The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe Male Quest for Power
A male’s inherent power pales in comparison to that of a female. Nature, or God
or whomever, bestows upon women the ability to hold and birth what human
consciousness contemplates over and over as the greatest enigma-life. Nature, or (again)
God or whomever, in an ironic turn of events, yearns for equilibrium. And so, males attempt to compensate for their innate inferiority by means sometimes horrendous (e.g. rape, abuse), sometimes “dignified” (e.g. overwork, insistence of being the provider) and sometimes absolutely asinine (e.g. war). But, no matter the means, males manufacture an artificial power for themselves in order to counteract their natural pitfalls. However, male compensation is not a proper means of achieving yin and yang in nature because it opposes nature itself. Males try to match the female inherent power by fabricating power for themselves, causing them to lose touch with their identity as their lives become centred on lies. Yet, the trend of power mongering continues and males enter a breeding process in which competition is the crux and there not only becomes an imbalance between males and females, but also an imbalance between males and males. If one man has garnered the title of king and another man is stuck with the title of commoner, the man called king has power over the man called commoner. In essence, there is only a difference in titles yet, in existence, there is a complex power dynamic between the king and commoner. Although the commoner may be naturally more gifted than the king both mentally and physically, he may feel some disdain for his counterpart rooted in the difference of power, even though the commoner is essentially better than the king. It is in this disparity between essence and existence of men that Nature begins to teeter. The male ego is a dangerous thing and male power compensation only makes it more volatile.
Poe depicts the unjust king-commoner relationship and the dire consequences it
has on the equality of essence and existence in his short story “The Cask Of
Amontillado.” The narrator, going only by “Montresor,” is the intellectual superior to his comrade (and murder-plot victim) Fortunato, yet Fortunato is presented as “a man to be respected and even feared” (62). Lacking power to match his intelligence, Montresor seems to view himself in the image of god to counteract the inequality between his essence (natural intelligence) and existence (more of a common man than counterpart Fortunato). He plays a jubilant game of cat and mouse with Fortunato, guiding the foolish man through his vaults using an unflinchingly accommodating tone, though the mood of the story grows darker and darker as the dramatic irony becomes unbearable. He egotistically proves his godliness to himself with every false word to Fortunato, as he turns the man into his puppet. Montresor however, is simply seeking balance. His talents in analysis and incredible intuition seek a certain amount of power for balance but men like Fortunato, undeserving of power, are the keepers of it.
Thus, Montresor takes control of Fortunato’s life, giving himself power over a man more powerful than him in order to balance his intelligence. Despite his natural ability, Montresor still feels inadequate as males are measured by their amount of power. He has only a flawed hierarchical system in which fools such as Fortunato are given positions of power and respect. Thus, Montresor’s lack of power (and feeling of inferiority), coupled with his sprawling intellect, have created for him a god complex in which he asserts his dominance by taking the lives of men in power. Montresor must separate Fortunato’s humanness from his power, though, in order to kill him. And there lies the problem, Montresor still has an innate human sense of empathy and sympathy and fear yet a social injustice drives him to
act in the nature of a psychopath, as his male ego and need for a balance of power within himself leads to a deterioration of his sanity. Poe uses the peculiar relationship between Montresor and Fortunato in “The Cask Of Amontillado” to illustrate the inevitable destruction of the male psyche when there is an imbalance of power and worth.
The unusually high diction and complexity of Poe’s opening paragraphs deliberately establish Montresor as a figure brilliantly analytical in nature and aware, almost to an extent nearing omniscience. Montresor first acknowledges his audience while giving them concise reasoning behind the absolute necessity of killing Fortunato then proceeds with eloquence to explain the exact circumstances necessary to gain such great power over Fortunato. His revenge fantasy then reaches its climax in a rather anticlimactic, definitive statement: “He had a weak point – this Fortunato – although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine” (62). Montresor flashes his analytical brilliance with his deduction of an ordinary detail about Fortunato actually reflecting Fortunato’s Achilles Heel. The wonder, really, is the pure accuracy of Montresor’s analysis. He lures Fortunato, drunk and coughing, through winding, mold-covered vaults solely with the promise of a taste of rare, out of season wine because that is the one thing, of all human desires, Fortunato cannot resist. He is able to consciously pick apart every facet of Fortunato’s personality and arrive at the most accurate conclusion. However, despite Montresor’s clear intelligence, Fortunato is the man presented as powerful, not Montresor who seems to only “not differ from him materially” (62). This displacement of power is senseless. Montresor displays this boundless intellect yet, in the same sentence, displays, not himself, but Fortunato as the “man to be respected and even feared” (62).
Montresor’s intellect does not allow him the deserved amount of power simply because power, in most human societies, is not dispersed based on intelligence, instead, superfluous measures are instituted to decide who gets power and just how much they get. Fortunato is the “man to be respected and even feared” despite his fatuity (62). For Montresor to then attain the necessary power to balance his intelligence, he must, at least he thinks he must, give himself power over the man undeserving of his own, Fortunato. His and Fortunato’s extensive search for amontillado through the vaults is therefore not just a device used to create suspense, for it is also integral to Montresor’s robbery of Fortunato’s power. Montresor already has his plans to kill Fortunato, but he cannot just go into some alley and stab Fortunato in the back á la Caesar. He must let the man prove his foolishness so he is “punished with impunity” (62). For Montresor’s murder of Fortunato would be unjust if he had not allowed the man an audition, giving him the opportunity to prove he is possibly deserving of his power. Misfortunate Fortunato, however, rejects Montresor’s offer to leave the horror movie scene he is walking into thrice. Montresor tells Fortunato three times that they should return to the festival as Fortunato’s persistent cough will not bode well with the nitre-covered vaults. Montresor even goes as far as implying sinister motives, revealing a spade from behind his roquelaire. And still, Fortunato insisted on marching on, confirming the correctness of Montresor’s analysis that wine is Fortunato’s greatest temptress, while also affirming Fortunato’s inferior analytical skills. Fortunato proved his incapacity to recognize any threat by walking tragically into Montresor’s trap, even ironically pronouncing a man “ignoramus” while entering what will be his grave (66). This incapacity sustains Montresor’s conclusion that the power of Fortunato is undeserved and that the murder,
the final seizure of all control over Fortunato’s life, is in fact necessary and just for
Montresor to gain the necessary power to balance his intellect. Montresor’s ability to both accurately analyze and succeed in taking control over the life of Fortunato feeds also into his god complex, giving his belief of himself as god some evidential support.
There are, however, two moments where Montresor reflects first a sense of fear, then regret about killing Fortunato. These glimpses of mortal humanity are not a reaction to the actual committal of murder, but a recoil at the possible flimsiness of his godliness. His god complex relies entirely on his superiority over all people. Every character of the story is shown successfully manipulated by Montresor. He wants his servants gone from his house so he can kill Fortunato with no possible witnesses… so he tells them to not leave all night while he’s away. Though seemingly contradictory, Montresor infers that the best way to make sure his house is empty of servants is to tell them not to leave as he’ll be away all night because he has noticed a certain disobedience within their characters. The disobedience along with the fact that it is a time of partying in the country ensures that his servants will definitely be gone from the house all night. Montresor deceives Fortunato, the only other character with any sort of background in the story, until he speaks no more. However, Fortunato is drunk during most of Montresor’s deceptions and it is when he is not drunk that Montresor’s superiority is presented as fallacy. As Montresor entombs Fortunato, he notices “that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off” (67). A series of screams follow the realization of Fortuanto’s loss of drunkenness, screams very clearly expressing immense suffering of the human soul. When presented with this aggressive display of Fortunato’s humanness, “[Montresor] hesitated – [he] trembled” (67). Fortunato’s ability to inspire fear in
Montresor threatens Montresor’s god complex as no man should be able to hold over god but Fortunato does, if only for an instant. Montresor’s natural instinct to cower in the presence of a tortured spirit reveals to Montresor that he is not in nature a god. Thus, in defense, he “unsheath[es] [his] rapier…[and] began to grope with it about the recess❞ rejecting his natural human instinct and attempting to protect his belief of his nature being godly (67). He soon realizes the utter absurdity of using a rapier against the abstract force of his humanity and instead reupholsters his god complex by taunting Fortunato, giving the perception that he has remained unfazed. It is a futile attempt, however, because it requires Fortunato’s acknowledgement of Montresor’s superiority and retention of “deserved” power yet, when Montresor replies to Fortunato’s exclamation of “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD MONTRESOR!”” with a parallel “Yes… for the love of God!”” there is no reply (67). Montresor’s change of tone in his reply asserts that “for the love of god” is not actually a plea in Fortunato’s tragic situation but is in fact the reason for Fortunato’s death. He must die for the love of god who, in Montresor’s mind, is Montresor. And yet, Fortunato does not confirm this for Montresor, who had already been losing faith in his godliness by merely needing Fortunato to confirm its legitimacy for him in the first place. But Fortunato only responding with a “jingling of bells” seals Montresor’s fate as a mortal, flawed human (68). Despite the revelation of his humanness, Montresor cannot take back the murder despite his newfound sympathy. He must live with a “heart [grown] sick” and the possibility that he may very well be undeserving of the power stolen from Fortunato.
Montresor’s establishment of god complex, then tearing down of it displays the downwardly spiraling sanity of powerless men stricken with great intellect too common
in our world’s egocentric male society. Montresor is a character in a position fluctuating between antagonist and protagonist as the reader can connect with his qualities and general nature but his villainous actions and descent into psychopathy present him as an archetypal antagonist. There is no definitive nature to Montresor’s character and thus, his sanity becomes lost in translation, traversing back and forth between protagonist and antagonist, holding a belief that he is a god between splices of inevitable instinctual mortality to compensate for a lack of power. Poe provides a provocative portrayal of the debilitation caused by unjust male power imbalance with this non-definitive nature of Montresor. Men try tirelessly to compensate, as Montresor does, for their lack of calculating their actions based on a power struggle rather than intuition or intellect. Montresor is clearly intelligent enough to realize the falseness of his godliness and futility of murdering Fortunato, but he is a man in search, as all other men are, for sufficient power. Poe’s resolution though, does not present a triumphant Montresor, despite his success in taking for himself Fortunato’s power. Instead, Montresor is in a state of denial and insanity at the end of the story accomplishes nothing more than a complete loss of sanity. This conclusion is not just applicable to “The Cask of Amontillado” though. It applies to all power conflicts between men and the inherent wrongness of the imbalanced power hungry male culture present in society. This culture only achieves a growing distance between essence and existence, not correcting the imbalance but instead making it more formidable. Men must exist as they are in essence in order to cultivate a balance from male to male. Yet males continue their quest for
power, giving in to temptation and impulse, as Montresor does.