illustration of Fortunato standing in motley behind a mostly completed brick wall with a skull superimposed on the wall where his face should be

The Cask of Amontillado

by Edgar Allan Poe

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Indications that Montresor is an unreliable narrator in "The Cask of Amontillado."

Summary:

Montresor is an unreliable narrator because he never specifies the exact nature of Fortunato's insults, suggesting possible exaggeration or fabrication. His calm and calculated description of the murder and lack of remorse further cast doubt on his reliability, as does his manipulative behavior and possible madness.

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What three details make Montresor an "untrustworthy narrator" in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

An untrustworthy narrator can be identified by several key elements;

  • The narrator's perspective and opinions are the only one we are exposed to.
  • The narrator fails to give details about an important event.
  • Opinions are represented as facts.

Generally speaking, an unreliable narrator is one who provides us with incomplete or nonexistant answers to questions that are obviously important; in The Cask of Amontillado, this question might be "what did Fortunato actually DO to Montresor that merits burying him alive?

Much of Montresor's unreliability reveals itself early in the story;

  1. "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I have borne as best I could". Montresor does not tell us what these injuries are.
  2. "You, who so well know the nature of my soul," we do not know Montresor, but as the narrator, he is assuming that we understand and agree with him.
  3. "For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them." This sentence appears at the end of the story and makes it clear that this entire affair took place long ago; it is unclear exactly how old Montresor is at this point, but we might assume anywhere from 70 to 100; this casts doubt on the timeline as well as his memory.
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What three details make Montresor an "untrustworthy narrator" in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

As a first person narrator making what is probably a death bed confession fifty years after the fact, Montresor is telling the story in a way most likely to justify what he has done. We have nobody else's version of the tale with which to compare what Montresor tells us. Therefore, we have to take his word about what happened. This is the word of someone capable of murdering a rival in heinous way by walling him up in a catacomb and leaving him to die, so one has every reason to suspect that this narrator is mentally unstable.

Further, Montresor never specifies what were the "thousand injuries" he claims Fortunato perpetrated against him. That there were so many leads one to believe they must have been small. But if that is true, we wonder why Montresor reacted in such an extreme way.

All of this uncertainty, along with the barbaric nature of the crime, undermines Montresor's reliability as a narrator.

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What three details make Montresor an "untrustworthy narrator" in "The Cask of Amontillado"?

Montresor never mentions even one of the "thousand injuries" that Fortunato has supposedly inflicted upon him: 

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

Montresor also does not detail what the "insult" was. The reader could simply take Montresor's word for it, but that is an assumption. A narrator establishes himself as a reliable source by providing explanations and reasons for his statements. Montresor never does this with the injuries and insults. 

Montresor also brags about his ability to hide the truth: 

It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. 

Montresor proves how he can lie to and manipulate Fortunato. Since he is directly addressing the reader, who's to say he is not being a manipulative narrator as well? 

Some have suggested that Montresor's French name implies that he is new to Italy and therefore, he would have no Italian coat of arms. When Fortunato says he doesn't remember Montresor's coat of arms, this might be a minor insult because Montresor would not have a coat of arms. And note the motto: "Nemo me impune lacessit." This basically means "no one can harm me unpunished." It seems possible that Montresor could have made this up to underscore his feelings of vengeance. We can only guess what else he may have made up. 

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How does a certain phrase make Montresor an unreliable narrator in The Cask of Amontillado?

First, many critics presume that Montresor is speaking a deathbed confession to a priest. This would account for his finally revealing the murder which he had kept successfully concealed. Assuming he is dying when he speaks would mean that he would face no consequences for the murder, and besides the priest could not break the seal of confession to reveal it. Thus the reference to knowledge of the "soul" would refer to a confessor's knowledge of the soul of the penitent.

For unreliability, the statement "will not suppose . . . I gave utterance" casts Montresor as someone who conceals the truth. His self-interest and his self-discipline in dissimulating is apparent in the way he pretends to everyone that he bears no malice towards Fortunato. This establishes him as untrustworthy.

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How does a certain phrase make Montresor an unreliable narrator in The Cask of Amontillado?

Why do you consider Montresor an unreliable narrator? The phrase you quote in your question suggests that the story is presented as a letter written by Montresor to some unknown friend. Presumably, Poe has gotten possession of it and translated it into English. It is similar in this respect to Poe's "A Manuscript Found in a Bottle." By establishing that "The Cask of Amontillado" is addressed to someone who knows him well, Poe can skip a lot of detailed explanations, including the nature of the "thousand injuries of Fortunato." Montresor may not be unreliable but just able to leave out a lot of expository detail because he is addressing an intimate acquaintance. This letter was written fifty years after the murder it describes. What does Montresor write that is not reliable?

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What indicates that Montresor is an unreliable narrator in The Cask of Amontillado?

We are lead to believe that Montressor is mad because he gives no reason or motive for his revenge.  He says that Fortunato had born him a thousand injuries, but he cannot give any specific example that warrants murder.  More, Fortunato does not suspect his scheme at all.  This suggests that Montressor is more than just a little sensitive, to the point of paranoia and schizophrenia (detachment from reality).

Also, Montressor is able to remember the entire story as if were yesterday, when--in fact--it has been over 50 years.  This suggests that Montressor has played and re-played the revenge in his mind, taking satisfaction in every last detail--to the point of megalomania.

One other scenario is that none of this ever happened: Montressor may have invented the entire plot!  We cannot be sure.  Perhaps this is the most disturbing.

Lastly, Montressor takes joy in suffering and death.  He even mentions his work in connection with "the love of God."  Look at the end for clues:

“Ha! ha! ha!—he! he! he!—a very good joke, indeed—an excellent jest. We will have many a rich laugh about it at the palazzo—he! he! he!—over our wine—he! he! he!”

“The Amontillado!” I said.

“He! he! he!—he! he! he!—yes, the Amontillado. But is it not getting late? Will not they be awaiting us at the palazzo, the Lady Fortunato and the rest? Let us be gone.”

“Yes,” I said, “let us be gone.”

“For the love of God, Montresor!”

“Yes,” I said, “for the love of God!”

But to these words I hearkened in vain for a reply. I grew impatient. I called aloud—

“Fortunato!”

No answer. I called again—

“Fortunato!”

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; it was the dampness of the catacombs that made it so. I hastened to make an end of my labour. I forced the last stone into its position; I plastered it up. Against the new masonry I re-erected the old rampart of bones. For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!

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What is one reason that indicates Montresor is an unreliable narrator?

In short, having to decide between your answers, c or d, I would choose c. However there is more to consider than that.

"The Cask of Amontillado" is narrated in the first person and Montresor, admits in the first sentence that he will have revenge. He speaks directly to the reader as "you" assuming that the reader knows his soul. Montresor's voice is so even--not strained or emotional--he tells his story straightforwardly. However, he leaves in what he wants the reader to know and also leaves out what he does not want the reader to know. This is the critical point of the first person narrative--it is manipulative. The reader cannot decide for herself or himself what to believe about a character because it is a monologue. His feelings are hidden. (That is suspicious for a person seeking revenge.) The most terrifying moment in the story is when Fortunato knows he is being sealed up. However, Montresor is calm. He says, "I had scarcely laid the first tier of the masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off. The earliest indication I had of this was a low mourning cry from the depth of the recess. It was not the cry of a drunken man. There was then a long and obstinate silence. I laid the second tier, and the third, and the fourth."

In this story Poe presents the material without any interpretation. What makes this story so dark and sinister is the lack of emotion of the narrator.

If there ever were a sociopath, it would be Montresor.

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Is Montresor an unreliable narrator in "The Cask of Amontillado"? Could he have imagined the injuries and insult, or even the entire story?

I don't think Montresor is as unreliable as he could be.  He is a murderer and allows his pride to rule him, certainly, but I don't think he is mentally unstable beyond his pride.  Montresor says that Fortunato's weak point is his pride, which is ironic because it also seems to be his own, and he does provide evidence to support this.  For one, Fortunato is too proud to miss an opportunity to prove Montresor wrong.  For all Fortunato knows, Montresor is quite willing to find the other wine expert in town, Luchesi, but Fortunato will not hear of it.  He asks, "Amontillado?  A pipe?  Impossible!  And in the middle of the carnival!"  Then, he says that "Luchesi cannot tell Amontillado from Sherry."  Later, he even calls Luchesi "an ignoramus."  In other words, he is certain that Montresor has overpaid for the wine, and he feels himself to be a far superior judge of wine to Luchesi as well.  If he weren't so proud and so eager to prove that Montresor has been played for a fool, he would have remained safely above ground.  As is, he is willing to compromise his own health in order to satisfy his pride.  

Later, when the two men are within the Montresor family vaults, below ground, Fortunato

laughed and threw [an empty] bottle upwards with a gesticulation [Montresor] did not understand. . . .  He repeated the movement.  "You do not comprehend?" he asked.  "Not I," [Montresor] replied.  "Then you are not of the brotherhood."  "Yes, yes," [Montresor] said, "yes, yes." [And Fortunato declared,] "You? Impossible!  A mason?"

Fortunato even demands a sign that Montresor is a member of this elite organization.  In other words, then, Fortunato attempts to reassert his superior social standing by referencing his membership in this sacred brotherhood and by pointing out that Montresor is not a part of the club.  It seems designed not to see if Montresor really is a member but rather to make Montresor feel less important than Fortunato.

Therefore, Montresor does provide some proof of Fortunato's terrible pride (he is willing to sacrifice his health to prove Montresor wrong), as well as Fortunato's intent to insult him (by rubbing his nose in the fact that Fortunato is a mason and Montresor is not).  This certainly doesn't provide a good reason to murder someone, but there is some indication that it isn't all in Montresor's imagination.

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Is Montresor an unreliable narrator in "The Cask of Amontillado"? Could he have imagined the injuries and insult, or even the entire story?

Montresor is an unreliable narrator, yes, because he is clearly mentally unstable.  He cannot be trusted.  In addition, there is no evidence that Forunato did, in fact, insult or do anything of great harm to Montresor at all in the story.  Poe provides no details.  Because the narrator is unreliable, we cannot trust him when he says that Fortunato has wronged him.  We do not know if this is true at all.  EVen if Montresor HAD provided evidence, we still could not trust him because he is an unreliable narrator.  For all we know, he could be making it up.  It does not take long to look for evidence to support the fact that Montresor cannot be trusted and is unreliable because of his murderous plot and because he is emotionless and remorseless for what he is doing.  He has no regrets and is happy with his plans.

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Is Montresor an unreliable narrator in "The Cask of Amontillado"? Could he have imagined the injuries and insult, or even the entire story?

There are many parallels between the two narrators in the Poe short stories "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." Both commit murders for unspecified grievances against their victims. Neither of the narrators can be called completely reliable. Certainly, Montressor comes across as the saner of the two men, though his ultimate crime is just as terrifying as in "TT-TH." Whether he tells the truth about the insults he has received from Fortunato is unknown; surely, the "thousand injuries" are an exaggeration, for Fortunato seems to be completely unaware of any anger that Montressor harbors. Montressor tells such a good story, and the reader is left wondering what great crime could have prompted him to take such actions against Fortunato. Since he was so willing to provide every other detail of his plan, why did he neglect to name the cause? You have every right to wonder about the reliability of Montressor's narration.

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Is Montresor an unreliable narrator in "The Cask of Amontillado"? Could he have imagined the injuries and insult, or even the entire story?

"The Cask of Amontillado" is Montressor's story. He is a man who tells the story of his revenge on his apparent nemesis, Fortunato.  He does claim that Fortunato has committed a thousand injuries until he (Montressor) has had enough.  We either have to believe him and take him literally at his word, or we have to test his reliability as a narrator and see those thousand injuries as hyperbole (exaggeration).  I'll point out a few things, you watch for exaggerations, and you can make your own judgment from there.

Montressor claims a thousand injuries, yet when he is offered just one "insult," he is ready to seek revenge--to the death. Any exaggeration there?

When Montressor meets Fortunato for the first time at Carnival, he says this:

I was so pleased to see him, that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand.

This is a detail that doesn't really matter, yet Montressor feels the need to exaggerate even about a handshake.

Once Montressor has gotten the coughing Fortunato into the underground vaults, he says the following:

"Come," I said, with decision, we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter. We will go back; you will be ill and I cannot be responsible.

This is an obvious exaggeration used to make continue luring his enemy into the catacombs of his villa. 

If you've read the entire work, you know that Montressor is not above saying anything he needs to in order to get what he wants and convince you he's not really insane, just protecting his family honor (another exaggeration, of course). 

Perhaps the most compelling argument that whatever Fortunato did was minimal or even inadvertent (accidental) and completely one-sided is the fact that Fortunato doesn't even really hesitate to go with Montressor.  Surely an enemy worthy of murdering will have shown some real animosity, but that doesn't happen in this story. 

Your assessment is valid.  Follow this train of thought and you can make a strong and effective argument.

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