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A Mean Character of Montresor in a Short Story by Edgar Allan Poe

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Interpreting Duplicity: A Linguistic Analysis of The Cask of Amontillado

The Cask of Amontillado is an 1846 short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The story is told from the protagonist, Montresor’s perspective as he seeks revenge on his friend Fortunato. Poe uses a motif of duplicity throughout the story, beginning with Montresor’s lie that he’s obtained Amontillado. Montresor’s duplicitous nature is reflected by Poe’s stylistic choices such as parallelism and speech acts. Flouting of social maxims and politeness are featured prominently for plot development and characterization.

Fortunato is skeptical that Montresor has found Amontillado. There’s a back-and-forth of short questions and answers between them. A similar situation occurs when Fortunato finds out that Montresor is a freemason. Poe uses the same format for both conversations. This parallelism to make Montresor seem untrustworthy. It also shows that he’s persuasive enough to convince skeptics to believe him. Since Montresor successfully kills Fortunato, this characterization is appropriate.

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Since Montresor and Fortunato are the only two characters in the story, they take almost the same amount of turns in the dialogue. Montresor is seemingly polite when he speaks to Fortunato. While Fortunato interrupts always allows Fortunato to finish his sentences. Fortunato makes the most interruptions, interrupting Montresor five times throughout the story. Of these five interruptions, four of them are provoked by Montresor mentioning an unseen third character, Luchresi. Poe uses these interruptions to make Fortunato seem insecure about his wine expertise.

Despite Montresor’s polite behavior, he flaunts several social maxims throughout the story. He blatantly flouts the maxim of quality to hide his murderous intentions. He lures Fortunato into the catacombs with three lies. The lie that he’s purchased Amontillado, the lie that he needs Fortunato’s expertise to determine whether the Amontillado is authentic, and the lie that he’ll ask for Luchresi’s help if Fortunato is too busy.

By flouting this maxim so early in the story, Poe characterizes Montresor as an unreliable narrator. While readers are aware that he’s seeking revenge, an unreliable narrator creates additional tension. When Montresor brings Fortunato into the catacombs and tells him to drink the Medoc, we’re aware that Montresor isn’t doing this to protect him from the “damps.” After giving him this wine, Montresor says he drinks to Fortunato’s “long life.” This toast emphasizes the double-meaning of Montresor’s words. Shortly before they toast, Fortunato mentions that he “shall not die of a cough.” Montresor agrees, replying, “true, true.”

Generally, Montresor obeys the maxim of relevance in conversation. His answers are typically dishonest, but they’re usually relevant to whatever question Fortunato has asked. However, Montresor flouts this maxim when Fortunato asks whether Montresor is a member of the “brotherhood.” Fortunato doubts him, but Montresor insists that he’s a mason. The story’s ending proves this to be literally true, but Montresor’s answer isn’t a relevant. He knows that Fortunato means “freemason” when he says “mason.” So although Montresor typically gives dishonest but relevant answers, in this example he gives an honest but irrelevant answer.

This internal deviation occurs shortly before the story’s climax where Montresor builds a wall around Fortunato. Up until this point, the reader is unaware of how Montresor will get his revenge. But during this conversation, Montresor pulls a trowel out of his cloak. By making this stylistic shift at the same time Montresor makes this reveal, Poe alerts the reader to watch for the climactic moment that follows. This could be an example of conversational implicature, where the reader, instead of the hearer, understands the unstated meaning of Montresor calling himself a mason. Montresor shows Fortunato the trowel, but he’s too drunk to understand that this is a menacing gesture. He thinks Montresor shows him the trowel as a joke, since he doubted that Montresor was a mason.

Montresor maintains positive face throughout most of the story. Fortunato remains unaware of his plans until it’s too late. But Fortunato doubts Montresor’s credibility several times. Fortunato doesn’t believe it’s possible to find Amontillado during carnival. Montresor threatens to have Luchresi test the Amontillado, and makes this seem like it would be more convenient to Fortunato. This successfully mitigates the face threatening act since it makes Fortunato want to enter the catacombs with Montresor.

Whenever Fortunato has the sense to turn around and go home, Montresor finds a polite way to persuade Fortunato into staying. He pretends to be concerned about Fortunato’s health when Fortunato starts coughing. Montresor insists that they leave, telling him how guilty he’d feel if Fortunato became ill. But he exploits Fortunato’s insecurity by mentioning Luchresi after reasonably explaining why Fortunato should go home. Fortunato is correct when he calls Montresor’s bluff at the beginning of the story. But through face saving acts, Montresor erases any doubt that there’s a cask of Amontillado hidden in the catacombs.

Social deixis is featured unusually in the story. Montresor and Fortunato are supposed to be “friends.” Montresor refers to Fortunato as “my friend” seven times throughout the story. This is at odds with Montresor murdering Fortunato, especially since Fortunato never refers to Montresor as a friend. Montresor’s intentions and actions gives “my friend” a sarcastic tone, making it questionable whether they ever considered each other friends at all. Since Poe establishes Montresor as an unreliable narrator, this interpretation would make sense.

Still, Fortunato doesn’t suspect that Montresor is seeking revenge and willfully follows him through the vaults. This could characterize Fortunato as either gullible, or Montresor as delusional. The two characters may have shared a cordial relationship, with Montresor only perceiving Fortunato as having injured and insulted him.

It’s realistic that the dialogue features interruptions, but the dialogue is too expositional to be considered “realistic.” Due to the story’s short length, Poe would have had to fit as much information into the dialogue as possible. A lot of archaic vocabulary is used. The story was written in the 19th century, so this makes sense. But some words seem unusual, even for the time period. For example, Poe uses the word “flambeaux” instead of torches. Montresor’s family crest has a “crest d’or.” An unusual amount of French loan-words such as roquelaure are used, especially when the Italian setting is considered.

It makes sense that Poe chooses to say roquelaure instead of cloak, since this specific type of cloak was commonly worn when the story was written. But only a few Italian loan-words are used, such as palazzo, carnaval, and the names of the characters. Aside than that, the other italic words (besides Amontillado) are come from either French, or directly from Latin. Since French loan-words are common in the English language, it’s possible that Poe chose them to emphasize the story’s European setting and still be understood. It could also indicate social class, since Fortunato is upper-class. Montresor’s social status is unclear, but he presents himself as someone who can afford an entire pipe of Amontillado. Poe may have wanted to indicate this through elevated vocabulary in the dialogue. Montresor’s speech style in both the dialogue and narration might also be Poe’s way of making him seem creepy.

Montresor’s duplicitous nature is a constant presence in The Cask of Amontillado. His words are filled with double-meaning, making him an unreliable narrator. Poe uses these stylistic choices to write a truly creepy story where the reader knows just a little bit more than the victim. Information is revealed slowly, and the reader doesn’t know exactly what happens until the climactic moment when Montresor builds a wall around Fortunato.


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