Spoilers for a short story published very nearly two hundred years ago.
When you are good at what you do, people talk about you. Edgar Allan Poe was very, very good. He even survived a character assassination early one. The man was a beast. And thus people talk.
Among his tales of cats and mad men there is one tale that stands above the rest: The Cask of Amontillado. In short, it’s a tale of revenge that still packs a wallop even even after over a century. The narrator, Montresor, lures back his prey, Fortunato, to a fate worse than mere murder. Bleak, dark, and not quite like anything else Poe ever wrote.
Now, again, when you’re good, people talk, and this story gets a lot of talk. Many make of the fact that Montresor never says why he does what he does, suggesting that he himself might be mad.
The thing is, this supposition isn’t supported in the narrative.
Before talking about this, one crucial fact must needs pointing out.. Consider the first paragraph of the story:
The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. 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.The Cask of Amontillado
Edgar Allan Poe
The Cask of Amontillado doesn’t have only two characters. Unlike The Black Cat and The Tell Tale Heart, the narrator isn’t speaking into the void to whoever will listen. Montresor is speaking to a very definite person. He has a very definite audience in mind. This person who knows so well the nature of Montresor’s soul.
Who is this person? As with so much of the story, it doesn’t matter. It could be a friend, a brother, a wife, a lover. Not important. What matters is this person’s existence in the story.
For simplification let’s call this person Grim.
Poe’s big thing was precision. Every little bit plays on every other bit until he hits the mark he needs to hit. Which he was very good at doing.
Montresor never once expounds upon why he kills Fortunato to Grim. He expects Grim to know and understand at once. That is because he tells Grim exactly why he kills Fortunato.
Fortunato insulted him.
No great mystery to solve there. It could have been anything. Duels were more common back then, and they didn’t need that much of a reason for happening. Insults were the primary cause.
Fortunato’s reaction to his fate also points the way. Appaled by the act as he is, he never once asks the important question of why it’s happening to him.
That’s because he knows why.
Fortunato thought himself safe when his insult passed without action. Another factor is that, as Montresor tells Grim, Fortunato was “a man to be respected and even feared.” Someone that believed himself above reprisals.
Thus it’s very likely Montresor isn’t one of Poe’s mad men. He’s merely a very clever, very evil man.
Maybe that’s why, unlike with most Poe’s killers, Montersor gets away with it in the end.