The Cask of Amontillado in Feminist Perspective

Lauren Jackson

In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado we are presented with a picture of horror that resonates in the mind with great clarity. One can hardly read this short story with any sense of calm due to the pervading intensity that climaxes upon itself; the inherent unrest the story emanates. There is a sort of passion festering under the surface of the text that represents itself in many feminist outlets. These themes seem to be felt with sincerity and depth rather than with flippancy and arrogance. The male superiority in this piece is self-evident.
A feminist reading of The Cask of Amontillado helps zoom in on the critical aspect surrounding the gender constructs and social constraints of the time. It highlights the emotional and psychological standpoint that Montresor experiences and portrays. In this view point we are able to hone in on the particulars that make Montresor tick, and also the importance of gender and sex.
The first piece of evidence to be looked at is the lack of female figures present within the story itself. There is nary a one to be found! And within that there are two warring ideas about the male figures. In one respect these two opposing forces – Fortunato and Montresor would appear strong and dominantly male. And yet they could also be viewed as potentially ambiguously gendered, for nothing oppressively male is made evident in the story. This in itself could be construed as an insult to the female representation. However, the winning side seems to be male dominance as I will illustrate further on.
There is an almost underlying aggression towards females when one looks at the story as I shall demonstrate, most especially when one wonders at the purpose of the revenge itself in burying Fortunato alive. Typical passionate murders such as these stem from love or sex. A theme that is not present in this story yet could easily be assumed by readers left to their own interpretations. In fact, in Elena Baraban’s article The Motive for Murder in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ by Edgar Allan Poe, the ”insult” that Montresor received from Fortunato is defined as such: “Rather than implying the protagonist’s insanity, the first paragraph of the story delineates the conflict between the characters as arising from their social roles” (50-51). When taken from this perspective the insults relate directly to social roles, roles which males dominate. Women are always lower in the social realm. Baraban further relates: “A number of onomastic and semantic characteristics of the text indicate that “The Cask of Amontillado” is a story about the characters’ power relations and their social status” (50-51). It would seem that Poe takes this even further when we look at the historical implications behind Carnival: “During carnival, identities are destabilized and traditional social hierarchy and etiquette collapse; the poor may be elected carnival kings, bishops, and popes, whereas representatives of the upper classes may disguise themselves as peasants, servants, or fools” (54). We see yet again that there is a hatred of roles and status – in Carnival there is a distinct role reversal, we might interpret Montresor’s aggression as that of the hatred of the female being placed in any higher standing. It is also interesting to use the word “fool” as Montresor does in fact dub Fortunato such.
In keeping with the “insult” theme David Cody informs us from his article ‘What a Tricke Wee’le Serve Him’: A Possible Source for Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’: “In similar fashion, Raleigh’s decision to punish Chester for his taunts (“you shall see what a tricke wee’le serve him”) anticipates the equally proud and equally thin-skinned Montresor’s initial declaration of war on his own enemy: “the thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge” (1256). In each case, the plotter is aware of, and takes advantage of, a “weak point” (1257), as Montresor describes it, that will ensure that the lamb will come willingly to the slaughter” (1). The insult theme is again pounced upon and laced with “weakness”, going so far as to call Fortunato a willing lamb. Such labels of “weak” or “fragile” or “being led” are usually associated with women. Perhaps Montresor is not best pleased with females and finds them disgusting in their weakness. He sees fit to destroy Fortunato for this untold “insult”. And if insults in fact refer to social statuses we see a circle that loops itself round and round the feminine theme.
Feminism prior to the time period this story was to have taken place and in fact leading up to it, as historians have traced the contents of the story to be anywhere from Middle Ages to Victorian times, or around 17th-19th century, makes progress and reveals itself in different ways, some of which may have been indicative of progress. Alessa Johns says in her article Astell’s ‘Excited Needles’: Theorizing Feminist Utopia in Seventeenth-Century England: “In all cases commentators reveal the ways sexuality and love are intersected by social and political power, and they point out that increased fairness in socio-political life depends upon recognizing and reforming the ways we perceive and proceed to institute these associations” (1). Females did not experience equality and were longing to do so. Johns clearly points out the relationship between love, sex, and equality that existed then and exists now. Our perception of such points is fundamental to changing these levels of equality and bringing about gender egalitarianism which it appears Montresor is loathe to recognize. It would seem Montresor was not a man of progress.
Barbaran describes Montresor’s coat of arms: “A description of the Montresors’ coat of arms also provides a clue for uncovering the motive for Montresor’s crime. “A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel” (Poe 851), which is the Montresors’ coat of arms, is a mise-en-abyme, for the protagonist destroys Fortunato, who metaphorically represents the serpent that has dared to attack Montreso” (52). This is an interesting theme which seems to again point to a female locus. A serpent that attacks seems quite reminiscent of the most infamous serpent of them all who slithered around in the Garden of Eden where he presented Eve with the temptation of the apple. This references the most epitomized failure of the female gender in all of history. The interesting theme that the ‘Fall of Man’ points to is childbirth. A woman’s punishment for all of their life on earth was to center around the pain of childbirth. This jabbing finger in the direction of childbearing and fertility will be further explored in the dark, dank crypt of Montresor, but appears to begin here with his coat of arms.
On the way into the crypt below the earth, where Montresor slowly leads Fortunato to his death, Fortunato grows weak and is forced to lean upon Montresor’s arm: “…beneath the cloak and again offering him my arm. He leaned upon it heavily” (3). In this instance Montresor is able to assert physical dominance over Fortunato. In this respect also he is able to convey his mental superiority and seems to cause Fortunato to sway. Fortunato’s senses seem to be overwhelmed, and Montresor does nothing to assuage these fears, only whatever he can to exacerbate the horror and confusion. This dominance is physical as well as mental.
There is an interesting theme that seems to be quite prevalent in this story that manifests itself physically through a seeming mental representation. In the story, Montresor buries Fortunato alive in a wall, in a mound, and as quoted through the story itself: “Three sides of this interior crypt were still ornamented in this manner. From the fourth the bones had been thrown down, and lay promiscuously upon the earth, forming at one point a mound of some size” (3). This use of the word “mound” seems quite peculiar and stands out as a singular idea to me. Not only does Montresor entomb Fortunato, but this idea of a mound of a tomb symbolizes or represents a womb or in essence when delineated down to female sexuality. There is a heated aggression towards this as this symbolic “en-wombing” essentially kills the life within it, rather than bringing life forth. It is a reversal of the pregnancy process or gestation period. It seems to signify death to fertility and has an underlying sense of hostility towards females in that sphere. Charles W. Steele discusses the language that gives the word “Amontillado” dual meanings, especially if spoken with a different accent: “Rendered in English, the term means “Montilla-fied” wine. No other meaning does have relevance The Italian past participles ammonticchiato and ammonticellato, signifying “collected or formed into little heaps” are from two derivative forms of the verb ammontare (to heap up; Spanish: amontonar, past part, amontonadd) The implication of Montresor s pun may be understood as the pile of bricks he hastily threw to wall in Fortunato. As the climax of the story is reached, he causes his victim to repeat the word amontillado… a final time, as if to assure himself that his subtle and superior wit has been fully appreciated (43)” (55-56). I am also intrigued by this idea of “climaxing” that Steele mentions, as Montresor is enclosing Fortunato within this tomb. There seems to be a rather pent up sexual aggression, as sex is oftentimes a form of dominance for men over women, therefore this seems to impress upon us more the intensity with which Montresor is performing this act and determining whence it comes from is a challenge. But considering the dominance with which Montresor displays himself over Fortunato may be symbolic of sexual dominance; entrapping and defiling Fortunato. As Fortunato is quite drunk; imbibing and taking advantage of is a common theme within male-female dynamics and oftentimes results in unpleasant actions. We can see a similar correlation between Montresor and Fortunato, a similar building up, a similar crescendo of actions, and the eventual climax that occurs. Furthermore, David Halliburton says: “If the walls erected by Poe’s masons (‘The Black Cat,’ ‘The Cask of Amontillado’) are material, they are also existential: to take up mortar and trowel is to victimize the other, and through this process to bring about the victimization of oneself” (48). This is true of female/male power-plays and dominance; because of the “breaking down” of the victim, one breaks down oneself in the process. Not only does Montresor “destroy” Fortunato, but also himself. In the same way that a male dominant role can peel back the layers on his own insecurities, weaknesses, et cetera, to in the end victimize himself, as seemingly Montresor does.
In relation to the “climaxing” mentioned above, there seems to be a perverse, nearly sexual pleasure derived from Montresor’s happiness at successfully killing Fortunato. There is no remorse, only joy at the deed done. Charles May says of this: “Even if our hypothesis that Montresor tells the story as a final confession… is correct, the tone or manner of his telling makes it clear that he has not atoned, for he enjoys himself in the telling too much—as much, in fact, as he did when he committed the crime itself” (48-49). Within this theme there is a distinct impression of Montresor longing for his crime to be known, to whomever he is telling this story to, to Fortunato himself. This was not a crime of anonymity; Montresor wanted his part in the murder to be known. There was nothing hidden or cryptic within his deed. Barbaran says: “Montresor does not murder Fortunato secretly, but stages a spectacle of execution so that the victim knows who kills him” (56). This idea of being a “spectacle”, longing for an audience, needing to “perform” the execution is yet another finger pointing in the direction of male/female dominance, or taken literally in sexual terms.
Montresor’s psychological problems towards females appear to be lying beneath the surface, but manifesting itself in powerful and gruesome ways. The death of an individual for an insult delivered upon him could in itself be in reference to an insult concerning a female person. The theories abound as to why Montresor murdered Fortunato, but the impending rage and the deafening roar of frustration from a feminist standpoint appears to be a helping hand, although maybe not the one that metaphorically wields the knife. Montresor silences Fortunato with madness, although whether or not Montresor was actually mad cannot be determined. His seeming obsession, or possibly Poe’s seeming obsession with passions and emotions that correlate to female themes is profound.

Works Cited:
Barbaran, Elena V. “The Motive for Murder in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ by Edgar Allan Poe.” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature (2004). Print.
Cody, David. “‘What a Tricke Wee’le Serve Him’: A Possible Source for Poe’s ‘The Cask of Amontillado’.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews (2004). Print.
Johns, Alessa. “Mary Astell’s ‘Excited Needles’: Theorizing Feminist Utopia in Seventeenth-Century England.” Utopian Studies: Journal of the Society for Utopian Studies (1996). Print.
Poe, Edgar A. The Cask of Amontillado. N.p.: n.p., 1846. Print.

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