Copyrigth 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
In “The Purloined Letter,” a detective story, Edgar Allan Poe makes a big show of a stolen (“purloined”) letter’s having been hidden in plain sight by its thief, Minister D--. Although another of the horror maestro’s short stories, “The Cask of Amontillado,” is not generally considered a detective story, at least one critic, Kathyrn M. Harris, author of “Ironic Revenge in Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado,’ which appeared in Studies in Short Fiction 6 (1969): 333-35, seems to think that the latter story is something of a mystery, complete with clues as to the murderer’s motive. For those who have forgotten the story’s plot, here is a brief recapitulation of the storyline:
A half century after having avenged his family’s name by killing his former “friend,” Fortunato, for allegedly insulting him, Montresor recounts his dastardly deed (some say on his deathbed), a crime which, apparently, still haunts him.
Having just acquired what he’d hoped was a cask of genuine amontillado, Montresor persuades the somewhat inebriated Fortunato, who has been attending Carnival dressed in motley (that is, in the costume of a fool), to accompany him to the family’s wine cellars to authenticate his purchase. On their way through the family’s catacombs, Montresor offers Fortunato wine and answers the expert’s question as to whether he is a mason, as Fortunato himself is, by showing Fortunato a hand trowel he had been hiding.
Pretending to be solicitous of Fortunato’s health, Montresor allays the wine expert’s fears. As they pass through the cold, clammy subterranean chambers, Montresor describes his family’s coat of arms to Fortunato. On a blue background, a foot stamps a serpent whose fangs are embedded in the foot’s heel. The accompanying motto reads Nemo me impune lacessit (“No one insults me with impunity”).
When they arrive at a niche, Montresor, telling Fortunato that the amontillado is inside, chains him to the wall. Using his trowel, Montresor then seals the niche, walling Fortunato up, alive, inside the alcove. Although his victim pleads for his life, Montresor mocks him. Just as Montresor sets the last of the bricks in place, Fortunato cries out, “For the love of God, Montresor!” The protagonist, replies, “Yes, for the love of God,” drops a lit torch into the niche, and finishes entombing his victim alive.
Fifty years have passed since, and Montresor’s deed, until now, as he confessed it, has gone undetected. As he ends his narrative, Montresor says, of Fortunato, In pace requiescat (“May he rest in peace”).
Often, this story is considered to be the confession of another of Poe’s madmen. Although Montresor claims that Fortunato has insulted him a “thousand” times, he never gives the reader (or his confessor) even one example to support his contention, and Fortunato, as he is described in the story, seems harmless, even genial. Indeed, he has agreed to interrupt his holiday to do Montresor the favor of authenticating the amontillado (or so, at any rate, Fortunato believes). If Fortunato’s query as to whether Montresor is a fellow mason smacks of arrogance, it is possible that it does so only in Montresor’s own too-easily-offended mind.
For James W. Gargano, author of “The Question of Poe’s Narrators,” which originally appeared in College English 25 (1963): 177-81, Poe is careful to show that Montresor is “a deluded rationalist who cannot glimpse the moral implications of his planned folly” and a “compulsive and pursued man’ whose murder of his victim has resulted in his suffering the pangs of guilt for half a century.
For Harris, however, as the authors of Short Fiction: A Critical Companion point out, Poe’s story is really a mystery of sorts in which Poe provides all the clues necessary for the reader to figure out what led Montresor to kill Fortunato. In doing so, Poe hides his clues, as it were, in plain sight:
Montresor’s trowel is both an ironic “symbol of brotherhood and instrument of death,” thus unifying the story and offering a motive for the murder of Fortunato. . . . Fortunato is a freemason; Montressor is a Catholic. . . . Several references in the story further link Montresor to religion, especially Catholicism: the confessional beginning, the image on his coat of arms alluding to the church’s triumph over evil cited in Genesis, the pre-Lenten carnival setting of the story in catacombs reminiscent of the early church, and references to wine, an element of the Eucharist. . . . Montresor refers to “masonry” and “mason-work” again several times, most significantly and suggestively (noting the preposition) in “Against the new masonry I re-erected the rampart of old bones,” and ends his tale with In pace requiescat,” the close of the requiem mass. . . thus suggesting that his motive has been to conduct his own personal inquisition against Fortunato.Certainly, Harris’ reading of the story is not far-fetched and, indeed, the story provides much evidence, as she points out, in support of such an interpretation. It seems to me, in fact, that her understanding of Poe’s masterpiece of horror and suspense complements the narrative’s own subtlety and sophistication, and Poe’s fondness for hiding clues to crimes in plain sight also supports Harris’ interpretation, the trowel that Montresor produces serving as the story’s equivalent to the missive in “The Purloined Letter,” only, in “The Cask,” it is you and I--or Kathryn M. Harris, at any rate--and not Auguste Dupin, who must be the detectives who spot the clues to Montresor’s motive and deduce their significance.
Note: Short Fiction: A Critical Companion by Robert C. Evans, Anne C. Little, and Barbara Wiedemann (Locust Hill Press, West Cornwall, CT, 1997) provides excerpts of critical texts that summarize much of the more important criticism concerning “The Cask of Amontillado,” including those of both Harris and Gargano (and others).