Many readers fail to understand the subtlety in Montresor’s method of luring Fortunato into his catacombs. They believe Fortunato is motivated by a desire (1) to drink some delicious Amontillado, (2) to demonstrate his connoisseurship, (3) to do Montresor a favor, and (4) to prove he knows more about wine than Luchesi. None of these beliefs are correct. The entire story does not have to be read to understand how Montresor has baited his trap. The following contains all the information necessary to appreciate the thought Poe devoted to fashioning the story Montresor tells Fortunato. The nonexistent cask of Amontillado is the bait. The first minutes are crucial.
I said to him—“My dear Fortunato, you are luckily met. How remarkably well you are looking to-day. But I have received a pipe of what passes for Amontillado, and I have my doubts.”
“How?” said he. “Amontillado. A pipe? Impossible! And in the middle of the carnival!”
“I have my doubts,” I replied; “and I was silly enough to pay the full Amontillado price without consulting you in the matter. You were not to be found, and I was fearful of losing a bargain.”
“I have my doubts.”
“And I must satisfy them.”
“As you are engaged, I am on my way to Luchesi. If any one has a critical turn it is he. He will tell me—”
Montresor says, “You are luckily met” because he wants Fortunato to think he has been seeking him on an important matter. Then Montresor says, “But I have received…” The words “But” and “received” deserve particular attention. “But” implies that Montresor would like to join Fortunato BUT he is on an urgent errand. He does not say he has purchased a pipe of Amontillado, only that he has “received” one. This suggests he has previously ordered the cask which has just been delivered. He has to say “received” so that Fortunato will believe the wine is at Montresor’s home and nowhere else. The obvious assumption is that a ship from Barcelona has arrived with an entire cargo of Amontillado. There is no other way Montresor’s cask could have been transported to Venice.
Fortunato does not ask questions about the transaction for several reasons, including that he is drunk. The “But” gives Fortunato no time to ask questions of a man in a hurry. And he does not want to show too much interest in details for fear of revealing he would like to get in on this bargain. He must volunteer to sample the wine before Montresor goes to Luchesi. If he accompanies Montresor to his palazzo, Fortunato can keep Luchesi from finding out about this bargain. What interests Fortunato is the possibility of making a huge profit, and not sipping a glass of sweet wine in a cold, dark, damp catacomb in order to please a friend and to show off his supposed connoisseurship. Fortunato would not have to go with Montresor at all if it were not for Luchesi, who would also be very interested in the bargain if he learned about it. Fortunato otherwise could tell Montresor he could not accompany him that night—after all, he is inadequately dressed, he has a bad cold, and he could invent a previous engagement--and then go directly to the harbor and find the Spanish ship. He doesn’t need to taste Montresor’s wine; he can sample it from several big casks on board.
Why does Montresor repeat, “I have my doubts?” The manifest meaning is that he needs an expert to advise him. But why so urgently? Because he got a bargain and wants to buy more before word gets out. That is why he is running around looking for Fortunato and then giving up on finding him and heading for Luchesi’s. He wants to buy more wine that night, but he has to be sure it is genuine. Otherwise it is no bargain. But Poe concocted another reason for “I have my doubts.” If Fortunato cannot accompany him that night, he is sure to inquire about it later. This is one reason Montresor says he “received” the pipe. He can say he bought it from a person who wishes to remain anonymous. He never claimed there was more available or that he wanted to buy more. And if Fortunato asks to taste that totally fictitious Amontillado, Montresor can present him with a bottle of ordinary sherry and say it was drawn from the big cask. Fortunato will taste it, shake his head, and hopefully forget the matter. Montresor will have to think of some other way of disposing of his enemy. He will never be able to lure him into his catacombs with a similar cock-and-bull story.
Finally Montresor says, “As you are engaged...” He wants to find out whether Fortunato is expected at home or anywhere else that night. He must leave a cold trail. He doesn’t want Fortunato missed before tomorrow morning at the earliest. Montresor fails to respond to the first gambit. But when Fortunato takes him by the arm and proceeds to drag him off to his wine cellar, Montresor says:
“My friend, no; I will not impose upon your good nature. I perceive you have an engagement. Luchesi—“
“I have no engagement,--come.”
Once Fortunato says, “I have no engagement,” his doom is sealed. Fortunato will be recognized by many drunken celebrants, especially with his conspicuous jester’s costume and jingling bells; but his companion, wearing a black cloak and a black mask, will be as nameless as a shadow.
The subtlety of Montresor’s entrapment scheme will be wasted on most first-time readers, who will make the obvious assumptions: that Fortunato is motivated by a desire (1) to drink some delicious Amontillado, (2) to demonstrate his connoisseurship, (3) to do his friend a favor, and (4) to prove he knows more about wine than Luchesi. But the discriminating reader will see much more in the story, which can be read over and over with new insights.