The Cask of Amontillado
by Edgar Allan Poe
Montresor (if that’s his real name), our narrator, is Mr. Sinister. He’s the guy you don’t want to meet in an underground graveyard, or anywhere else. He’s a cold and ruthless killer. He not only enjoys killing, but also thinks it’s necessary.
As the narrator, he’s telling the story fifty years after it happened. This raises a whole host of complicated questions. We’ll cover the main ones in a moment under “Bragging of Confessing,” but first, let’s look at some other aspects of his character.
Any critic will tell you that Montresor is “a classic example of an unreliable narrator.” And this is probably true: if he’s capable of plastering Fortunato into a vault, we can’t trust him. If he’s lying, and he didn’t kill Fortunato, then we still can’t trust him.
Unless, that is, Montresor’s unreliability reveals truths about human nature.
We talk about Poe’s “secret writing” in “What’s Up With the Title.” We can assume that everything we read about in “The Cask” is code for something deeper, including Montresor. In fact, we think he’s less a flesh and blood character than a literary mechanism, meant to provoke emotional responses to reveal our own characters, and ultimately, if we are brave, to give us a more profound understanding of what it means to be human.
So, if Poe’s technique works, and Montresor makes us understand ourselves and other people better, then maybe we can trust Montresor − as loathsome as that sounds.
In addition to being the classic unreliable narrator, on the surface, Montresor is a classically unsympathetic character. A sympathetic character isn’t necessarily character we feel sympathy for; a sympathetic character is simply a character we can relate to, at least on some level.
We don’t deny that Montresor is totally alien and practically unknowable to the reader in many ways. But we also think that pretending we can’t relate to Montresor at all defeats one main purpose of the story. For example, like Montresor, we all have vengeful urges − though, luckily, few of us ever follow them as far as murder.
Perhaps more importantly, we identify with Montresor because he’s still alive. He got away with what he did without getting into trouble. We all have a skeleton (or skeletons) in our closets, even if it’s only that library book we forgot to return. Regardless, the longer our tawdry secrets remain undetected, the longer we can tell ourselves we’ve gotten away with them.
Montresor is an exaggerated, over-the-top figure. He’s the embodiment of the sneaky, vengeful part of human beings. By examining these qualities in his extreme personality, we can better analyze some of the less pleasant aspects of our own. If we pretend we can’t relate to Montresor at all, we miss this opportunity for self-reflection.
Confessing or Bragging
This is another area where we can totally identify with Montresor. Critics have been arguing for a hundred years over whether Montresor is confessing his sins or bragging about his crimes. We say it’s probably a bit of both.
And this is something we can all relate to. Sometimes we get away with something that other people think is wrong but that we don’t think is wrong. Other times, we know what we did is wrong, and we wish somebody would find out so we can somehow try to make things right.
In both cases, we would love to tell somebody. When we brag, we want somebody to pat us on the back. When we confess, we want forgiveness; we want to be free of the burden of our secrets. And sometimes, we may not even know whether we are bragging or confessing until after we tell.
So, whether you think Montresor is confessing, bragging, or some combination of the two, you can relate to his desire to tell what he’s done, after all of this time.