The Supranarrative
An essay attempting to articualte the significance of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado."

During the early-to-mid 1800's, an anti-catholicism sentiment aimed at Irish and European immigrants began to develop in the United States, before eventually culminating into the form of many dangerous nativist groups by 1840. By 1844, several riots had ensued as a result of nativist actions ("Historical Society of Pennsylvania"). One of these riots, taking place in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, miles away from where Edgar Allan Poe lived at the time, resulted in the death of over twenty people. "The Cask Of Amontillado," written by Edgar Allan Poe in 1846, follows it's protagonist, Montresor, as he attempts to murder Fortunato — a former friend of his, and devout Freemason — during carnival season in Italy. After successfully luring Fortunato to the catacombs beneath his house, Montresor buries Fortunato alive, and lives on happily, and unpunished, presumably for at least fifty years.
In the years past "The Cask of Amontillado"'s publishing, its themes, and message have only become more relevant. For this reason, to present an analysis of "The Cask Of Amontillado," without mentioning the historical symbolism embedded within it, would be to act unreasonably, and not forthrightly. A quick summary of the symbolism within the story goes as follows: Montresor is a representation of the moral-less individual, the setting is a representation of the moral-less community, and Fortunato is a representation of the oblivious moral figurehead. When these three uses of symbolism are analyzed together, The Cask Of Amontillado can be seen as a cautionary tale depicting what becomes of people, societies, and our belief systems when we can no longer tell the difference between right and wrong.
Montresor can be interpreted as a representation of how individuals are likely to think and behave when they lack a firm moral foundation to reason from. Although the reader is given little information regarding Montresor's life, at least two traits of his are certain to exist. The first trait being that Montresor wants to murder Fortunato, and the second being that Montresor is either not religious at all, or that he is at least a lower ranking Freemason than Fortunato. If all information in this story is to be relevant to its interpretation, then these pieces of information must relate to one another to allow for an interpretation of Montresor that is more correct than if these pieces of information were analyzed in isolation. To justify his wanting to murder Fortunato, Montresor states "the thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge" and, "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."(Poe 473) Here, Montresor equates injuries with insult and then states that by him having borne over a thousand injuries from Fortunato, he is justified in inflicting the equivalent of a thousand injuries on him. In other words, Montresor uses an insult to justify murder. Note, this line of reasoning is only possible if you do not have a definitive method for discerning the difference between right and wrong. The only other character to speak in the story, Fortunato, is a devout Freemason, and presumably, has no intention of murdering anyone. Moreover, if all pieces of information in this story are relevant to understanding the others, then Montresor must be a murderer because he lacks the moral foundation that was granted to Fortunato through his religious affiliation.
The setting of the story can be interpreted as a symbolic representation of society at-large, as it descends into psychopathology, like Montresor does. Described as being "about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season," (Poe 473) the setting with which Montresor resides is portrayed as archaic, and as though it were drifting towards madness, like Montresor is. "Dusk," meaning the beginning of the night, likely symbolizes this transition into chaos. References to carnival season, and later catacombs, serve to ground the metaphor within a communal frame, as allusions to a storm, or simply underground would be more fitting if the setting was to symbolize Montresor's psychological state alone. As Montresor grows closer towards murdering Fortunato, the setting progresses closer towards resembling what is often described as hell. As Montresor and Fortunato arrive at where Fortunato will be killed, they are described as having reached "the foot of the descent, [and as having] stood together upon the damp ground of the catacombs."(Poe 474) Here, by describing Montresor, the embodiment of pathological reasoning, as having brought Fortunato, the embodiment of the theological hierarchy, willingly into the catacombs, Poe uses a form of integrated symbolism to allow for the catacombs to represent society's demise via the misuse of theology for pathological ends.
Fortunato can be interpreted as a distilled, individual representation of the collective Protestant, and Catholic ethoses of the early-to-mid nineteenth century. Although several details of Fortunato's life are discussed within the story, at least three qualities of his are relevant to this interpretation. The first quality is that Fortunato is a high-ranking Freemason. The Freemason's, a society that welcomes people from any religion, but differentiates all of its members by rank, in this context serve to symbolize religion at large, but also to distinctly characterize the behavior of their higher tenants. The second quality is that Fortunato is dressed as a medieval court jester. Like the figureheads of both the Protestant and Catholic churches during the 1840's, of whom pretended to be ignorant of the actions of the nativist party, Fortunato, described as wearing a "tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and … a conical cap and bells," (Poe 473) presents himself as a fool, although he is not one. But, being in a state of drunken stupor, Fortunato's self-imposed incoherence prevents him from doing anything about Montresor's actions, regardless if he is cognizant of them. Again, Fortunato's state here mirrors that of the nominal leaders of the Protestant and Catholic churches during the 1840's, who, bounded to the incoherent structures that predispose religious hierarchies, were incapable of preventing the religion itself from being used to serve pathological ends.
Although the nuances of this tale may seem too specific, or metaphorical to be useful in our modern times, it seems that the opposite is true. During the early to mid-2000's, a polarizing climate regarding political affiliation began to develop in the United States, before eventually culminating into the form of many dangerous activist groups 2015. By 2017, riots on college campuses, and assaults on anyone deemed controversial had become commonplace in the United States ("Fighting Words"). Although dozens of deaths have yet to occur from this tension, given its ongoing escalation, these occurrences seem inevitable. At the heart of these movements is a misuse of logic, and a misinterpretation of the correct ways to act, that can only be described as pathological. Like Montresor, these activist use their perspectives on words to justify violence. Like the murdering of Fortunato, their actions are only made possible by the incoherence of their communities. This incoherence, likely caused by the fact that when communities increase in size, the responsibility that individuals feel for their actions diminishes, so the clusters of superstitions regarding actions — typically called religions — get pushed to the wayside, and the mentality of the group — in this case, political party, or activist movement — becomes the new church. But like churches, when the ideologies underlying them surpasses the power of the individuals governing them, the leaders of the group become nominal. So like Montresor after the murdering of Fortunato, those that will soon commit the murders motivated by the pathological ethoses of today, will likely live on happily, and unpunished, presumably for a very long time. Dark as it may seem, it seems that the only tenable path away from this anarchy may lie within the stories that, when reasoned through properly, seem all-too-real to be justly called fiction.
Text Author: Antjuan Finch

Published: August 16th, 2018

Works Cited

Poe, Edgar. "The Cask Of Amontillado." Handout. Harvard University Extension School.

"Canvas Website." Cambridge, Massachusetts. N.d. Electronic Format. MS Word.

Interactive, Ripple Effects. Primary Sources : Historical Society of Pennsylvania,

Steinmetz, Katy. "Berkeley College: The Riots Over Free Speech." Time, Time, 1 June 2017,

"Edgar Allan Poe (U.S. National Park Service)." National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the


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