Poe’s Short Stories – “The Black Cat” (1843)

Summary
On the eve of his death, an unnamed narrator opens the
story by proclaiming that he is sane, despite the wild narrative
he is about to convey. This narrative begins years before, when
the narrator’s honorable character is well known and celebrated.
He confesses a great love for cats and dogs, both of which, he says,
respect the fidelity of friendship, unlike fellow men. The narrator
marries at a young age and introduces his wife to the domestic joys
of owning pets. Among birds, goldfish, a dog, rabbits, and a monkey,
the narrator singles out a large and beautiful black cat, named
Pluto, as his favorite.
Though he loves Pluto, the narrator begins to suffer from
violent mood swings, predominantly due to the influence of alcohol.
He takes to mistreating not only the other animals but also his
wife. During this uncontrollable rage, he spares only Pluto. After
returning home quite drunk one night, the narrator lashes out at
Pluto. Believing the cat has avoided him, he vengefully grasps the
cat, only to be bitten on the hand. In demonic retaliation, the
narrator pulls a penknife from his pocket and cuts out one of the
cat’s eyes. Though the narrator wakes the next morning with a partial
feeling of remorse, he is unable to reverse the newly ominous course
of his black soul. Ignored for certain now by the wounded cat, the
narrator soon seeks further retaliation. He is overwhelmed by a
spirit of PERVERSENESS, and sets out to commit
wrong for the sake of wrong. He hangs Pluto from the limb of a tree
one morning.
On the night of Pluto’s hanging, the narrator’s family’s
house burns down, but he dismisses the possibility of a connection between
the two events. The day after the fire, which destroys all the narrator’s
possessions, he witnesses a group of neighbors collected around
a wall that remains standing. Investigating their shouts of amazement,
the narrator discovers the impression of a gigantic cat—with a rope
around its neck—on the surface of the wall. The narrator attempts
to explain rationally the existence of the impression, but he finds
himself haunted by this phantasm over the course of many months.
One night, while out drunk, the narrator discovers a black object
poised upon a large barrel of alcohol. A new black cat has appeared,
resembling Pluto but with a splash of white on his fur.
As with Pluto, the narrator experiences a great fondness
for the mysterious cat, which no one has seen before. The cat becomes
part of the household, much adored by his wife as well. However,
following the earlier pattern, the narrator soon cannot resist feelings
of hatred for the cat. These murderous sentiments intensify when
the narrator discovers that the cat’s splash of white fur has mysteriously taken
on the shape of the gallows, the structure on which a hanging takes
place. The white fur reveals the mode of execution that claimed
Pluto, and the narrator pledges revenge.
One day, descending into the cellar of the building with
his wife, the narrator almost trips over the cat. Enraged, the narrator
grabs an axe to attack the cat, but his wife defends the animal.
Further angered by this interference, the narrator turns his rage
at his wife and buries the axe in her head. Faced with the evidence
of his crime, the narrator considers many options for the body’s
disposal, including dismemberment and burial. The narrator eventually
decides to take advantage of the damp walls in the basement and
entomb the body behind their plaster. Without any difficulty, the
narrator creates a tomb in the plaster wall, thereby hiding the
body and all traces of his murder. When he finally turns to the
cat, it is missing, and he concludes that it has been frightened
away by his anger.
On the fourth day after the murder, the police arrive
unexpectedly at the narrator’s apartment. Cool and collected, the
narrator leads them through the premises, even into the basement.
Though facing the scene of the crime, the police do not demonstrate
any curiosity and prepare to leave the residence. The narrator,
however, keeps trying to allay their suspicion. Commenting upon
the solid craftsmanship of the house, he taps on the wall—behind
which is his wife’s body—with a cane. In response to the tapping,
a long, loud cry emanates from behind the wall. The police storm
the wall and dismantle it, discovering the hidden corpse. Upon its
head sits the missing cat.
Analysis
Much like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat” follows
the narrator’s descent into madness after he proclaims his sanity
in the tale’s opening paragraph. Even the narrator acknowledges
the “wild” nature of the tale, attempting thereby to separate his
mental condition from the events of the plot. The nature of the
narrator’s madness differs from that of the narrator of “The Tell-Tale
Heart.” “The Black Cat” does not concern itself only with the self-contained nature
of the narrator’s mind. Rather, the narrator confesses an alcoholism
that interferes with his grasp on reality and produces mood swings.
Alcohol is, like the cat, an external agent that intrudes on the
dynamics of the plot. The introduction of alcohol as a plot device
is also significant because Edgar Allan Poe was an reputedly uncontrollable
drunk throughout his lifetime. For many years, his biographers asserted
that he died of alcohol poisoning in a gutter in Baltimore. More
recent biographies insist that the exact cause of Poe’s death cannot
be determined. Regardless, it is certain that Poe suffered from
the deleterious effects of alcohol consumption throughout his life.
The influential literary critic Tzvetan Todorov introduced
a concept of the “fantastic” in the early 1970s
to discuss literature of horror, and the idea can be applied usefully
to “The Black Cat.” The fantastic, he asserts, explores the indefinite
boundary between the real and the supernatural. The fantastic is
a literary category that contains elements of both the rational
and the irrational. One of the fantastic elements in “The Black
Cat” is the existence of the second cat—with the changing shape
of its white fur and its appearance on the corpse behind the wall.
These plot twists challenge reality, but they do not completely
substitute a supernatural explanation for a logical one. It is possible
that the plot twists derive only from the insanity of the narrator.
As a result, the plot twists, like the fantastic, hover between
the real and the supernatural. The resolution of the story is both
rationally possible and tremendously unlikely; the cat could inhabit
the basement walls, but it is difficult to believe that it would
remain silently in the wall for a long time or go unnoticed by the
overly meticulous narrator.