Commentary by Karen Bernardo
As in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” also fails to explain precisely why he is so intent upon revenge. We know literally nothing about Fortunato, except that he is a wealthy man who considers himself quite a connoisseur of wine, and for some unknown reason our narrator Montresor feels deeply and irrevocably wronged by him. Montresor’s refusal to tell us the source of his hatred of Fortunato is our first clue that Montresor is completely mad. Fortunato may have done nothing whatsoever to Montresor, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that Montresor thinks he did.
But whether Fortunato is completely guiltless or not, he certainly does not deserve the fate he receives at Montresor’s hands. He is lured like a mouse into a trap, and it is his pathetic vanity about his wine expertise, as well as his inebriation, that brings him down into the depths of Montresor’s poisonous cellar.
Even if he were not vain and drunk, there is still a possibility that Fortunato would have gone home with Montresor anyway, because he doesn’t suspect anything. We see this from his initial greeting; when he first runs into Montresor during the carnival festival, Montresor says that Fortunato “accosted me with excessive warmth.” Even those under the influence of alcohol can normally tell their friends from their enemies, and there is no evidence that he does not regard Montresor as a friend.
Why, then, does Montresor feel the way he does about Fortunato? Most likely he is jealous. Montresor concedes that Fortunato is in most ways a man to be “respected,” and yet his one “weak point” is his pride in his connoisseurship of wine. Now, compared to being a rapist or a child abuser or a murderer, being a wine connoisseur seems like a very minor fault. Indeed, Montresor notes that he, himself “did not differ from him materially; I was skillful in the Italian vintages myself.” So what Montresor seems to be saying between the lines is that Fortunato is actually a better wine connoisseur than Montresor is, and makes no bones about the fact, which so eats away at Montresor’s self-image that it gradually drives him mad.
Indeed, this supposition is borne out by the facts of the story. Montresor’s “bait” to Fortunato is that he has a rare bottle of Amontillado wine in his basement, which he does not believe is authentic. Perhaps Fortunato could give an authoritative opinion? Fortunato leaps at the chance. Worse, he wastes no time in telling Montresor that “You have been imposed upon”—in other words, cheated. To someone who takes as much pride in his expertise as Montresor does, to have another expert accuse him of incompetence would be galling. If this was Fortunato’s typical behavior to Montresor, this could explain Montresor’s seemingly irrational hatred of Fortunato. The story begins with Montresor’s claim that “The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could…[until] he ventured upon insult….” This could be precisely the kind of situation to which Montresor refers.
By the time Fortunato agrees to accompany Montresor back home to see the mysterious wine, several expectations have been set up in our minds. First, we expect Fortunato to meet with some sort of mishap at Montresor’s hands. Second, we also expect to learn what Fortunato has done to so offend Montresor that he would deserve whatever Montresor plans to do to him. And third, there is at least a possibility that Fortunato will turn the tables on Montresor and escape.
The relative weight of each of these possibilities changes as we proceed through the story. At first our sympathies are with Montresor; we have been introduced to Fortunato as a pompous, self-important nobleman, and we are willing to cast him in the role of villain (even though we’re not sure what he’s done) simply because Montresor is telling the story and the narrator always has our first loyalty. Given this scenario, we expect to learn that Fortunato has committed Montresor’s father to prison so he could steal the family fortune, or some similar story. Under these circumstances, if Fortunato got his just desserts, we would feel that he at least deserved it.
But several pages later, we still do not have any indication that Fortunato is really a villain here. And to make matters worse, a very unpleasant side of Montresor has emerged. Despite the fact that we know it is Montresor’s aim to get Fortunato down into the wine vaults, Montresor repeatedly offers Fortunato every excuse to back out of it. Perhaps he has another engagement? Perhaps his cough is too bad tonight? Perhaps the cellars are too damp? The way that Montresor does this is not considerate or sympathetic; it is taunting. It is exactly the way a schoolyard bully says, “Well, maybe you’re too chicken to fight me.” Montresor is deliberately trying to force Fortunato into a position of full responsibility for his fate—implying that it was Fortunato’s pride and his pride alone that drove him to his death.
Of course this is ridiculous. Fortunato is murdered in cold blood by Montresor, and it was Montresor’s own wounded pride (together with his madness) which drove him to it. By the time they reach the cellar where the imaginary bottle of Amontillado is supposed to be, Montresor has Fortunato trapped like a rat, and the victim has no possible defense.
From that point on, the story rapidly careens to its dreadful conclusion. Fortunato is walled up in the damp basement, left to die amongst the wines he so loves. However, the tables may have been turned on Montresor after all. Fortunato’s suffering is over in an agonizing but relatively brief time; but the ensuing fifty years of Montresor’s life between the murder and the actual telling of the story are spent vainly trying to justify something done in a moment of madness.
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