Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Cask of Amontillado reveals that the main character, Montresor, may be perceived as an unreliable narrator when retelling his account of the horror fantasy.

The taste of sweet revenge for this psychotic murder proves to be more worthy than a glass of fine, Italian wine.

It’s the essential plot to Edgar Allan Poe's most celebrated short story, The Cask of Amontillado. Protagonist Montresor narrates his recollection of events on the mysterious night he committed an act of revenge on his dear friend, Fortunato.

In literature, it is often perceived that the narrator is suppose to be unbiased and unknowing of the truth, but in Poe's fantasy, he provides a different illustration of the narrator that leaves readers to determine whether the story is actually factual and not biased.

At first glance, we as an audience can believe that Montresor is a reliable character. Everything that he has told the readers in the story seem truthful.

In the narrative, we can examine many instances where we can possibly see Montresor being a reliable character, but at the same time, crucial details and truths are indeed missing.

Montresor, the malicious murderer in Poe’s classic, begins his expressive tale with, “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.”

Through literary analysis and the support of Frank Zipfel’s theory in Unreliable Narration and Fictional Truth, scholars have deconstructed Poe’s fictional story and have proven that Montresor is a deceptive narrator. Montresor's unreliability is based on his absence of significant details and persuasive language, irrational emotions, and inhuman memory that he uses to gimmick his audience within the story.

The epic tale continues with Montresor expressing to the audience, “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 wrong.”

Within this quote, Montresor states that Fortunato has never really apologized for the “injuries,” or wrongdoings that he has inflicted upon him. Montresor then reveals to the audience that Fortunato will indeed receive his revenge, but through extreme punishment and murder.

In actuality, Montresor never expresses the pain that Fortunato struck upon him. This, of course, leads the audience to speculate the “injuries” that Fortunato has done to upset Montresor.

These vital details are never revealed within the actual story, which is one reason why Montresor can be seen as an unreliable narrator.  According to Frank Zipfel’s theory, he states that the first rule in recognizing that a character is unreliable by the violation of human communication. He states, “Conventions of human communication are of course violated. Speakers uttering assertions about states of affairs may be ill informed, may err, may be biased or may intentionally want to deceive to be deliberately lying.”

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Through this lack of communication, we as an audience can agree that these “injuries” that Fortunato committed to Montresor may in fact be small, and not worthy of such a heinous punishment. Montresor uses tricky language to persuade his audience to believe the crimes that Fortunato committed are indeed hurtful, which justifies his reason for murder. These biased truths can show that Montresor is not a reliable character, which exposes his use of persuasive language to fool the audience in believing that he is telling the truth.

As Montresor uncovers his most illustrious plan to massacre Fortunato, he feels obligated to tell the audience that he must not become obsessed or emotionally involved with his brilliant plot. As an audience, throughout the narrative we can spot Montresor’s increased emotions that are uttered about his secret jealousy and admiration for his friend Fortunato. Montresor proceeds to say, “He had a weak point — this Fortunato — although in other regards he was a man to be respected and even feared … Fortunato, like his countrymen, was a quack — but in the matter of old wines he was sincere."

As part of Montresor’s brilliant scheme to lead, trick and persuade Fortunato to his house down into the catacombs, Montresor again reveals his envy for his beloved friend. Montresor says, “Come,” I said, with decision, “we will go back; your health is precious. You are rich, respected, admired, and beloved; you are happy, as once I was. You are a man to be missed. For me it is no matter." Montresor’s insanity is not only questioned, but his emotions for Fortunato can be seen as what many would believe to be irrational.

As an audience, we can instantly perceive that there is a slight discrepancy with his emotions and thoughts towards Fortunato. According to Zipfel's theory, he believes that we as readers have important information and clues that are already available for us readers to decipher due to the known existence of human behavior that we witness through the actual world. Zipfel then lingers to conclude that in order for a reader to detect an unreliable narrator, one must find many differences or contradictions to what is being narrated verses what can be found through the fictional text. Zipfel says, “In order to qualify a narration as unreliable the reader has to detect some kind of contradiction, discrepancy or incongruity between what is overtly narrated and what is supposed to be inferred as fictional truth."

Even, Montresor uses slight humor to cover up his disturbed emotions to the act of murder against his friend. Through playful mockery Montresor says, “No answer still…There came forth in reply only a jingling of the bells. My heart grew sick-on account of the dampness of the catacombs."

Even though Montresor wants the audience to believe that he despises Fortunato in actuality he deeply admires his cherished friend.

At the end of The Cask of Amontillado, Montresor proceeds to say, “For half a century no mortal has disturbed them. In pace requiescat!”

In this excerpt, Montresor conveys that after 50 years on the night of Fortunato’s murder and disappearance this specific incident has been left a mystery for a considerable amount years. In his final sentence, he exclaims the Latin phrase: “In pace requiescat!” which means “May he rest in peace.”  

As an audience, we can recognize that Montresor is an unreliable character by questioning his acute memory of spoken words and actions that he specifically recalls on a night that happened 50 years ago. Presented in Zipfel’s theory, he eludes to the concept of the fictional homodiegetic narrator, an over-reliable character who the reader in terms trust because the character knows so much of the past. Zipfel later states that these type of characters are unreliable because the human memory is only capable of so much capacity that it is nearly possible to remember every detail of a significant event. Zipfel states, “Fictional homodiegetic narration might often be described as “over-reliable” in terms of knowledge about the past…to be able to depict actions and dialogues faithfully with all details even decades after those events took.”

He continues by disclosing, “The narrator lacks the capacity to apprehend the world or acquire knowledge about it according to normal standards of apprehension and knowledge."

It is Montresor’s victorious revenge against Fortunato that reveal his reliability and commitment to completing such a devious task, but his absence of significant details and persuasive language, contradicting emotions, and inhuman memory makes him a suspect of unreliable narration. The “thousand injuries” that were inflicted upon Montresor by Fortunato were certainly never revealed. As an audience, we may view Montresor as being insane which reveals his contradicting emotions and unstable reliability. Also, by Montresor confessing the story after 50 years of the actual night, we can dispute that the significant events and dialogue that may have occurred are not exactly what happened. However, Montresor’s clever gimmicks over his intoxicated friend can lead us to what many may believe is the greatest and most brilliant executions in fictional history.