In "The Cask of Amontillado," do you think the character Montresor is psychologically unstable?

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mike-krupp eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We have to distinguish between "unstable" psychology, in which the subject's mental state can change from time to time, and "pathological" psychology: in this case, a mental state in which Montresor feels driven to torture Fortunato.

It seems that Montresor is stable enough, since he is still here and by implication at liberty 50 years later.

But it's apparent that he is subject to bizarre thinking, in which he becomes obsessed by anger at what he perceives are "the thousand insults of Fortunato".  He also seems to have what used to be called psychopathic or sociopathic personality disorder, where he lacks empathy and any sense that another person has some right not to be harmed.  He seems to regard Fortunato not as a "real" person, but rather as an annoying bug that he can punish and destroy.

Montresor is obviously able to think well enough to plan his ambush well in advance, and protect himself from retribution.

He also needs to preserve his superiority over Fortunato:  Montresor's family "was great and numerous", and their arms showed a foot crushing a snake; the motto means essentially "nobody disses me".  But Fortunato's name signifies "lucky", and I guess that the thousand insults were occasions when Fortunato outshone Montresor.

Montresor's bizarre thinking magnifies Fortunato's successes into mortal insults, and he convinces himself that he has to eradicate Fortunato from the Earth.

After the tomb is walled up Montresor feels sick at heart, but he is able to dismiss his human reaction to the death as something trivial induced by the dampness of the catacombs.

However, I was left with the impression he had not subsequently killed anybody else; possibly he could not accept his actions, and never dared to repeat them.

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What is insanity? Couldn't it be maintained that anyone who commits a murder must be "psychologically unstable"? Montresor is certainly sane enough to be able to tell his whole story fifty years after the events took place. Could an insane man do that? Wouldn't there be some obvious lapses in his narrative during which it became apparent that he was not entirely stable psychologically? There certainly are plenty of such lapses in the protagonist's narrative in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart."

Wouldn't an insane man run a great risk of getting caught? Wouldn't people wonder about him--his speech, his behavior?

Some readers maintain that Montresor must be insane because he must be only imagining that Fortunato has "injured" him a thousand times. They believe that Montresor should have provided examples of those injuries. There is little other evidence of insanity--except for the extreme sadism of the revenge. But the chains that held Fortunato had evidently been fastened to the granite wall for centuries and must have been used for the same purpose. We those other executioners also insane?  

Here is an interesting statement by a prominent thinker who was famous as an anti-Freudian:

For nearly 20 years now I have maintained that there is no such thing as mental illness .... it is implicit in this view that there can also be no such thing as psychiatric diagnosis, prognosis, or treatment.

Thomas S. Szasz, M.D., The Myth of Psychotherapy, American Journal of Psychotherapy, 28 (Oct. 1974): 517-526.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As is characteristic of his narrators, Poe's Montresor is clearly an unreliable narrator.  His emotional declaration in the first sentence indicates a tunneling of vision: 

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. 

Following this declaration, Poe addresses the readers as though they should understand his statement:

You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. 

Then, Poe's "explanation" of his plan of revenge and its rationale displays a personality that is obsessed with redressing what he feels are wrongs against him:

 At length, I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settle--but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk.  A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser.  It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

Clearly, there seems to be a certain degree of psychological instability to a narrator who perceives whatever insults or injuries someone has done to him as "the thousand"; and, his addressing the "you, who know me so well" does not seem be normal in any way.  That he has survived for fifty years after his murderous act does not necessarily exhibit mental stability.  After all, many an insane person lives a full life without detection of his/her condition.

William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It should be noted that Montresor is not narrating the story as it is taking place. Instead he is narrating his recollection of an event that occurred over fifty years before. He may have been psychologically unstable before and during the time he was committing the terrible murder; but after fifty years he seems to be quite sane and at peace with himself and the world. He does not seem to be troubled by feelings of guilt. Rather, he seems to be quite satisfied with his accomplishment. He had a big problem and he solved it to his satisfaction. He had to lure Fortunato underground without being observed by anyone on the streets. Even after Fortunato turned up missing, he had to pretend to be just as concerned as anyone else. Montresor may have been completely insane during the time he was planning the murder and while he was leading Fortunato to his doom, but he could be completely sane by the time he writes the confession which Poe publishes under the title of "The Cask of Amontillado." His narrative seems to reveal a terrible sort of sanity rather than insanity. An insane person, like the narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," would be very likely to make mistakes and give himself away.

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I've met people like Montressor before--though certainly they do not go as far as he does.  They feel as if they've been wronged, they see imaginary insults when none are given, and they let those perceived insults eat at them until they finally somehow snap or burst out with some almost incomprehensible reasoning for their reactions.  I know.  It sounds crazy, but I think most of us who have lived a bit have, indeed, seen this. What they don't do is cross the line and decide to take such drastic action.  That, to me, is what separates "normal" people from Montressor. On one hand, he is deliberate and strategic and able to contain his hidden intentions until the last moment, a sure sign of sanity.  On the other hand, he lives proudly guilt-free with his actions for half a century, a sure sign of mental and emotional callousness, at least, and perhaps psychological illness.  That's why Poe is the master. 

booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is no doubt that Montresor is unstable. If tried today in court, I believe he would be found guilty of murder by reason of insanity.

The murder is premeditated. The reason for Fortunato's death is never mentioned, and may, therefore, be imaginary: something that only exists in Montresor's mind.

Montresor knows Fortunato well, and understands human nature even better. He is aware of exactly what he needs to do and say in order to entice the unsuspecting Fortunato to the tunnels beneath his palazzo. All the while, Montresor continually expresses concern for his sick companion.

Without compunction, like a sociopath who knows no remorse, he walls his living victim behind a brick wall, to die slowly and alone.

Insane? I believe so.

P.S. This tale is based on a true story Poe heard while in the service.

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Is a psychopath or a sociopath psychologically unstable? How about a narcissist? I think so, and Montresor qualifies as all three. These personalities all deviate from the norm in human behavior and are therefore not grounded in healthy behavior--ungrounded, unstable. I wouldn't confuse stable with functional. Montresor was functional, even highly functional in planning his horrendous revenge and carrying it out without a hitch, but Ted Bundy was very functional and highly effective as a serial murderer, and I doubt anyone would consider him to have been psychologically stable. It's true that Bundy's psychological self-control eventually disintegrated and Montresor's did not, but I wouldn't attribute that to any "stability" in him. It is, however, a great plot and structure device in shaping the story.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I guess it depends on how you define psychologically unstable. I personally do think he is pretty whacko (the technical term) and he is definitely an example of a stylistic device that Poe uses very frequently - the unreliable narrator. What makes me suspect that his perception of Fortunato is wrong is what we are told in the first paragraph. If Fortunato had insulted Montresor so very badly, it is hardly likely that he would trust him enough to go with him, by himself, down into the Montresor Catacombs. This suggests to me that this "insult" was a figment of the overactive brain of Montresor. Combined with the way in which he gets his revenge this suggests that Montresor is one unstable cookie.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This depends a whole bunch on how you would define "psychologically unstable."  Overall, I would say that he does not fit my definition of that term.

You could argue that he is unstable because only an unstable person would come up with such a nasty plot.  We don't even know why he hates Fortunato -- he never tells us.  Even so, he kills him in this horrible way.

But if he's "unstable" rather than just evil, wouldn't he fall apart in some way?  But he doesn't.  The story is told from the point of view of 50 years later and he is still sane and has never been caught.  So he must be stable because he's managed to hold himself together for all these years after killing Fortunato.

bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The other posts make good points. Poe certainly did not want the reader to assume that Montressor was mentally unstable or he would have spelled it out much more clearly. The uncertainty is just one of the reasons that makes the short story one of the greatest in American literature. Do I think Montressor was unstable? Absolutely, though he was certainly able to maintain enough mental stability to complete his well-planned murder.

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

True, #10. Part of the great horror of the story is the slow realization of just how nuts Montressor really is. The reader comes to this realization about the same time Fortunato sobers up and realizes it, also. It's been a long time since I read "The Tell-Tale Heart," but I think this same narrative technique was employed in that story, as well.

ask996 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If Poe had wanted us all to think one way about Montressor, he would have told us more clearly that Montressor was crazy. As a master storyteller though, Poe wanted us to consider what might be in a man's nature that would make him carry a grudge to this extreme, and then relish the retelling of every grim detail so many years later.

elsntoque | Student

Let's try to analyze the question using the psychological approach. In analyzing a story or any literary pieces, there has to be an approach to provide parameter. Psychological approach is used to analyze the piece in the field of psychology. Most often than not, this approach would make use of Freud's id, ego, and superego.

Looking at the context, it seems that the committed crime is a pre-meditated one. Meaning that the killing is planned by Montresor. Remember that he let the people in his house to abscond. The story narrates:

"There were no attendants at home; they had absconded to make merry in honour of the time. I had told them that I should not return until the morning, and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was turned."

certainly, he did this because he doesn't want anybody to see his plan. Certainly, he succeeded, indeed.

the opening line of the story is the reason why he killed Fortunato.  the story narrates: "THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge." Problem is, we don't know the clear picture of "insult".

Now, is he unstable? Yes, he is because he let his id to dominate him. Id is the child among the three unconscious mind. The id of Montresor was to kill Fortunato. It seems that the superego, was not able to mediate the id's demands.

elsntoque | Student

This depends a whole bunch on how you would define "psychologically unstable."  Overall, I would say that he does not fit my definition of that term.

You could argue that he is unstable because only an unstable person would come up with such a nasty plot.  We don't even know why he hates Fortunato -- he never tells us.  Even so, he kills him in this horrible way.

But if he's "unstable" rather than just evil, wouldn't he fall apart in some way?  But he doesn't.  The story is told from the point of view of 50 years later and he is still sane and has never been caught.  So he must be stable because he's managed to hold himself together for all these years after killing Fortunato.

With due respect, I would beg to disagree. You said that "We don't even know why he hates Fortunato -- he never tells us". However, the first line of the story is the definite reason of his motif of killing Fortunato. The story narrates: "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge"

This alone proves that the reason why he killed Fortunato is due to the insult that he had received from him. Problem is, the story vaguely narrates the clear picture of "insult" which he was deeply cut.

editorj27 | Student

I totally agree that Montresor is a mastermind in executing his plot,
but that doesn't refer that he is not psychotically influenced and
that he is stable.
On the contrary if a person has a conscience it will
devour him, but Montresor doesn't and that refers that he is not
mentally contact but simply a psychotic serial killer without

terra611 | Student

Montressor shows characteristics of a planned killer, perhaps even a serial killer if the story had a sequel! For starters, he lives alone in a home obviously indicative of a privileged upbringing showing his early distancing from familial relationships. Secondly, he plans out his revenge by studying his victim and setting up an air tight alibi. He justifies his actions by making himself out to be the victim and continues to toy with getting Fortunato to turn back and leave. This could possibly be to insight a struggle to increase the thrill although there is no real basis in the literature to support this. Once he begins to wall up Fortunato, Montressor stops referring to him by name or as "my friend", etc. This allows the killer to shut off the part of the brain that shows his victim is human--Silence of the lambs-"it puts the lotion in the basket"-- He sits to enjoy hearing Fortunato struggle and pushes to get a reaction at the end when Fortunato goes silent. Montressor shows a small instant of weakness where is mind seems to falter between seeing Fortunato as prey and as a person well known to him. This occurs after Fortunato tries to plead to Montressor for freedom by referencing his (Fortunato's) wife and their other friends in the palazzo. For a moment Montressor states that he had a hard time recognizing the voice as his friend; he then yells his name and throws a torch at him to get a response. Finally, he admits that his heart felt sick; however, he shakes himself out of it by quickly blaming this on his surroundings. Additionally, he brags about his actions 50 years later as if he is proud and indifferent to Fortunato's death.

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The Cask of Amontillado

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