Fiction Analysis Essay
© 2003 by Cheri Grandinetti
(1010 words)

Psychology of Persuasion:
“The Cask of Amontillado” and “Hills Like White Elephants”


The authors of “The Cask of Amontillado” and “Hills Like White Elephants” use the technique of reverse psychology to enable their characters to try and trick each other.  The stories are about two entirely different circumstances and I believe that the reverse psychology also has two different outcomes.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote “The Cask of Amontillado” in 1846.  It is a story about two very proud men, Fortunato and Montresor.  Montresor feels that he has suffered enough of Fortunato’s insults and vows revenge, explaining that the only way a person can get true revenge is by punishment with impunity and by making the person who is being punished aware of the person who is seeking the revenge.  Montresor lies about having a pipe of Amontillado in his vault and uses this to bait Fortunato.  He tries to trick Fortunato a few times in this story by saying that he can get Luchresi to taste the wine instead. Later, Montresor recognizes that Fortunato has a severe cold and should not continue going down into the damp vaults.  Fortunato, of course, insists on tasting this wine because he was a true Italian and prides himself in knowing the Italian vintages.

The two men travel further through the damp vaults of Montresor’s house and a few times Montresor suggests that Fortunato return home because of his cough.  Fortunato does not catch on to Montresor’s plan—most likely due to his unwavering pride—and instead follows him all the way to the recess.  Montresor tells him that the Amontillado is within the recess and immediately uses the chain to secure Fortunato to the ground.  Fortunato is so astonished that at first he does nothing and then when Montresor lays the tiers of stone in place, only then does Fortunato let out a few shrill screams.  He proceeds to laugh either out of anxiety or sheer panic, admitting to Montresor that he has in fact masterminded a very good joke and they should leave and go the palazzo where they can drink wine and laugh together over this amusement.  Montresor continues to put the stones in place and Fortunato does not utter one word.  Montresor waits for him to say something, even asking for a reply, but Fortunato still says nothing.  This disturbs Montresor as he is likely waiting for an apology from Fortunato or some kind of acknowledgement of his guilt.  However, with no reply from Fortunato, Montresor puts the last stone in place and Fortunato is left to die.

The reverse psychology obviously works in this story as Montresor was able to kill Fortunato, which may have been what he wanted to achieve.  The problem with this is that Montresor knows that he did not actually get the revenge he wanted.  I believe that because Fortunato was never aware that Montresor was trying to get revenge upon him, he would never have apologized for doing anything wrong.  Fortunato never admits to insulting Montresor before his death because he does not believe he did.  Although Montresor succeeded in taking Fortunato’s life through the use of reverse psychology, he never gets complete revenge according to his definition and therefore he has to live with his failure.

A story that displays similar use of reverse psychology—though with a different outcome—is “Hills Like White Elephants” written by Ernest Hemingway in 1927.  The story is about an American man and a young girl named Jig who are having a conversation while waiting for a train at a station in Spain.  Suggestions are made that the young girl is pregnant and the American man wants her to have an abortion. The American man’s goal is to persuade Jig to have an abortion, but he must make her believe that it was her idea.  He wants to feel no guilt or sadness and thinks that if she is the one who ultimately decides to have the procedure, he will not have to suffer any emotional consequences.

He begins by saying that the procedure is “quite simple” and that females have it all the time.  He goes on to say that he only wants her to do it if she wants to and that he would never force her to do anything because he loves her.  She initially starts to believe that things would be great between them if it was just the two of them.  She asks him if their relationship could return to normal and if they could have fun again.  He cannot give her a straight answer because he obviously has no intention of being with any one female for a period of time.  He continues to try and persuade her to have the operation and when he is not sure whether she will go through with it he employs reverse psychology.

He tells her that he does not want her to have it and he does not care about the procedure at all.  What he does not realize is that in her mind she has already begun to figure him out.  She knows that they will never have a relationship together whether there is a baby or not.  I believe that she starts to realize that raising a baby alone would not be in her best interest and that is the only reason she would decide to go through with an abortion.  It appears that the reverse psychology the American man used was not effective because Jig won this battle.  If she goes on to have the procedure, she would be doing so on her own without his influences. The American probably realized this in the end and he was left alone with his guilt.

Both Poe and Hemingway use reverse psychology to provide their characters with a means of persuasion, though the stories have different outcomes.   Even if Montresor succeeds in killing Fortunato, his real goal was the acknowledgement of guilt, and this he never received. Hemingway’s American had little persuasive effect on Jig, and if at all, he convinced her that she needs to act in her own best interest. He certainly wasn’t.