Teaching “The Cask of Amontillado”
Use these “Cask of Amontillado” questions to focus on “The Cask of Amontillado” themes.
ELA Common Core Standards Covered
The following Cask of Amontillado study questions cover the following ELA common core standards for reading and writing. This is for your administrator, not your kids. Kids need student-friendly worded objectives.
- RL.9-10.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
- RL.9-10.2 Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
- RL.9-10.3 Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.
- RL.9-10.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.
“Cask of Amontillado” Questions on Theme
Begin your discussion of Poe’s classic by examining revenge in “The Cask of Amontillado” and other “Cask of Amontillado” themes. Be sure to check out “The Cask of Amontillado” Teacher’s Guide.
1. Discuss revenge in “The Cask of Amontillado”
- Revenge in “The Cask of Amontillado” forms the story’s central conflict and central theme. The narrator begins the tale by defining the perfect revenge: (1) the revenge must go unpunished; (2) the avenger must make himself known to the avenged. Montresor then narrates the perfect revenge. Most readers want to know what Fortunato did to provoke Montresor to such a dastardly crime. It’s irrelevant. Montresor wishes to focus on the revenge, not the cause of the revenge.
2. What other themes are developed in “The Cask of Amontillado”?
- “Cask of Amontillado” themes include pride. It is Fortunato’s pride that leads to his downfall and Montresor’s pride that leads to his desire for revenge: (1) Fortunato is so enamored with his own ability to judge wine that he stops his celebrating in order to demonstrate his wine acumen to Montresor. In addition, he revels in the probability that Montresor had been duped by the amontillado dealer. Fortunato’s attitude as he walks with Montresor shows him to be pompous and careless with his words, lending credibility to Montresor’s claims of insult (of course Montresor is the narrator and slants things to favor himself). (2) Montresor’s finding offense and insult in the babblings of a drunk buffoon show that he too possesses insecurities and pride.
A Few More Questions
1. What role does deception play in the narrative?
- Another prevalent “Cask of Amontillado” theme is deception. “The Cask of Amontillado” contains several examples of verbal irony which serve to deceive Fortunato and portray the narrator as cold and calculating: (1) Fortunato tells Montresor not to worry about his cough, that it will not kill him. Montresor replies, “True–true.” On the surface it appears that Montresor is consoling his friend. We know, however, that Montresor is certain the cough won’t kill him because he’s about to kill him. (2) On his initial greeting, Montresor says, “My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met.” To Fortunato he means it’s a lucky break that there is someone nearby who knows enough about wine to help. What Montresor really means is it’s a lucky meeting because he wants to kill him that evening. (3) Montresor continually shows concern for Fortunato, even imploring him not to go into the vaults, a deft use of reverse psychology.
2. In what respects is the narrator unreliable?
- The short answer is in every respect the narrator is unreliable. You didn’t come here for the short answer, did you? I’ll now give the long answer: There is ample evidence to suggest that Fortunato is a pompous ass and capable of insult. There is ample evidence, also, that Montresor is a whack job and could have murdered Fortunato for no reason. In addition, there is ample evidence that Montresor is a big enough whack job to make up the entire story…of course, there’s evidence that he is a big enough whack job to do exactly what he describes. What is clear is Montresor’s tale only gives one side of the story. Everything he tells is told in an effort to justify his actions. Do we really know if Fortunato was a jerk? Did Fortunato really look as ridiculous as Montresor says? Does Montresor truly handle the situation in the calm manner he implies? We don’t know because we only get Montresor’s side.
Short Story Teacher’s Guides
Teaching the Reading Literature Common Core Standards are easy with short stories.
The Black Cat
The Cask of Amontillado
The Masque of the Red Death
The Most Dangerous Game
The Gift of the Magi
How does Poe's use of unreliable first-person narrators affect our reception of his stories (refer to at least 2-3 stories)?
In general, Poe uses first-person viewpoints in stories such as "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "Ligeia" because the subjectivity inherent in a first-person account emphasizes human fallibility while adding a layer of confusion and darkness to the narration. The narrators of the first two novels are murderers, although only the second one is insane, and the vagueness of their reasons for murder make their descent into sin appear much more chilling. In the case of "Ligeia," the husband's habit of smoking opium during his second marriage means that we cannot determine the extent of the supernatural in his story and leads us to suspect that he might have murdered Rowena without being fully aware of the act. Thus, the result is that the unreliable narrators engender doubt and add a sinister element to the stories' moods.
Compare and contrast "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." How do the similarities and differences in their narration shape our understanding of the meaning of insanity?
"The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart" have a similar construction in that they both begin with an unnamed narrator who insists upon his sanity and end with a revealed murder. However, despite their similarities, the two stories have slightly different interpretations of the onset of insanity. In "The Tell-Tale Heart," the origin of the narrator's insanity is not provided, and he gives no indication that he understands anything that is occurring outside of his own thoughts, but the narrator of "The Black Cat" shows signs that he understands his transformation but is utterly helpless to stop it. In Poe's view, insanity may be a natural outcropping of the extremes of human nature, and because it is intrinsic to humans, men may set upon the path to madness without warning or ability to return to sanity.
What effect does the fear of death have on Poe's characters (refer to at least 2-3 stories)?
The fear of death often drives Poe's characters to two extremes: a paranoiac obsession with death or a futile attempt to avoid death. He writes about the former response in "The Premature Burial" as the frightened narrator begins to plan his entire life around the possibility of premature burial until a false alarm inside a ship's berth embarrasses him out of his obsession. The latter response is displayed in stories such as "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" and "The Masque of the Red Death," in which characters attempt through various means to halt the advance of death, only to discover that their efforts are useless and compound the destruction. Neither response is depicted as healthy, whereas the effort of the narrator of "MS. Found in a Bottle" to overcome his fear with curiosity is portrayed relatively positively.
Poe often uses the idea of the double self in his writings. Using at least 2-3 of his stories, discuss how split and doubled personalities shape the identities of his characters.
In Poe's stories, the splitting or duplication of characters' selves is generally shown to be self-destructive, forcing a competition between the two halves. For example, William Wilson is only able to transform his double self into a single self by destroying the other half, and in the process corrupting his soul. Similarly, Ligeia defeats Rowena and the portrait of the painter's wife in "The Oval Portrait" defeats the original wife, and for both the cost is death. Dupin, on the other hand, is successful precisely because he can reconcile his two halves, that of creativity and that of analysis, into a useful whole that allows him to read his opponents and rationally solve cases.
How does Poe establish an atmosphere of fear or horror in his short stories (use at least 2-3 sources)?
Poe often spoke of the aesthetic ideal of creating a unified idea in each of his stories, and as a result, in tales such as "The Pit and the Pendulum," his main purpose is to add to the intended effect of terror in every sentence, including nothing that does not contribute either to the development of the plot or to the reinforcement of the impression of fear. In other stories, such as "The Tell-Tale Heart," he uses repetition in the last paragraphs of the story to reflect the crescendo of the beating heart and to build the tension of desperation and fear before he finally reveals the location of the old man's corpse. He also often omits explanatory details and chooses to keep the setting remote and ethereal, as in "Ligeia," in which the aspect of the unknown contributes to the Gothic atmosphere.
Using 2-3 sources, analyze Poe's use of humor in his short stories.
Poe's use of humor ranges from the use of lightly comical puns, as in Jupiter's dialogue in "The Gold Bug," to the black humor of Montresor's dialogue with Fortunato in "The Cask of Amontillado." For the most part, Poe uses humor to produce one of two effects. In the first case, he uses humor to establish a hierarchy of intelligence, as when Legrand pulls the legs of Jupiter and the narrator in "The Gold Bug" and C. Auguste Dupin similarly makes several jokes at the expect of the Prefect of Parisian police in "The Purloined Letter," thus exposing his mental superiority. "The Cask of Amontillado" also uses this type of humor in Montresor's subtle hinting at Fortunato's upcoming murder, but it also serves Poe's second purpose and creates a sense of irony around death. This also occurs in "The Premature Burial," when the narrator is abruptly shaken out of his fear of death by four men who reduce his traumatic experiences to the "yowling" of a cat.
How does Poe develop the idea of the rational, analytical being in such characters as C. Auguste Dupin and William Legrand?
In "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," the narrator begins with a treatise on Dupin's method of ratiocination, where a skilled analyst is compared to a checkers player in that he wins by analyzing all possible outcomes and by reading the thoughts of his opponent. Dupin successfully uses his method to solve cases that confound the police because, as in the case of "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," they are too emotionally bothered by the cruelty of the crime and confounded by the lack of motive, or because, as in "The Purloined Letter," they cannot view the cases from the minds of anyone other than themselves. Poe further develops the idea of a superior rational mind in "The Gold-Bug," where Legrand displays curiosity and determination rather than the superstition of Jupiter or the lack of imagination of the narrator in his discovery of Captain Kidd's treasure.
Compare and contrast Poe's use of the frame structure in two to three of his stories.
In Poe's writing, the outside frame of a frame story often has at least one of two purposes, that of manipulating the mood prior to the commencement of the main story, or that of posing the problem and resolution before giving way to what is known in detective fiction as the reveal, during which the most intelligent character explains to the others how he solved the problem. "The Oval Portrait" is an example of the former, in that the narrator's story of how he found the painting has little plot of its own and mainly serves to craft a Gothic atmosphere prior to his quoting of the guide book's story of the subject of the portrait. Examples of the latter purpose can be found in the stories featuring Dupin and in "The Gold Bug," as Legrand explains how he came to suspect the presence of a buried treasure. "A Descent into the Maelström" has elements of both, in that the outside frame establishes the awesome nature of the Maelström, while the central character also uses the inner frame to reveal a story that features his intelligence and bravery.
In "Ligeia" and "The Oval Portrait," what does Poe imply about the connection between feminine beauty and death?
The Gothic and Romantic ideal of female beauty was that of a pale and striking but ethereal figure, a description that often coincided with the effects of tuberculosis or other extended sicknesses. As a result, Gothic writers of the era such as Poe tended to depict beauty as the result of deathly illness, a connection that can be seen in both "Ligeia" and "The Oval Portrait." In "Ligeia," the title character's pale features and tall, slender build are the epitome of the Romantic ideal, and upon her death, the narrator becomes obsessed with her perfection, which Rowena is unable to achieve until she herself dies and turns into Ligeia. Meanwhile, in "The Oval Portrait," the beautiful painter's wife becomes increasingly pale and therefore approaches the Romantic ideal until her death, at which point her beauty leaves her and is immortalized in her husband's painting.
Discuss the use of character foils in 2-3 of the short stories.
Those stories which highlight the abilities of one exceptional central character often make use of foils to emphasize his superiority. In "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and particularly "The Purloined Letter," the lack of imagination of the Prefect of police - and by extension the entire police force - is juxtaposed with Dupin's reliance on creativity and leaps of intuition. Both these stories and "The Gold Bug" also have the narrator serve as the intermediary character, who is not as brilliant as Dupin or Legrand but is still respectively more intelligent than the Prefect and Jupiter. The narrator is often admiring of his friend's skills but insightful enough to convey the ideas of the friend to the reader through his first person account. "A Descent into the Maelström" also features the presence of a deferential narrator, as well as the main character's older brother, whose fear and inability to think clearly contrast with the actions of his middle brother.