In “The Cask of Amontillado” Poe uses language to first create a sense of intrigue and to create an enticing character and situation before expanding his rhetorical strategy to further keep readers in a state of suspense. Although for the most part, it remains a mystery throughout “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe why the narrator harbors such hatred toward Fortunato, this missing information serves to build more suspense and to make the reader more in tune with the words Montresor speaks as he leads his enemy to his death. Aside from creating this closer attention to language on the part of the reader, Poe also uses language to create a sense of impending doom in “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe. One of the keys to the suspense that carries through the story is foreshadowing and Poe achieves this through language that creates a sense of place as well as foreboding. In sum, the story of “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe relies on descriptive words and images to create a sense of atmosphere that is parallel to the story’s dark plot.
From the very beginning of “The Cask of Amontillado”, Poe uses language that immediately entices the reader by invoking strong words related to revenge. Although the reader cannot be absolutely certain what occurred to warrant such a vindictive response from Montresor, his choice of words indicates that it was something that necessitates the harshest revenge. For example, he states in part of one of the important quotes from “The Cask of Amontillado” saying, “at length I would be avenged" (95) and goes on to say that he will not only “punish, but punish with impunity," (95) which demonstrates that he takes this matter quite seriously. Furthermore, when he claims that a when a wrong has been committed it remains “unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done him wrong" (95). By making such a statement, Montresor is not only justifying his need for the most severe revenge, but is also coming up with a reason why he cannot let whatever has passed between the two men go. For the reader of “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe , such remarks are quite enticing, in part because we do not know what has transpired to cause such resentment on the part of Montresor, and also because his word choice is so strong. By using terms that relate the idea that some great transgression has occurred and that only the most severe punishment will be given, the reader cannot help but read further to find out who this enemy is and what he has done to the narrator. Even though this question is never answered, by the end of “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe the reader, much like Montresor, is so engaged in the act of unspecified revenge that the original question of what occurred no longer seems quite as important. Furthermore, after this first paragraph, the reader is forced to examine the words Montresor uses more closely to gain insight to his motivations and character.
Throughout “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe’s use of language to create suspense goes far beyond his creation of character and motivation alone. He carefully chooses words that convey a strong sense of place to reader and create more tension. For example, even though one expects the carnival setting to be joyous and bright, he dampens the tone of the setting by relating to the reader that, “It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season" (95). Instead of being given a portrait of a carnival with a light atmosphere, it is the end of the day and, much like the narrator’s intentions, it is growing dark. Poe describes the ambiance of the setting as taking place during a time of “supreme madness" and thus it becomes clear that there is something sinister about the setting. Like the narrator himself, there is an air of madness and chaos rather than joy and fun and through such details in the setting. Through his use of language, Poe sets the reader up for the unraveling of the dark plot. These textual details and words that convey a sense of foreboding are couple with more general details and images such as Montresor as he is “putting on a mask of black silk and drawing a roquelaire closely" about him. Not only do we have a mysterious and chaotic setting, but now a shrouded figure who we imagine might look like death itself–a very dark and typically gothic image. This is even further emphasized by the family’s coat of arms which Montresor describes as showing a “foot [that] crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel" (97). This image gives the reader pause and leads to the question of what it means. While it might be easy to think that Montresor is the serpent, “he is not the serpent but the figure whose heel bruises the serpent’s head" (St. John Stott 85). This image makes us see our narrator as violent and aggressive and lends even further to the sense of foreshadowing.
The dark setting in “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poethat the author has created through his use of language only intensifies once Fortunato is brought into the catacombs. The reader is aware of the dampness and the unpleasant niter by Fortunato’s cough and this is emphasized by the narrator’s constant descriptions of the place. For example, he describes the setting as the two walk through the passages, saying, “The nitre!…It hangs like moss upon the vaults. We are below the river’s bed. The drops of moisture trickle among the bones. Come, we will go back ere it’s too late" (98). By using simple but descriptive passages such as these, the reader is transported to the chilly vaults and can feel what the narrator and his companion sense. Every detail of the caves is explored through dialogue and as one scholar notes, “Poe’s strict attention to the geology and chemistry of the subterranean passages of Montresor’s chateau serves a much larger purpose than a simple description, the creation of atmosphere, and the selection of an ideal place to conceal a murder" (Benton 183). With the centuries of buried dead around them and the dripping walls, it is literally a place of death and the reader becomes aware of this even before the ending is known. Through such uses of setting and description, Poe is able to create a sense of suspense that lasts throughout the story. This effect is even more potent because the beginning of the story offers readers an intriguing story of revenge without true motive. Through his use of language in these ways, The Cask of Amontilladoleaves the reader breathless and expectant and does not give away the ending or overuse foreshadowing so that the final revenge will be obvious.
Benton, Richard P. “Poe’s `The Cask’ and the `White Webwork which Gleams’.” Studies in Short Fiction28.2 (1991): 183
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. 2nd ed. New York: Bedford St. Martins, 1998.
St. John Stott, Graham. “Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.” Explicator 62.2 (2004): 85.