Perhaps the basic problem for readers of Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" is how to discover the complexity of this seemingly simple story? A typical first response may be that it is a relatively straightforward revenge story. And readers do usually enjoy sharing the glee with which Montresor "plots" his revenge. However, this may be an opportunity for teachers to make students more aware of how "plot" is often a function of point of view, as well as how a narrative that may at first seem like a mere recounting of events is actually conditioned by complex rhetorical devices.
Although story events seem merely to move through time, they actually move by means of a calculated plot, and a plot must be based on motivation--the underlying causes of the action. To move, a story must have a direction, an end toward which it progresses. Poe's story, which seems primarily to be made up of Montresor's "plot" against Fortunato, physically moves toward the blank wall to which Fortunato will be chained as it emotionally moves toward the successful fulfillment of Montresor's revenge.
That this "end" actually precedes the beginning of the series of events that seem to make up the story becomes clear when we look at the rhetorical devices that constitute the plot. (After all, Montresor has his "plot" in mind before the events begin.) First, there is the fact that the action begins one evening when, as if by accident, Montresor meets Fortunato at the carnival. However, nothing is ever accidental in a story; everything is motivated by Poe's "plot." For example the fact that the two meet at carnival time, when nothing is as it seems, is meaningfully motivated, as is the fact that Fortunato's name means "fated" or, ironically, "fortunate" and that he is dressed, appropriately, as a fool.
Another element of the story's structure that, even as it seems to be casual, is actually causal, is the way Montresor maneuvers Fortunato to where he wants him by making him think he is acting on his own free will. This theme or motif is established when Montresor tells his servants not to leave the house, knowing that this will assure their absence. The illusion is that Fortunato "willingly" goes into the catacombs, not that he is compelled to. At several points along the way, Montresor tries to get Fortunato to go back, knowing that by seeming to try to control him Fortunato will try to act on his own free will and thus be ironically be controlled.
At several points along the way, as any good plot-maker must, Montresor gives Fortunato clues as to the "end" or "point" of the plot. First there is the portent of the coat of arms with the foot crushing the serpent and the motto that no one harms the Montresor family with impunity; secondly there is the trowel, which even as it suggests the secret brotherhood of the Masons, is the tool of Montresor's ultimate denial of brotherhood which will seal Fortunato's fate.
If we ask what happens in this story we may say: "Montresor gets his revenge by killing Fortunato." However, if this were all there was to it, Montresor might simply have hired some thugs to kill Fortunato; we know that would not have made the story what it is. Montresor must get his revenge in a "specifically meaningful" way. We need to think about why Poe chose these specific ways? Coleridge once noted that the pleasure of the art work lay not in the "end" of the journey, but rather in the pleasures of the journey itself. Readers make the journey with Montresor not just to get to the end, but to enjoy the journey along the way; and the pleasures of this journey are the pleasures of the "plot"; that is, how Montresor "makes things happen."
As other critics have noted, the story has a thoroughly ironic pattern. If the "you who know so well the nature of my soul" mentioned in the first paragraph is a priest, then Montresor may be making a deathbed confession of his crime of fifty years ago. If so, this may mean that Fortunato has fulfilled Montresor's revenge criteria more effectively than Montresor himself, for Montresor has not achieved his revenge with impunity; nor did he make himself known as such to Fortunato when he walled him up, whereas Fortunato, like the serpent that Montresor has trampled on, still has his fangs embedded in Montresor's heel.
But, the irony may cut even more deeply. If Montresor is making a deathbed confession, there is little indication that he is genuinely remorseful. On the contrary, Montresor seems to relive the events with the same glee with which he performed them fifty years before. Thus, even as he confesses, he "sins" again. For what seems such a simple story, "Cask of Amontillado" has wheels within wheels that just seem to keep spinning.
Tomorrow: Sherwood Anderson's "Hands"