November 23, 2011
“My Heart Grew Sick”: Unreliability and Intention in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”
Upon reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”, most readers simply believe that Montresor is no more than an arrogant, excessive, selfish man with a spurned ego. By merely grazing the surface of Montresor’s character, one fails to see that there is great purpose and intention behind Poe’s character and his possession of such over-the-top traits. There is a web of reasoning beneath the excessive character of Montresor. By continuing to reap meager satisfaction from the character’s revenge plot, we cannot gain the introspective contemplation that Poe has intended for us to obtain. The character of Montresor in “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe gives the reader a glimpse into the otherwise impenetrable criminal human consciousness due to his excessive traits of unreliability, insensitivity, and irony.
Many, if not all, of Poe’s narrator’s have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality and therefore unreliable (Piacentino). Montresor is no different. The re-telling of the narrator’s chilling crime begins with an exaggeration: “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could” (1612). Immediately, this absurd statement should flash a warning in the reader’s mind. As Montresor continues, he boasts, “You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat” (1612). By directly addressing the reader and making a grand assumption that they know his very soul, he wants them to believe him without question. Naturally, however, this very action brings about a suspicion of his accountability. Secondly, Montresor wants the reader to be in awe of the fact that he gave no “utterance to a threat” because it shows his deceitful cunning. It is this very trait of Montresor’s that brings us to largely question his honesty as a narrator. If he is so incredibly mischievous with Fortunato, then why would he treat the reader any differently? The credibility of Montresor’s story unwinds in the very first paragraph. When describing the family motto to Fortunato, Montresor reveals another reason to question this story’s legitimacy. Montresor describes the arms as, “A huge human foot d’or, in a field azure; the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel”, and the motto: “Nemo me impune lacessit” which is Latin for “No one insults me with impunity” (1614). It is his boastful way of depicting his family’s honor that leads one to believe that he is far from truthful. Montresor attempts with this retelling to live up to the coat of arms and pay tribute to the Montresor family whose blood runs so thickly through his veins. This explains his excessive descriptions and arrogance; it is because he wants to represent his family with utmost superiority and will do so by any means. Now that Montresor’s reliability is dissected, his psyche lies open for further examination to find the reasoning behind this decadent lie.
As Claudette Kemper Columbus explains, the Gothic genre unites “torturous terrain in the outside world with intemperate and tormented interior terrain”. Montresor’ and Fortunato’s journey through the catacombs represents Montresor’s own psychological state as he retells the tale. As the two men delve further into the damp, winding tunnels, the reader gets closer and closer to Montresor’s climax, as well as his acute satisfaction with the alleged crime. When reading his account of the story, we cannot help but notice his extreme insensitivity and irony. Paired with this is another trait of the Gothic genre, which is the fact that “indiscriminate human beings seem uneducable until it is too late. They seem unable to interpret what lies behind the double messages…” (Columbus). We see this played out in several remarks made by Montresor to the oblivious Fortunato. For example, Montresor presents Fortunato with false pity and sympathy and croons, “My friend, no…It is [the] severe cold with which I perceive you are afflicted. The vaults are insufferably damp. They are encrusted with nitre” (1613). This false façade of utmost sympathy goes unheeded by Fortunato, who replies “Let us go, nevertheless. The cold is merely nothing” (1613). From here, the insensitivity and irony grows and swells to a head as they wind deeper into the catacombs. Montresor strikes his final verbal blow on page 1615 with the lines, “Once more let me implore you to return. No? Then I must positively leave you.” The venom dripping from this remark goes completely unnoticed once more by Fortunato who merely ejaculates, “The Amontillado!” in his drunken stupor. When the deed is done and Montresor has reached his full satisfaction, he tries to taunt his victim once more in the final scene:
“For the love of God, Montresor!”
“Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”
But to these words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called aloud—
No answer. I called again—
No answer still. (1616)
It is here that Fortunato finally acknowledges his state of doom. After reading this final exchange (or lack thereof), the reader is now completely aware of the immense irony and insensitivity Montresor possesses. This only reinforces his unreliability and brings to light Edgar Allan Poe’s intention behind this narrator. The traits that Poe paints Montresor so thickly with are excessive and the crime committed is a horrific one; but we cannot ignore the satisfaction that this story brings the reader. It is this very satisfaction that Poe hoped to reveal in his readers and he uses the character of Montresor to give them greater insight into their own consciousness.
Acknowledging Montresor’s unreliability and extremely smug use of irony and insensitivity leads the reader to Poe’s intention behind such traits. Poe plays on the unfathomable state of consciousness that is the criminal psyche. It is impenetrable, yet Poe manages to give us a fleeting (and satisfying) glimpse. Amy Yang’s states that “Poe’s image of the inner mind is that of a rotting, decaying space, one isolated from the outer world, where lights barely shine through” which revisits the resemblance of the catacombs to the mind of Montresor. In the exploration of Montresor’s psyche, Poe intends for the reader to confront self-reflection and contemplation. This theory is presented to us early on in the story when Montresor boasts of knowing his victim’s weakness: “He had a weak point—this Fortunato—although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself upon his connoisseurship in wine” (1612). By so blatantly bragging that he so well knows his victim, the reader fear that he knows them intricately as well. As readers, he knows their weakness for revenge and he plays them directly into his scheme. Their satisfaction is reaped just as sickeningly as his is. Poe predicts the questioning of Montresor’s reliability and therefore the readers are victimized equally with Fortunato. The final scene achieves this perfectly. In Montresor’s precise description of his deed, we almost relive it:
In an instant [Fortunato] had reached the extremity of the niche, and finding his progress arrested by the rock, stood stupidly bewildered. A moment more and I had fettered him to the granite. In its surface were two iron staples, distant from each other about two feet, horizontally. From one of these depended a short chain, from the other a padlock. Throwing the links about his waist, it was but the work of a few seconds to secure it. He was much too astounded to resist. Withdrawing the key I stepped back from the recess. (1615)
At this precise moment, the reader is shackled in to the story. They are hopelessly pinned to Montresor’s imaginative retelling and we have to face our own psyche. As Poe planned, the reader faces the deepest revelation at Montresor’s tiny shard of assumed remorse:
A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. For a brief moment I hesitated, I trembled. Unsheathing my rapier, I began to grope with it about the recess; but the thought of an instant reassured me. I placed my hand upon the solid fabric of the catacombs and felt satisfied. (1616)
The unreliability of the narrator combined with his excessive traits of insensitivity and irony have lead the reader to this exact moment in the story and for good reason. Here, the gratifying journey through the uncharted mind of a criminal takes a personal turn. The hesitation reminds the reader that this said act is imagined to have been committed by a fellow human being. Of course, Montresor remains in character and simply dismisses the crucial moment, but readers know better. It is this moment of regret and the narrator’s casual dismissal that confirms the theory that the story is fabricated, that the feelings are exaggerated, the irony is all but realistically achievable, and Poe’s character is nothing but a compilation of excessive traits to provoke deep contemplation in the reader. It is simply unimaginable that a human being could commit such a heinous crime and not feel the chilling grip of remorse.
As the story comes to a close the reader finally can see their own state of peril. The reader is charmed by the boastful tale that Montresor spins while being led by Poe on a psychological journey into the depths of his or her own mind. The excessive character of Montresor serves as a buffer between Poe and his unsuspecting audience. The story-within-the-story is pure fiction, but the conclusion the reader draws from it about his or her own mind is not. Led deeper and deeper into the murky depths of human consciousness, Poe then chains the reader there and they are forced to face the reasoning behind our gratification of Montresor’s insensitivity and rebuild our moral structure just as he laid the final bricks that entombed Fortunato.
Columbus, Claudette Kemper. “The Heir Must Die: One Hundred Years of Solitude as a Gothic Novel.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 32.3 (1986): 397-416. Project MUSE. Web. 21 Jan. 2011. http://muse.jhu.edu/.
Piacentino, Edward J., 1945-. “Early-19th-Century Literature.” American Literary Scholarship 2004 (2004): 241-269. Project MUSE. Web. 10 Feb. 2011. http://muse.jhu.edu/.
Yang, Amy. “Psychoanalysis and Detective Fiction: a tale of Freud and criminal storytelling.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 53.4 (2010): 596-604. Project MUSE. Web. 16 Oct. 2011. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.