Welcome to 4.1! 4.1 is about the nuances of character interactions with themselves, their allies and their enemies. Just like how people’s relationships are often deeper than what it may first appear to be, characters also have relationships that are more than they might first appear to be. In this guide, we’ll be discussing how to analyze complex characters and their relationships with each other.
We’ll be doing it by looking at a work by Edgar Allen Poe: “The Cask of Amontillado.” It’s a short yet rich piece with only two characters.
All quotes from The Cask of Amontillado taken from here. While this guide won’t spoil the ending of the short story, if you want to read The Cask of Amontillado without knowing anything about it you should read it before you read this guide.
“The Cask of Amontillado” has two on-page characters: the narrator, Montresor, and Fortunato. The story has a first person perspective, so we see events through our narrator’s eyes.
In order to start analyzing our characters, we need to find the lines that reveal something about them. Look for places where a change occurs to the character; they meet someone new, for instance. You’ll also tend to learn important facts about characters when they’re first introduced. In this guide, I’ll be looking at the rich introductory passages for our main character and Fortunato.
Montresor introduces himself with the famous opening passage here:
“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 gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, 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.”
…what a passage! So, what can we tell about our lovely narrator?
The first line is packed with character detail:
“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.
In this line, we have Montresor’s goal (revenge on a character called Fortunato), motive for the goal (Fortunato pushing him too far with “insult”) and his relationship with Fortunato (long-suffering annoyance? hatred? pushed too far).
The rest of the paragraph focuses on a caveat to this revenge:
“I must not only punish but punish with impunity.”
Study Tip: If you’re not sure what a word means in a text, take the time to look it up! Especially if it’s an important word in the sentence, like the word impunity above.
Impunity, for those of you who don’t know, means “exemption from punishment or freedom from the injurious consequences of an action.” Our main character will have revenge, but refuses to get caught.
The motive to not get caught explains why Montresor says he never “gave utterance to a threat” — he didn’t want Fortunato or anyone else to suspect him of getting revenge. This character detail, the secrecy of our main character’s motives, is crucial for the rest of the story to work. Indeed, Poe backs this idea up in the following passage:
“It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my in to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my to smile now was at the thought of his immolation.”
Finally, there is this suitably chilling line: “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.”
Our main character is determined to make Fortunato pay for whatever he’s done.
Let’s now look at Fortunato’s description.
The narrator goes on to introduce us to Fortunato by explaining his “weakness.”
“He had a weak point --this Fortunato --although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared. He prided himself on his connoisseurship in wine… Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack, but in the matter of old wines he was sincere.”
This tells us not only that Fortunato is perhaps a little too proud of his patronage of wine (and that he might not be all that good at being a patron of wine) but also that the narrator is thinking of Fortunato in terms of weaknesses to be exploited.
When Fortunato first shows up on the page, though, he is not tasting a wine or buying a wine.
“It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend. He accosted me with excessive warmth, for he had been drinking much. The man wore motley. He had on a tight-fitting parti-striped dress, and his head was surmounted by the conical cap and bells. I was so pleased to see him that I thought I should never have done wringing his hand.”
We meet Fortunato at a time when he’s really quite vulnerable — he’s at a large festival and he’s been drinking heavily, all of which will affect his state of mind going forward in the story. He also “accosted [Montresor] with excessive warmth,” implying that Fortunato feels positively about our narrator.
In order to further analyze this passage, you need to know two things: what the carnival season and motley are.
The carnival season in Italy (where we know Fortunato to be from due to an earlier passage) is the time of celebration before Lent in Italy. During the carnival season, many towns and cities in Italy hold parades, parties, and other events, often featuring colorful costumes and masks. This explains why Fortunato’s been drinking.
This also explains why Fortunato is dressed in “motley,” or the costume of a jester/fool. This costume adds to the irony of this deeply ironic short story because Fortunato is a “fool” as he’s being deceived by our narrator.
From Fortunato’s overly warm attitude, his drunkenness and his costume, we can infer that he is woefully unprepared for whatever the cool, calculating narrator has in store for him.
Let’s now turn to look at Fortunato and the narrator’s relationship, both in terms of the narrative and in terms of their interpersonal dynamic.
Interpersonally, we can see that Fortunato likes Montresor well enough: he’s warm towards Montresor. As for Montresor, while we know that Montresor wants revenge against Fortunato and does not like him much at all, Fortunato doesn’t know that. By Montresor’s own admission, he’s been pretending to be a friend of Fortunato so that his revenge scheme will go undetected.
Here, we can see a simple example of nuanced character relationships. Montresor’s determination for revenge against Fortunato is more nuanced because of Montresor’s beliefs about revenge (“revenge shouldn’t come back to hurt the avenger”), and as a result he treats Fortunato with a false kindness.
Study Tip: Note that there are other ways to interpret Montresor’s character; that’s the fun of Literature!
In terms of the narrative, Montresor is our main character, and therefore our protagonist. “The Cask of Amontillado” illustrates an important point about protagonists: they don’t have to be good guys. The protagonist of a work is anyone whom the plot follows.
Because this story is told from Montresor’s point of view, Fortunato is the antagonist of the story because he opposes the protagonist. In some stories (like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings), the antagonist is a clear “evil” character, but in this story it’s left very ambiguous just how much of this revenge Fortunato deserves. Indeed, it would be more fitting to say Fortunato is the victim of Montresor…
The antagonist of a story can be not just another character but also the internal conflicts of the protagonist, a collective such as society or nature. In more theme-heavy or symbolic works, protagonists and antagonists may represent conflicting values such as good and evil, order vs change, etc.
While Montresor and Fortunato do not clearly represent two different ideals, we can see a contrast in their personalities that does seem to set them apart from each other. Fortunato is portrayed as warm and outgoing while Montresor is calculating and deceptive. In this one situation, Fortunato is at a disadvantage because of his drunkenness and weakness for wine, and Montresor plans to exploit that weakness fully.
On that cherry note, let’s leave Montresor and Fortunato to their fates and turn to 4.2: Character interactions with setting and its significance.