Thursday, November 09, 2017

"The Cask of Amontillado" (1846)

Read story by Edgar Allan Poe online.

Edgar Allan Poe's dank tale of revenge, murder, and appalling cruelty is just about the perfect short story—a dark horror play with a twist ending and all elements laid in to support it. I'm about to give it away any minute so go read it if you haven't because of course that's where it is told best. In Italy, during carnival time, the first-person narrator Montresor lures a friend he has come to despise down to the wine cellar of his palazzo, offering to share a very good new wine he says he has acquired at a good price, an amontillado. Montresor's friend, Fortunato (O irony), is already half-drunk from the revels, wearing a jester's costume. The story, though it is dark and cruel, is also funny in many ways. Montresor's rage about Fortunato's unspecified "thousand injuries" and "insult," with his description of the rules for administering revenge, are as comical as they are mad. At one point, Fortunato challenges Montresor's claim to belong to the masons by asking him for the secret sign. Montresor reaches into his cloak and produces a trowel. On first reading, we don't know the significance of this any more than Fortunato and the gesture is more strange than explanatory. Later, when we know better, it is somehow even more funny—something about the mystique of the masons, perhaps, juxtaposed with the homely construction tool, momentarily like a scene from Laurel and Hardy. The setting in the catacombs of a palazzo is perfect—evocative of the 19th-century American view of Europe as a moldering graveyard, decaying and debased. Montresor's crime is impossibly perfect. He plays Fortunato with precision, luring him deeper and deeper into the catacombs. "A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser," Montrosor notes early, later confirming that his crime is still unpunished after 50 years. In fact, it's all a bit too perfect. It might just be an impotent daydream after all. But it's a remarkable feat indeed to lull us as readers enough that we take sympathetic satisfaction from the crime as it goes down, relishing the pleasure of it with Montresor, though we have no idea what Fortunato did to deserve it. We see some ambiguous, potentially dismissive attitude by Fortunato toward Montresor, but not much. Mostly we are caught up in the seething rage and clinical precision of Montresor's monstrous deed. "[The wrong] is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong," Montresor also mentions as preface, and later he sees to that as well. Fortunato knows what is happening to him and, most importantly, by whom. "The Cask of Amontillado" might even be better than some of the revenge fantasies I've played in my own head. Don't miss those jingling bells on Fortunato's carnival cap.

"The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan Poe (Library of America)

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