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Symbolism and Irony in "The Cask of Amontillado"

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 10/9/2013

"The Cask of Amontillado" is a creepy short story written by Edgar Allan Poe. The story is rife with examples of symbolism and irony. Here we break down some of these symbols.

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    Important Symbolism

    Fortunato's Outfit: Fortunato's carnival garb is described as follows: "The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells." In short, Fortunato is dressed as a fool, a symbolic representation of what he is.

    The Setting: The "supreme madness of carnival season" represents the supreme madness of the narrator's mind. It is the backdrop of carnival season that lends the story its fantastic nature, a nature trumped only by the madness of Montresor's revenge.

    The Cask of Amontillado: The word cask, a sturdy cylindrical container for storing liquids, and the word casket have the same root. The Amontillado represents two causes of Fortunato's demise:

    (1) Fortunato is extremely drunk, more than likely drunk on wine. It is probable that his venturing into the catacombs has little to do with his desire to serve Montresor. Fortunato understands that the trip will produce one of two results--free Amontillado or Montresor's humiliation;

    (2) Fortunato's passion for good wine leaves him susceptible to flattery, flattery which Montresor provides.

    Montresor: In French, mon tresor means my treasure. The treasure the narrator possesses is the knowledge of the perfect revenge.

    The Montresor Family Motto, "Nemo me impune lacessit": Fortunato comments on the Montresor family motto and emblem. The phrase means nobody harms me without being punished. The picture above it is an allusion to the Book of Genesis in the Bible: it contains a heal smashing a serpent's head as it sinks its fangs into the heel. It is symbolic of what happens to Fortunato. Fortunato has wounded Montresor's pride (the snake biting the heel). Montresor kills Fortunato in the most diabolical manner (The heel crushing the serpent's head).

    Nitre: Montresor and Fortunato refer to nitre several times. Montresor calls it "the white webwork which gleams from these cavern walls." The nitre, therefore, represents the web, or the trap, Montresor has set for his victim.

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    Examples of Irony in "The Cask of Amontillado"

    Fortunato means fortunate in Italian, an ironic name for someone about to be walled up in the catacombs.

    Montresor's behavior toward Fortunato is described as follows: "It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation."

    Montresor's first words to Fortunato are "My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met." Fortunato thinks Montresor means he is happy to see him because of his expertise. What Montresor means is the meeting is lucky because carnival presents an excellent time for murder.

    Montresor's continued efforts to talk Fortunato out of coming with him only serve to excite the latter and encourage his coming.

    Montresor's instructions to his servants demonstrate his mastery of human psychology: "I had told them that I should not return until the morning and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance , one and all, as soon as my back was turned."

    Fortunato exclaims, "I will not die of a cough." Montresor responds, "true." It appears to be a hopeful statement. It's actually a wicked statement. He then drinks to Fortunato's "long life," which Montresor soon ends.

    The conversation regarding the Masons demonstrates an ironic misunderstanding: Fortunato refers to the Masonic order, a secret society of brothers; Montresor pulls out a trowel, a reference to bricklayers. In that respect, Montresor is a mason.

    Fortunato's last words before being chained to the rock are "he [Luchesi] is an ignoramus." In reality, Fortunato is the ignoramus, a chained-to-the-wall ignoramus.

    Montresor's reaction to the crime he commits is described as follows: "My heart grew sick -- on account of the dampness of the catacombs." His heart grows sick on account of the weather, not because he just buried a man alive. That's ironic.

    This article is meant to be a starting point to your own research and analysis. Did you find more examples of symbolism and irony in the text? Feel free to share in the comments.