"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge." Thus begins Poe's November 1846 tale "The Cask of Amontillado." These "insults" are never specified, nor are the "thousand injuries." Poe makes us focus not on the reasons for revenge, but on the revenge itself.
The narrator, Monstresor, strikes at Carnival, while his friend/enemy is dressed as a jester. He knows that Fortunato has two weaknesses: pride and wine. He uses both.
I said to him — "My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met. How remarkably well you are looking to-day. But I have received a pipe* of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts."Fortunato, being a wine expert, could help Montresor identify whether or not a good purchase was made. But, what really convinces Fortunato to help is when Montresor suggests he could just ask Luchresi, who knows just as much about wine as Fortunato. Well, of course, the jester-clad Fortunato is insulted — "Luchresi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry."
Montresor tricks Fortunato into coming down into his wine cellar, which is also the family catacombs. Surrounded by the dead, Montresor enacts his plan to "not only punish but punish with impunity." At the end of the tale, we are told that Montresor's final act of cruelty has not been discovered for a half century.
There are two important ways to read this story. For one thing, it's based on true events. Poe really was punishing with impunity after a thousand injuries and an insult (or two). Thomas Dunn English inspired Poe's act of literary revenge and, like the story says, his final act of cruelty (replacing English with Fortunato) is not discovered for decades. Many of the odd elements (the strange hand signal Fortunato gives, the odd family crest Montresor describes) were direct references to English's novel 1844, or the Power of the S. F. Poe was a character in this novel and was depicted, well, not nicely. So English, in response, was buried alive in a vault wearing a jester's outfit.
But, just looking at the story itself, it's very, very complex. As is often the case with Poe, we should question everything that is presented to us. Did Fortunato really injure or insult Montresor? The two seem to carry on a very convivial relationship through the vaults. There are a couple moments when Fortunato questions Montresor's sincerity (and we should too). Fortunato is suspicious at how far down into these crypts he's going and, doubtless, wondering how Montresor so quickly bought the (100+ gallons of) Amontillado, rushed it down here and came all the way back, to find his wine expert. But, perhaps, that is the most pressing question of all: Was there a wine expert in this story?
Fortunato notes that his competitor, Luchresi, cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry. Well Amontillado is Sherry. Fortunato comes onto the scene already drunk — it's hard to appreciate fine wine when drunk. When we do see him drink, he does not seem like a connoisseur. Presented with De Grâve, an expensive French wine, he doesn't seem to savor it. Instead, "he emptied it at a breath. His eyes flashed with a fierce light. He laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand." So, is Fortunato truly an expert on wine, or just an expert on drinking, if you know what I mean?
All this leads up to one of the best parts of this story: its humor. For a revenge tale and a horror story, "The Cask of Amontillado" is funny, and not just from the irony of the "unfortunate" victim's name. When Fortunato is affected by the damp air in the vaults, Montresor expresses concern over his health. "The cough is a mere nothing," he says. "It will not kill me. I shall not die of a cough." Montresor knows this: "'True — true,' I replied." When Fortunato asks if Montresor is of the Masons, Montresor says yes, and produces a trowel to prove it — the trowel he will use to bury his enemy alive. Now, that's funny.
*A "pipe" is over 100 gallons. This is a huge purchase.
**The picture at the top is by Harry Clarke, creator of some of the greatest Poe illustrations, circa 1919.