How does not knowing what Fortunato did to Montresor intensify the horror of this story?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The one sentence in "The Cask of Amontillado" that has troubled critics more than all the others put together is the following:

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

Why would Montresor put up with a thousand injuries, since he is obviously a proud man? Why wouldn't he at least stay away from Fortunato and not give him any further opportunities to injure or insult him?

Why doesn't Montresor give at least a few examples of the injuries he received?

Was Montresor really injured? Or was he only imagining it?

If the injuries were only imagined, does this mean that Montresor is insane?

If Montresor is insane, then he is an unreliable narrator. And if he is an unreliable narrator, how can we believe in anything he says in his narrative? How can we even believe that he killed Fortunato? How can we believe there ever was a person named Fortunato?

Poe used a literary device that spared him the need to explain many things. Evidently Montresor is writing to someone he has known for decades and someone who already knows nearly everything about him. Montresor doesn't even need to explain where the incident took place, his confidante knows exactly where he lives. His confidante probably has already heard about many of the "thousand injuries" Montresor has suffered, and this unidentified person also understand why Montresor didn't simply break off relations with Fortunato long ago. Poe doesn't have to explain many things because he is pretending to be only a translator and editor, and not the author of the original document.

Poe specified that Montresor had suffered a thousand injuries because he wanted to justify Montresor's powerful motivation to commit such a horrible crime. But since Montresor is writing to someone who knows all his secrets, Poe does not have to give any examples of those injuries. (This is one of the many strokes of genius in Poe's story.)

Not knowing what Fortunato has done to deserve such punishment does not intensify the horror of the story. We have to feel convinced that he actually did commit approximately a thousand injuries, whether or not we know what they were.

We have to guess what those injuries might have been. The best guess would be based on the third paragraph in Poe's story, which suggests that Montresor and Fortunato are gentlemen-businessmen who deal in luxury merchandise, including gourmet wines, and who act as brokers in the sale of jewelry, paintings, antiques, and even houses for impecunious Venetian aristocrats. The thousand injuries were probably incidents in which Fortunato beat Montresor out of profitable deals. Montresor expects his friendly enemy to tell him his (nonexistent) Amontillado is only ordinary sherry and then make haste to find and buy up the entire cargo while it is still a "bargain." Montresor has had to remain "friends" with his enemy because he is financially dependent upon him for commissions, ad hoc partnerships, finders fees, and possibly even direct cash loans.

Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The most troubling lines of "The Cask of Amontillado" do not describe how Fortunato dies but fail to describe what Fortunato has done to Montresor:

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

From the story's first sentence to the last, the reader is left to wonder what "insult" could have been so hurtful as to cause Montresor to create such a horrific punishment for Fortunato.

The horror of this story lies not only in Fortunato's punishment but also in the unknown cause of his punishment.  Under normal circumstances, we judge a person's actions in part on the basis of the cause of those actions.  Without knowing the cause, we are left in a kind of moral limbo--we can't assign blame to either Montresor or Fortunato because we never know what Fortunato has done, and without knowing that, we cannot decide whether Montresor is reacting appropriately (assuming murder is appropriate to any situation) or is, to put it bluntly, crazy.  Fortunato's guilt can never be measured because we don't know what to measure.  We can conclude, based on the narrative, that Fortunato is an arrogant, prideful man, but those attributes don't seem sufficiently bad to justify murder.  We can also conclude that Montresor is a vengeful murderer, but we can't judge him on a moral basis because we are missing the cause of his hatred.

The horror of Fortunato's death, and the logical, methodical way Montresor has arranged it, is compounded  by the fact that we can never understand Montresor's motivation, and motivation is key to rendering a moral judgment on someone's actions.  We are left, as all readers have been, horrified by a truly inexplicable revenge, and that leaves us in a moral vacuum--a horrible place to be. 

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Gothic Literature

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