The Cask of Amontillado
A short story by Edgar Allen Poe

I love this story. I wish I had it memorized so I could better tell it to my students.

What I have been using is a condensed version. My seventh graders don't follow along very well when I read the complete version though I think in the future I'll have them read the complete version to themselves after they hear a shortened version.

Before I read the story, this is how I set it up.

"This is a story a fellow who has suffered many slights and little indignities. His friends are always putting him down him little ways. They are so little that his friends don't even realize they're doing it. It's just the way they talk to him. But little put downs add up, and they don't go away. They've been building and building and our main character is just about ready to explode. But there are a couple things you should know about our main character, Montressor. Number One: He is smart. He's not going let on to anyone that he is ready to explode. Number Two: Our main character is crazy.

Only a crazy person would murder because he was insulted. But he's our main character so we may as well enjoy him."

"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne the best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge."

That is such a wonderful, musical line, I encourage my students to memorize it.

I have in my room an (empty) bottle of Amontillado and I pass it around to students who volunteer to tell me if it smells to them like good Amontillado. "Who might tell me if this smells like good Amontillado?" Of course, almost everybody eventually raises a hand. Some will take two sniffs, cock their head to one side to think about it a moment and then tell me, "Yes, I think this is exceptionally good Amontillado." And we go on and on like this and my students like the fact we're not "working" and I'll affect the imagined accent of an upper class expert of fine Spanish wine as I ask them for their opinions and some of them will alter their voices too as we reinforce each other's silly snobbery.

This is a lot of fun. Unfortunately, a lot of my "A" students withdraw and look at me like I'm crazy. But for the others, when they ask for a taste and hold out an imaginary cup, I pour them an imaginary dollop, and it always seems to taste splendid.

"It's from Jerez!" And you say that with a heavy Castillian lisp. And you mention how on a clear day you can see Gibraltar....

But somebody is bound to take an imaginary sip and frown disappointment. That's an opportunity to theatrically take offense.

How fortunate it is that Poe had such a good ear. It's fun to read this story and have it roll off the tongue.

The part of the story that makes the biggest impact is when Fortunato calls out and Montressor just repeats back what he says. And then, silence. And when the torch is pushed through the hole, just a jingling of the bells.

The horror and hopeless that Fortunato feels when he realizes that his murderer is hopelessly mad gives my students a chill.

"Let us be gone."

"Yes, I said "let us be gone."

"For the love of God, Montressor!"

"Yes," I said "for the love of God."

The contrast of the tones of voice is very powerful. Fortunato is pleading for his life. Montressor is repeating back those words but light heartedly, childishly, mockingly.

It so upsets Fortunato that when Montressor calls out to Fortunato a couple times more, there is just silence. So utter is Fortunato's hopeless that he doesn't bother to call out one more word even though his life is at stake.

When Montressor calls out Fortunato's name a couple times, there's no stress or gravity. It's emotionless or maybe just a slight light hearted and casual.

What a chilling contrast--the voice of somebody who is losing hope and who knows he's about to die speaking to his casual, light hearted murderer, who doesn't feel an ounce of pity.

And being walled up in a cell deep underground realized that you will never be found and if you are found that your bones will never be identified.

Imagine looking at the torch that was pushed through the hole and watching it slowly burn out, realizing that this is the last light you'll ever see once it's gone, that there will be darkness for ever. In just a couple minutes, with the last brick in place and the torch burned out, it will be so dark that your eyes won't be able to adjust to it. So dark you won't be able to tell if your eyes are open or closed. Even after an hour of your eyes vainly trying to adjust to absolute darkness, you won't be able to see even the outline of your hand in front of your face. Not even the madman will be able to hear any screams through the brick. Cold and dark and never to be found, to cough in cold and slowly starve to death in utter silence in utter darkness, alone.

Montressor, a completely crazy man without a trace of human sympathy will never betray himself with guilt . Nobody will ever suspect him.

This story is more deeply disturbing for the students than the Friday the 13th slasher movies yet is farcical with flat characters.

My students like the fact that Montressor appears to be concerned about Fortunato's cough and offers to go back. As a result, Fortunato increases his trust. But this is not simply a tactic. Fortunato is too proud of his wine opinion to have any room for suspicion. Montressor is feigning concern for Fortunato's health to extend the cruel joke he is playing on him. My students like being in on the joke and the succession of these clues builds suspense. My students also enjoy revenge and seeing a privileged, egotistical character tumble.

This is a revenge story against a thoughtless, self-centered "fortunate" character at the hand of one who has suffered silently for a long time. Seventh graders know what it's like to live a world in which they are frequently reminded that they are inferior to the wise adult decision makers and they know what it's like to suffer these injuries silently. This is probably a large part of the story's appeal.

And then there's the motto, "Nemo me inpune lacessit." Some students laugh when they hear the translation.

Unfortunately, the version of the story I used this year did not have the reference to the masons. If I gave them some background and explained that Fortunato was giving Montressor a secret sign, they would appreciate the humor and the foreshadowing function of the trowel like the motto, and the flagon of De Grave.

The foreshadowing, which entertains us but fails to warn Fortunato, shows that he is fatally blinded by his ego and so his fools costume is therefore fitting.

Next year I'll use the complete version but will first spend some time on vocabulary and some base-line information such as the order of masons.

The vocabulary study won't be critical because Poe's difficult words are often like grace notes adding to the sound of the sentences more than to the meaning.

I also plan to have them read about Poe's life to see they would like to try out a psychology based critique of the story.

And next year, if I need to buy a new bottle of Amontillado, I'll give myself plenty of time to drink it so I won't have it pour it down the drain again.



Morrill Books