As you prepare for the AP Literature exam, one of the things you’ll have to do is become an expert in a few literary works that you can use on the composition portion of the exam. We recommend that you choose four to five notable works with different genres and themes to make sure you can write an amazing student choice essay.
(Actually...practicing analyzing literature will help you on the whole exam, not just the written portion, so it’s a win-win situation!)
But just because these works have to be “notable” with “literary merit” doesn’t mean they need to be boring, too! That’s why we’re talking about Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” as a good choice for your AP exam. Not only is it widely recognized as an excellent piece of literature, it’s got a little of everything: horror! Suspense! A surprise twist! And as an added bonus...it’s short.
To bring you up to speed, we’ll start with “The Cask of Amontillado” summary, then we’ll jump into character and thematic analyses. By the time you finish this article, you’ll be able to write fearlessly about “The Cask of Amontillado” on your AP exam.
A photograph of Edgar Allan Poe.
Historical Background: Who Was Edgar Allen Poe?
Critics consider Edgar Allan Poe to be the father of the detective story (thanks to “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which predates the Sherlock Holmes stories by more than 50 years!) and a pioneer of the American short story.
But despite his literary success, Edgar Allan Poe’s life was marked by tragedy. Orphaned just a year after his birth in 1809, Poe was taken in by John and Frances Allan (who weren’t blood relatives). Frances Allan and Poe fought often, usually over money, and Poe would flirt with poverty throughout his life...especially after he was cut out of John Allan’s will.
Poe tried to go to college but couldn’t pay for it, so he dropped out. This was a blessing in disguise, since it kicked off Poe’s writing career. Fueled by both his passion and the death of his older brother, Poe moved back to Baltimore to become a full-time writer. There, he married his cousin—Virginia Clemm—who was just 13 at the time of the marriage. (Poe was 26!)
By all accounts, the couple was happy until Virginia’s death thirteen years later. Poe would never recover from her death and would pass away two years later, shortly after turning 40 years old.
Poe’s life might have been short, but his writing has lived on. Although Poe was a poet, literary critic, essayist, short story writer, and novelist, he is most well-known today for his grisly stories of terror and the macabre. Most of Poe’s works fall into the Gothic genre, which is characterized by a sense of terror, doubt, and the uncanny. The genre was incredibly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Poe’s writing would make him one of the best-known writers of Gothic horror.
Here's what amontillado looks like!
The Cask of Amontillado Background
“The Cask of Amontillado” is one of Poe’s most famous short stories, and it was originally published in 1846 in Godey’s Lady Book, the most popular periodical in the United States at that time.
Though scholars aren’t 100 percent sure what inspired Poe’s short story, many believe it’s based on a story he heard while stationed at Fort Independence in Massachusetts in 1827. At that time, Fort Independence had a statue of Lieutenant Robert Massie, who had been killed in a sword duel following a card game, on the premises. As legend has it, after Massie’s death, other soldiers took revenge on his murderer by getting him drunk and permanently sealing him in a vault...alive.
A more popular theory is that Poe wrote “The Cask of Amontillado” in response to his personal rival, Thomas Dunn English, who had written a scathing critique of one of Poe’s novels. “The Cask of Amontillado” skewers elements from English’s novel, 1844, including making references to the same secret societies and subterranean vaults featured in English’s work.
Others believe that “The Cask of Amontillado” was inspired not by a person, but by a widespread fear of being buried alive. Because medicine was in its infancy, sometimes coma victims were assumed to be dead and were buried accordingly, only to awake in their coffins days later. People started inventing easy-open coffins, burial vaults with windows, and even coffins with breathing tubes attached to save people who were prematurely buried. And of course, the fear of being buried alive—only to die in your own coffin—is echoed in the plot of “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Regardless of what inspired Poe to write “The Cask of Amontillado,” the fact remains that this short story remains one of his most famous and enduring works of Gothic terror.
The Cask of Amontillado Summary
Now that you know a little bit about the background of Poe’s short story, let’s take a look at the plot of the text. (You can find a free, legal copy of “The Cask of Amontillado” online by clicking here.)
The Story Begins
Poe’s short story actually takes place in two time periods. The bulk of the events occur on the night of Carnaval, which is a Western Christian celebration that takes place before Lent. Carnival is a celebration of excess—of food, drink, and fun—before the restriction of the Lenten season sets in before Easter. (In the United States, the Carnival season is better known as Mardi Gras.)
But the story is told in retrospect by the narrator, Montresor, fifty years after the event to an unknown listener (only referred to as “you” in the story). That means that there are actually two different time frames happening in “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Setting the Trap
Readers learn that Montresor is planning to take revenge on his one-time friend, Fortunato. Readers never learn exactly what Fortunato has done to Montresor to push him over the edge, only that Montresor feels he is the victim of a “thousand injuries” and one unnamed “insult” he must avenge. Readers also learn that Montresor has hidden his rage in order to convince Fortunato that they are still friends—which is all part of his plan.
On the night of Carnival, Montresor puts his plan into action. He knows that Fortunato considers himself a wine connoisseur, so Montresor isn’t surprised that Fortunato is already drunk when he finds him in the middle of the Carnival celebration.
Montresor tells him about a pipe, or about 130 gallons, of Amontillado he bought. (>Amontillado is a fine sherry wine.) But now that he has the wine, Montresor is afraid that he was duped. He tells Fortunato that he was on his way to find Luchresi—another wine connoisseur—to help him determine the wine’s authenticity.
Entering the Vaults
Montresor’s ploy works. Montresor knows that Fortunato is full of himself, and the idea that someone could judge the Amontillado pricks his ego. As a result, Fortunato insists on checking the Amontillado himself.
Montresor half-heartedly tries to dissuade Fortunato, telling him that going into the catacombs, or underground vaults where generations of the Montresor family are buried, will worsen Fortunato’s head cold. Fortunato waves off Montresor’s concerns, saying that he “shall not die of a cough,” and he follows him into the vaults to taste the Amontillado anyway.
As the men venture further into the dark, underground passageways, Montresor makes sure that Fortunato keeps drinking. Fortunato asks about the Montresor family’s coat of arms, and Montresor tells him that their family motto is “Nemo me impune lacessit,” or “no one attacks me with impunity.” Fortunato is so drunk that he misses the warning in Montresor’s words, and instead asks whether Montresor is a member of the masons, a fraternity with an elite membership. Montresor says yes and holds up a mason’s trowel, implying that he’s a literal mason instead.
Fortunato thinks Montresor is joking, and by the time they arrive at the niche where Montresor says he’s stored the Amontillado, he’s too drunk to notice that there’s no wine inside. He doesn’t even resist as Montresor chains him to the wall.
The End of Fortunato
Montresor then reveals the bricks and mortar he has stored in the vault, and he begins to wall up the opening to the niche...with Fortunato chained inside. The process is a long one, and Montresor describes Fortunato’s fearful cries and attempts to pull free from the chains. But Montresor is determined, and he throws a lit torch into the niche with Fortunato before he finishes walling him in alive.
By this point, Fortunato is panicked. He’s screaming for help, but the pair are so far underground that there’s no one to hear him. He tries to appeal to Montresor’s logic, saying that he’ll be missed by “Lady Fortunato and the rest.” Montresor is unmoved, finishes sealing up the vault, and leaves Fortunato there to die.
Montresor finishes his story by telling the listener that there Fortunato’s bones remain, fifty years later.
“The Cask of Amontillado” Character Analysis
Read on for an in-depth analysis of the major characters in “The Cask of Amontillado.”
Fortunato’s name means “the fortunate one” in Italian, which is ironic given that he ends up bricked within the Montresor catacombs and left to die. This is just one example of the dramatic irony that permeates the short story.
Dramatic irony is when the reader knows something that one or more of the characters don’t know. In this case, readers know what Montresor plans to do, but Fortunato remains ignorant. This creates tension in the short story. As a reader, you want to yell at Fortunato to run away, but you can’t. The thrill of “The Cask of Amontillado” comes from knowing exactly what will happen and being powerless to stop it.
Other than the fact that he seems to have wronged Montresor somehow, readers learn very little about Fortunato directly. Everything we know about his character we have to infer from Montresor’s descriptions of Fortunato and his actions.
For example, we know Fortunato thinks he and Montresor are friends, and they likely were at one point. But we also know that Fortunato is “rich, respected, admired, beloved,” and happy, according to Montresor, at least. But he also seems to be egotistical and self-indulgent; he drinks to excess, has no qualms talking badly about other people (like Luchresi), and thinks he’s the best wine connoisseur around.
Ultimately, whether or not Fortunato’s character flaws are enough to warrant Fortunato’s fate is up for readers to decide.
Montresor is the main character of “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the story is told in first person from his perspective. Like Fortunato, readers know very little about Montresor’s backstory outside of what they can infer from the text. For example, Poe implies that Montresor seems to come from money—he lives in a palazzo, which is basically an Italian palace, which has its own crypt.
But Montresor’s actions tell readers even more about his character. First, he’s driven by revenge. He doesn’t take insults lightly, and he’s able to nurse a grudge to an extreme degree. He’s also witty—he makes double entendres about Fortunato’s death that the latter never catches—and knows how to plan ahead, too.
But most importantly, he lacks remorse. At the end of the story, Montresor ends with an exclamation, “In pace requiescat,” which means “rest in peace.” Montresor is proud of what he’s done...and even prouder that he hasn’t been caught. As a result, his final wish for Fortunato comes across as sarcastic rather than sincere.
All of this together makes readers question Montresor’s role in the story. At the beginning, he seems like he’s the protagonist: he’s a man who’s been terribly wronged looking for revenge. But by the end of the story, it’s not clear whether Montresor is the story’s hero...or its villain.
Luchresi never appears in the story, but he plays a vital role in Montresor’s plan. Luchresi is clearly one of Fortunato’s rivals, if not in reality, then at least when it comes to his expertise in wine.
Montresor plays this rivalry to his advantage. He keeps mentioning Luchresi’s name to motivate Fortunato and keep him interested in the Amontillado, especially since he’s drunk and his attention keeps wavering. (Keep in mind that Luchresi is an innocent bystander in all of this—Montresor is just borrowing his name and reputation.) Poe uses the mention of Luchresi’s name to remind Fortunato—and the readers—what’s happening.
Like we mentioned earlier, “The Cask of Amontillado” is a story told in retrospect. An older Montresor is speaking to an unnamed listener, recounting how he killed Fortunato in revenge.
Readers know nothing about the listener, only that he’s Montresor’s audience in telling the story. But from an analysis standpoint, the listener is important. It reminds us that Montresor is telling this story to someone else, and in doing so, trying to communicate his personal perspective. It makes readers question whether Montresor is telling the whole truth, too. Was Fortunato really as bad as Montresor says he was, for example? Because the story is told from Montresor’s perspective—and likely with an agenda in mind—readers are left wondering if Montresor’s account is totally accurate.
The 3 Key The Cask of Amontillado Themes
“The Cask of Amontillado" is considered one of Poe’s best short stories, and with good reason: it melds tension, horror, and surprise together masterfully. But what are the messages of Poe’s story? Let’s look at three of major themes of “The Cask of Amontillado” below.
The Unreliability of Perception
Think of a time that you did something you knew your parents would punish you for. When you explained the situation to your parents, how did you do it? More than likely, you tried to downplay your actions (without lying!) to make the consequences a little less severe.
This is a good example of how perspective matters. For your parents, what you did is a serious offense. But if you could just offer a different perspective on things, maybe you won’t be grounded for quite so long!
In “The Cask of Amontillado,” readers are presented with Montresor’s perspective of the story. He tells readers he’s been wronged—for what, he doesn’t say—and paints an unflattering picture of Fortunato. Even though Montresor says he’s rich and well liked, Fortunato’s actions make him seem like a stuck-up, overindulgent idiot.
But is that accurate? Because we only get Montresor’s side of the story, it’s hard to know. It’s up to the reader to decide how reliable, or trustworthy, Montresor is as a narrator. Do we believe him and his argument that killing Fortunato was the only way to have his revenge? Or is Montresor just a cold-blooded killer?
By making the readers ask these questions, Poe draws attention to the idea that people’s individual perspectives on a situation aren’t necessarily 100 percent accurate.
The Danger of Pride
Although Montresor is responsible for Fortunato’s death, the latter has a hand in sealing his own coffin, too.
Even though he’s drunk and sick, the mention of Luchresi’s name triggers Fortunato’s massive ego. The idea that anyone could be better than him—especially Luchresi, who can’t “tell Amontillado from sherry”—drives him to follow Montresor into the catacombs. Despite wanting to kill Fortunato, Montresor gives his victim many chances to turn back. Montresor cites Fortunato’s cough, saying that it might be best to ask for Luchresi’s help instead.
But each time, Fortunato says he wants to push forward because he cannot stand Luchresi getting credit for determining whether the Amontillado is authentic. It’s his pride that makes him want to beat Luchresi, but in the end, it’s his pride that makes him lose.
The Power of Revenge
Perhaps the scariest aspect of “The Cask of Amontillado” is how far Montresor goes for revenge. In many ways, what Fortunato has done to warrant Montresor’s wrath is immaterial; Poe is more interested in how revenge drives a man to extremes.
In this case, it’s clear that Fortunato’s perceived wrongs have dominated Montresor’s thoughts and actions. His plan to kill Fortunato is highly premeditated: he’s clearly put a lot of thought into how he will do it, right down to making sure he has bricks and mortar handy to entomb Fortunato alive.
This is not a spur-of-the-moment, in-the-heat-of-passion action. No, Montresor has thought long and hard about his plan.
Given this, Poe shows readers how powerful the need for revenge can be. Not only can it drive people to extremes, it can warp their sense of reason, too. After all, short of murder, what insult could Fortunato have delivered to warrant such a gruesome death? Could it be that Montresor’s desire for vengeance, rather than Fortunato's actions, are what allows Montresor to justify murder?
Ultimately, because the whole story is written from Montresor’s perspective, Poe doesn’t give readers any clear answers. But in doing so, Poe also shows how the truth is often obscured by people’s perceptions and motivations.
It’s great that you’re preparing for the composition part of the AP Literature exam, but don’t forget that there’s a multiple choice section, too. Get the skinny on the multiple choice section—and how to ace it!—here.
One of the best ways to practice for any exam is to take practice tests. Did you know that there are practice exams for AP tests, too? Here’s a list of practice tests for the AP Literature exam that you can take to help you study smarter.
Now that you’re well on your way to taking an AP English exam, why not try your hand at some other AP tests? Here’s a comprehensive list of all the AP classes and tests you can take to help earn credit for college.Have friends who also need help with test prep? Share this article!
Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.