The Cask of Amontillado
What’s Up With the Title?
The title of this grim tale has an unusual ring to it. It doesn’t sound like anything we’ve ever heard before. It’s a mystery. But nothing to be scared of.
We’ll start with “Amontillado”. Literally, it’s an alcoholic beverage, closely related to sherry. Unless people have read Poe’s story, or are wine connoisseurs, they probably haven’t heard of it, much less seen a cask of it.
Casks, by the way, are barrels for storing wine or other drinks, and they come in many sizes. Montresor tells Fortunato he has a “pipe of what passes for Amontillado.” In this context, “pipe” and “cask” mean the same thing. As you may have suspected, “cask” also literally means “casket.” This is important because, though Fortunato seeks a cask of Amontillado, he finds a casket of death.
Now that we know the literal meaning of the title (barrel of wine) we can try to get at the figurative meaning or meanings. Why are we so sure there are figurative meanings? Because Poe says there are. About now, we should mention that Poe was very into what he called "secret writing."
The idea of “secret writing” is pretty simple: You’ve done something terrible, or something terrible is happening to you. You have to tell somebody. So you write a letter to a friend. But, you want to make sure that if the wrong people intercept your letter, they won’t be able to understand it. To solve this dark dilemma, you must write your letter in code. On the surface, your letter is about one thing. Underneath, or between the lines, it’s about something else entirely.
Here’s another hint: Poe’s stories are strongly psychological. Everything in a Poe story represents an aspect of the human mind.
Poe tells us that there are figurative meanings, but he doesn’t tell us what they are. We have to figure them out for ourselves, but he gives us lots of (really disgusting) clues! One way to get at this mysterious Amontillado is to consider what it means to each of our two characters.
For Fortunato, Amontillado symbolizes pleasure and enjoyment in the extreme. He’s willing to travel through the nastiest graveyards to get what he wants. He would probably do just about anything for it, but it betrays him. In the end, for Fortunato, Amontillado means imprisonment by his own desires. He’s trapped, and he can’t do anything but die – though, alternatively, death can be considered freedom from desire.
For Montresor, Amontillado means something slightly different. Instead of being ruled by it, he uses it to get what he wants, which is the power to make Fortunato feel his revenge – permanently. In the end, Montresor is freed from his desire – for revenge, at least. But is he really free?