A Glimpse Into the World of “The Black Cat”
Those who have read any of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories know that most of them are full of suspense and mystery and that they efflict a feeling of horror and shock upon the reader.
Poe studies the mind, and is conscious of the abnormalities of his narrators and he does not condone the intellectual expedient through which they strive, only too earnestly, to justify themselves. He enters the field of the starkly, almost clinically realistic investigation of men who, although they may feel uneasy about their mental states when their tension lets up, are too far gone to understand their mania, let alone to control it (Gargano 171). His stories usually have a horrible murder theme in which there is a obsessive narrator and they follow the development of the theme step by step with a realism that, barring with genius, might case a
history from the twentieth-century psychiatry. This could not be presented more clearly than in “The Black Cat”. Those who may deny realism to Poe cannot be very familiar with our daily newspapers, which periodically carry true stories of murders committed under just abnormal psychological pressures as those described in “The Black Cat” (Buranelli 76). This story begins with the narrator ,who is about to be hung, confessing what he has done in some type of
repention for his soul. The narrator step by step describes how he began drinking and then to neglect his dearly beloved cat and his wife. One day when he is maddened by the actions of the
cat, he cuts out its eye and later kills the cat by hanging it. After his house burns down and he has lost all he owned he finds a new cat resembling all to well the first. One day while working
with his wife in the cellar he is nearly tripped down the stairs by the cat, he then picks up an axe and tries to kill it but his swing is intercepted by his wife and he instead strikes her and kills her
instantly. He conceals the body but then when the police come, he in a mocking manner taps the wall in which she is buried and reveals to the police what he has done(Poe). In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” his use of point of view, symbolism, foreshadowing, and theme all combine with what he calls “a series of mere household events” to show how the narrator is driven into madness (Poe 1).
Told in the first person point of view by a unreliable narrator, “a term designating one who either consciously or unconsciously distorts the truth”, we are caused to get a one sided
story in which we don’t know whether what we are reading is fact of fiction (Prinsky 231). Poe’s use of the first person point of view strengthens the intent of moral shock and horror writes
Martha Womack( 5). By beginning the story with the phrase, “For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither solicit belief,” the narrator makes several things quite explicit: that he is writing rather than speaking , that the story, although hard to believe, is true and that he doesn’t expect any one to believe him (Poe 1). He also makes it clear that what he will describe is not the result of madness or a dream, but actual events that took place which he calls “an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects” (Poe 1). When the narrator declares this, he causes the reader to believe quite the opposite of what he is writing,
which in fact is that the narrator of the story is crazy and causes us to question if the story is in
fact the truth.
By telling the story from the first person point of view readers get the impression that they are only going to learn about what the narrator wants them to know and that they might not
learn the whole truth. Although, this point of view is one sided we still learn a lot about the narrator’s feelings towards his cat, but we learn almost nothing about his feelings towards his
wife. We find that the narrator is sensitive and has a strong love for animals. We learn that his favorite animal was his black cat, and we also learn how his attitude changes after he starts
drinking. Throughout the story the narrator never reveals the name of his wife or why he has no remorse when he horribly kills her (Hoffman 235). This may suggest that the narrator wants us to know nothing about her and maybe he, himself, want us not to think much about her. The point of view of the story can best be described when Womack implies what we get out of it by writing, “Once again, the reader is invited to delve into the inner workings of the dark side of the
mind” (5). This statement shows how from the first person point of view the reader is able to see deep inside the narrator’s mind almost as if taking part in the action.
The story has a great deal of symbolism which plays an important role throughout the whole story. From the symbolism in the story we learn a lot about the hidden messages that are
behind the narrators actions. First of all, the cat in the story is black which can be interpreted into having a great deal of different meanings. One meaning is that the black cat usually symbolizes something evil or bad. In this story there are two black cats which can symbolize twice as much evil. Hoffman thinks that the black cat may symbolize something else when he writes:
It is she(wife) that suggests to the narrator who is so tendertowards his pets, theold superstition that a black cat is a witch in disguise. What the wife suggests, but the husband may in truthbelieve, that the black cat = witch. This, and other evidence soonto be introduced and offered in the present brief, lead me tosuggest that, in the synoptic and evasive glossary of this tale, witch = wife. Ergo, black cat = wife (235).
Yet black cats can symbolize a lot more things such things as death, sorcery, witchcraft, spirits of the dead, and most common a symbol of bad luck (Womack 6). The cat’s name itself can be interpreted as a symbol. Pluto, the name of the cat, can symbolize what we know from Greek and Roman mythology, which is that Pluto was the god of the dead and ruler of the underworld. The symbolism of the cats name can be used to show how the cat will somehow cause some type of death.
The cat’s eye in the story can also be a symbol in which it represents what some call the “evil eye”, that is performed when someone looks at another in a disturbing manner. Maybe the
cat’s eye symbolizes something else as May mentioned, “When we listen to the word ‘eye’, rather than look at it, we understand that when the narrator says he destroys the ‘eye’, he could mmean he destroyed the ‘I’, which would mean himself” (78). Another part in the story which can symbolize a lot of things is the fact that the cat is half blinded, this could exemplify that the narrator too is somehow half blinded maybe by drinking, or by guilt, or the unwillingness to see
disturbing things. The physical harm the narrator inflicts upon the cat can symbolize how he instead wants to harm his wife. A further symbol is “The sinister figure of Pluto, seen by a crowd
of neighbors, is symbolically both and accusation and a portent, an enigma to the spectators but and infallible sign to the reader”(Gargano 170).
Poe also applies symbolism when he uses particular words, instead of others, to describe something. In the story the constant repetition regarding the use of words such as “heart”, “bosom”, and “breast”, I believe can symbolize the narrators trouble with love and compassiontowards others, mostly his wife. When the narrator kills his wife he says that he “buried the axe in her brain” the use of the word “brain” instead of head or skull can symbolize how he may
have been “thinking” about doing this for some time (Poe 4).
One of the most revealing symbols in the story is “When the brick wall is broken down, the cat is found perched on the corpse’s head, one more indication of the narrator’s guilt(recalling the site of wound) and its cause” (Prinsky 234).
Poe’s use of foreshadowing also plays an important role in the story to foretell some of the major events that will take place. In the beginning of the story when the narrator writes,“But to-morrow I die, and today I would unburthen my soul” (Poe 1). This tells readers that they are about to find out what horrible crime the narrator has committed in order to be in such a situation.Womack writes: “Poe’s pronounced use of foreshadowing leads the reader from one event to the next (‘one night,’ ‘one morning,’ ‘on the night of the day,’ etc.). Within the first few paragraphs of the story, the narrator foreshadows that he will violently harm his wife (At length, I even offered her personal violence)”(6). Poe uses foreshadowing throughout the story when he talks a lot about the cat and speaks little about his wife, suggesting that he doesn’t care much about his wife and he could hurt her without remorse.
The introduction of the black cat itself foreshadows a great deal of what is going to happen. The cat, representing bad luck, foreshadows that in the coming of events bad things are going to take place. The cat’s name, Pluto also foreshadows what is going to happen in the story.His name foreshadows the narrators decent into the murky regions of alcoholism, self-deception, and violence. A further place foreshadowing is used is when the appearance of a
hung cat is left on the remaining wall after the house has been burnt. This hints that he will forever be haunted by how he killed Pluto. The gallows on the breast of the second cat also play a part in foreshadowing because they implicate to the reader that the narrator will be hung in the future for the crime of killing his wife. Prinsky states that foreshadowing is used in the crime scene, a cellar, which reminds readers of the name of the first black cat and foreshadows the
narrators descent into the darkness of irrationality, of evil, and the forces of the unconscious mind (234).
“The Black Cat” is a story that has puzzled critics for some time because there is no true theme that can be found in the story. There are many themes one can get out of this story many of which have to do with those of psychological study (Womack). As Prinsky said:
The story has many themes, most of them relating to human psychology and several in the form of contraries: reason versus the irrational; human being versus animal; self-knowledge versus self deception; sanity versus madness; love versus hate; good versus evil; the power of obsession and guilt; and the sources or motives of crime. As in many of his works, Poe is interested in the borderline between opposites and how it may be crossed (232). The good versus evil theme suggested by Prinsky in my opinion can be interpreted in two different ways. One, in which case the narrator thinks of himself as the good battling the evil-the cat. This theme I think could also be the same but the good being the wife and the evil being the narrator. Another of Prinsky themes can also be interpreted in two different ways. Love versus hate, in which the love the narrator has towards the cat turns into hate. It can be viewed in another way in which the love the cat has for the narrator turns into the hate towards him after he starts drinking.
Another theme I believe could be that the power of obsession and guilt could drive a person mad. In this case the power of obsession the narrator has towards the cat and guilt for what he did to the cat drove the narrator so mad that he killed it even though he really loved it. An additional theme can be stated as: are people truly mad or are they driven into madness? This theme could be difficult because in the beginning of the story we think the narrator is mad when we see how he is an obsessive narrator but we also see how he is loving towards his animals questioning our first thoughts. His character does not change until he starts drinking, causing him to become mad, so this could explain how he was driven into madness.
Davidson wrote that, “ ‘The Black Cat’ is pointedly addressed to this theme of perverseness... this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself-to offer violence to its own nature- to do wrong for wrong’s sake only” is represented in the story (190). Contrary to this theme is when Gargano implies that if in fact it was a theme of perverseness it is flawed when the narrator proudly boasts of his self-control. In my view the most appropriate theme for this story is that the “Fiend Intemperance” could be one’s downfall as it was for the narrator in this story. When the narrator started drinking his loving attitude changed into one of insanity and violence.
Poe’s use of point of view, symbolism, foreshadowing and theme all played an important role in this story giving reasons to why the narrator acted as he did. Although in the beginning of the story we understand that when the narrator writes “mad am I not” that he in actuality was in fact mad or insane. Even though the narrator states that what he did was caused all by the actions of the cat we find that in fact it was caused by him and his drinking. In this story the
irrational urge to kill, which precedes out of an inborn sense of fear and blends into the urge of suicide, becomes our own. In capsule form, this utterance describes the whole of the narrator’s life and ironically his death. Poe, I think, is a serious artist who explores all parts of his characters with probing intelligence. He permits the narrator in this story to reveal and flounder into torment, but sees beyond the torment it causes. “The Black Cat”, must certainly exonerate Poe of the charge of merely sensational writing (Gargano 170). If we did not look at this story and see the four main literary devices used we would have not got the full effect that Poe was
trying to convey, which is that just about anyone can be driven into madness and that the narrator in this story is not very different from any other person.
Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe: Second Edition. Boston: Twanyne Publishers, 1977.
Davidson, Edward H. Poe: A Critical Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957. 190.
Gargano, James W. “The Question of Poe’s Narrators.” POE: A Collection of Critical Essays.
Ed. Robert Regan. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1967. 169-171.
Hoffman, Daniel. Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, 1972.
May, Charles E. Edgar Allan Poe: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers,
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Black Cat.” Ed. Martha Womack. n.page.online. Internet 29 July.
1998. Available http://www.poedecoder.com./Qrisse/works/blackcat.html.
Prinsky, Norman. “The Black Cat.” Masterplots II: Short Story Series. Ed. Frank N. Magil.
Vol. 1. Pasadena: Salem Press, 1986. 231-34.
Womack, Martha. “Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat.’” n.page.Online. Internet. 2 August
1998. Available http: //www.poedecoder.com/essays/blackcat.