Marxist Criticism and Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”

by on Mar.03, 2013, under Uncategorized

As I was reading the chapter on Marxist criticism in Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory, I realized I had used this school of thought to look at Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” Although I didn’t know I was applying Marxist criticism when writing a paper about the role of social classes in the story, it turns out that is exactly what I was doing. The paper is sixteen pages long, so I’m not going to discuss the entire thing here, but I thought I would try to show an example of Marxist criticism being applied to Poe’s story, with examples from my paper that are revised in order to better fit the theory.

“The Cask of Amontillado,” which can be found here, follows Montresor as he exacts his revenge against Fortunato for an unnamed insult. I argue that Poe uses the vengeful and retaliatory nature of Montresor as a symbol of a real world upper-class that will fight in order to keep the power and status in which they are accustomed from slipping into the hands of the rising middle-class that will cause the upper-class’s inevitable downfall.

While a reader can look at the story and simply dismiss Montresor as an insane man, “rather than implying the protagonist’s insanity, the first paragraph of the story delineates the conflict between the characters arising from their social roles” (Baraban 51). The conflict between the social roles may have come from Poe’s personal experiences with social classes. The story seems to have been developed, in part, to show the harsh retaliation the upper-classes and nobility resort to in order to keep those that are “inferior” from achieving positions that were previously unavailable to anybody not born of particular bloodlines. Poe came into contact with the wealthy while he was

registered at the University of Virginia from February 14 to December 15, 1826. He was in good standing with the faculty and obtained distinction at the final examination in Latin and French, then the highest honors to be obtained. It had been the theory of Jefferson, whose creation the new University was, that there should be no restrictions on the students, other than the expectation that they would conduct themselves as gentlemen. The young bloods threw themselves with zest into the freedom of such a life; most of them wealthy and of high lineage, they set themselves to lead the life of reckless extravagance, of mingled bravado and chivalry, which they considered characteristic of a gentleman at that period. (Pruette 374)

Although Poe was able to maintain great academic progress, the differences of castes that were decided at birth stigmatized him; though Jefferson wanted no restrictions, Poe was regarded as inferior by his classmates because of his position in society determined by his birth.

Despite the fact he could have begun a life of wealth and left the past of poverty behind him, Poe “appears to have made no effort to ingratiate himself with the young aristocrats” (Pruette 374). He had contentious relationships with his foster brothers and

As he grew older he came to realize the anomalous position which he occupied in the Allan household and among the arrogant, aristocratic sons of Richmond. His supremacy in intellectual training and his easy physical prowess made him the most illustrious school boy in Richmond, but he was not allowed to derive pleasure from this high eminence. His playmates, too well trained in genealogy and taught an extravagant pride of ancestry, did not let him forget that his mother was an actress and that the privileges he enjoyed and they envied were owed to the beneficence of a Scotch merchant. (Pruette 373-374)

The attitudes of those around Poe and the intolerable treatment he sustained while young may have sparked the idea for “Cask of Amontillado” and its protagonist. This pride of nobility that was demonstrated by his foster brothers and by those he encountered at school share much with Poe’s creation, Montresor. Ultimately, “Montresor is a complex Machiavellian criminal, exhibiting a full range of traits from clever ingratiation to stark sadism” (Reynolds 103). The protagonist serves as a symbol of a declining upper-class, which leaves Fortunato as a representative of the aspiring middle-class.

Fortunato resembles Poe in many ways. Like Poe, Fortunato may not have been born wealthy, but he did earn the respect of those around him and eventually some capital. This is indicated throughout the story, but more importantly and immediately, Fortunato’s name suggests Fortunato is part of a rising class and was not born into it. Although Poe had come up in society after John Allan took him in, he was continually reminded of his original place in society by those around him; Poe uses this to characterize Montresor as the protagonist exhibits similar traits of believed superiority. Montresor degrades Fortunato throughout “The Cask of Amontillado,” with one example being that he continually refers to Fortunato as a “Fool.” The nobility surrounding Poe was reluctant to allow any man without noble blood flowing through his veins to join their ranks because of their feelings of superiority.

The “thousand injuries” (Poe 402) Montresor sustained prior to the beginning of the short story is an indicator that the social norms are being breached. However, the injuries were not what prompted him into violence, rather it was Fortunato who “ventured upon insult,” which pushes Montresor to vow revenge (402); although the “insult” is never specifically stated, through various key points in the text the insult can be seen as nothing more than Fortunato feeling he’s on the same level as Montresor and his family. Nobility is dying and Montresor is having a difficult time coming to terms with it; he is ultimately wounded by the rise of inferior social classes and by being the last of his family, it leaves revenge as his last option.

The insult Montresor refers to can be seen as Fortunato’s pride, as Montresor sees it, of attempting to advance to a position that was not offered to him by birth. By not being of noble birth, Montresor has something of which Fortunato doesn’t: cultural capital. Although Fortunato is gaining that as well, Montresor views him as a “Fool” and one that shouldn’t be reaching up to classes that aren’t available to him.

“Montresor’s . . . remark, “You are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed” shows that Montresor is no longer as rich and socially conspicuous as he used to be ( Baraban 51) as well as displaying Fortunato is beginning to equal Montresor’s social standing. As sole power holders, the upper class and the nobility were in a position from which they could easily control others. However, once that power begins to be lost, as Poe may have seen through his foster brothers, they may act in an irascible manner and eventually retaliate, which he showed through the protagonist’s actions in “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Although the reason for the murder of Fortunato is never made explicitly, but what is clear is “not only does Montresor feel no guilt, but he perceives his murder of Fortunato as a successful act of vengeance and punishment rather than a crime. Montresor presents himself as a person who had the right to condemn Fortunato to death; he planned his murder as an act of execution” (49). What the reader is informed of is that Montresor condemns Fortunato because of his thousand insults.

While ‘injuries’ presuppose rivalry of socially equal enemies, ‘insult’ involves contempt: that is, treating the other as a socially inferior person. To insult is, by definition, ‘to exult proudly or contemptuously; to boast, brag, vaunt, glory, triumph, esp. in an insolent or scornful way; to assail with offensively dishonoring or contemptuous speech or action; to treat with scornful abuse or offensive disrespect.’ (50-51)

These insults can be seen as Fortunato, and ultimately the entire middle-class as a whole, rising and superseding the nobility. While Fortunato’s power that he’s accumulated may injure Montresor, especially his social position, wealth, and maybe what’s most important, his pride, insulting Montresor is a whole different subject.

Inside the small room during the scene where Fortunato’s fate is fully realized, Montresor chains Fortunato securely to the wall of a nook in the catacombs, after which he begins constructing a wall so that Fortunato will be trapped indefinitely (406). At this point of the story, Montresor hears “a sad voice, which [he has] difficulty in recognizing as that of the noble Fortunato” (407). Poe uses “noble” in describing Fortunato, or as James Gargano wrote in his article, “The Question of Poe’s Narrator’s,” “the narrator unconsciously calls him the “noble” Fortunato” (Gargano 180). Montresor’s use of the word is the final ironic statement of “The Cask of Amontillado.” While Gargano was implying Montresor slipped up when he allowed “noble” to come out in his speech in what may be its rightful place alongside Fortunato’s name, Montresor’s use shouldn’t be looked at an unconscious slip up as every detail throughout the story is planned perfectly and every word Montresor uses is stated in the upmost thoughtfulness and eloquence. The language Poe used in the story, “everything, from a character’s name, to the setting, to almost every word Montresor utters . . . contributes to the effect” of irony (Nevi 463); Montresor using “noble” shouldn’t be confused with Fortunato’s social status, rather it should be recognized that the word and how it’s used falls in line with the language and statements made by Montresor throughout the story. It’s no different than Montresor’s superlatives about Fortunato’s connoisseurship of wine, which is in truth lacking, or his power he has with the public.

The use of “noble” indicates another meaning and a turning point of the story: the two switch places in society and it’s recognized here; while not in the literal sense, Montresor becomes the mason and Fortunato becomes the noble. Montresor may be making a statement to Fortunato by walling him in the nook of the catacombs with Montresor’s noble family: if Fortunato wants to be like the nobility, then he should be buried with the nobility. Ultimately, Montresor helps Fortunato attain a level of nobility, in a way, before he dies. Sadly for Fortunato, he will remain with Montresor’s family while Montresor returns to his position in society. This evidence points to Fortunato rising up to meet Montresor at his social standing.

Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is a story of revenge, but it’s more than just one man seeking justice against another. It is a representation of Poe’s personal life experiences with the upper-class as well as a symbol of the nobility versus the increasingly important lower classes. Whenever a major power begins losing influence, there’s always backlash and that’s what Montresor represented. In the end, Montresor represents the dying nobility in the world and how strongly they would fight to keep the lower classes from rising in status; however, like the scene in the catacombs where Fortunato and Montresor switch places, the lower classes will eventually take the place of the nobility.

Works Cited

Baraban, Elena V. “The Motive For Murder In ‘The Cask Of Amontillado’ By Edgar Allan Poe.”

Rocky Mountain Review Of Language And Literature 58.2 (2004): 47-62. MLA 

International Bibliography. Web. 14 Sep. 2012.


Poe, Edgar A. “The Cask of Amontillado.” Writing Essays About Literature: A Guide and Style

Sheet. Ed. Kelley Griffith. 8th ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2011. 402-407. Print.


Pruette, Lorine. “A Psycho-Analytical Study of Edgar Allan Poe.” The American Journal of

Psychology 31.4 (1920): 370-402. JSTOR. Web. 18 Sep. 2012.


Reynolds, David S. ” ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ in Its Cultural Context.” Bloom’s Modern

Critical Views: Edgar Allan Poe. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2006. 103. Print.

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