Writing that Moves: Amontillado Wrap-up

In the last half of “The Cask of Amontillado,” Montresor leads Fortunato down through several more levels of catacombs, and the bones become more numerous and the air more stale, so that the torch glows rather than flames. Beforehand, though, they kill another bottle of wine and Fortunato makes a gesture that he explains identifies one as a mason. Montresor says they he is a mason himself and produces a trowel from his roquelaire. It’s not a knife, so there is something both funny — beyond the evident pun — and sinister here.

Later, we discover that Montresor has a rapier. This has not been mentioned yet. Why not? It’s a truism that if you reveal someone has a weapon, they have to use it; conversely, if you don’t reveal someone has a weapon, they can’t use it, even if you can make a case that they had it all along. Poe might have mentioned it earlier to create tension and throw us off, but that would have been the wrong kind of tension, a distraction from more subtle elements he wished to emphasize. So why mention it at all? Perhaps it was to be Montresor’s backup option had his plan failed. It suits his character well that he did not mention it up front; to do so would have belied his confidence.

As he realizes he’s been chained, Fortunato once more cries out, “The Amontillado!” Poe has done so much with the exclamation throughout the story, he’s on the verge of showing off. Each repetition builds on the last, creating layers of irony and meaning drawn from the progression of the story. Initially, it communicated Fortunato’s surprise, then his enthusiasm, then his intoxication, all while suggesting the noise of the carnival. Now it communicates a different kind of surprise, his dawning realization of his betrayal, and the echoing silence of the catacombs. Like a musical note, what’s repeated draws our attention to everything that has changed.

When Fortunato makes his final plea, “For the love of God, Montresor!”, Montresor agrees: “Yes, for the love of God!” Like other repetitions in the story, they mean entirely different things and are in dialog with each other. Fortunato is making a plea and expressing his last bit of hope; Montresor’s reply is renouncing that hope, not just for Fortunato, but for both of them. Montresor either doesn’t believe in God or reserves no hope for His love. Montresor is not just merciless but diabolical; he has renounced God and embraced damnation to satisfy his pride, recalling Lucifer himself.

But this is not his final statement; he calls out to Fortunato, once with an exclamation point and once with a dash. Much hangs on that dash. Is there some reply that could turn Montresor around, or is this a final cruel taunt?

Fortunato does reply, subtly. The bells that previously spoke for Fortunato’s heedless enthusiasm now jingle in the desolate alcove. It’s not hard to guess why: he is sobbing. Rather than being moved to pity, Montresor tells us that he was heartsick “on account of the dampness of the catacombs.” Had Fortunato acknowledged his insults and apologized, would it have made a difference?

Apparently not.

Montresor finishes his work and we get the punchline; the story comes into focus. A great deal of time has passed. Montresor was true to his word that he would not commit the crime in a way that he would risk punishment. He’s probably on his deathbed, and utters the last line more for himself than Fortunato. Hope flickered out decades ago. We are left to imagine Fortunato’s slow, agonizing end after contemplating the dying embers of the torch, left to imagine the long years of silence thereafter: “Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!

An effective story needs resonance, that is, a sense of continuation, if only an echo in the reader’s mind. Poe sets us up initially with many ambiguities and mysteries about what has happened and what kind of character Montresor is that are only resolved by “In pace requiescat! [Rest in peace.],” and by withholding the detail of the length of time passed until the penultimate line, he lets Fortunato’s end and all the time in between echo beyond the story.

Technique:

Various repetitions — the exclamation, the appeal to God, and the bells — each loaded with new meaning.

More dramatic irony and foreshadowing with the trowel and the rapier. And ultimately several threads introduced at the beginning tied up at the end.

Resonance through carefully withheld information until the very end.

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About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. President of ElectricStory.com.
This entry was posted in Writing, Writing that Moves and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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