Monday, September 18, 2006

The Cask of Amontillado

Nemo me impune lacessit (No one assails me with impunity — the Montresor family motto)

As is my habit, around this time every year I find myself reading Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” This is a clever tale – one that clearly dwells upon revenge – and one that I think has an often-overlooked ending. Many who read the story feel that Montresor, the narrator, commits murder with impunity – an act of revenge against family insult. But it is possible to read a different ending, one that does produce irony, an irony dependent upon the opening:

Opening Paragraph:
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled — but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish, but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

The narrator’s intentions are clear in the opening, revenge on Fortunato with impunity. The narrator goes on to explain that revenge has a cathartic aspect. That is: A wrong is “equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” In other words, Fortunato must know of his fate, of the revenge executed against him.
This clever opening not only foretells events in the story, but it also partially defines catharsis – what is sometimes defined as “the purging of emotion.” Typically, the reader receives catharsis at the end of a story by recognition of the hero through the antagonist and surrounding characters, and sometimes by “setting the world right.” Or, plainly put: The hero somehow wins and things return to normal, and usually, the villain is forced to realize he has been thwarted by the hero.

What is important about this to Poe’s story is that he produces a tale that seemingly provides the narrator with catharsis, but not the reader. At least, that is how most readers interpret it: The narrator (Montresor) successfully commits the murder (revenge) and does so with impunity. After all, Montresor is not captured, as far as we know, and the story is being told “half of a century” later, to some unknown listener.

There is the rub, however. That final paragraph of the tale can be read as a narrative frame, and closing of the story – a return to the opening.

Last Paragraph:
No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick — on account of the dampness of the catacombs. I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I reerected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!

The curious line here is “My heart grew sick – on account of the dampness of the catacombs.” Throughout the story, Montresor has little pity for his victim. He plays with Fortunato, suggesting that the man not venture into the catacombs for fear of Fortunato becoming ill. Montresor even insists that his victim leave the damp vault because, “‘your health is precious.’”
This in less than honest.

But from that last paragraph, it is possible to read that once Montresor had completed his foul task, there was guilt about the deed. “My heart grew sick” is what Montresor states when he heard the bell on Fortunato’s cap “jingle.” But the line is quickly interrupted with a justification: “on account of the dampness of the catacombs.” Furthermore, Montresor hastens his labor to “make an end” of it. Why not savor the revenge? It is what he’d been planning from the moment he’d encountered Fortunato.

What does it mean to the story if Montresor experiences guilt? For many, it changes the reading. As stated in the opening paragraph, Montresor desires revenge with “impunity–” it is his family motto. If he has revenge with impunity, this might leave the reader dissatisfied – no catharsis. There could be catharsis, perhaps, if the Montresor informed the reader of the magnitude of the “insult.” He does allude to it by saying to Fortunato “‘you are happy as once I was.’” And there are other vague references in the text. Still, this does little to clarify the matter.

However, if Montresor does not have his revenge with impunity, if “retribution overtakes its redresser,” then the reader can find catharsis in Montresor’s guilt – a guilt that he carries for 50 years.

If we read “Cask” this way, then the opening paragraph is filled with irony, just as the entire story is, and the opening/ending paragraphs produce a frame, while also producing satisfaction that the “wrong” against Fortunato did not go unpunished. It can be argued that Fortunato also exacts revenge by burdening Montresor with guilt. Or, rather, Montresor does this to himself.
Of course, there is the famous last sentence, which is sometimes included in the final paragraph, other times as a paragraph of its own: “In pace requiescat!” May he rest in peace! This sentence has been interpreted many ways by many readers and scholars. It is perhaps rejoicing, or hinting at a prison, or it is a lament. If it is read as an expression of guilt, then maybe the narrator is attempting to purge this emotion by confessing it – telling it to the imaginary listener (the listener is often “read” as a priest for several reasons).

This “guilt” reading of the story does much to satisfy Montresor’s requirement of revenge as stated in the opening. Additionally, by ending the story in another language, it can fool the reader who doesn’t understand the language — at least for a little while. Without a final affirmation of guilt, it is possible to see the revenge being performed with impunity – which typically generates a desire in readers for Montresor to be punished. That is, the reader experiences a wrong unredressed. This is similar to the emotion Montresor expresses at the beginning of the tale.

Essentially, “Cask” can leave one with a desire for retribution upon the narrator, the very thing that started the story. However, unlike Montresor, this emotion can be purged by recognizing the narrator’s burden of guilt, changing the emotions produced by the tale. This doesn’t mean that the reader forgives Montresor; instead, it produces an ending fitting with the qualifications as presented in the opening paragraph. It produces a form of catharsis.

No comments: