By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is one of Edgar Allan Poe’s most widely studied short stories. In just a few pages, Poe’s narrator outlines his animosity towards another man, and describes how he conceived and carried out his crime: trapping and murdering his ‘enemy’ by leading him down into the catacombs beneath his palazzo before chaining him to the wall and walling him up inside.
Poe’s story features just two named characters who actually appear within the action of the story. A third is mentioned by name only, although his role is not without its significance. Let’s take a closer look at the characters in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ and how Poe describes them.
Fortunato is Montresor’s friend, but because Montresor perceives that his friend has wronged him, he devises the plan which involves leading Fortunato down into the catacombs beneath Montresor’s palazzo on the pretext that he can sample the amontillado that Montresor has recently bought. But when Montresor gets his friend into the catacombs, he chains him to the catacombs and bricks him in there, leaving him to die.
Fortunato is a friend of Montresor’s, but he is also his enemy. Poe’s story is, on one level, about the binary of friend/enemy and how one’s friend can also become one’s deadly rival or foe. However, Montresor doesn’t tell us precisely how Fortunato has wronged him. We have to take his word for it concerning these ‘thousand injuries’ which, according to the opening sentence of ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, Fortunato has visited upon his friend.
Fortunato’s name obviously suggests someone ‘fortunate’ or lucky. This raises the intriguing possibility that he hasn’t directly wronged Montresor, his ‘friend’, at all: Montresor has simply grown jealous of his friend’s success and interprets this as an ‘insult’ to himself, because he considers himself a worthier recipient of whatever luck Fortunato has enjoyed.
Fortunato isn’t simply trapped by Montresor: he walks into the trap of his own free will. Although, of course, he doesn’t recognise it as a trap until it’s too late, Montresor has given him a number of signs that he is ensnaring his ‘friend’: when Fortunato asks Montresor to produce a ‘sign’ that he is also a freemason like Fortunato himself, Montresor brandishes his trowel: the tool with which he will entomb his rival.
Similarly, the coat of arms of the Montresor family, which symbolically depicts a golden foot stamping on a serpent which has sunk its teeth into the heel, represents the vindictiveness of Montresor’s character, but Fortunato misses this clue. He is, in a sense, undone by his own pride: he simply cannot bear to think of another man, his rival Luchresi, getting his hands on the amontillado instead.
Montresor tells us that Fortunato’s one ‘weak point’ was that he ‘prided himself’ on being a connoisseur of wine. And Montresor plays on this weakness, telling Fortunato that he is going to let Luchresi sample the amontillado if Fortunato isn’t interested. Of course, Fortunato clearly cannot bear the thought of the fine wine going to someone else, so he readily accepts Montresor’s offer – and so falls into the trap.
‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is essentially a two-character story, focusing on Montresor’s trapping, and subsequent murder, of Fortunato.
A third character who is mentioned by name, Luchresi, fulfils a valuable role even though he doesn’t appear in the story. When Montresor ‘bumps into’ Fortunato during the carnival, he mentions that he will let Luchresi sample the amontillado if Fortunato is not interested in doing so himself.
This clever bit of psychological manipulation on Montresor’s part ensures that Fortunato becomes determined to be the first to try the wine, ahead of Luchresi.
The most important character in ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, however, is the story’s narrator, Montresor. Although he narrates the story, there are many things about him which he don’t learn: perhaps most crucially, he never tells us precisely why he wishes to ensnare and kill Fortunato, other than in revenge for some ‘insult’ the latter has paid him.
We also don’t know precisely what he does. Is he a merchant? Is his wealth entirely inherited? He is clearly wealthy, living in a large palazzo, or palace, with numerous servants (who abscond to go and enjoy the carnival). He is also educated, and a rational man in many regards: look at the way he uses psychology to ‘trick’ Fortunato into walking right into the trap he has laid for him. He also describes his crime in a calmly rational and methodical manner, with few signs that he is mad or unstable (as many of Poe’s other narrators are).
Yet at the same time, he is prepared to murder his ‘friend’ (his word) over an ‘insult’. How bad can that insult, or the other things Fortunato has supposedly done, really be? It’s significant that Montresor doesn’t mention any specific details.
And what ‘insult’ could warrant being killed in such a manner: not in the heat of the moment, but in an act of cold, premeditated murder which will involve Fortunato slowly dying over a period of hours (days?) from a lack of clean air?
Like Fortunato with his wine knowledge, Montresor is a proud man, and the two characters form a neat pair when it comes to their pride. Whereas Fortunato’s pride is his downfall, because it leads him into the trap sprung for him, Montresor’s pride is a central part of the ‘perfect crime’ which he wishes to carry out.
After all, as he states at the beginning of ‘The Cask of Amontillado’, he wants Fortunato to know who is the one responsible for his death. He takes time preparing his trap for his enemy, and takes pride in its execution.
One of the most chilling aspects of Montresor’s character is that, whilst he doesn’t display any remorse for his actions, neither does he appear to have been motivated by any strong sense of passion or anger. Everything he does involving his ensnaring and burying alive of his friend/enemy is coldly premeditated; as elsewhere in Edgar Allan Poe’s work, we find ourselves unnerved by the cool manner in which his narrator describes his heinous deeds.