Poe's The Cask of Amontillado: A Psychological Analysis of Characters
Widely regarded as E. A. Poe's finest story, "The Cask of Amontillado" depicts a deed so horrific that for many it defines evil. Edmund Clarence Stedman said of Poe's writings: "He strove by a kind of divination to put his hand upon the links of mind and matter, and reach the hiding-places of the soul". Even though 20th century theories of psychology would not be formulated until many years after Poe's death, he nevertheless delved into the realm of abnormal psychology instinctively and perhaps never with a more terrifying outcome than in the character of Montressor, a man so bent upon revenge that he walls his enemy up in a crypt and leaves him to die. Is Montressor a madman, or is he evil personified? Is Fortunato merely the unfortunate victim of a deranged murderer, or did he entice Montressor to commit the deed? By applying 20th century psychological guidelines, one can speculate that Montressor is not insane per se but is afflicted with a malignant narcissistic disorder which, when aggravated by Fortunato's egotism and naiveté, drives him to commit his violent act.
Fortunato is depicted from the outset of the tale as arrogant and egotistical. Montressor begins his narration by saying, "The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge" (240). Though the exact nature of the insult is not made known, there are numerous examples of subtle slights by Fortunato throughout the narrative. Perhaps Fortunato is unaware that his comments are frequently demeaning but his remarks make him seem arrogant and uncaring. Early in the story, he indicates his belief that Montressor is not a true connoisseur of wine with his remark, "Amontillado! You have been imposed upon" (241). Later, in the crypts, he drinks a toast to "the buried that repose around us" instead of to his supposed friend, implying that Montressor is less important than his dead relatives (242). He casually mentions that he has forgotten Montressor's family coat of arms, another slight, and when Montressor later tells him that he is a member of the brotherhood of Masons, Fortunato insults him yet again by responding, "You? Impossible! A mason?" (242). His implication that Montressor is lying is unmistakable. Duan Hsi Yen holds shame to be synonymous with insult and says that "in situations were self-esteem is insufficient, persistent and severe attacks may reach the inner core of the soul, leading to the response of rage and violence". If we concede that Montressor suffers from some type of mental disorder, it becomes easy to see how he could be driven to commit a violent act by Fortunato's casual insensitivity.
Fortunato is also extremely naive in his intoxicated state. During their journey through the catacombs, Montressor offers numerous clues regarding his diabolical intention, but Fortunato seems incapable of deciphering them. Certainly, even...