In "The Cask of Amontillado," why was it effective to explain about whether or not the narrator was part of the freemasons?

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The joke about the Masons demonstrates that Fortunato is from a more important family than Montresor.

We do not know much about Montresor, except that he is a madman and he wants revenge against Fortunato for some unknown, probably insignificant reason.  Montresor gets Fortunato into the catacombs by telling him that he has a rare and expensive wine that he needs his opinion on.  This may indicate that Fortunato is wealthier than Montresor, since he can be expected to know wine better.

Fortunato must not know Montresor well if he is trying to find out if he is a Mason.  The Masons are an ultra-secretive secret society of wealthy and influential individuals.  Montresor does not seem to have made the cut.

I broke and reached him a flagon of De Grave. He emptied it at a breath. His eyes flashed with a fierce light. He laughed and threw the bottle upwards with a gesticulation I did not understand.

I looked at him in surprise. He repeated the movement --a grotesque one.

Montresor likely describes the movement as grotesque because of his delusion.  He considers Fortunato evil, worthy of punishment enough that he is trying to kill him.  It makes sense that he would discount the movement Fortunato makes and read the wrong thing into it.

Fortunato presses the issue, and Montresor tries to backpedal.  He does not want Fortunato getting suspicious now.

"You do not comprehend?" he said.

"Not I," I replied.

"Then you are not of the brotherhood."

"How?"

"You are not of the masons."

"Yes, yes," I said; "yes, yes."

"You? Impossible! A mason?"

Fortunato’s contempt shows that he does not believe Montresor, and does not value Montresor’s family name.  Montresor tries to get out of the situation by holding up his trowel.  Fortunato is drunk enough to think it is part of a joke and not wonder what Montresor is doing with a trowel.

The Mason incident is effective in that it adds comic relief, foreshadowing, and characterization.  It is humorous, but it also foreshadows the danger to Fortunato.  Why does Montresor have that trowel?  It is also characterization, because it tells us that Fortunato's family is wealthier and more influential than Montresor's.

 

 

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In the story, it seems that Fortunato makes reference to the Freemasons as just one more way of belittling Montresor, even more than the "thousand injuries" he's already inflicted have.  As Montresor leads the wine connoisseur deeper and deeper into the crypts toward the nonexistent pipe of Amontillado, he stops to offer Fortunato wine so that by the time Fortunato realizes Montresor's intention to wall him in, he will be in no shape to fight.

On one of these wine stops, Fortunato "laughed and threw the bottle upward with a gesticulation [Montresor] did not understand."  When Montresor looked at Fortunato in surprise, Fortunato repeated the action.  When Montresor failed to comprehend, Fortunato responds triumphantly, "'Then you are not of the brotherhood [....].  You are not of the masons.'"  Once again, Fortunato attempts to exclude Montresor, to point out that he is somehow less than Fortunato because he doesn't belong to this organization which is veiled in secrecy and steeped in tradition and symbolism.  Montresor cries, "'Yes, yes, [...] yes, yes," and to prove his membership, he produces a trowel from beneath his cloak.  Fortunato has clearly given the secret sign of membership to the Freemasons, and in an effort not to be again bested by him, Montresor claims that he is a member (which he is not, or else he would have recognized the gesture).  However, what Fortunato does not realize (either because he is too proud or too drunk, or both) is that it is quite odd for Montresor to be concealing a trowel -- a tool used to apply and spread mortar -- on his person.  This is precisely the tool a person about to build a wall, like a mason, would carry.  Although the fact that Montresor carries a trowel with him doesn't seem to make much impression on Fortunato, readers who are blinded neither by pride nor drunkenness, ought to question its presence.  In total, the interaction offers us some significant foreshadowing as we might begin to guess what Montresor's response will be to those "thousand" and one injuries he's endured.

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