"The Cask of Amontillado" has been almost universally referred to as Poe's most perfect short story; in fact, it has often been considered to be one of the world's most perfect short stories. Furthermore, it conforms to and illustrates perfectly many of Poe's literary theories about the nature of the short story: that is, it is short and can be read at one sitting, it is a mood piece with every sentence contributing to the total effect, it is a completely unified work and while it is seemingly simple, it abounds in ironies of many kinds. Finally, every line and comment contributes to the totality or unity of effect that Poe sought to achieve.
The plot is quite simple. The first-person narrator, whom we later discover to be named Montresor, announces immediately that someone named Fortunato has injured him repeatedly and has recently insulted him. Montresor can stand no more; he vows revenge upon Fortunato. The remainder of the story deals with Montresor's methods of entrapping Fortunato and effecting his revenge upon the unfortunate Fortunato. Foremost is the fact that Montresor has never let Fortunato know of his hatred. Accordingly, one evening during carnival time, a time when much frivolity and celebration would be taking place, Montresor set his fiendish, mad plan into motion with full confidence that he would never be discovered. In fact, at the end of the story, we, the readers, are certain that his atrocity will never be discovered.
Knowing that Fortunato considered himself a great expert, or connoisseur, of fine wines, and especially a devotee of a sherry known as Amontillado, Montresor flattered him by obsequiously asking his opinion on a newly acquired cask of Amontillado. He tantalized Fortunato with the rare liquor, even pretending that his vaults where the wine was stored had too much dampness and "nitre" for Fortunato's afffiction. However, Fortunato was determined to taste the wine and insisted on being taken to Montresor's home. Montresor complied while wrapping himself in a cloak to make sure that he would not be recognized. Earlier, he had let all of the servants off for the night, using the excuse of the carnival; in this way he would avoid arousing Fortunato's suspicions and would also prevent anyone from witnessing the atrocity he planned to commit. Apparently, Montresor had been planning this revenge for a long time and, ironically, had chosen carnival time as the setting for this most horrible type of crime. Amid the gaiety of the carnival, he was sure he would avoid any possibility of being detected.
As they descended into the vaults, Fortunato walked unsteadily and the "bells upon his cap jingled" as they descended, creating a further carnival atmosphere or a joyous time, a time which will ironically end soon with the living death of the unfortunate Fortunato.
As they passed deeper into the vaults, the nitre caused Fortunato to cough constantly, but he was drunkenly determined to continue. At one point, however, Montresor paused and offered Fortunato a bottle of Medoc wine to help ward off the cold and the fumes of the nitre. This seemingly kind act, of course, carries undertones of the most vicious irony, since what appears to be an act of kindness is only an act performed to keep the victim alive long enough to get him to the niche where he will be buried alive.
Fortunato drank the Medoc and once again became boisterous and once more "his bells jingled." Fortunato toasted Montresor's buried ancestors, and Montresor returned the toast to Fortunato's "long life." When Fortunato noted how extensive the vaults were, Montresor told him that he heard that the Montresors "were a great and numerous family." Then, in his drunkenness, Fortunato says that he has forgotten what Montresor's coat of arms looks like. This statement, at the time of the story's setting, would be yet one more of the many blatant insults for which Montresor hates Fortunato. He states that his family's coat of arms has on it "a huge human foot d'or [foot of gold], in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel" and that the family motto is "Nemo me impune lacessit" (No one attacks me with impunity). Thus, both the motto and the coat of arms imply that the entire Montresor family history is filled with acts of revenge.
As the two men proceeded further along the tunnels, the cold and the nitre fumes increased, and Fortunato asked for another drink. Montresor gave him a bottle of De Grave, which Fortunato emptied and then tossed the bottle into the air with a certain symbolic gesture. At this point, Fortunato was sure that Montresor didn't understand the gesture because it belonged to the secret order of the masons — an order that Fortunato was certain that Montresor couldn't belong to, thus flinging Montresor another insult and, unknowingly, bringing himself closer to his living death. Fortunato then showed him a sign of the masons — a trowel, which he brought with him. This is, of course, a double irony since the trowel is not only an instrument used by real masons (bricklayers, stone masons, etc.), but it is one of the emblems of the Masonic Order, and in this case it will become an instrument of Fortunato's death — shortly after he implies that Montresor is not good enough to be a member of the Masonic Order. In only a few minutes, it will he seen that Montresor is indeed a superb mason.
As they continued their journey, we discover that there are numerous catacombs of long deceased relatives. Thus, they have progressed to the place of the dead where Fortunato will spend the rest of his existence — ironically, alongside the relatives of a man who hates him with an unbelievable intensity. At one of the catacombs, Montresor led Fortunato into a small crypt, or niche, which was "in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven. Montresor told Fortunato that the Amontillado was inside.
When Fortunato stepped inside, he ran into the granite wall, and Montresor quickly locked him to the wall with a chain. Fortunato was too drunk to even realize what was going on, much less resist his imprisonment.
Very quickly, Montresor uncovered a "quantity of building stone and mortar" and began to "wall up the entrance." With only the first tier completed, Montresor heard deep moans from within, and by the time he had laid the fourth tier, he "heard the furious vibrations of the chain." Resuming his chore, he completed three more tiers. Suddenly there was "a succession of loud and shrill screams" from inside the crypt and, at first, Montresor was momentarily frightened and then he delighted in joining in with the screams. Then there was silence.
By the time Montresor had finished the last tier, with only one more stone to be put into place, there came a long low laugh from within. Then Fortunato's voice called upon Montresor to put an end to this joke. Finally, Fortunato pleaded "For the love of God, Montresor," a request which Montresor mocked by repeating the phrase. Then Montresor looked through the remaining opening with his torch and could see nothing, but he did hear the jingling of Fortunato's bells as he laid the last stone in place. For fifty years, he tells us, no one has disturbed the peace of this place.
As noted in this discussion, the story abounds in ironies. The name of the victim, Fortunato, meaning "the fortunate one," is the first irony. Then, too, the entire situation is ironic — that is, the most terrible and gruesome deeds are executed in a carnival atmosphere of gaiety and happiness; Montresor is using the atmosphere of celebration to disguise the horribly atrocious act of entombing a man alive.
The reader should, perhaps, at one point ask himself who is Montresor, and, then since Montresor seems to be apparently addressing someone, the reader should ask himself whom Montresor is talking to (or writing about) and why. Since the deed was committed some fifty years ago, and at the time of the deed Montresor could not have been a young person, he must now be very old. It could be that he is talking to one of his descendants, or else making his last confession to a priest. After all, from what we can glean from the story, Montresor, in spite of the reputed insults of Fortunato, came from an ancient, perhaps noble family, and he is also a person of considerable taste (in gems, in paintings, in wines, and in other matters), and it is evident that he possesses considerable intelligence, albeit a type of diabolical intelligence. In his plan to entomb Fortunato in the Montresor catacombs, he was clever at the right time; his planning was perfect. Remember that he anticipated letting the servants off at a time that would not arouse suspicion since it was carnival time; clearly, his entire plan of revenge was contrived with such perfection that Montresor had to be an exceptionally gifted person. But then, again, the question arises: How could a gifted person imagine insults of such magnitude so as to cause him to effect such a horrible revenge?
Informing the entire story is the nature of an insult that could evoke such a well-planned, diabolical scheme of revenge. If indeed there was an insult of such magnitude, then is Fortunato unaware of it to such an extent that he would accompany the person that he has insulted into such a dreadful place? Or was he simply drunk with the carnival madness that was occurring throughout the city? The reader, of course, is shocked by the diabolical efficiency of the murderer, and also by the fact that Montresor has lived with impunity, and also, ironically, his victim has rested in peace for fifty years.
The double and ironic viewpoint continues on every plane. When Montresor met Fortunato, he smiled continually at Fortunato, who thought he saw a smile of warmth and friendliness, when in reality, the smile was a satanic smile in anticipation of Fortunato's entombment. Likewise, Montresor's first words to him were "you are luckily met." The ironic reversal is true: Within a short time, Fortunato will be entombed alive.
Likewise, when Fortunato drinks a toast to the people buried in the catacombs, he little knows that he is drinking a toast to his own impending death. The same is true when Fortunato insults Montresor concerning the masons — both a secret, honorable order which requires close scrutiny for a person to become a member and, of course, an honorable trade, a tool of which Montresor will use for a most dishonorable deed.
In general, this story fits well into Poe's dictum that everything in a well-written story must contribute to a total effect. The constant use of irony — the drinking of the wine to warm Fortunato so that he can continue his journey to his death, the jingling of the bells announcing his death, the carnival atmosphere versus the atrocities, the irony of Fortunato's name, the irony of the coat of arms, the irony in the unintentional remarks (or were they?) that Fortunato makes, saying that he doesn't remember what the Montresor coat of arms is, and later when he sneers at the possibility that Montresor could be a mason (and the irony connected with the type of mason which Montresor actually becomes) — all of these and many more contribute to the complete unity of this perfect short story.