our story from the coat of arms pictograph? Montresor contrasts himself against Fortunato’s position and character saying, “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was.” Fortunato’s carnival dress gives us some interesting clues. He is dressed in “motley” which is the costume of a jester or fool. In Proverbs a fool is one who sins without care, does not learn from mistakes, speaks without wisdom, the list goes on. It isn’t much of a jump to say that Fortunato represents something at a much deeper level. That his name and dress make him a metaphor for sin. Sin is fool’s gold. It seems to shiny and bright, so tempting but really it only brings emptiness. People who sin feel happy at first. Sin seems to be respected, and admired, beloved in the world. Sin is a constant party, a carnival. In the end, it is ruinous. This fool, this sin, injures continuously and has no thought, no remorse.
So, what must be done with this sin? Montresor is God’s treasure, covered by that coat of arms. Fortunato, a metaphor for sin, the serpent, must be put to death. The Christ of the Bible was nailed (stapled) to a cross and sealed in a tomb. He redeems sin. He takes our sin upon himself. In Revelation 20:2 the serpent is bound in chains much like Fortunato.
Fortunato the snake; the one striking the heel and wounding a thousand times. It is what sin does. Montresor is someone’s treasure. In the world he may be a monster, a fallen sinner, but through Christ’s blood he is Christ’s treasure. He is Christ’s representative, metaphorically, and Christ will punish Fortunato with impunity. Christ, the golden foot coming down upon and doing away with this fool’s fortune, Fortunato. Now the horror of the plot is reversed into righteous victory.
Perhaps it helps the reader understand the last piece of dialogue that the characters share.
Fortunato: “For the love of God…” Montresor: “Yes…For the love of God.”
The story ends with, “In pace requiescat” or “May he rest in peace.” This is not a consoling statement but a statement of hope that Fortunato will not disturb or harm Montressor’s life anymore.
Poe’s story is a grand metaphor. The world is in party mode, costume and merriment, an act. It’s Fat Tuesday. The reality is that people believe their sin is fun. That it doesn’t hurt them feeling no guilt or shame. If Christ’s Coat of Arms is upon then they recognize what fool’s gold sin really is. Poe’s use of symbolism throughout the story leads the reader into a journey of experience that dives deep. It forces one into the dark catacombs of Poe’s mind, becoming so much more than a story of revenge but of mystery and motive, of righteousness and evil. It becomes a treasure that we bury deep in our souls and guard it like a monster.