‘The Black Cat’ by Edgar Allan Poe: Short Story Analysis
‘The Black Cat’ is a Gothic paranormal story of the macabre penned as part of the literature that falls into the category of Dark Romanticism and is written by American writer extraordinaire Edgar Allan Poe. Poe lived in the early part of the nineteenth century and wrote this short story in 1843. Poe is considered the master of macabre tales and Gothic Dark Romantic horror genre. He was one of the best short story writers of nineteenth-century America. ‘The Black Cat’ is a scary, frightening, and ghastly story of how a man suffering from a mental ailment goes about killing a black cat named Pluto and how he is punished for his evil deed. The narrator of the story is the killer himself. He kills his pet cat, Pluto, in a perverse manner and his wife in a fit of fury. Then in a cause and effect relationship, he feels vengeance descend on him till he is found guilty in the eyes of the law and is to be put to death. It seems like the narrator narrated his final testament a day before being executed for his crime.
The story titled ‘The Black Cat’ is very similar in theme and structure to another Edgar Allan Poe short story of the macabre titled ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. I have reviewed this short story on my blog. You can check it out for reference. In both the short stories, Poe deals with:
- The innate madness of a person who is obsessed with something singular and vague without a reasonable cause.
- The killing of an innocent person because of an obsession.
- The concealment of the dead body in a grotesque manner.
- The police who arrived at the doorstep to search the premises.
- The bold confidence of the killer who goes to the extent of pointing the police search to the area where the dead body is hidden.
- The onslaught of a certain kind of maniacal hysteria just when the police have finished their investigation and are leaving.
- The revelation of the truth.
- The capture of the narrator, who has become irrational and deranged.
- The deranged narrator is narrating the story of his terrible acts.
In both stories, the narrator tells his tale of woes, which makes us feel disgusting and vile. However, through both these stories, one can delve into the mind of an unhinged person and his obsessions. Notice, though, that where ‘The Black Cat’ is concerned, there is a hint of a paranormal element to the story. We see this in only one instance when the narrator’s wife mentions in passing that black cats were not preferred pets in society because they were deemed to be witches in disguise. Poe is trying to hint that the narrator became deranged in adulthood not because he was already obsessive or had taken to drinking heavily, but because of the malevolent effect of the black cat, Pluto, changing his character and making him into an abusive monster. Note the significance of the name ‘Pluto’, which is the Roman equivalent of the underworld god. The planet Pluto represents a deep psyche and hidden power. It also symbolizes elimination, infatuation, and being distant, which is what the black cat Pluto epitomized. Poe or the narrator of this passage believed that more than his alcohol and more than his own deranged and perverse thoughts, it was Pluto who was having a diabolical effect on him.
The story begins with the narrator making it very clear that he was not insane and that what he had to say was true to the hilt. This is similar to the nameless narrator in ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ who also mentions that he was not insane but would narrate all that had happened to him. The narrator of ‘The Black Cat’ says that these circumstances would seem to have a cause and effect relationship to a logical and intellectual mind. They would seem like simple household events, but to the narrator, it was not. Notice how the real-life story of Edgar Allan Poe, the author, is embroidered in this story. Poe, too was an alcoholic. He similarly behaved like a beast when intoxicated. He also had a devoted wife he lost and suffered from the terrible effects of alcohol consumption.
The abuse of animals is something ubiquitous in Poe’s works. In this short story, the narrator abuses Pluto by first cutting out the poor cat’s eye from the eye socket and then later hanging the cat to death. Trying to harm animals, even killing them, is connected to the psychological issue of power; people who harm innocent animals are doing so because they want to prove their power over their victim, which ultimately stems from a feeling of inadequacy. There is a relationship between animal cruelty and homicide. In ‘The Black Cat’ the narrator is influenced by alcohol and acts like a beast who tortures his pets. He ultimately murders his wife. Psychologists who have studied Edgar Allan Poe’s work find it the natural outcome; docile women are the next targets of homicidal psychotic husbands and have a power-imbalance issue. Read this story without considering Pluto’s satanical nature or the black cat with the white furry breast. You will only see the typical psychotic state induced by alcohol, turning fury and inadequacy into homicide.
We know for a fact that in the past, the narrator was fond of animals. He kept various pets like a dog, a monkey, birds, rabbits, gold-fish, and Pluto, the black cat, after his marriage. When he became addicted to alcohol and psychologically unhinged, he started to abuse his pets, except Pluto. When Pluto started acting peevish himself, the narrator plucks the poor animal’s eye from its socket and then later consumed by the desire to do something wrong simply because it is wrong to do so – he hangs the poor cat to his death. Note the significance of the excellent psychological game Poe is playing with us by mentioning that he hanged the cat simply because he knew that it was wrong to do so, and in most humans, it is common for them to do something wrong only because:
- They can do it.
- It is wrong, so they want to do it to make a point.
- They want to double their misdeed and sin in the eyes of a higher power.
- To drive home a point.
- They are innately evil and are without a conscience.
Note that while talking about the hanging of Pluto, Poe tries to mention that if it were the Old Testament God who was judging the case, then he would be beyond His mercy’s reach. He knew he was doing something wrong, but he made a hasty and perverse decision to continue with his task. We learn that the very same night, the narrator’s home was burnt to the ground while the narrator, his wife, and a servant were the only ones saved from the fire mishap. Poe tries to show us the cause and effect link, which eulogizes the revenge of Pluto. This theory is confirmed when the narrator finds the only wall standing near his bed’s headrest to be:
- The only one standing from the rest of the house.
- It had the plaster shape of a gigantic cat on its surface.
The narrator was deranged, so he didn’t get the message immediately that he should show remorse for his wicked deeds. He does have remorse only for the affection and presence of a cat. So, he searches for a cat, similar to Pluto. He finds one by accident, but nobody knows where the cat came from. This cat was one-eyed like Pluto, black and loving. However, he had a white splotch of fur at his breast, which the narrator later realizes was in gallows’ shape. Note that the second cat was found reposing in a bar upon a hogshead, a barrel of wine, or beer. It symbolizes that this will ruin the narrator, both the alcohol and this second cat. The narrator takes the new cat home as a pet. The wife grows fond of the cat, but the narrator, true to his Jekyll and Hyde personality, starts to loathe the cat. He dreads the presence of the second cat to madness. This madness or insanity is heightened when both his wife and he are in their new home’s cellar, and the new cat springs upon the narrator. He gets hold of an axe to kill the cat, but his wife tries to stop him. He is bent on evil and brings the axe down on his wife’s head, slashing her brain and killing her instantly.
The second cat goes missing at this point while the narrator starts to entomb his dead wife’s body in an erect position in a wall. You will see a remarkable resemblance to the other Poe short story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ where the narrator is worried about being found out by the neighbors and so hastens to get rid of the body. The hitch in this tale, however, is that:
- The narrator is too overconfident.
- He brazenly praises his wall in the cellar to the police.
- He raps the wall with his cane.
- On doing so, a shrill horrendous cry is heard from within the wall, which, when removed brick by brick, contains the reported missing dead wife and the second cat.
The story ends dramatically with one of the most famous horror fiction lines:
I had walled the monster up within the tomb.
It is the cat whom he accidentally walled in the tomb with his wife. The wife was already dead, and her body started to decay. But the cat was alive, and when his cane struck the wall in insolence and the pride of a maniacal person, the frightened or revengeful creature starts to cry out from the wall, like a sound from hell itself! Thus, Pluto, the cat’s death, is retributed and indirectly the narrator’s innocent wife’s death.
I am now coming to the color of the cat. We are aware of the many superstitions people have concerning black cats. Poe heightens this erroneous notion by linking something demonic to a cat that popular culture has shown in a dark light. I hope this analysis doesn’t encourage you, my reader, to think that black cats are demons or witches because they are not. They are very loving creatures and make marvelous companions. I once had a dear black cat called Heathcliff. He was a dear friend, a gentleman in the truest sense of the term, and a gem of a cat. If you want to know more about my life with cats, Heathcliff, and books, you can check out my memoir titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. You can buy the book on my blog’s products page or from Amazon.
‘The Black Cat’ ends with the Satanic or demonic element of the second cat revealed only partially. Indeed, the narrator was right in claiming that if we had just read the story without his introduction, we too would have thought that there was nothing diabolical in the story but coincidence and chance. Edgar Allan Poe has a style to shock his readers. He is a master of dark Gothic prose and an exceptionally brilliant short story writer. One last element I would like to draw your attention to, and that is the topic of guilt. The narrator, as well as Poe himself, suffered from a guilt complex. This made them make rash decisions, which led to their doom. One sees this also in the short story ‘The Tell-tale Heart’. Edgar Allan Poe died a pauper and, in mysterious circumstances, something like the victims in his short stories. The burning of the house after the hanging of Pluto is a typical example of the ‘burning guilt’ in the atmosphere of the story and the mind of Poe, the writer.
I love Edgar Allan Poe and consider his works as classics, which I always encourage my students to read. If you are an educator or a parent and are trying to get your student or ward interested in reading the classics, check out my book titled CLASSICS: Why and how we can encourage children to read them. You can purchase this book on the products page of my blog or from Amazon.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story by American writer Edgar Allan Poe. He is one of my favorite horror writers. When I read ‘The Black Cat’ the first time, I was a little girl at school in the fourth grade. I have his entire collection and hope to re-read and analyze more of his short stories soon. I will be reading and reviewing works by American writers for a few weeks. This is in keeping with the fact that the most significant American election is taking place. I want to showcase America’s rich literary heritage and celebrate its vibrancy by reviewing American books and stories. If you are interested in American bookish content, then this is the site you must keep watching.
If you are interested in book reviews, book analysis, short story analysis, poems, essays, essay analysis, and other bookish content, you can check out my blog insaneowl.com. If you are interested in purchasing my books, you can check out the products page on my blog or my author’s page on Amazon. There is so much good stuff to buy! Happy reading to you always!
Copyright © 2020 Fiza Pathan