Analysis Of The Characters Of Montresor And Fortunato In The Cask Of Amontillado
In 2007, Randy Pausch said, “Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls aren’t there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show us how badly we want things”. In 1847, Edgar Allan Poe demonstrated the inverse of this principle, publishing “The Cask of Amontillado”. He shows walls can be used to hide ideals a man seeks, even from himself. Known for his gothic style, Poe uses unique characters to create a gruesome depiction of jealousy, deliberate callousness, and unhealthy boundaries, all described by Montresor, a vindictive sadist, who seems to have no reasonable motive for his actions. Much like most of Poe’s work, to fully understand these characters, it’s important for the reader to examine the setting and victim, before diving into the most complex character in any of his tales, the villain.
Characters are always limited by the setting they are placed in. Poe chooses a time of debauchery, revelry, and merriment, dusk during Italian Carnevale. Carnevale begins on Epiphany, or as Catholics know it, when the tree comes down. This is a time of celebration and frivolity. Poe references, “the supreme madness of the carnival season” (Poe 174). He doesn’t use “this carnival season,” therefore, it’s reasonable to assume he doesn’t feel a need to separate this Carnevale from any other. A conclusion can be drawn that the dress and drunkenness of the victim, Fortunato, are not used make him stand out from the crowd. The décor of this festival and in Poe’s story, can be seen in the modern American Mardi Gras festivals along the gulf coast.
Mardi Gras isn’t just tits and tequila. The character’s celebration of the season provides the reader crucial details about them. These men are Roman Catholics. Montresor describes Fortunato as an Italian with “the true virtuoso spirit” (Poe 174), when commenting on their shared oenophilia, and the reader can reasonably assume Montresor shares his nationality. Carnevale is the season of feast, indulgence, and sin leading up to Lent, the time of reflection, fasting, and forgiveness. Each man is in the street seeking his vice. There is an unholy hourglass, and each minute more sand trickles down; each minute is one closer to a time when such deeds will no longer be permitted in the eyes of both man and God. The darkness approaches: the sun is setting, but on what or whom? They descend into a crypt, further foreshadowing, with omens of death, and the reader soon gets an answer. Soon it will be known who is victor and who is victim.
Gothic victims are, usually, defined by a lack of human spark, breath, or a pulse. They are devices, used by both the author and his villain, to draw contrast or to create complexity in the villain’s story. Fortunato is a particularly effective victim, because of the jovial nature he presents, both publicly and behind closed doors. When this smile fades, tension and suspense are created. When Montresor describes him, he creates the image of a smiling jester: “He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells” (Poe 174). Jesters, otherwise known as fools, are often used to provide the reader, or audience of a play, with wisdom. Poe decides to use this symbolism in a more straightforward sense. Fortunato is fool because he has allowed his vice to lead him to his doom. Montresor views him as a fool because he falls for something most could see through. Somehow, Fortunato convinces himself it is logical for a man come into a large quantity of alcohol during a feast that lasts for months. He is a fool for his pride; he is insulted Montresor would consult Luchresi, presumably another man with a large wine collection. He exclaims “Luchresi cannot tell Amontillado from [common] Sherry” (Poe 175). It’s no wonder this man would stumble along to his doom, his bells ringing as though they were announcing a hearse passing by.
A shift in this character can be seen when Fortunato is offered wine by Montresor. This is when the character abandons his principles and becomes nothing more than a common drunk. Fortunato, a collector and expert taster of fine wines, drains the glass in a single gulp (Poe 176). There is a process for drinking wine, coffee, and most teas. First, the aroma is brought out by swirling or stirring the drink. Next, the aroma is savored through the nose. Finally, the liquid or libation is consumed by slurping, so the full taste can be enjoyed around the tongue. Fortunato has proven his unworthiness as a man of taste and station, but he still touts his status as a mason. The arrogance of the fool. Does he not clearly see the man before him ashamed of his exclusion. Poe’s choice of wordplay in naming the vintage “De Grave” (Poe 176), tells the reader of the impending, voluntarily imbibed, doom. Even as his sobriety is restored, Fortunato has sealed his own fate. He is unable to become the character from just a few pages before. He is exposed, and his shame must be covered.
Only one man is fit to hide this shame, and through him, Poe proves protagonists aren’t always conventionally moral. Montresor is seeking a familiar motivation for a villain, revenge, presumably for social reasons. “The thousand injuries” (Poe 174) inflicted by Fortunato, are never explained, explored, or even proven to exist. A list of those transgressions could explain of his motivations, but Poe deliberately leaves them as indeterminacies. Montresor’s motivations, methods, unreliable narrative voice, and crime all bear a striking similarity to those of the unnamed villain of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Poe, generally, tries to develop complex villains through their actions and internal struggles in the present. Montresor’s signature quality is the lack on internal struggle. Never does he express remorse while carrying out his vengeance, nor does lose a bit of sleep in the many years following. He is not defined by the actions, real or imagined, of Fortunato.
Montresor’s heraldry gives important symbolism and calls back to actions he takes throughout the story. Rather than the traditional Ouroboros, his family adopted the symbol of a snake stuck in the heel of a man who has tread upon it. He is a serpent dressed in a dark cloak, and no one shall harm him and go unpunished (Poe 176). Since biblical times, the snake is seen as a patient tempter, awaiting its prey. Montresor waits until Fortunato is both drunk and jolly for practicality and for sheer pleasure, drawn from watching his prey’s joy turn to terror. A snake does not eat often. It must savor its meal, or it will be stuck with something unsatisfying in the belly its been cursed to slither on. Montresor’s cleverness causes Fortunato to follow his serpentine friend; Montresor makes him believe the entire trip is his idea. The coat-of-arms and motto are described to Fortunato in way that he will only realize why they are important after it is too late. Montresor wants to enjoy the sound of horrific epiphany from behind his wall.
His only moment of hesitation comes when he nearly provides Fortunato a quick death, at the point of a sword. He regroups and continues acting out his perverse version of “Mending Wall”, layer by layer. The narrative style is particularly haunting, unremorseful and gleeful. The reader can hear Montresor’s voice get higher and higher, just as the wall rises and rises. The reader can feel a joy that doesn’t sit well in the stomach, a joy that comes from knowing, every reminder of failures or slights shall soon vanish. He is shocked, only momentarily, when he believes his message has not gotten across, the laughter calling out, “Ha! ha! ha! — he! he! he! — a very good joke, indeed — an excellent jest” (Poe 178). When he finds his message has sunken in, and the only sound is the jingling of bells, he takes his leave, with impunity.
Poe’s strength is his ability to develop characters such as Montresor and Fortunato. The setting for “The Cask of Amontillado” gives flexibility in morality and judgement. He also allows his villain to become a victor, untouchable in every way. He takes his victim and twists him into an antagonist; it’s not alarming or objectionable when his screaming stops. It is not uncommon to want lock shame away or to be angry it exists. Montresor’s emotions are human. The ability to feast upon that anger and channel is drive. The difference in an intelligent person and a wise one, is the ability to know when to end the feast and begin the fasting.
- Carnegie Mellon University ‘Randy Pausch Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams’, Youtube. December 20, 2007, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo. Accessed 15 June 2020
- Poe, Edgar Allan. ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’ The Norton Introduction to Literature 13th Edition, edited by Kelly J Mays, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2019, pp. 174-79
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