The Black Cat
The Black Cat
EDGAR ALLAN POE
Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Black Cat," was first published in the United States Saturday Post (later known as the Saturday Evening Post) in August, 1843. Poe considered it one of his best tales, and it was immediately popular. The story was reprinted in Poe's Tales in 1845 and has rarely, if ever, been out of print since. It is currently available in a number of editions, including Edgar Allan Poe: Complete Tales & Poems (2003).
"The Black Cat" is a horrifying story of animal abuse and murder, told in the first person by a man who undergoes an alarming change of character. When he was young he was gentle-natured and kind to animals, but in adulthood he fell into drunkenness. He abused and then killed his pet cat, and then murdered his long-suffering wife. The story is at once a chilling tale that is hard to put down and a psychological study of an extremely disturbed mind. As such, it is typical of Poe's work as a whole, and is an example of why his work is read more often today than the work of any other American writer of the nineteenth century.
American poet, critic, and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston, Massachusetts. His father, David Poe, Jr.,
deserted the family. Poe and his mother, Elizabeth Arnold, relocated to Richmond, Virginia, where she died when Poe was two years old. Poe was taken into the family of John Allan, a tobacco merchant. Poe was raised in comfortable circumstances in Richmond, attending schools there and in England, where the family visited.
In 1826, Poe enrolled at the University of Virginia. He studied there for a year and excelled as a student but ran up gambling debts, which Allan refused to pay. Poe quarreled with Allan in 1827, left home with no money and went to Boston, where he anonymously published his first volume of poems, Tamerlane and Other Poems. Then he joined the U.S. Army. Poe partially reconciled with Allan in 1829, after the death of Allan's wife, and was released from the army with the rank of sergeant major.
Poe published a second book of poetry, under his own name, in 1829: Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems. The following year, he was admitted to the military academy at West Point but was expelled for missing classes and roll calls. He had deliberately courted the expulsion because he felt he had been placed in an intolerable situation by Allan, who had refused to meet his expenses. By that time, Allan had remarried and his wife was pregnant, which meant that Poe no longer had any hope of achieving financial security by becoming Allan's heir.
From 1831 to 1835, Poe lived in Baltimore, where he worked hard but lived in poverty. In 1836, he secretly married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. He began writing short stories during this period.
Poe returned to Richmond in 1835, where he became assistant editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, which published some of his short stories. He also gained a reputation as a reviewer. He was fired in 1837, after which he and his wife and mother-in-law moved to New York City, where he scraped out a living on the margins of the literary world. In 1838, he moved to Philadelphia, and the family lived for weeks on bread and molasses. But Poe continued writing, publishing stories and poems.
In 1839, he became coeditor of Burton's Gentleman's Magazine, which published some of his most famous short stories, including "William Wilson" and "The Fall of the House of Usher." In the same year, Poe's Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque was published, but sales were poor, and Poe's personal and professional life remained unstable. He was fired from Burton's in 1840 for drinking.
Poe became editor of Graham's Magazine in 1841, but left a year later, hoping to begin his own journal. The year 1843 was a very productive one for Poe, in which the stories "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Black Cat" were published (the latter in United States Saturday Post). The following year, Poe moved his family back to New York City, where he worked as a newspaper editor.
In 1845, Poe published Tales, which included "The Black Cat." In the same year he published the poem, "The Raven," which caused an instant sensation and ensured that Poe became fully a part of New York literary life. It also gave him an international reputation as a poet. But he tended to undermine his own success by bouts of drinking and quarreling, and he also indulged in literary feuds.
In 1847, his wife died after a prolonged illness, leaving Poe depressed. He later had brief romances with two women, Helen Power Whitman of Providence and Elmira Roysteer Shelton of Richmond. He became engaged to the latter, who was his childhood sweetheart.
The circumstances of Poe's death are not fully known. On a trip to Philadelphia, he stopped off in Baltimore and was found unconscious on the street. He was taken to a hospital in Baltimore, where he died on October 7, 1849.
The narrator begins the story, "The Black Cat," by explaining that he does not expect the reader to believe his story, but he assures the reader that he is neither mad nor a dreamer. The next day, he says, he is to die, and he wishes to unburden his soul by telling his story. (It only transpires later that he is about to be hanged for murder.) He gives the reader some notice that this will not be a comforting story, since the series of events he is about to recount "have terrified—have tortured—have destroyed" him.
He begins his story by going back to his childhood, recalling how gentle he was. His companions even joked about his tender-heartedness. He was especially fond of animals and had many pets, and his love of animals continued into adulthood. When he married, he continued to have many pets, including a large black cat named Pluto, for whom he had a special affection.
However, during the three years that he and Pluto were companions, his temperament and character became radically altered because he drank to excess. He became moody and irritable, and violent towards his wife. He maltreated some of his pets, including rabbits, a monkey and a dog. At first he did not abuse Pluto, but one night he came home drunk and seized the cat, who, surprised to be so caught up, bit his hand. The narrator erupted in a fury and cut one of the cat's eyes out with a pocket knife.
In the morning, sober, he felt some remorse for his actions, but he soon started drinking again and forgot all about his violent act.
Pluto slowly recovered from his wound, but would flee in terror every time the narrator approached. The narrator soon found that his irritability with the cat gave way to a greater perversity, in which he felt compelled to act in a wrong manner simply for the sake of it. One morning, he slipped a noose around Pluto's neck and hanged him from a tree limb, even though he knew full well that he was committing a grave sin.
That night he was aroused from sleep by a fire. The whole house was ablaze. He, his wife, and a servant escaped, but the house was completely destroyed.
The following day he visited the ruins. The walls were destroyed, apart from one compartment wall in the middle of the house. Lots of people were milling around the wall, and he saw that on the white surface of the plaster had been burned in the figure of a gigantic cat with a rope around its neck.
On seeing this apparition, the narrator was terrified, but he soon developed a rational explanation. He assumed that in an attempt to rouse him, some people had seized the dead cat and thrown it into his bedroom. Then when the other walls had collapsed, the cat's corpse had been compressed into the freshly spread plaster, creating the impression he was then witnessing.
For months, he was haunted by the image of the cat on the wall, and he even began to feel something like remorse, although he says it was not really remorse. But he looked around for another cat to replace Pluto.
One night he was sitting in a tavern and saw a large black cat. It resembled Pluto in every way except for one. It had a large splotch of white on its chest. He petted the cat, which seemed delighted by the attention.
- Edgar Allan Poe Audio Collection, an audio CD released by Caedmon in 2000 (originally recorded in 1954) contains twenty poems and short stories, including "The Black Cat," read by Basil Rathbone and Vincent Price.
- Black Cat (2004), directed by Serge Rodnunsky, is based on Poe's tale, although it also develops a plot of its own. In the film, Detective Eleanor Wyman investigates a man named Jack about the disappearance of his wife Mira and son Jonathan.
The cat followed the narrator home and soon became part of the household and a special favorite of the man's wife. The narrator, however, soon found that he disliked the cat. Soon this feeling escalated into hatred. What added to his loathing of the cat was his discovery that the animal was blind in one eye. However, this did not stop the cat from being very affectionate towards him. The narrator refrained from harming the cat because, in addition to his hatred of it, he was also terrified of it. This was because the patch of white fur on the cat's chest, which had before been of an indeterminate shape, had over time changed and had assumed the shape of a gallows. This distressed the narrator so much that he no longer had a moment of rest. He found himself given over completely to evil thoughts. He hated everything and everyone. His wife patiently suffered his frequent outbursts of fury.
One day, the narrator and his wife went down to the cellar to do a chore. The cat accompanied them down the steep stairs and almost tripped the narrator up. Furious, the man lifted an axe and was about to swing it at the animal, but his wife stopped him. This made him even more angry, and he brought the axe down on his wife's head, killing her immediately.
He then thought about how to dispose of the body. Various schemes came to his mind, including cutting the corpse into pieces and burning it, or burying it in the cellar. Eventually he decided to wall it up in the cellar. One of the walls was loosely constructed and had been freshly plastered. It also had a projection caused by a fireplace that had been filled up. The narrator removed the bricks, placed the corpse propped up against the inner wall, and then relaid the wall exactly as it had been before. No one would have guessed that the wall had been recently disturbed.
The narrator then looked around for the cat, having resolved to kill it, but the cat was nowhere to be seen. Nor did the cat reappear that night, and the narrator slept well. Three days passed, and the cat still did not appear. The narrator concluded that the animal had fled the house, and he was happy that he would never have to see it again.
He was also confident that he could get away with his crime. On the fourth day after the murder, the police came to his house and mounted an investigation. They examined everything, including the cellar, and were apparently satisfied and about to leave when the narrator felt compelled to offer information that would establish even more firmly his innocence of any crime. He told the police that the house was very well constructed, and that the walls were very solidly put together. He rapped with his cane the brickwork of the wall behind which stood the corpse of his wife. At once a terrible cry or shriek was heard coming from behind the wall. The six policemen immediately started dismantling the wall. When the wall fell, it revealed the corpse still standing, and on top of the dead woman's head was the cat. He had walled the cat up within the tomb of his wife. He knew at that moment that the cat's cry had condemned him to the hangman's noose.
The narrator is never named, and his occupation is not mentioned. He is a man, probably still young, who tells his tale while he sits in a prison cell awaiting execution. He appears to have had a normal childhood, and he was noted for the "docility and humanity" of his disposition. He was fond of animals and his parents provided him with many pets. He spent most of his time looking after them and derived great pleasure from it. This continued into adulthood and formed the principal pleasure of his life. He married when he was young, and his wife made sure he had many pets, including birds, goldfish, a dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat. The cat was his favorite pet for some years. But then some weakness or flaw in the narrator's personality manifested, and this led him to drink to excess. The addiction to alcohol altered his personality. Instead of being gentle and kind, he became irritable, moody, and inconsiderate of the feelings of others. He was abusive towards his wife, and also neglected and ill-treated his pets. He went progressively downhill, drinking more gin and wine, hating everything and everyone and becoming obsessed with evil thoughts. He committed one atrocity after another, mutilating and then killing his cat and then murdering his wife.
The narrator's state of mind is obviously abnormal; he may well be clinically insane. It would appear that he never developed the ability to have good relationships with others, his former kindness to animals notwithstanding. This is suggested when he compares the love of an animal to the "paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man," which hints at past disappointments in his attempts to create bonds with others.
This man never seems to understand the chain of cause and effect in the series of events that eventually result in him being condemned to death. He convinces himself that his actions were in effect caused by what he calls the "spirit of PERVERSENESS" that is a fundamental part of the human character. In doing so he tries to evade taking personal responsibility for his own actions, although his comments about his reactions to what he does also shows he is aware that what he has done is a sin and would be offensive to God.
It seems that the narrator has an unconscious desire to be caught, since his rapping of his cane against the wall, and his statement to the police that the walls of the cellar are solidly built, are completely unnecessary and ensure his downfall. Another explanation of that final moment is that he is simply arrogant and wants to enjoy his moment of triumph over the forces of law and order.
The Narrator's Wife
The narrator's wife is not named, her physical appearance is not described, and her character is little developed. However, the narrator does comment that she was of a kindly disposition, just as he was when he married her. She gave every sign of being a good wife. She observed that he enjoyed animals, for example, and made sure that their house had many pets in it. When he became violently abusive towards her, she put up with it without complaint, being endlessly patient. She loved the cat that replaced the dead Pluto, especially because it had only one eye. His wife, the narrator says, "possessed in a high degree, that humanity of feeling which had once been my distinguishing trait." Indeed, it is the wife's goodness that leads to her death, since she arouses the narrator's fury by trying to prevent him from killing the second cat.
Pluto is the narrator's black cat. Large, beautiful, and intelligent, he is very fond of the narrator and follows him around the house. When he becomes old, however, he becomes peevish and starts to incur the displeasure of his owner. Pluto plays a significant role in the story because he becomes the focus for the narrator's unreasoning aggression. The narrator abuses and eventually kills him. Pluto might be seen as the symbolic embodiment of the darker forces within the narrator's personality that he at first attempts to repress but which eventually establish control over him.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Write a Gothic horror story, using a first-person narrator, mimicking Poe's style. Remember that for the story to be memorable, the horror must also be accompanied by some psychological insight into the mind of the narrator. Try to create incidents as Poe does, with a hint of the supernatural but also with possible rational explanations.
- Associations are often made between cats and witches, and there are allusions to this effect in Poe's story. Investigate the history of witches and how they were treated. The Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in 1682 and 1693 are a good starting point for research. What kinds of women were likely to be accused of being witches? How were the trials conducted? What fate were the convicted women likely to meet? Present your findings to the class.
- Gothic fiction and the modern horror movie have much in common. Write a review of your favorite Gothic or horror movie, in which you explain the fascination surrounding fear (and its entertainment value). Why do you (or anyone else) like watching movies that are designed to be frightening? What is the formula for a successful horror movie, and why are these elements so effective? How do these elements apply to Poe's writing, if at all?
- Write an essay on the subject of animal abuse and the various laws in the United States that pertain to it. Is it a criminal offense to hang a cat, or to gouge out a cat's eye? What are the usual penalties for different types of animal abuse? In your opinion, are these penalties too lenient or too severe? Why?
Perverseness and the Evasion of Responsibility
As the narrator begins his tale, he refers to it as "a series of mere household events." Having read the tale, about the man's mutilation and killing of his pet cat Pluto and subsequent murder of his wife, the reader may well find such a description inadequate, to say the least. The narrator admits that the consequences of these events have "terrified," "tortured" and "destroyed" him, but he exhibits a striking lack of remorse and also a failure to grasp any sequence of cause and effect in the events that begin when he cruelly gouges out Pluto's eye. He is keen to reassure the reader that he is not mad, and that he has not merely dreamed the events. But he seems incapable of truly delving into what caused him to act in the way that he did. He does explain that he indulged in bouts of drinking, but offers no explanation of what lay behind this desire to escape through alcohol, or of why his drinking should cause him to behave in such a violent and capricious way.
He claims that he can explain his cruelty to his cat in terms of the "spirit of PERVERSENESS" that he identifies as "one of the primitive impulses of the human heart," according to which people do bad things precisely because they know that they should not. He tries to clarify this as "this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature—to do wrong for the wrong's sake only." But this explanation will strike readers as a lame excuse, an attempt to justify a catastrophic moral failing on the part of the narrator by dressing it up in universal terms, as if he could not help it because it is part of the law that governs being human. In other words, the narrator invents what he claims to be an aspect of the human condition so that he can evade acceptance of responsibility and guilt. This is, after all, a man who feels no remorse. After he has murdered his wife, he sleeps well, and over the next few days, he says: "The guilt of my dark deed disturbed me but little." He also thinks that his "future felicity" is assured, no matter that the corpse of his wife is rotting in the cellar. He plainly lacks a moral conscience. In fact, he actually blames the cat. It was the second cat's fault, he explains, for tripping him up going to the cellar. It is the cat "which had been the cause of so much wickedness." It was also the cat's "craft [that] had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman." It appears that, in the eyes of the narrator, the cat is to blame for everything.
The Consequences of One-Sided Psychic Development
xThe narrator's story, and his manner of telling it, reveal him to be not only a very strange individual, but also one who is emotionally undeveloped and unbalanced. As a boy he was known for his kindness and tender-heartedness, a sentimentality that seems unnatural because it was carried to excess. Even his friends remarked on it. It is as
if the narrator has given himself permission to express only half of his personality, the sweet side, and has found no healthy way to deal with the inevitable darker, more turbulent side, which he therefore represses. He even chooses a wife who reflects the same sweet-natured personality that he himself appears to have. The problem is that there is clearly no room for anything else in his mind and emotions, so that when other elements of his psyche strive for expression, they are denied, until a breaking point is reached and they pour out in an entirely negative and destructive way. In terms of the psychology of Sigmund Freud, the narrator has failed to achieve a condition of healthy psychological balance between conscious and unconscious elements in his personality. What Freud called the super-ego, the part of the mind that acts as a conscience, maintaining a person's sense of morality and preventing him or her from acting in an antisocial way, has for some reason failed to develop. The result is that what Freud called the id, the primitive, unconscious drives and impulses, the part of the psyche that simply wants to act without inhibition to get whatever it happens to want or need, is left in control, with disastrous outcomes.
Mythological and Psychological Symbolism
The two cats in the story symbolize the part of the narrator's consciousness that he represses. The fact that the first cat is entirely black is significant, as is his name, Pluto. In Greek mythology, Pluto is the god of death and the underworld. The presence of the cat Pluto acts as a goad to the narrator, a constant reminder of his lack of psychic wholeness. Since he has failed to integrate the "dark" side of his personality in a manner that would enable him to live a stable, productive life, the symbol of his deficiency, the black cat, follows him around everywhere. Because the narrator appears to have no understanding of his own psychic processes, all he can do is lash out in ignorance and destroy the cat. But since he has not cured his original condition, another cat soon appears on the scene and functions as an even more direct symbol of the narrator's guilt and of the fate that awaits him.
Unlike many short stories, in which the setting is carefully established with key details, the setting in this story is entirely general, not specific. No date, time, or season is mentioned. There is no defined location, other than the fact that the narrator lives at least near a town, since there are a number of taverns he frequents. But none of these are described in any detail. Nor is the first house in which he lives, and all he says about the house he occupies after the first one is destroyed is that it is an old building, and of course it possesses a cellar. When this lack of a specific setting is added to the fact that neither of the characters is named and their physical appearance is not described, the tale acquires a timeless, archetypal quality, almost like a folktale or myth. In a sense, where it takes place in the outer world is unimportant, because the key element is an inner one, the mind of the narrator.
Cats in Folklore, Art, and Literature
In "The Black Cat," the narrator says that his wife alluded to "the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise." He adds that she was never serious about this point, and the narrator obviously does not believe it. But Poe carefully introduced this element into the story to give it another layer of possible meaning. Cats have been thought of in very different ways throughout human history. The ancient Egyptians revered them as symbols of the gods. In pagan and later Christian Europe, many superstitions grew up about cats, some of them contradictory. Cats might bring good luck or bad luck, depending on the situation in which they were encountered. One of the most enduring beliefs, as Poe brings attention to, was the association between cats and witches. Witches were thought to be able to assume the form of a cat, and a cat was a witch's "familiar." When a cat came to a witch and scratched her and drew blood, that bound the witch in a compact with Satan. The witch would then send the cat out to perform various acts of mischief, such as destroying cattle or bringing illness and misfortune on the witch's enemies.
According to folklore, cats took part in witches' Sabbats, and the witches would kiss the cat's posterior as a sign of their obedience to Satan, since black cats were thought to be the embodiment of the devil. In 1590, a witch by the name of Rolande de Vernois testified that "The Devil presented himself at the Sabbat in the form of a huge black cat" (quoted in Harry E. Wedeck's A Treasury of Witchcraft). Wedeck also records the story of Elizabeth Francis, a witch tried in Chelmsford, England, in 1556. She kept a white-spotted cat called Sathan, which had been given to her by her grandmother (also a witch, it would appear) who told her to renounce God and serve Satan, who was embodied in the cat. When the cat did anything for her, Elizabeth Francis, following her grandmother's instructions, would give him a drop of her own blood.
The connection between witches and cats is also found in Western literature and art. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, the witches chant: "Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd" (Act 4, scene 1, line 1) as they prepare their witches' brew. (Brinded means streaked.) The same connection appears in Charles W. Chesnutt's story "The Goophered Grapevine," set in the American South and published in 1887, in which a former slave tells of a "conjuh 'oman"
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1800s: The temperance movement influences American society. Evangelists preach against the consumption of alcohol, proclaiming it a sin. Temperance movement activists blame alcohol for many social ills, such as violence, absenteeism at work, and destruction of family life. In 1851, the state of Maine enacts a law prohibiting liquor consumption. Twelve other states follow Maine's example, but the laws are difficult to enforce, public support soon wanes, and the laws are repealed. By 1868, Maine is the only state with a liquor prohibition law.
Today: Alcoholism is an ongoing social problem in the United States and other countries. Apart from the various health problems associated with alcoholism, such as cirrhosis of the liver, alcoholism is a factor in many cases of domestic violence and other violent crimes, as well as in traffic accidents. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2006, 17,602 people were killed in the United States in alcohol-related vehicle crashes.
- 1800s: An increasing number of Americans keep pets. There is a growing social ethos that considers kindness to animals a virtue. This is associated with developing ideas about the need for society to take care of its weaker members, including children, the ill, and the elderly. Children are encouraged to keep pets because it is thought that caring for pets will help to develop good citizenship in the child. However, it is still common practice, even among pet owners, to drown unwanted litters of kittens and puppies. In the 1840s, many instructional books and essays on pet keeping are published. By 1870, Americans keep a wide range of species as pets, some pet owners develop an interest in purebred dogs and cats, and new breeds are introduced to the United States.
Today: According to a recent survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, over 60 percent of American households have a pet. There are an estimated 77.7 million cats and 65 million dogs kept as pets. Although old superstitions about cats being associated with witchcraft have vanished from the culture, faint traces of such beliefs resurface at Halloween. According to urban legend, black cats are often abducted and/or tortured in October, and though no significant evidence of this exists, many animal shelters do not place black cats in homes during this time.
- 1800s: Convicted murderers are commonly put to death. However, there is also a movement to limit this practice. Some states pass laws eliminating mandatory death sentences for anyone found guilty of a capital crime in favor of discretionary death penalty laws. In 1846, Michigan becomes the first state to abolish the death penalty except in cases of treason. Later in the century, Rhode Island and Wisconsin also abolish the death penalty, even for treason. The most common method of execution at this time is by hanging. The first execution by electrocution takes place in New York in 1890.
Today: The United States remains one of sixty-four countries in the world to retain capital punishment. However, the number of people executed in the United States is in decline. In 2006, fifty-three people are executed, the lowest figure of the twenty-first century, well below the eighty-four executions conducted in 2000. Thirty-eight of the fifty states retain the death penalty, but its use is becoming increasingly uncommon in many states. Several court rulings restrict the use of the death penalty. In 2002, the Supreme Court rules that the execution of mentally retarded defendants violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2005, the Supreme Court rules that the death penalty for those who committed their crimes when under the age of eighteen is unconstitutional. At this time, the most common form of execution is by lethal injection.
(conjure woman, akin to a witch) who makes up a magic potion that includes the tail of a black cat.
In The Everlasting Cat, Mildred Kirk points out that the association between cats and evil is also apparent in sixteenth century religious art by painters such as Tintoretto and Ghirlandajo: "Both put a cat into their painting of the The Last Supper. In Ghirlandajo's it sits broodingly by Judas. In Tintoretto's Annunciation, a fiendish-looking cat watches the proceedings from under a cloud."
One folk belief recorded by Katharine M. Briggs, in Nine Lives: The Folklore of Cats, is "Never get the ill will of a black cat" a piece of advice that the narrator of "The Black Cat," might have done well to follow.
The word Gothic originally referred to a Germanic tribe, the Goths, but later became synonymous with "medieval." Applied to literature, the term Gothic refers to a genre that first developed in Europe in the eighteenth century and was in vogue in England, Germany, and the United States until the early nineteenth century. Gothic novels were set in medieval times, often in gloomy castles with dungeons and underground passages. An atmosphere of mystery, horror, and terror pervaded the Gothic novel, which often featured supernatural elements such as ghosts and haunted houses, as well as madness, death, and hereditary curses. The earliest Gothic novels in England were written by Horace Walpole, including Castle of Ortanto, a Gothic Story (1764). Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) is another well-known example. In the United States, the first Gothic novel was Wieland; or the Transformation (1798), by Charles Brockden Brown (1771-1810). Poe's tales, including "The Black Cat," are directly derived from the Gothic form. As M. H. Abrams explains in A Glossary of Literary Terms, the term Gothic is now applied to a work that may lack "the medieval setting but develops a brooding atmosphere of gloom or terror, represents events which are uncanny, or macabre, or melodramatically violent, and often deals with aberrant psychological states." Every one of these points applies to "The Black Cat," which explains why Eric Savoy, in his essay "The Rise of American Gothic," can make this statement about Poe: "Poe reveled in Gothic excess with a morbid abandon barely restrained by his tight formal control." The other great writer of
nineteenth-century American Gothic literature was Nathaniel Hawthorne, as evidenced by works such as The House of Seven Gables (1851).
Early reviewers of "The Black Cat" had very mixed reactions when the story was first published. An anonymous reviewer in the London Critic adopts a symbolic reading, interpreting the cat as "a figurative personification of the dark-brooding thoughts of a murderer." Evert Augustus Duykinck, in a critique for American Review, takes issue with the narrator's theory of the spirit of perverseness, commenting that such perverseness should be "rightly classed, not among the original impulses of humanity, but among the phenomena of insanity." Martin Farquhar Tupper, writing in the London Literary Gazette, however, finds the story is barely worthy of comment, dismissing it as "impossible and revolting."
The story has since attracted considerable attention from modern critics. For Bettina L. Knapp in Edgar Allan Poe, the story "reveals the narrator's inability to cope with his marriage to an older woman," a puzzling comment since nowhere in the story does the narrator mention that his wife is older than he. Knapp also comments that the fire that burns the house down after Pluto has been killed "may represent a kind of purgatorial symbol, an attempt on the part of the narrator to wipe out remorse and whatever pangs of guilt he feels." According to Daniel Hoffman's interpretation in Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, the narrator formed an association in his mind between cats, witches, and his wife, in which "from the first the cat had been but a displacement of the wife," meaning that in killing the cat the narrator was expressing his desire to kill his wife, which of course he later does. Jeffrey Meyers, in Edgar Allan Poe, His Life and Legacy, offers similar views and also adds a biographical parallel. According to Meyers, the narrator "unconsciously resents [the] humble devotion" of his wife, just as Poe resented his similarly uncomplaining wife. "Though Poe expressed his love for Virginia in words, letters and domestic devotion, this story provided an essential outlet for his remorse, resentment and rage," Meyers notes. Scott Peebles, in Edgar Allan Poe Revisited, agrees that the cat represents the hidden hatred that the narrator feels for his wife, pointing out that "whenever the narrator mentions his wife, a black cat is close by," and adding that when the narrator kills Pluto, "its image mysteriously appears, of all places, on the wall above the unhappy couple's bed."
For G. R. Thompson, in Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales, the tale exhibits "absurdist irony" in the sense that "the murder the narrator commits is the result of subconscious remorse over the cat he has previously mistreated and thus ultimately the device of his self-torture." James W. Gargano, in an essay in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales: A Collection of Critical Essays, reads the story on two different levels, each of which is presented symbolically. On one level, "The Black Cat" is "an intense study of the protagonist's discovery of, and infatuated immersion in, evil, and on another level a subtle examination of the protagonist's refusal to recognize the moral meaning of his career."
Finally, the story has been ingeniously interpreted in terms of the abolition of slavery. Lesley Ginsberg, in an essay in American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative, relates Poe's black cat to the animal images in abolitionist literature of the time. Abolitionists presented the slave as a person who had in effect been turned into a domestic animal, and Ginsberg links the final cry of the black cat that exposes the murderer to the slaves' cry of liberation as they were released from bondage.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English. In this essay on "The Black Cat," he discusses the supernatural elements in the story and Poe's theory of the perverse. He also offers an interpretation of the possible reasons why the narrator acts as he does.
There is much in Poe's tale "The Black Cat" that is hidden or ambiguous. This is partly due to the fact that it is told by a narrator who has an interest in convincing his reader that he is not insane, even as he fails to acknowledge a rather obvious chain of cause and effect in the "series of mere household events" that forms the substance of his story. That the hanging of his cat, the burning down of his house, the murder of his wife, and his walling up of the corpse in the cellar might be described as "household events" is itself an indication that the narrator, if not insane in the legal sense (he would be considered sane in a court of law in the United States today because he knew what he was doing and knew the difference between right and wrong), does not view such events the way that a normal person might. It is notable that as he writes about his act of gouging out the cat's eye, he says "I blush, I burn, I shudder" but expresses no such feelings when he records the murder of his wife, which he relates in a flat, matter-of-fact tone.
Another noticeable thing about the way the story is told is that it contains a hint of the supernatural, the notion that strange events are taking place which cannot be explained by the workings of the known forces and laws of nature. This gives the story its shock value on two occasions. The first is immediately after the narrator's house burns down, and the imprint of the dead cat, with the rope around its neck, is found as if in bas relief in the plaster on the one remaining wall in the house. Even though the reader realizes straightaway that this is at once an accusation and condemnation of the narrator for the cruelty of his deed—especially since the house burns down the very night following the day he hangs the cat—the narrator is at pains to provide a rational explanation in order to mitigate the terror he feels when he first sees the image of the cat. He explains that his neighbors, trying to rouse him from sleep, must have cut the dead cat down from the tree and hurled it into his bedroom. This might seem rather far-fetched (why did the neighbors not use a brick or a stone? Were they reproaching or accusing him, perhaps, by tossing the dead cat back into his house?), but the explanation that follows seems at least within the bounds of possibility: "The falling of other walls had compressed the victim of my cruelty into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime of which, with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass, had then accomplished the portraiture as I saw it."
Could this really have happened? Stephen Peithman's comment in The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe suggests that it might. He comments: "Observers in Hiroshima immediately after the bombing [the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II] found silhouettes of victims whose shadows were cast on walls at the moment of the explosion."
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843) has a number of similarities to "The Black Cat," including the fact that it is told by a murderer who is anxious to convince the reader that he is not mad. As in "The Black Cat," the murderer is about to get away with his crime, but he is compelled by some inner force to betray his guilt.
- The New Gothic: A Collection of Contemporary Gothic Fiction (1991), edited by Bradford Morrow, contains stories by contemporary writers including Anne Rice, Martin Amis, Jeanette Winterson, Joyce Carol Oates, Angela Carter, Robert Coover, and John Edgar Wideman. The collection shows that Gothic fiction is thriving 150 years after Poe helped to establish the genre.
- The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (2001), edited by Chris Baldick, includes thirty-seven Gothic stories, written by authors from the eighteenth century to the present. Included are stories by Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, H. P. Lovecraft, Patrick McGrath, Joyce Carol Oates, Jorge Luis Borges, and others.
- Stephen King's Pet Sematary (1983) has been described as the most frightening of all King's novels. A doctor moves his family from urban Chicago to rural Maine, where they live near a pet burial ground and an Indian burial ground, from which, it would appear, dead pets can return from the grave. When the doctor's young son dies, he decides to use the mystical powers of the pet graveyard to bring his son back to life. Readers may perhaps be reminded of the appearance of the second cat in Poe's story, which might be a reincarnation of Pluto, the dead cat.
- Poe's work in the Gothic form easily lends itself to adaptation to film. Some of the horror films that are so popular today are direct descendents, in a new medium, of the techniques Poe used so effectively. The Horror Film (2004), by Peter Hutchings, explores the genre of the horror film and why it has been so successful. Hitchings covers such topics as the historical development of the horror genre in the United States and Europe.
The second incident that suggests the supernatural is when the narrator notices that the shape of the patch of white fur on the second cat's chest has gradually changed until, to his horror, he sees that it resembles a gallows. The cat thus becomes both a reminder to him of his killing of the first cat and also—although the narrator does not yet know it—a grim prediction of the fate that awaits him. On the face of it, the incident seems to be supernatural, since how could the fur on the cat change its shape like that? But it must be remembered that everything that happens in this story is filtered through the diseased, guilty imagination of the narrator. The story is told entirely from his point of view, without the presence of any other characters who might confirm or deny his version of events. Significantly, the narrator starts to see the shape of the gallows on the cat's chest some time after he has come to dislike the animal intensely. The original description of the cat does not ascribe any particular shape to the patch of fur; it is just "a large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast." It seems clear, therefore, that the shape of the cat's white fur has not altered; it only seems to have done so in the mind of the narrator, who is tortured by feelings of guilt and perhaps has a premonition of where he is going to end up (hanging from a rope). Nor is it difficult to imagine how such a change in perception might take place. Probably everyone has had the experience of looking at a certain object—a cloud in the sky, perhaps, a shadow on a wall, or a distinctive pattern in a piece of wood—that at first has nothing remarkable about it but then suddenly appears to resemble a face or some other familiar object or creature. Once one has seen the object in a certain way, one cannot look at it again without seeing the same pattern even more clearly. It is a tribute to Poe's skill as a writer, then, that he can give this story the flavor of the supernatural yet at the same time allow for rational explanations of what happens that keep the story within the bounds of what might be possible.
While the guilt of the narrator stares him, and the reader, in the face, the narrator subtly tries to evade personal responsibility for his acts by appealing to what he calls the "spirit of perverseness" that is present in all humans and which, according to the narrator, prompts them to do the opposite of what they know to be right. This is an idea that seems to have appealed to Poe, since he explains it in much greater detail in another of his tales, "The Imp of the Perverse." In "The Imp of the Perverse," just as in "The Black Cat," the narrator tells his story from the condemned cell; he is to be hanged the next day. He explains that he committed the perfect murder and got away with it. But after a long period of time he had the irresistible urge to confess, even though such a confession was, to put it mildly, against his best interests. He explains at great length the spirit of perverseness that prompted him to act in such a way (not to murder, that is, but to confess to murder). Perverseness ensures that a person does something for the very reason that he should not do it; he does wrong simply for the sake of it, because it has an irresistible attraction for him: "We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss—we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain."
Then slowly, a fearful thought emerges:
It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height. And this fall—this rushing annihilation—for the very reason that it involves that one most ghastly and loathsome of all the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination—for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore do we the most impetuously approach it.
Such explanations aside, however, the reader will surely conclude that the real problem of the narrator of "The Black Cat" is not this alleged spirit of perverseness latent in everyone, but simply an inability to cope with the demands of everyday life. In particular, the narrator appears to have a problem with human relationships, especially his relationship with his wife. A number of critics have argued convincingly that the narrator's hatred of his cat, Pluto, is a displaced hatred of his wife, which prompts the question, Why should he hate her, since he describes her as a loving, kind woman? It is likely that the narrator comes to despise his wife for her weakness. He becomes abusive towards her, even physically assaulting her, but not once does she fight back. He describes her as "my uncomplaining wife … the most patient of sufferers." In putting up with his abuse, she is what in modern parlance is called an enabler, but it is very likely that what infuriates the husband even more is her lack of reaction to the abuse he inflicts on her. He must know that the patient, uncomplaining front she puts up is exactly that, a façade created by a timid, easily cowed and frightened woman who is unable to express a natural reaction of anger towards the man who is abusing her. In her weakness, her inability to stand up for herself, it is as if she is drawing his aggression towards her. As D. H. Lawrence wrote in his novel Women in Love, through his character Birkin: "It takes two people to make a murder: a murderer and a murderee. And a murderee is a man who is murderable. And a man who is murderable is a man who in a profound if hidden lust desires to be murdered."
And what, one might speculate, lay under the wife's apparent love for her husband? Quite possibly, it was a similar kind of hatred. There is even evidence in the story to support this interpretation, since the narrator mentions that it is his wife who keeps pointing out to him the patch of white fur on the cat's chest, where he eventually sees the portrayal of the gallows. It is as if she is using her one weapon against him, and persists in doing so until it produces the desired effect, terrorizing the terrorist. Indeed, the more one reads this story, the more the murder, rather than being unprovoked, as it at first appears, seems entirely predictable.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "The Black Cat," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following article, Stark explains how the motiveless murder in "The Black Cat" challenges rationalist schools of thought.
Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" presents the reader with a troubled tale of homicide, presumably given "to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events." This baiting language of the narrator given in the first paragraph has provoked numerous critical speculations on the "natural causes and effects" of the story, with particularly plentiful psychological examinations of the narrator and author. Such contemporary analyses, however, may simply miss the point of the text, or better, indicate in their very strivings to provide answers that no sufficiently clear cause for the narrator's murder of his wife and the cat may be found in the text. Indeed, when seen in its historical context, this conclusion, with all its troubling implications, posed significant challenges to increasingly influential scientific thought as well as to shifting evangelical theology. In other words, by depicting a motiveless murderer whose actions cannot be sufficiently explained, Poe "place[d] before the world … without comment" difficulties in both scientific and religious thought and ironically upheld the mysterious nature of the human will in a time dominated by intellectual rationalism.
In "‘The Murders of the Rue Morgue’: Edgar Allan Poe's Evolutionary Reverie," Lawrence Frank highlights some of the pressing scientific questions of Poe's day. As he explains, Poe's detective stories come in the context of an America dominated by "a resurgent evangelicalism and conservative Natural Theology" but increasingly challenged by "a positivist science that was to have its nineteenth-century culmination in Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859)." Frank's thesis significantly exemplifies how Poe's time, especially during the writing of these short stories ("Rue Morgue" in 1841 and "The Black Cat" in 1843) was a tumultuous period in which religious tenets were both clashing and coalescing with more naturalistic convictions. In particular, the increasingly popular, but oft criticized, nebular hypothesis of creation suggested how the cooling of heated gas could form the stars and solar system apart from divine intervention. Though some theologians incorporated this theory into their theism, many saw it as an atheistic challenge to Christian orthodoxy concerning the origin of the universe (pp. 173-174). Moreover, "The Rue Morgue" itself portrayed the connection being made between irrational animals like the Ourang-Outang and supposedly rational humanity. As with Darwin's Origin of Species, combining observations about the Ourang-Outang's similarities to humans with the nebular hypothesis led to the troubling conclusion that the universe (and hence, all humanity) may be motiveless, irrational, and physically determined (pp. 178-183).
Not only does Poe's time reflect increasing concern with naturalism and its implicit determinism, but it also entailed an intriguing shift in evangelical theology. Though the 1830s and 1840s in America were a significant time for Protestants (part of what Mark A. Noll calls the "Protestant Century"), the Reformed doctrines of the previous century were in significant decline. Even among purported Calvinists like Nathaniel Taylor, an heir of Jonathan Edwards's theology, traditional doctrines such as that of human depravity had been reworked sufficiently to lack resemblance to the teachings of their historic forebears. Taylor, for instance, argued that "sinfulness arises from sinful acts rather than from a sinful nature inherited from Adam" (Noll, p. 233). This view of human nature, by implication, ascribed greater freedom to the will by denying that the inherited disposition of depravity necessarily led one to sinful actions. Similarly, the revivalist Charles Grandison Finney denied the miraculous nature of revivals and advocated "the right use of the appropriate means" in bringing about conversions. In so doing, he emphasized the power of the human will to overcome sin irrespective of any unique work of God. More traditional Calvinists like Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge remained as active voices in American Protestantism, but in general, evangelicals ascribed greater power to the human will than their theological forefathers of the prior century (Noll, p. 233).
When we combine this religious context with Frank's observations about the scientific developments of the day, we discover that, in some ways, Protestant theology and scientific theories of human origin were intersecting as they crossed paths on different trajectories. Evangelicals emphasized the power of the human will to overcome sin and crime (culminating perhaps most dramatically in Finney's belief in perfectionism), while scientific examination narrowed the gap between the rational human and irrational animal, and thereby posited a kind of naturalistic determinism.
Our limited knowledge of Poe's religious convictions and interests makes it difficult to establish how clearly invested he was in Protestant theology and its debates on the issue, but there are signs of such interest, especially in the scientific aspects of the debate. In particular, his interest in physical determinism and the mysteries of the will are clear. The irrationality of "perverseness" forms the heart of "Imp of the Perverse," as the narrator inexplicably murders only to inexplicably confess his murder. This confession, indeed, is opened with a discussion of phrenology, the study of how personality relates to the size of the skull. Of greater interest, however, may be his curious essay "Instinct vs. Reason—A Black Cat," in which he discusses the mysterious line between the seeming instinct of an animal and the reason of a human. Such instinct, he comments, "is referable only to the spirit of the Deity itself, acting directly, and through no corporal organ, upon the volition of the animal." Seen in the context of works which challenge human reason, such a statement indicates how Poe concerned himself with the mysterious relationship between divine providence and human volition. Moreover, he showed familiarity with Protestant writings on natural theology, specifically the Bridgewater Treatises, a series of essays in defense of Christianity. Notes in Poe's hand are contained in a copy of the first volume in the series On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as Manifested in the Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man, by Scotch Calvinist Thomas Chalmer. Additionally, he wrote a critique of Peter Roget's treatise on physiology. When combined with what Poe considered his most important work, Eureka: The Material and Spiritual Universe, a natural and theological treatise of his own, all of these links at least indicate some investment in the subject of science and religion and their relationship to nineteenth-century discussions of the will ("Poe and Religion").
In view of the historical context, we can now turn to one of the most troubling and puzzling aspects of "The Black Cat," the question of motive. Numerous critics have taken this puzzle as an invitation to discern the narrator's motive, with a wide range of suggestions from pride to repression of childhood peer abuse for effeminate qualities (Piacentino). Admittedly, the text encourages such analysis in the first paragraph when the narrator writes:
Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the commonplace—some intellect, more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.
With this invitation, Poe the critic has ingeniously invited every critic since him to prove himself or herself an "intellect more calm [and] more logical." The ingenuity of such critics, however, better makes the story's point than the solutions they offer. These critics rightly divine that the narrator of the tale (or perhaps, better, Poe) has littered the story with "telltale clues" that disclose the text's secret. The striking aspect of the story, however, is that there are so many clues. In fact, the diversity of the clues is one of the problems in the text, for they give rise to a variety of explanations.
The most prominent of clues and explanations brings us quickly back to the theological context referred to above, for the most straightforward reading of the text indicates that the cause for this aberrant behavior is the answer of the early 1700s: human depravity. The narrator makes this point quite clearly soon after he begins his first assault on the cat: "I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart—one of the indivisible faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man." His description of this perversity, in fact, could nearly be taken directly from Augustine's Confessions (a significant influence upon Reformed doctrine). As Augustine stole the pears solely for the joy of sinning, the narrator likewise claims to have killed the cat simply "because [he] knew that in so doing [he] was committing a sin." In this respect, the account accords well with orthodox Calvinism but contradicts the views of Nathaniel Taylor on the impotence of the human will. A person's choice to sin does not precede the existence of perversity; rather, the "spirit of PERVERSENESS" already in the heart causes the person to sin. Hence, in essence, the narrator offers a very traditional theological solution to the problem of motive; he assigns it to the perversity of the human heart.
Such a solution, however, fails to acknowledge the unreliability of the story's narrator as well as the insufficiency of the answer. Not only, for instance, is the narrator a confessed murderer, but his story also evidences a certain delusional paranoia. The narrator may be lying, as Susan Amper argues (cf. Piacentino, p. 5), or is simply insane. Regardless, we must take his testimony with a grain of salt. When he blames his crime on human depravity, we are skeptical of this solution, simply because he offers it. Having said this, we need not dismiss the idea outright to make the point. Even in the narrator's explanation of his perversity, he admits of a troubling mystery. Not only does philosophy fail to account for this possibility, but he himself offers no ultimate explanation for the cause behind the perversity. Hence, both in our skepticism and possible acceptance of the narrator's position, we find ourselves without a thorough explanatory cause.
Other potential motives arise in the text, but none of these satisfy either. The most obvious next culprit is his alcoholism. Again, one difficulty with this solution is that the narrator himself puts it forward as a possibility. He suggests that the original change in his character is due to the "instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance." Moreover, this solution remains problematic for other reasons as well. For one, it still fails to account for what drove him into alcoholism in the first place. Was this simply an addiction begun at a young age, or was the narrator trying to hide some deeper troubles? No solution is immediately apparent. More insightful, however, is the observation that only one of his offenses occurs during a moment of drunkenness. As T. J. Matheson notes, the two murders (of cat and wife) occurred while he was sober. Only the gouging out of the cat's eye happened while he was drunk (qtd. in Piacentino). Hence, though alcohol may have been a contributing factor to his crime it cannot be described as the ultimate cause.
A psychological reading of the text, such as Ed Piacentino's, supplies a third explanation of motive, while also exposing the dangers such analysis bears. As with other critics, Piacentino takes the story as an invitation to solve the problem of motive within the text. He provides a solution by discerning the psychobiography of the narrator evidenced in the narration. Through his careful scrutiny, he infers that the narrator had a troubled childhood for his "tenderness of heart," a quality which his peers must have labeled effeminate. As he grew older, the narrator rejected this fault, even to the degree of assaulting his former affections (and representations of those affections, viz the cat!) until, in "the culmination of deep-seated and suppressed anxieties," he killed his wife (p. 5). Even as Piacentino completes his article, the difficulties with this reading become apparent. Two sentences bear this out. Piacentino writes, "The narrator's motive for this cruel and violent crime is, as I see it, psychologically plausible" and "[Considering] ‘The Black Cat’ as the psychobiography of a demented narrator provides the key to discovering plausible meaning and explanation for brutal murder when seemingly none exists" (p. 7; italics mine). The qualifications Piacentino adds here are rather significant. While he sufficiently explains the plausibility of his solution, he fails to make it necessarily probable. Indeed, Piacentino's insistence upon this solution, even as he qualifies it, may indicate more about our longings as readers than about the evidence of the text. This longing, which at times looks like a grasping after the straws of Poe's multiple hints, indeed seems to be part of the game of the text. The narrator invites us to use our logic and discern "the ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects," when in reality no such succession can be found.
Moreover, in his psycho biographical reading, Piacentino demonstrates the pitfalls into which such an examination can lead us. Earlier in the article he writes, "When anxiety and frustration threaten a person's security and self-esteem, as in the case of Poe's narrator, such a combination of repression-displacement—though probably not to the extreme the narrator carries it—may be regarded as a predictable natural reaction" (p. 5, italics mine). Again, we see that Piacentino offers a significant qualifier to his thesis ("though probably not to the extreme the narrator carries it"). More striking, however, is his boldness. In essence, he argues that some childhood criticism led the narrator spontaneously to put an axe in his wife's head and then calls this act a "predictable natural reaction." Of course, anything might be deemed "predictable" in retrospect, but the idea that someone who was mocked as a child would "predictably" murder his wife is either frightening or laughable. Indeed, this statement itself plays most directly into the problematic conclusion towards which Poe baits his readers: all things can be explained by simple cause and effect. If such a conclusion is true, then all human actions have an irrational determinism at their core, indistinct from the behavior of the Ourang-Outang in "The Rue Morgue."
A more accurate solution may be what Piacentino and Amper so eagerly want to avoid: there is no clear explanation for the murderer's motive. The significance of this possibility is brought out rather vividly by John Cleman's intriguing article on "Edgar Allan Poe and the Insanity Defense." As Cleman makes clear, fervid debate was brewing in the 1840s in England and America over the legitimacy of the insanity defense for accused murderers. Significant to our purposes was how such debates centered around "a strongly deterministic view of human nature" and the problem of human culpability. Strikingly, during a Philadelphia case in 1843, the time and place in which Poe was writing, lawyer Peter A. Browne focused his insanity defense of Sydney Mercer (accused of murdering his sister's seducer) on the question of "whether or not the accused was ‘incapable of exercising free will’" (Clemen, p. 629). The primary determinant of this, according to the defense, was whether or not one was "motiveless" in one's impulse to kill (p. 629). Cleman suggests, then, that "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Black Cat," and "The Imp of the Perverse" all represent forms of insanity defenses which ironically undermine the logic of that defense. In "The Black Cat," the means of undermining an insanity defense is essentially to show that the narrator's claim to being subject to "perverseness" is little different from the medical defense of one's temporary insanity. As Cleman puts it, the narrator's use of "perverseness" to defend his actions, like those of the medical authorities, "is presented as a logical, ‘philosophical’ explanation that voids overtly immoral acts of their moral implications" (pp. 636-637). In this respect, Poe parallels Calvinist doctrine (from a detractor's perspective) with the insanity defense; the narrator suggests his culpability is minimized if the cause comes from spiritually wrought depravity, just as phrenologists and defense lawyers minimized culpability if the cause was physically wrought depravity.
Poe, however, still offers no alternative explanation. In other words, even as his text may be seen as an indirect criticism of (Calvinism through his more direct criticism of the insanity defense, no clear explanation is given for motive. We are still unable to explain why the narrator killed his wife. This seems the more interesting aspect of the piece, for, in essence, Poe demonstrates the complexities of the theological, philosophical, and even medical debates of his time. To the phrenologists and lawyers seeking to defend murderers through the insanity defense, he raises the question of how moral culpability can be dismissed simply because one appears "motiveless." To the revivalists and moderated Calvanists, on the other hand, he brings the question of how one might truly change from behavior which one hates. After all, even as his depravity continues, the narrator seems unable to turn away from the evil he knows he is perpetuating and recognizes as evil. He questions, in other words, the freedom of his will. In this sense, the text is radically ambivalent. It explores the issues of moral responsibility and the inexplicability of human evil but supplies no solution.
The "moral" of Poe's tale, then, may be more a statement on the insufficiency of human reason than the nature of the human will. Richard C. Frushell describes how the narrator "points up the disparity which exists between his puny rational attempts (his tale) to give form to extremely complex, shifting states of mind which precede or form life and death actions and the actual cause for such actions" (p. 44). Rationalistic and theological explanations, in other words, fail to account sufficiently for the horror of the event. Indeed, critical attempts to account for the crime may do more to prove this point than the story itself. Every investigative attempt to get to the heart of the narrator's crime operates solely within the realm of "plausibility" but cannot prove probable or conclusive. In this respect, Poe's work indicates the difficulty of the human condition, not only in our inexplicable propensity towards evil (in the case of the narrator), but also in our finitude. No one, it may be inferred, is so distinct from either the murderous tendencies of the narrator or from his inability adequately to explain such tendencies. In this regard, "The Black Cat" shows the limitations of both the human will as well as human accounts of the will.
Source: Joseph Stark, "Motive and Meaning: The Mystery of the Will in Poe's ‘The Black Cat,’" in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring 2004, 9 pp.
James W. Gargano
In the following article, Gargano analyzes the narrators of five of Poe's stories, including "The Black Cat," arguing that "Poe's narrators possess a character and consciousness distinct from those of their creator."
Part of the widespread critical condescension toward Edgar Allan Poe's short stories undoubtedly stems from impatience with what is taken to be his "cheap" or embarrassing Gothic style. Finding turgidity, hysteria, and crudely poetic overemphasis in Poe's works, many critics refuse to accept him as a really serious writer. Lowell's flashy indictment of Poe as "two-fifths sheer fudge" agrees essentially with Henry James's magesterial declaration that an "enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection." T. S. Eliot seems to be echoing James when he attributes to Poe "the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty." Discovering in Poe one of the fountainheads of American obscurantism, Ivor Winters condemns the incoherence, puerility, and histrionics of his style. Moreover, Huxley's charge that Poe's poetry suffers from "vulgarity" of spirit, has colored the views of critics of Poe's prose style.
Certainly, Poe has always had his defenders. One of the most brilliant of modern critics, Allen Tate finds a variety of styles in Poe's works; although Tate makes no high claims for Poe as stylist, he nevertheless points out that Poe could, and often did, write with lucidity and without Gothic mannerisms. Floyd Stovall, a long-time and more enthusiastic admirer of Poe, has recently paid his critical respects to "the conscious art of Edgar Allan Poe." Though he says little about Poe's style, he seems to me to suggest that the elements of Poe's stories, style for example, should be analyzed in terms of Poe's larger artistic intentions. Of course, other writers, notably Edward H. Davidson, have done much to demonstrate that an intelligible rationale informs Poe's best work.
It goes without saying that Poe, like other creative men, is sometimes at the mercy of his own worst qualities. Yet the contention that he is fundamentally a bad or tawdry stylist appears to me to be rather facile and sophistical. It is based, ultimately, on the untenable and often unanalyzed assumption that Poe and his narrators are identical literary twins and that he must be held responsible for all their wild or perfervid utterances; their shrieks and groans are too often conceived as emanating from Poe himself. I believe, on the contrary, that Poe's narrators possess a character and consciousness distinct from those of their creator. These protagonists, I am convinced, speak their own thoughts and are the dupes of their own passions. In short, Poe understands them far better than they can possibly understand themselves. Indeed, he often so designs his tales as to show his narrators' limited comprehension of their own problems and states of mind; the structure of many of Poe's stories clearly reveals an ironical and comprehensive intelligence critically and artistically ordering events so as to establish a vision of life and character which the narrator's very inadequacies help to "prove."
What I am saying is simply that the total organization or completed form of a work of art tells more about the author's sensibility than does the report or confession of one of its characters. Only the most naive reader, for example, will credit as the "whole truth" what the narrators of Barry Lyndon, Huckleberry Finn, and The Aspern Papers will divulge about themselves and their experiences. In other words, the "meaning" of a literary work (even when it has no narrator) is to be found in its fully realized form; for only the entire work achieves the resolution of the tensions, heterogeneities, and individual visions which make up the parts. The Romantic apologists for Milton's Satan afford a notorious example of the fallacy of interpreting a brilliantly integrated poem from the point of view of its most brilliant character.
The structure of Poe's stories compels realization that they are more than the effusions of their narrators' often disordered mentalities. Through the irony of his characters' self-betrayal and through the development and arrangement of his dramatic actions, Poe suggests to his readers ideas never entertained by the narrators. Poe intends his readers to keep their powers of analysis and judgment ever alert; he does not require or desire complete surrender to the experience of the sensations being felt by his characters. The point of Poe's technique, then, is not to enable us to lose ourselves in strange or outrageous emotions, but to see these emotions and those obsessed by them from a rich and thoughtful perspective. I do not mean to advocate that, while reading Poe, we should cease to feel; but feeling should be "simultaneous" with an analysis carried on with the composure and logic of Poe's great detective, Dupin. For Poe is not merely a Romanticist; he is also a chronicler of the consequences of the Romantic excesses which lead to psychic disorder, pain, and disintegration.
Once Poe's narrative method is understood, the question of Poe's style and serious artistry returns in a new guise. Clearly, there is often an aesthetic compatibility between his narrators' hypertrophic language and their psychic derangement; surely, the narrator in "Ligeia," whose life is consumed in a blind rage against his human limitations, cannot be expected to consider his dilemma in cooly rational prose. The language of men reaching futilely towards the ineffable always runs the risk of appearing more flatulent than inspired. Indeed, in the very breakdown of their visions into lurid and purple rhetoric, Poe's characters enforce the message of failure that permeates their aspirations and actions. The narrator in "Ligeia" blurts out, in attempting to explain his wife's beauty in terms of its " expression": "Ah, words of no meaning!" He rants about "incomprehensible anomalies," "words that are impotent to convey," and his inability to capture the "inexpressible." He raves because he cannot explain. His feverish futility of expression, however, cannot be attributed to Poe, who with an artistic "control," documents the stages of frustration and fantastic desire which end in the narrator's madness. The completed action of "Ligeia, " then, comments on the narrator's career of self-delusion and exonerates Poe from the charge of lapsing into self-indulgent, sentimental rodomantade.
In "The Tell-Tale Heart" the cleavage between author and narrator is perfectly apparent. The sharp exclamations, nervous questions, and broken sentences almost too blatantly advertise Poe's conscious intention; the protagonist's painful insistence in "proving" himself sane only serves to intensify the idea of his madness. Once again Poe presides with precision of perception at the psychological drama he describes. He makes us understand that the voluble murderer has been tortured by the nightmarish terrors he attributes to his victim: "He was sitting up in bed listening;—just as I have done, night after night, harkening to the death watches in the wall"; further the narrator interprets the old man's groan in terms of his own persistent anguish: "Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my own bosom, deepening, with its dreadful echo, the terrors that distracted me." Thus, Poe, in allowing his narrator to disburden himself of his tale, skillfully contrives to show also that he lives in a haunted and eerie world of his own demented making.
Poe assuredly knows what the narrator never suspects and what, by the controlled conditions of the tale, he is not meant to suspect—that the narrator is a victim of his own self-torturing obsessions. Poe so manipulates the action that the murder, instead of freeing the narrator, is shown to heighten his agony and intensify his delusions. The watches in the wall become the ominously beating heart of the old man, and the narrator's vaunted self-control explodes into a frenzy that leads to self-betrayal. I find it almost impossible to believe that Poe has no serious artistic motive in "The Tell-Tale Heart, " that he merely revels in horror and only inadvertently illuminates the depths of the human soul. I find it equally difficult to accept the view that Poe's style should be assailed because of the ejaculatory and crazy confession of his narrator.
For all of its strident passages, "William Wilson" once again exhibits in its well-defined structure a sense of authorial poise which contrasts markedly with the narrator's confusion and blindness. Wilson's story is organized in six parts: a rather "over-written" apologia for his life; a long account of his early student days at Dr. Bransby's grammar school, where he is initiated into evil and encounters the second Wilson; a brief section on his wild behavior at Eton; an episode showing his blackguardly conduct at Oxford; a non-dramatic description of his flight from his namesake-pursuer; and a final, climactic scene in which he confronts and kills his "double." The incidents are so arranged as to trace the "development" of Wilson's wickedness and moral blindness. Moreover, Poe's conscious artistic purpose is evident in the effective functioning of many details of symbolism and setting. "Bright rays" from a lamp enable Wilson to see his nemesis "vividly" at Dr. Bransby's; at the critical appearance of his double at Eton, Wilson's perception is obscured by a "faint light"; and in the scene dealing with Wilson's exposé at Oxford, the darkness becomes almost total and the intruder's presence is "felt" rather than seen. Surely, this gradual extinction of light serves to point up the darkening of the narrator's vision. The setting at Dr. Bransby's school, where it was impossible to determine "upon which of its two stories one happened to be," cleverly enforces Poe's theme of the split consciousness plaguing Wilson. So, too, does the portrait of the preacher-pastor: "This reverend man, with countenance so demurely benign, with robes so glossy and so clerically flowing, with wig so minutely powdered, so rigid and so vast,—could this be he who, of late, with sour visage and in snuffy habiliments, administered, ferule in hand, the Draconian laws of the academy? Oh, gigantic paradox, too utterly monstrous for solution!" Finally, the masquerade setting in the closing scene of the tale ingeniously reveals that Wilson's whole life is a disguise from his own identity.
To maintain that Poe has stumbled into so much organization as can be discovered in "William Wilson" and his other tales requires the support of strong prejudice. There seems little reason for resisting the conclusion that Poe knows what ails Wilson and sees through his narrator's lurid self-characterization as a "victim to the horror and the mystery of the wildest of all sublunary visions." Assuredly, a feeling for the design and subtlety of Poe's "William Wilson" should exorcise the idea that he is as immature and "desperate" as his protagonist. After all, Poe created the situations in which Wilson confronts and is confronted by his alter ego; it is Wilson who refuses to meet, welcome, and be restrained by him.
Evidence of Poe's "seriousness" seems to me indisputable in "The Cask of Amontillado," a tale which W.H. Auden has belittled. Far from being his author's mouthpiece, the narrator, Montresor, is one of the supreme examples in fiction of a deluded rationalist who cannot glimpse the moral implications of his planned folly. Poe's fine ironic sense makes clear that Montresor, the stalker of Fortunato, is both a compulsive and pursued man; for in committing a flawless crime against another human being, he really (like Wilson and the protagonist in "The Tell-Tale Heart") commits the worst of crimes against himself. His reasoned, "cool" intelligence weaves an intricate plot which, while ostensibly satisfying his revenge, despoils him of humanity. His impeccably contrived murder, his weird mask of goodness in an enterprise of evil, and his abandonment of all his life-energies in one pet project of hate convict him of a madness which he mistakes for the inspiration of genius. The brilliant masquerade setting of Poe's tale intensifies the theme of Montresor's apparently successful duplicity; Montresor's ironic appreciation of his own deviousness seems further to justify his arrogance of intellect. But the greatest irony of all, to which Montresor is never sensitive, is that the "injuries" supposedly perpetrated by Fortunato are illusory and that the vengeance meant for the victim recoils upon Montresor himself. In immolating Fortunato, the narrator unconsciously calls him the "noble" Fortunato and confesses that his own "heart grew sick." Though Montresor attributes this sickness to "the dampness of the catacombs," it is clear that his crime has begun to "possess" him. We see that, after fifty years, it remains the obsession of his life; the meaning of his existence resides in the tomb in which he has, symbolically, buried himself. In other words, Poe leaves little doubt that the narrator has violated his own mind and humanity, that the external act has had its destructive inner consequences.
The same artistic integrity and seriousness of purpose evident in "The Cask of Amontillado" can be discovered in "The Black Cat. " No matter what covert meanings one may find in this much-discussed story, it can hardly be denied that the nameless narrator does not speak for Poe. Whereas the narrator, at the beginning of his "confession," admits that he cannot explain the events which overwhelmed him, Poe's organization of his episodes provides an unmistakable clue to his protagonist's psychic deterioration. The tale has two distinct, almost parallel parts: in the first, the narrator's inner moral collapse is presented in largely symbolic narrative; in the second part, the consequences of his self-violation precipitate an act of murder, punishable by society. Each section of the story deals with an ominous cat, an atrocity, and an exposé of a "crime." In the first section, the narrator's house is consumed by fire after he has mutilated and subsequently hanged Pluto, his pet cat. Blindly, he refuses to grant any connection between his violence and the fire; yet the image of a hanged cat on the one remaining wall indicates that he will be haunted and hag-ridden by his deed. The sinister figure of Pluto, seen by a crowd of neighbors, is symbolically both an accusation and a portent, an enigma to the spectators but an infallible sign to the reader.
In the second section of "The Black Cat," the reincarnated cat goads the narrator into the murder of his wife. As in "William Wilson," "The Tell-Tale Heart," and "The Cask of Amontillado," the narrator cannot understand that his assault upon another person derives from his own moral sickness and unbalance. Like his confreres, too, he seeks psychic release and freedom in a crime which completes his torture. To the end of his life, he is incapable of locating the origin of his evil and damnation within himself.
The theme of "The Black Cat" is complicated for many critics by the narrator's dogged assertion that he was pushed into evil and self-betrayal by the "imp of the perverse." This imp is explained, by a man who, it must be remembered, eschews explanation, as a radical, motiveless, and irresistible impulse within the human soul. Consequently, if his self-analysis is accepted, his responsibility for his evil life vanishes. Yet, it must be asked if it is necessary to give credence to the words of the narrator. William Wilson, too, regarded himself as a "victim" of a force outside himself and Montresor speaks as if he has been coërced into his crime by Fortunato. The narrator in "The Black Cat" differs from Wilson in bringing to his defense a well-reasoned theory with perhaps a strong appeal to many readers. Still, the narrator's pat explanation is contradicted by the development of the tale, for instead of being pushed into crime, he pursues a life which makes crime inevitable. He cherishes the intemperate self-indulgence which blunts his powers of self-analysis; he is guided by his delusions to the climax of damnation. Clearly, Poe does not espouse his protagonist's theory any more than he approves of the specious rationalizations of his other narrators. Just as the narrator's well constructed house has a fatal flaw, so the theory of perverseness is flawed because it really explains nothing. Moreover, even the most cursory reader must be struck by the fact that the narrator is most "possessed and maddened" when he most proudly boasts of his self-control. If the narrator obviously cannot be believed at the end of the tale, what argument is there for assuming that he must be telling the truth when he earlier tries to evade responsibility for his "sin" by slippery rationalizations?
A close analysis of "The Black Cat" must certainly exonerate Poe of the charge of merely sensational writing. The final frenzy of the narrator, with its accumulation of superlatives, cannot be ridiculed as an example of Poe's style. The breakdown of the shrieking criminal does not reflect a similar breakdown in the author. Poe, I maintain, is a serious artist who explores the neuroses of his characters with probing intelligence. He permits his narrator to revel and flounder into torment, but he sees beyond the torment to its causes.
In conclusion, then, the five tales I have commented on display Poe's deliberate craftsmanship and penetrating sense of irony. If my thesis is correct, Poe's narrators should not be construed as his mouthpieces; instead they should be regarded as expressing, in "charged" language indicative of their internal disturbances, their own peculiarly nightmarish visions. Poe, I contend, is conscious of the abnormalities of his narrators and does not condone the intellectual ruses through which they strive, only too earnestly, to justify themselves. In short, though his narrators are often febrile or demented, Poe is conspicuously "sane." They may be "decidedly primitive" or "wildly incoherent," but Poe, in his stories at least, is mature and lucid.
Source: James W. Gargano, "The Question of Poe's Narrators," in College English, Vol. 25, No. 3, December 1963, pp. 177-81.
Abrams, M. H., A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th edition, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981, p. 72.
Briggs, Katharine M., Nine Lives: The Folklore of Cats, Pantheon Books, 1980, p. 187.
Chesnutt, Charles W., "The Goophered Grapevine," in Collected Stories of Charles W. Chesnutt, edited and with an introduction by William L. Andrews, Mentor, 1992, pp. 1-13.
Duykinck, Evert Augustus, Review of Tales, in Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage, edited by I. M. Walker, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, p. 190; originally published in American Review, September 1845.
Gargano, James, W., "‘The Black Cat’: Perverseness Reconsidered," in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Poe's Tales: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by William L. Howarth, Prentice-Hall, 1971, p. 88; originally published in Texas Studies in Language and Literature, II, 1960.
Ginsberg, Lesley, "Slavery and the Gothic Horror of Poe's ‘The Black Cat,’" in American Gothic: New Interventions in a National Narrative, edited by Robert Martin and Eric Savoy, University of Iowa Press, 1998, p. 104.
Grier, Katherine C., Pets in America: A History, Harvest Books, 2007.
Hoffman, Daniel, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, Doubleday, 1972, p. 237.
Kirk, Mildred, The Everlasting Cat, Overlook Press, 1977, p. 83.
Knapp, Bettina L., Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Ungar, 1984, pp. 144, 148.
Lawrence, D. H., Women in Love, Penguin, 1974, p. 36.
Meyers, Jeffrey, Edgar Allan Poe, His Life and Legacy, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1992, p. 137.
Peebles, Scott, Edgar Allan Poe Revisited, Twayne's United States Author Series, No. 705, Twayne Publishers, 1998, p. 97.
Peithman, Stephen, ed., The Annotated Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Avenel Books, 1981, p. 143.
Poe, Edgar Allan, "The Black Cat," in The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, with an introduction and explanatory notes by Arthur Hobson Quinn, Dorset Press, 1989, pp. 476-83.
———,"The Imp of the Perverse," in The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, with an introduction and explanatory notes by Arthur Hobson Quinn, Dorset Press, 1989, pp. 639-40.
Review of Tales, in Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage, edited by I. M. Walker, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, p. 185; originally published in the London Critic, September 6, 1845.
Savoy, Eric, "The Rise of American Gothic," in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, edited by Jerrold E. Hogle, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 180.
Shakespeare, William, Macbeth, Methuen, 1982, p. 105.
Thompson, G. R., Poe's Fiction: Romantic Irony in the Gothic Tales, University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, p. 172.
Tupper, Martin Farquhar, Review of Tales, in Edgar Allan Poe: The Critical Heritage, edited by I. M. Walker, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986, p. 203; originally published in the London Literary Gazette, January 31, 1846.
Wedeck, Harry E., A Treasury of Witchcraft, Citadel Press, 1961, p. 160.
Buranelli, Vincent, Edgar Allan Poe, 2nd edition, Twayne's United States Author Series, No. 4, Twayne Publishers, 1977.
This is an excellent overview of Poe's work as a whole in poetry, prose, and nonfiction. Buranelli regards Poe as a great American writer. The book includes an annotated bibliography.
Hayes, Kevin J., ed., The Cambridge Companion to Edgar Allan Poe, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
The fourteen essays in this volume are an excellent, reliable guide to Poe's short stories, poems, and criticism. The book places his work in a literary and cultural context, and includes topics such as Poe's humor, his science fiction, and his impact on popular culture.
Jung, Carl G., et al, Man and His Symbols, MacMillan, 1988.
This collection of essays by Jung and Jungian analysts presents Jung's theory of symbolism in dreams and art and how it contributes to an understanding of the unconscious mind. The essay titled "The Process of Individuation," by M.- L. von Franz, which explains how the conscious and unconscious mind in an individual come to know and accommodate each other, is particularly relevant for an understanding of Poe.
Quinn, Arthur Hobson, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
First published in 1941, this critical biography has withstood the test of time. Quinn sticks meticulously to the facts of Poe's life and thus dispels some of the myths and legends about him. He does not make the mistake of confusing the various pathologies represented in the stories with the mind of Poe or the events in his life, as many critics do.
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