A Study of the Negative Effects of Uncontrolled Ego in The Cask of Amontillado

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The Consequences of an Uncontrolled Ego

An Analysis of the Theme of “The Cask of Amontillado”

“He had a weak point—this Fortunato—although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself upon his connoisseurship in wine.” (Poe 108) This line alone suggests that pride will lead to Fortunato’s downfall, and Montresor knows this. As is stated in the quote, Fortunato is a reputable man, with one fatal flaw, his ego. Although Montresor may not be aware of it, he also has this weakness. He displays an overwhelming amount of conceitedness, possibly even more than Fortunato, which is made obvious when he commits murder over a simple insult. “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe teaches the reader that pride in excess can be toxic, and this is expressed with symbolism, foreshadowing, character thoughts and actions, and the tone of the story.

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One literary device the reader may notice is the symbolism throughout the story. When Montresor meets Fortunato at the carnival, the author describes the man’s clothing as “a tight-fitting parti-striped dress… his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells.” (108) In clearer terms, he is dressed as a jester, often called a “fool” in that time period. His costume symbolizes that this is exactly what Fortunato becomes, just a fool, tricked into following Montresor to what will become his eternal tomb simply because his ego won’t allow anyone else to be the one to taste and examine the supposed Amontillado. Another example of symbolism is the atmosphere of the catacombs, being described as “lined with human remains” (111) In short, the place he has been led to is an underground cemetery. This symbolizes the fate that Fortunato will soon succumb to, becoming just another skeleton in the depths of the caves, becoming buried by his own sense of self-importance. The author adds these details in order to give the story more depth and make it more interesting for the reader, and Poe is quite successful in this area.

Another method used frequently throughout the story is foreshadowing. For example, while venturing into the catacombs, Montresor talks to Fortunato about his family’s coat of arms. He describes it as being a representation of, “a huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.” (110) Additionally, Montresor says that the motto is “Nemo me impune lacessit,” (110) meaning “No one provokes me with impunity.” It is clear that Montresor lives up to what the coat of arms says, as he does not allow Fortunato to get away with the insult that apparently offended him so deeply. They are also drinking a type of wine called “De Grâve” (111) during their trek into the caves. It is not stated what the name is derived from, or what, if anything, it means in Italian. However, in English, the name appears quite similar to the words “the grave.” Perhaps, like the first example, this is giving the reader a hint that Fortunato’s trip into the catacombs will not end with him tasting a special wine, and will instead lead to his demise.

A more obvious way the reader may conclude that pride can lead to tragedy is through the characters’ thoughts and actions. It is very clear that Montresor’s motive for murdering his “friend” is that he feels disrespected, as he is open about this from the very beginning. The very first line of the story shows that this is not just an inference but is an objective truth: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.” (108) The revenge is, obviously, the murder committed at the end. Without Montresor being so vain, none of this would have ever happened, and an innocent man would not have been killed. Fortunato’s words show that pride was his motive as well. Montresor uses Fortunato’s sense of pride to his advantage, manipulating him by suggesting he will go elsewhere for advice on the wine: “As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchresi. If anyone has a critical turn it is he. He will tell me—“ (109) Fortunato’s pride will not allow Montresor to go to another for advice. He interrupts with, “Luchresi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry.” (109) If Fortunato had simply let it go instead of insisting he be the one to do it and had not been so emotionally wounded by the thought of advice being sought elsewhere, then he would not have been killed in the catacombs. Again, this supports the idea that the overall theme of the story is that pride is dangerous, possibly leading to tragedies like the one in the story.

The tone is also a vital aspect of the work in question. There is no single quote that can encompass this entirely, but when one reads the story the atmosphere feels very dark and gloomy. The setting, the characters, and almost everything in the story is tainted by grim and dismal descriptions. The overall experience of reading it brings with it the feeling that something terrible is about to occur. From the very beginning, there is already talk of revenge, hatred, and deception. The deception is revealed when the narrator says, “It must be understood that 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 this immolation.” (108) Needless to say, lines like this do not instill expectations of a happy ending in the reader. They give the reader a hint, before they even discover the full extent of Montresor’s plans, that his pride will end in great evil being committed. A chill might go up one’s spine as Montresor reveals to the reader what his true, selfish intentions are.

Taking all of the above into account, it is clear that Poe was trying to send a message with this story. In some ways, it may even be valuable to apply the lessons the characters learned to one’s own life. Maybe the takeaway is to learn to put your ego aside, and turn the other cheek rather than cause harm unto others in the name of revenge. Perhaps it is to not let your pride blind you from the truth of any situation you may face. It is ultimately up to the interpretation of the reader. Although Poe had a very dark way of expressing these messages or any others that may interpreted, the reader is still taught something valuable, and that should not be overlooked when analyzing a story such as this one.

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