Friday, July 18, 2014

Tell-Tale Thoughts: "The Cask of Amontillado"

When I began this series back in February, I had planned for it to be a much more regular feature. Life happens, though, most of it good in this case, and it kind of fell by the wayside. Now, I pick it up again with the second Poe tale in that little book that I talked about – “The Cask of Amontillado.”

This is another of Poe’s most well-known tales, and one that most people read in high school. It is, oddly, one of the stories that I’ve returned to less frequently over the years. Maybe that’s because it is one that’s widely taught and the old contrarian metal head in me didn’t want anything to do with something the rest of the world finds familiar.

“The Cask of Amontillado” plays on a familiar theme in Poe’s works – live burial. It was a common fear in Poe’s time, and he used it to great effect in several stories.

We open with our viewpoint character Montresor plotting vengeance against his once-friend Fortunato for some insult – either real or perceived – to which we are not privy. His plan in place, he contrives to meet a drunk Fortunato during Carnival season and lure him back to the crypts beneath the Montresor home with tales of a fine Amontillado that he wishes his friend to taste and confirm for him.

As I read the story, already knowing the end result, I wished that I could go back to that first reading, where I didn’t know what was coming, to remember the thoughts that I had on my first reading of the tale. As a reader who knows the story by heart, though, I still find that Poe did a masterful job of building the suspense throughout the short tale.

He tips his hand early on, as Montresor, masked in black as an executioner meets his would-be victim, dressed in fool's motley and begins his game.

There’s a little hitch every time Montresor offers Fortunato the chance to escape his fate even as he eggs his former friend forward by playing on his ego. Our narrator even goes so far as to show Fortunato the trowel that he intends to bury him with at one point, on the pretense of proving that he is, in fact, a Mason. It’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse game that also shows the depth of Montresor’s obsession and psychosis.

But Poe has yet one more surprise for us at the end. As we witness the horrific stages of Fortunato’s demise – from drunken confusion to chain-rattling anger to, finally, a kind of acceptance of his fate, Montresor shows nothing but disdain for his former friend. But then, as he places the final stone, could that be, perhaps a little hint of remorse or regret from our heretofore cold-hearted narrator?

It must be said that, even for someone who has read the story dozens of times, there’s still a great tension and a good bit to think on with “The Cask of Amontillado.” Perhaps that’s why it has endured as one of Poe’s most popular works.

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