Many of Edgar Allan Poe’s more famous short stories do not rely in the least upon extensive or in-depth character development. Basic characteristics or idiosyncrasies are provided in the opening passages of the late author’s myriad tales, and the remainder of the narrative consists of the typically nefarious machinations of psychotic individuals driven to murder and the requisite attempts at concealment.
While “The Fall of the House of Usher” devotes more time to discussion of the main protagonist’s psyche, this is one of Poe’s lengthier and more involved horror stories, and character development, at least with respect to Roderick Usher, is required in order for the story’s eventual denouement to fully develop. Note, however, in the following two opening passages from “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” the author’s expeditious and concise manner in introducing his protagonists:
TRUE!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. [“The Tell-Tale Heart”]
Yet, mad am I not—and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soul. [“The Black Cat”]
In both of these stories, the narrator is driven mad, and the point of the stories hardly requires complex characterizations.
Such is the case with Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” The story’s narrator and protagonist is Montresor. The plot of the story revolves around Montresor’s explanation for and execution of a conspiracy to commit murder. No time is wasted thrusting the reader into Montresor’s plan to avenge “the thousand injuries of Fortunato.” As this vengeful narrator states in his opening comment, “I vowed revenge.”
While the narrators/protagonists in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” begin their narratives with pointed denials of their true mental states, Montresor merely declares that he has been insulted by Fortunato for the final time and that revenge would be exacted. While not finding it necessary to defend his sanity, Montresor does, rather, explain that the story of murder that follows is consistent with his known demeanor and that the act of murder will be carried out in a manner befitting one who avenges insults to his honor:
You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that I gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitively settled— but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved, precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. 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. It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my wont, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.
Montresor has planned his act of murder carefully and carried it out with aplomb. He has been careful not to tip off his intended target, Fortunato, and has taken advantage of an occasion when inebriation can be anticipated. It is all rather matter of fact. There is no need to offer complex characterizations; such would not be the point of the exercise. Poe is merely telling an off-beat story of murder. The reader knows all he or she needs to know about the main protagonist.