“The Cask of Amontillado”: Guilt can Never be Silenced
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”, published in 1844, proves to be a cautionary tale of the repression of guilt. The story is told through the perspective of Montresor, a man who is deeply insulted by his ‘friend’ Fortunato. Montresor vows to extract revenge for the insults thrown at him and his family, and does so through murder. Throughout the story, it becomes evident that Montresor will not get away with the crime he intends to commit, and instead will be haunted by the details of the deed. The motive for the crime and pieces of irony within the story support the idea that conscience cannot be silenced, especially when one attempts to bury the guilt of their sins.
Montresor’s reasoning for wanting revenge on Fortunato does not justify the crime he commits, which contributes to why he feels guilt for the act. In the very beginning of the story, Montresor says, “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge” (714). The reason why Montresor is seeking revenge is not because of the injury caused, but because Fortunato has insulted his family’s name. It is revealed that Montresor’s family motto is “Nemo me impune lacessit”, which translates to “No one insults me with impunity” (717). Montresor feels as though he cannot let Fortunato get away with his insults due to the motto his family has lived by. But, at the same time, that reasoning is not enough to justify murder, not even to Montresor. That is why he cannot move on from the crime he commits. Although the insults are never described in detail, it can be inferred that they have something to do with societal standards. There is a war between Montresor and Fortunato over their rank in society. The Montresor name has diminished in importance, while the Fortunato name has flourished. Montresor tells Fortunato, “You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was” (716). Montresor is jealous of Fortunato because he has acquired all the things Montresor has lost. His revenge is structured not only around requitement for his family’s name, but also out of his own personal envy. Fortunato has everything Montresor wants, but no longer has. Although the jealousy and hope to avenge his family’s insulted name push Montresor to kill Fortunato, in the end they do not hold up as meaningful justifications. Montresor has trouble repressing the crime he has committed because the guilt is too strong. His motive for murder was not strong enough to allow him to see the crime as justified, which is why he lives buried in guilt over a crime that happened over half a century ago.
Throughout the story, details derived in irony foreshadow that the crime will not go the way Montresor wishes it to go. In the catacombs, Montresor describes his family’s coat of arms to Fortunato; “A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel” (717). The description depicts a foot crushing a snake, while the snake bites the foot. It is a double ended sword that is ironic to the situation at hand. As if one is the snake and one is the foot, both Fortunato and Montresor will be hurt by Montresor’s actions. Fortunato will be killed, and Montresor will live in guilt. Montresor seeks revenge for the insults to the Montresor name, while the Montresor coat of arms warns about the outcome. With his motive clear, Montresor states that he must commit the crime without getting caught; “I must not only punish but punish with impunity” (715). This simple statement proves to be extremely ironic because Montresor succeeds in punishing Fortunato, but he fails in getting away with it. The only guideline to how he must handle his revenge is the one that is not followed. Although Montresor does not get caught by others, he is the only force standing in the way of his freedom from the crime. Montresor has failed in his task. Even though Fortunato is dead, Montresor has lived, and will live, under the heavy burden of guilt. In an ironic twist, the murder was in vain, as it was not completed with impunity. The Montresor coat of arms and the plan to punish with impunity are ironic details that serve in foreshadowing Montresor’s fate, and his never-ending burden of guilt.
In the end, Montresor successfully kills Fortunato, but due to the guilt he can never forget, he never gets away with the crime. When he is constructing the wall that buries Fortunato, Montresor has trouble with the last stone, “There remained but a single stone to be fitted and plastered in. I struggled with its weight” (719). The last stone represents the deed finally being done. Montresor struggles with it because he then must come to terms with the crime he has committed. With the last stone in place, the crime is done, and it is real. The weight of the last stone also symbolizes the weight finishing the crime has on Montresor, and the emotional struggle repressing the act will have. Montresor has trouble with the physical burial of Fortunato just like how he has trouble with the emotional burial of his own guilt. The crime is played out like a mirror; the last stone and the burial representing the emotional weight of the crime and the burial of the guilt. In addition, there are moments in the story that lead to the belief that Montresor is hesitant with the crime. When he first chains Fortunato to the wall, he suddenly stops, “For a brief moment I hesitated, I trembled” (718). Montresor is unsure about what he is doing. He has to stop before he can continue. The act of committing the crime is becoming real in this moment, it is no longer just a plan. When it is all over, Montresor falls ill, “My heart grew sick; it was dampness of the catacombs that made it so” (719). The nitre is not the cause of Montresor’s heartsickness. The cause is the crime. Montresor does not want to believe that he could be feeling ill from what he has done, so he proposes and excuse. In reality, Montresor is being to feel guilt. “He still remembers his heart’s ‘growing sick – on account of the dampness of the catacombs,’ but his heartsickness likely arises from the empathy with the man he is leaving to die amid that dampness” (Baraban). Montresor will never be able to escape the heartsick feeling he feels in the catacombs because it follows him his entire life. When the story is over, Montresor says, “In pace requiescat”, which means, “May he rest in peace” (719). This short statement indicates that Montresor is sorry for what he has done, and further supports the fact that he will never get over the crime he has committed. The weight of the last stone, the hesitation in the crime, and the obvious guilt that is felt proves that Montresor will not be able to get away with the murder of Fortunato.
The guilt for the sin Montresor has committed stays with him for most of his life, supporting the idea that the conscience cannot be silenced. Montresor wants to get away with the murder, but he is standing in his own way of freedom. After he has finished sharing the story of Fortunato’s death, he says, “Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them” (719). Montresor is sharing this story fifty years after it has happened. Even though he has tried to bury the emotional burden, it could not be ignored. G.R. Thompson argues that “Montresor, rather than having successfully taken his revenge ‘with impunity’…has instead suffered a fifty-year’s ravage of conscience” (Baraban). Montresor has failed in his task to murder Fortunato without paying for it because he has payed for it for fifty years. His guilt has been a weight on him and finally he is telling the truth and admitting to the crime. Baraban explains that “Thompson uses the fact that Montresor’s narration is actually a confession made on his deathbed to support the argument about Montresor’s troubled conscience”. Fifty years after the crime, Montresor is dying. He has suffered half of a century with the weight of a sin crushing him. He reveals it as he is dying, unable to die without confessing his guilt. Montresor suffered “pangs of conscience” for almost all his life (Baraban). The fact that the story is told by Montresor fifty years after it occurred means that he had been struggling with his guilt for all that time, supporting the idea that conscience can never be silenced.
In “The Cask of Amontillado”, by Edgar Allan Poe, the unjustified motive for murder, the ironic details that foreshadow the outcome, and the guilt that Montresor feels support the claim that conscience can never be buried or ignored. Montresor tried to commit a crime in order to extract revenge. In the end, he successfully killed Fortunato, but destroyed himself in the process. The guilt of the crime weighed heavy on Montresor for fifty years until he could no longer hide the crime he committed. This story is a cautionary tale that serves to warn others; guilt cannot be buried as easily as the body.
Baraban, Elena V. “The Motive for Murder in “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 58.2 (2004): 47-62. Web.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Volume B, 8th ed. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 714– 719. Print.
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