by Jill Blackmon
Revenge, at first though sweet, bitter ere long back on itself recoils." John Milton’s famous quotation from Paradise Lost rings true in the theme of Edgar Allan Poe’s masterpiece "The Cask of Amontillado." In fact, Poe’s short story allows the reader to delve deeply into the psychology of revenge through the sinister schemes of a nobleman called Montresor. Throughout the story Poe artfully weaves the theme that revenge can never come with impunity upon the redresser. Various symbols work together to create this theme, including the carnival season, the niter-filled catacombs beneath the palazzo, and the Montresor family coat of arms.
The very time of year in which "The Cask of Amontillado" is set is a symbol of Montresor’s vengeful ploy to punish Fortunato’s wrongdoings without consequences. The carnival season is a festive occasion in which individuals of the Catholic faith indulge in vices to be sacrificed in the following season of Lent. Montresor himself plans to indulge in the murder of Fortunato, with every intention of completely abandoning thoughts of the incident after its occurrence. The reader is reminded of this planned revenge sans impunity when Montresor trembles at the thought that Fortunato’s screams might be heard in the palazzo above. Perplexed, Fortunato unsheathes his rapier, a double-edged sword representing the dilemma between the current indulgence and the looming consequences. Reassured that the screams are confined to the catacombs, just as excesses are confined to the carnival season, Montresor continues his spiteful mission. Thus, the carnival season effectively represents the sinful indulgence which Montresor later hopes to bury.
Poe takes the reader deeply into the palazzo’s catacombs to symbolize Montresor’s thoughts of revenge. The catacombs are just as dark, hidden, and complex as Montresor’s grand scheme of redressing secretly his issues with Fortunato. Even the "foulness of the air" within the crypt draws a close parallel to the wickedness of Montresor’s scheme. The niter within the catacombs is also symbolic, representing the white-hot anger that grows as Montresor moves more and more deeply into his revenge. In fact, when the characters finally make it through the winding catacombs to the climax of the masterfully designed ploy, Montresor actually asks Fortunato to "feel" the niter, or the anger, which has brought him there. Again, Montresor wants to enjoy the full satisfaction of his scheme without the repercussions that could transpire outside the complex catacombs.
There is unquestionable symbolism that associates the Montresor family coat of arms with the protagonist’s plan to avenge Fortunato’s transgressions with impunity. The coat of arms is "‘a huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.’" The foot d’or, or foot of gold, represents Fortunato’s great wealth and respectability. A field azure is an appropriate background, since feeling "blue" is synonymous with feeling dejected. Montresor reveals his own blue feelings of dejection regarding his decline in social status when he admits "‘The Montresors were [emphasis mine] a great and numerous family.’" The final symbol, a serpent whose fangs are imbedded in the heel of the golden foot, represents Montresor. It implies that Montresor, though crushed, will strike back. As the characters move into the niche of Fortunato’s doom, Montresor reiterates the significance of the symbols in the coat of arms when he reveals that Fortunato "‘stepped unsteadily forward, while I followed immediately at his heels.’" Poe’s word choice undoubtedly leads the reader to associate Fortunato with the golden foot and Montresor with the snake at his heels. The symbols in the coat of arms are further secured in the Montresor family motto: Nemo me impune lacessit, which means "No one can provoke me and get away with it." As much as Montresor would like to believe this, the beginning of remorse becomes evident by the end of the story.
"‘My heart grew sick–on account of the dampness of the catacombs,’" is one of Montresor’s final thoughts in the story. Obviously, he feels guilty already. His heart is indeed sick, but it is truthfully on account of what the catacombs represent: Montresor’s evilly devised immolation of Fortunato. The season of Lent is near, and Montresor begins to feel the first pains of guilt. Montresor vows revenge without punishment, but the punishment comes from within his own heart. Revenge, as described in Milton’s quotation, eventually recoils and becomes bitter. The Montresor coat of arms is avenged, but for a price. Montresor lives with thoughts of his transgression for the next half-century. Revenge with impunity, according to Edgar Allan Poe, is nonexistent.
"Retribution Recoiled" was written for Dr. Barbara Murray’s ENGL 1102 class during spring 2004 semester by Jill Blackmon, then a freshman majoring in English.