For those who are coming to this late, I’m critiquing Poe’s story on the level of craft, to demonstrate things to look for in writing when you are reading stories you’d like to emulate.
There were no attendants at home; they had absconded to make merry in honour of the time. I had told them that I should not return until the morning, and had given them explicit orders not to stir from the house. These orders were sufficient, I well knew, to insure their immediate disappearance, one and all, as soon as my back was turned.
I took from their sconces two flambeaux, and giving one to Fortunato, bowed him through several suites of rooms to the archway that led into the vaults. I passed down a long and winding staircase, requesting him to be cautious as he followed. We came at length to the foot of the descent, and stood together on the damp ground of the catacombs of the Montresors.
The gait of my friend was unsteady, and the bells upon his cap jingled as he strode.
The narrator now has gulled Fortunato into coming to his vaults to sample the Amontillado. In the first paragraph, he notes that the servants will not be at home, but for a somewhat peculiar reason: because he has specifically ordered them to stay at home. This suggests people judge him to be a pushover. Fortunato is not the only one who underestimates him; nor is Fortunato the only one on whom he uses reverse psychology. It also suggests that his relationships with even the people in his household are superficial and poor.
In the next paragraph, a few precise verbs evoke the narrator’s obsequious performance to draw Fortunato on: he “bowed” him through several suites, he was “requesting him to be cautious.” Finally, they stand on the damp ground of the catacombs, and we’re given the surname of the narrator: “Montresor.” At the beginning of the tale, Fortunato knew less about the narrator’s inner life than we did, but more about who the narrator was. Now, at the midpoint, in the heart of the narrator’s lair, we see this mysterious figure unmasked, no doubt literally, though Poe doesn’t need to mention the removal of his mask from the carnival.
Up till now, the narrator has been wholly anonymous and invulnerable. But that very invulnerability paradoxically suggests an insecurity. If he was really so sure of himself, if he’s really making an honest confession to the “you” character, then why would he hide his identity? Like Fortunato we’ve been lured along, though for us the lure has been the twofold mystery of who this narrator is and what he has done. Poe has pulled a fast one on us. He’s led us to assume that the narrator is concealing his identity. But suddenly we find that’s not the case at all — this really is a proper confession. And that accentuates the final mystery: to what is he confessing, and if he’s not concealing his identity, is it because the crime was not that bad, or is it because he’s otherwise not afraid of consequences? (There is no third option, because, remember, he said upfront that his vengeance would mean nothing if he would suffer repercussions for it.)
So maybe this won’t be such a dire tale after all. As if to lull us further, Monstresor next refers to Fortunato as “my friend,” returning us to the same ambiguity as his earlier statement at the carnival that he was glad to see Fortunato. The jingling bells are likewise ambiguous. They’re ironic foreshadowing and accentuate the chill and gloom of the catacombs, standing in for hope.
Once again, developing a character through the reactions of other people to that character.
Withholding information about a character to provide room for a twist or, in this case, to re-engage the reader’s interest with second-guessing — if not false hope.
Foreshadowing, with the bells.