Is Montresor A Reliable Narrator
In "The Cask of Amontillado," is Montresor a reliable narrator?
Montresor is not a real person but a character created by Edgar Allan Poe. I cannot believe that Poe wanted his narrator to be unreliable, because that would throw his whole story into question. I do not believe that Poe was mainly interested in analyzing Montresor's character but in using him to commit a horrible deed and to serve as the narrator of the entire event.
Many people have expressed doubt that Montresor actually suffered a thousand injuries from Fortunato, which leads them to conclude that Montresor must be totally insane and delusional. If so, then the entire story must be read as an insane delusion. But Montresor seems totally rational to me. He would have to be a very complicated character to be insane and delusional and at the same time to be totally rational and capable of making the most exacting long-term plans. This is not impossible, but this is a short story and Poe would have had to devote half of it to developing this one character, not unlike Robert Browning in some of his dramatic monologues. Poe does not seem that interested in exploring characters of his own invention. He creates characters to serve specific functions. He created Montresor to be the kind of man who would perform the kind of crime he did. I believe he actually suffered a thousand injuries, more or less, because Poe says he did.
I believe that Fortunato was accompanying Montresor into the catacombs with the notion of inflicting another injury--a one thousand and first. If the Amontillado turned out to be genuine, Fortunato was quite capable of pronouncing it to be ordinary sherry and then hastening to find the ship that had brought in the rest of it. He seems highly motivated to taste that wine in spite of his bad cold and his inadequate clothing. This isn't because he wants to do a favor for a friend, or because he wants to show off his connoisseurship. It certainly isn't because he needs another drink of wine. Sherry is a sipping wine, and Fortunato is not a sipper but a guzzler, as he twice demonstrates when drinking Montresor's French wine. Wine is flowing like water during the carnival. Fortunato wants to make money by buying up a whole cargo of Amontillado, bottling it, and reselling it at his leisure. Amontillado in an oak cask would only improve with age.
Montresor only bought one "pipe," 126 gallons, because he had "his doubts" about whether it was genuine Amontillado sherry. Montresor certainly didn't intend to drink 126 gallons of sherry by himself; it was an investment. Fortunato must determine whether it is genuine Amontillado before he can do anything else; and Montresor is well aware that Fortunato would beat him out of yet another profitable deal if the Amontillado were genuine--and if it actually existed! Fortunato is rich enough to buy a whole shipload at a bargain price. Montresor is poor but would undoubtedly go back to buy at least a few more casks if he were assured that it was genuine. But he would find that the entire shipment had been sold, and Fortunato would consider it "an excellent jest." His costume advertises the fact--not that he is a fool--but that he considers himself a jester. His "jests" have constituted most of the thousand injuries his competitor Montresor has suffered.
Poe is a master of creating narrators who are, to a lesser or a greater extent, unreliable. The genius of his writing is that it is often only on completion of his stories that we begin to see the unreliability of the narrator. Montressor, however, is a perfect example of an unreliable narrator whose actions and conduct exposes the way that his madness or character influences what he tells us. The way in which Montressor is able to read Fortunato's character and identify his weakness, his "weak point" that he can use to bring him down, indicates the kind of criminal psycopathic genius that Montressor is. As the narrative progresses, we see more and more the extent of Montressor's depravation and evil nature. He is a character who seems to have a complete disconnect within him. One of the favourite parts of the story for me is in the very final paragraph after Fortunato has died or at least fallen unconscious. Note how Montressor is completely blind to the reason behind his own feelings and emotions:
No answer still. I thrust a torch through the remaining aperture and let it fall within. There came forth in return only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick--on account of the dampness of the catacombs.
Montressor's unreliability as a narrator is exposed in the way that he identifies his feelings but then is quick to state that it has nothing to do with the criminal act he has just carried out. His rush to state that his sudden attack is nothing to do with remorse but because of the environment shows just how much he lacks in self-awareness, or, in more modern parlance, emotional intelligence. This causes us to question everything else he has told us, including whether the "thousand injuries" of Fortunato are actually real or a figment of Montressor's imagination.