The majority of the narrator’s in Edgar Allan Poe’s stories have at least a little bit wrong with them. Even in “Pit and the Pendulum,” while the narrator appears to be an innocent victim of the Spanish Inquisition, his time below ground has certainly pushed his perspective toward the breaking point. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” the narrator is convinced that he is not insane, and he is bent on convincing the reader that he is not insane. However, the fact that he waits until his murder victim’s eyes are open at night (and that the correct eye is open) to perform the killing, and that he then chops up the body and buries it under the floorboard, and that he then invites the police inside with him, sitting on a chair right over the body while the police are (to him) chatting pleasantly but (more likely) are sitting there wondering what sort of lunatic they have before them, brands this narrator as one of the most unreliable in all of literature. For this reason, when we open “The Cask of Amontillado,” we have at least a passing familiarity with this trend in the people whom Poe trots before us to tell his stories. However, after taking a careful look at this story, it is by no means certain that Montresor is a narrator as unreliable as some of the other in Poe’s pantheon.
A good starting point is the observation that Montresor is ostensibly confessing to something while on his deathbed. Whether this is a real confession (or on his deathbed) is still up for discussion, though. When the story comes to a close, Montresor indicates that the bones of Fortunato have been inside that crypt for a half-century. This does not need to precisely refer to fifty years; rather, it could plausibly refer to a time period between thirty-five and sixty-vie years. If one considers that Montresor must have been a minimum of twenty years of age when the story is taking place, then he is most likely between the ages of sixty and eighty when he’s telling the story. This isn’t all that old in modern times, but in Poe’s era, this would have definitely made him a senior citizen, and having him on his deathbed at this point in life is definitely within the realm of possibility. However, Fortunato had to commit those “thousand injuries” to which Montresor refers, which pushes Montresor’s age likely closer to thirty (or even higher) before Fortunato dies, which would make Montresor even older. So the deathbed scenario definitely makes sense (Baraban).
It is also this point that causes Montresor’s tale to sound like a confession. In an ecclesiastical sense, a confession is the revelation of the wrong that one has done in the hope that absolution will come, but outside the Church, a confession is just an acknowledgment of what one has done, whether those actions are right or not. Montresor does appear to be confiding a tale, and that tale might have been dragging on his conscience for quite a while now. While he suggests that the sickness he feels within his heart comes from the moisture, it is more likely that his belief comes from decades of telling himself he has done nothing wrong.
At the beginning of the story, Montresor makes reference to his audience, and whomever Montresor is relating his story to is just as important as the identity of the narrator when it comes to arriving at an understanding of the tale. When Montresor says, “You, who so well know the nature of my soul,” (Poe, web), he is not referring to the general reader. The implication is that Montresor is talking to someone who knows him quite well, as well as the inward and outward paths of his mind. In fact, there is one person to whom Montresor is almost certainly speaking, on the basis of this aside, and that person is his wife. This would be a person who would know Montresor’s soul as well as he indicates. Based on social practices in those days, it is likely that Montresor’s wife would be significantly younger than him. Also, since Montresor mentioned the servants all leaving the house, he likely would have mentioned his wife’s departure too. Since he does not, the implication is that she is right here in front of him, listening to what he has to say.
In addition to being his wife, this companion would also be Montresor’s confidant. If she has been Montresor’s companion for any significant amount of time, then it is likely that she knows how his mind works and what secret desires he has. So there really isn’t any reason why he would tell her a story that is not true. From the tenor of his words, he already has murdered people. From the way he describes killing, it does not sound like something that would be new to him, and it is worth asking whether or not killing Fortunato really adds significantly to his list of misdeeds.
It is worthwhile at this point to step outside the story and look at the surrounding context. Poe and Thomas Dunn English, another author, were bitter enemies during this time period. They had written several stories each in which they made fun of the other person, rendering him as a silly caricature and having something awful happen to that person. Later on, English’s caricatures would inspire Poe to sue him for libel, because that story portrayed Poe as a man who would beat his wife and carouse, lying and womanizing while in an alcoholic haze (Rust). In this story, there are some references (such as the one to the Masons) and a coat of arms that looks quite similar to one that appears in a story of English’s entitled 1844. In both cases, there is a snake being overpowered. Also, Fortunato makes a gesture that is quite similar to the one that the secret club in 1844 uses (Rust). And so it is possible to view Fortunato as a stand-in for Thomas Dunn English. Over the years, Fortunato has given Montresor insult after insult and injury after injury, much like English has done to Poe. This means that “The Cask of Amontillado” could just be a sort of fantasy, in which Poe talks about what he would like to do with the body of his former friend.
If this is true, it would not make a lot of sense to claim that Montresor is a liar or a lunatic. To allege that Montresor has lost his sanity would be to say the same about Poe, and it is extremely unlikely that Poe would intentionally write such a story leads to that sort of conclusion about himself. In fact, it was the whole issue about Poe’s own stability that led to his rivalry with English in the first place.
It is worth, of course, acknowledging the arguments of those who claim that Montresor is not reliable. Montresor is not entirely objective when it comes to Fortunato, of course, because he is the object of Fortunato’s insults (Dern). On this basis, he has decided that he will be Fortunato’s judge in this instance. Also, the fact that half a century has gone by since the events of the story means that Montresor’s memory is likely to be less than reliable. The earlier argument that Montresor is likely to be on his deathbed also means that a degree of senility may have set in; even if Montresor’s memory is crystal clear, even the most lucid person loses memory as time goes by. These two factors, in the eyes of many, override the existence of any sort of reasonable evidence, like particular examples of insults. For those who follow this line of thinking, the story of “The Cask of Amontillado” is akin to taking subjective interpretation all the way to its ultimate conclusion. The black mask made of silk, with which Montresor’s face is covered, is not a symbol for the blindness of justice; instead, it stands for a desire of revenge. Fortunato is dressed up as the court jester in a multi-colored outfit, showing that his foolishness ends up leading to his own tragic end. Either way, allowing Montresor’s word to be the only one makes the findings far from set in stone.
Baraban, Elena V. "The Motive for Murder in" The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allan
Poe." Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature (2004): 47-62.
Dern, John A. "Poe's Public Speakers: Rhetorical Strategies in" The Tell-Tale Heart" and" The
Cask of Amontillado"." The Edgar Allan Poe Review (2001): 53-70.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Cask of Amontillado.” http://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper/POE/cask.html
Rust, Richard Dilworth. "Punish with Impunity": Poe, Thomas Dunn English, and" The Cask of
Amontillado." The Edgar Allan Poe Review (2001): 33-52.