The Cask of Amontillado is a story wherein the reader can find a multiple array of ironic acts and intentions. There are examples of both dramatic and verbal irony throughout this clever tale of horror. Even the setting reveals some sense of irony as we travel from a joyous carnival scene to a dismal cavern of death. It is best to begin with an analysis of the irony in this tale by following the chronology of the story itself. In the naming, the dialogue, the characterization, and in the setting of The Cask of Amontillado the irony, as it is woven throughout the tale, becomes self-evident and its purpose more meaningful.
Prior to the initial meeting between the narrator and Fortunato we are already aware that there is nothing fortunate about Fortunato. We are alone with the narrator in this knowledge and we are also aware that whatever will occur in the tale has already passed by fifty years ago. The irony of his name is revealed to us even before we know what is to happen to his ill-fated life.
Clearly, Fortunato is a man of good wealth and reputation who has done some harm to our narrator. The exact nature of their conflict is arguable though evidence within the story points toward religious tension. Fortunato belongs to a secretive group known as the Freemasons whereas the narrator, by his description of the events, is positively not a fellow member. It may be that the narrator belongs to more conservative traditions that found the Freemasons to be enemies. This is evident when Fortunato is given a bottle of De Grave by our narrator: He laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand. I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement – a grotesque one (p. 1570.) That grotesque gesticulation could not be anything other than a secret code of the Freemasons. When Montresor is asked to display a sign of his membership he is unable to comply in the proper manner. He takes a trowel from beneath his cloak and displays the tool instead. Fortunato, believing the gesture to be a joke, assumes that Montresor is indeed a member. Of course the irony here is that Fortunato, a Freemason, will eventually be bricked up behind a wall with the use of this trowel. The narrator will play the part of the mason who puts the Freemason to death by masonry.
When the characters first meet at the carnival the narrator seems outright happy to meet Fortunato. They greet each other as friends but we are made aware that Montresor smiles with vengeance in his heart. This knowledge by the narrator, displayed to the reader but not to Fortunato, gives further evidence to the various manners by which Poe plays the irony game . We know the truth behind the smile whereas the character in the story does not: I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation (p. 1567.)
With the initial meeting in place, the narrator need only lure Fortunato to his doom. The two characters share a common taste for fine wines and that is the bait that Montresor uses to reel his victim in. Amontillado seems impossible for anyone to have received in the middle of the festivities and the drunken Fortunato finds such an accomplishment to be incredulous. Montresor, prepared for such a response, plays on Fortunatos arrogance: As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchresi. If any one has a critical turn it is he. He will tell me — (p. 1568.) Fortunato, arguing that Luchresi is terrible in the knowledge of wines, demands that he must come and taste the pipe for himself. Ironically Fortunato is dressed in the fools attire and readily plays the part.
Henceforth it is a verbal irony that paves Fortunatos misfortune. It seems as if on every step and turn he attempts to talk his victim out of following him to his lair. Ironically he appears to be especially concerned about Fortunatos health. The catacombs are damp and chilly and Fortunato is ill with a cold. At one point the narrator argues that it is not in Fortunatos best health to follow him to the Amontillado: Come, I said, with decision, we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed (p. 1569.) Little does Fortunato know that his health means nothing to Montresor nor that he will indeed be missed for a very long time. A most memorable dialogue in the tale comes when the narrator again attempts to convince Fortunato to turn back from the unhealthy surroundings, with which he responds, I shall not die of a cough. True – true, I replied (p.1569.) It is ironic to note that the reader is well aware that Fortunato shall not die of a cough.
They travel further into the catacombs refreshing themselves with other wines whilst continuing on their journey. Fortunato drinks from a bottle of Medoc and toasts to the buried that repose around us (p. 1569.) Montresor replies with a toast to his victims long life. In one instant both hunter and game drink to the walls of the dead. Shortly after this shared drink Fortunato enquires after the Montresor family arms and motto: I forget your arms. A huge human foot dor, in a filed azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel. And the motto? Nemo me impune lacessit (p. 1569.) The irony here is plain yet comical; revealing the nature of the insult and begging the question, was it intentional? Perhaps he does not realize that he has insulted Montresor and for this reason does not grasp the importance of the family motto. After all, Fortunato will play the ultimate fool for insulting the narrator with what Montresor imagines as impunity.
The further that the couple travel into the catacombs the more warnings Fortunato receives. However, the lure of the remarkable wine is too much for the connoisseur to resist and he takes no heed to any counsel regarding his health. They finally enter the last chamber in the vaults wherein they find bones scattered on the floor. We realize that the bones have recently been placed there and that one of the walls is conspicuously bare. On the bare wall there is a small entrance, about the size of an upright grave, that Fortunato is lured to enter. Of course it is with his arrogance and ignorance that he takes those treacherous steps. He himself has witnessed the trowel that the narrator has carried with him but he takes no heed of the warning signs. With the final mention of Luchresi and his taste in wines he steps into the trap. It is somewhat ironic that we knew something like this would happen and that if Fortunato had only been more aware he could have understood his predicament. It turns out that the Amontillado that Fortunato sought out was nothing more than Montresors victory.
Regrettably poor Fortunato finds himself chained to the grave that he himself has walked into. In shock he declares The Amontillado, with which the narrator responds, True… the Amontillado (p. 1571.) In the tonality of this discourse the reader becomes aware that Fortunato has a very different understanding of what the Amontillado is than the narrator does. For Fortunato the Amontillado amounts to the goal of drinking of a fine sherry after a long walk; a desire that is to be unaccomplished. Montresor, on the other hand, equates the very same Amontillado with a desire to kill his victim slowly. The Amontillado is not literally a sherry at all but rather it is the sensational temptation that would bear Fortunatos doom and Montresors success.
This is not a fact that is grasped by Fortunato until he is one brick away from his forced removal from the outside world. As a last attempt at life he releases an eerie laugh by which he indicates grim humor in what he hopes was an elaborate joke on the part of Montresor. In dismayed realization he finally begs for mercy from God as well as from Montresors humanity: For the love of God, Montresor! But there is no sympathy to be found and his captor ominously answers: Yes… for the love of God! (p. 1571.) In this we hear the echo of the dialogue regarding the Freemasons sign. In the eyes of Montresor it is for the love of God that Fortunato must be put to death in a place where no fellow brothers can rescue him. Ironically, Fortunato will die through the use of a previously symbolic trowel by which he placed so much faith. In the end he appeals to the God that he deserted in favor of a man-made group only to find that he is in turn abandoned both spiritually and physically. He will be isolated and undisturbed in the depths of the catacombs for at least fifty years.
Perhaps it is the last irony that the final words are In pace requiescat (p. 1572.) After all, these are the words of a man on his deathbed who may not rest in peace upon his own departure. Throughout The Cask of Amontillado we find examples of multiple ironies that are cleverly put together like a great puzzle. The naming of Fortunato is one such example as is his costume. The many dialogues that occur between the two characters are also examples of this in that Fortunato never truly understands the meanings of them. Even the setting is an example as the victim literally walks further and further into the darkest of catacombs until he reaches his own grave. All in all, it is a tale that represents the definition of the word irony and one that could be used as a tool to teach us its elusive meaning.