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"The Black Cat" bears close similarities with the story of the "The Tell-Tale Heart" in that it begins with an unnamed narrator who has been apprehended for murder and who insists that he cannot be insane before he begins an account of a murder that he committed. Unlike "The Tell-Tale Heart," however, we have a man who is aware of the transformation in himself that has led him to become a murderer, although he cannot totally explain it, and we even have a potential cause for his insanity in the form of alcohol. Whereas the protagonist of "The Tell-Tale Heart" explains his case for murder as if his logic were obvious and inevitable, the narrator of "The Black Cat" is on some level aware of his unreasonableness, although he chooses to ignore it and succumb to the baser human emotions of perversity and hatred.
One aspect of the narrator's personality that he shares with several of Poe's characters is that despite his overall lack of normal ethics and good judgment, he uses some reason and logic to avoid admissions of his mental abnormality. In particular, when he sees the image of his cat on the one remaining wall of his house after it burns down, he tries to ignore superstition and offer a reasonable, scientific explanation for its existence. Ironically, the only superstitious member of his household is his wife, who consistently shows a strong moral character despite the abuses and deterioration of her husband. Given that in "The Tell-Tale Heart" the narrator's main proof of his sanity is his rational mind, the contrast between the wife and husband in "The Black Cat" suggests that the difference between a normal mind and an unhealthy one is that the unhealthy mind uses logic to explain away what a normal mind would intuitively understand. Rather than allowing himself to use his wits to recognize the possible significance of the cat's image on the wall, he convinces himself of the scientific explanation in order to forestall thinking about his guilt.
The supernatural elements of "The Black Cat" leave open the question of how much is real, how much can be rationally explained, and how much is a product of the narrator's imagination. Pluto's possible magical significance is first noted by the wife, who states that black cats are said to be witches in disguise, although her kind treatment of Pluto indicates that she does not put much faith in this particular superstition. The narrator explicitly dismisses this viewpoint, but the superstition flavors his entire story. When he observes the image of the cat on the wall, he describes it as gigantic; he previously described Pluto as fairly large, but whether the size of the image is an expression of the paranormal or simply a product of his frightened imagination is difficult to say. Similarly, the narrator claims that the patch of fur on the cat transforms from an "indefinite splotch" to the specific image of the gallows, but we have no evidence that the narrator is observing anything more than the twisting of his own mind.
The narrator speaks specifically about the spirit of perverseness that combines with his alcohol dependence to provide the impetus for his transformation into a murderer. He is particularly careful to explain how perversity drives him to hang his cat Pluto, and at the time, he understands the evil of his crime and even feels some measure of guilt over it. The sign of his decreasing sanity comes as much from his lack of guilt over killing his wife as it does from the actual act of burying his axe in her skull. His explanation that perverseness is "one of the primitive impulses of the human heart" is called into question because of his madness, but at the same time, the story makes us wonder about the truth of his assertion. On the one hand, perverseness might seem natural to the narrator precisely because he was already prone to it, despite what he claims was his previously innocent personality. On the other hand, perhaps he is correct in that perversity exists in all men but is merely aggravated in him.
"The Black Cat" is in many ways a moral tale that deals with the tension between love and hate and that warns of the dangers of alcohol, a substance to which Poe himself was addicted for much of his life. The narrator appears at first to love both his wife and his pets, but by the end of the story his fondness has turned to neglect, spite, and even hatred, particularly for Pluto and his successor. Although Poe does not provide a solid explanation for the narrator's encroaching loss of sanity, perhaps suggesting that madness might happen at any time to any person, the narrator admits the role of alcohol in his behavior. In addition, the arrival of the second cat is closely related to his alcoholism, since he first finds the cat in a seedy drinking establishment. The second cat ultimately serves as the facilitator of justice when it reveals the corpse's hiding place at the end of the tale, and its initial appearance on top of a hogshead of gin or rum emphasizes its moral purpose
The narrator of the story tells a tale of horror and murder from a prison cell. A lover of domestic animals, the narrator had had many differnt pets and had lived comfortably in a house with his pets and his wife. Soon, mostly because of the negative effects of alcohol, he began to despise the pets. Previously his favorite (because of its affection), a large black cat named Pluto eventually copied and seemed to mock the narrator so much that the narrator gouged out its eye and hung the cat. That night his house burned down and left a perfect bas relief of a cat with a noose around its neck in the one unburnt piece of plaster in the house. Soon the author wanted company of another cat and found one identical to Pluto, save for a large white patch of hair on its chest. The white patch eventually transformed from an nondescript patch to a gallows as the narrator again becomes increasingly loathful of the cat. One day the cat triped the narrator in the cellar, and the narrator brandishing an axe, swung it to kill the cat. His wife blocked the blow; and, in a rage, the narrator planted the axe in her skull. He walled up his wife in the cellar and, and without the disappeared cat to bother him, finally had a good night's sleep--even with the murder on his mind. Police came to investigate but they found nothing. They came back four days after the murder and the narrator took them to the exact place where he had killed his wife. While he is bragging to the police about the solidity of the walls in which his wife is entombed, a loud shriek alerts the police to something behind the wall. The narrator had walled up his cat along with his dead wife. "'The Black Cat' is a story of 'orthodox' witchcraft; the sudden appearance of the second cat from nowhere, the slow growth of the white marking, and the murder of the wife after the animal brushed against the protagonist on the stairs are touches of the supernatural"
As the story begins, the narrator is in jail awaiting his execution, which will occur on the following day, for the brutal murder of his wife. At that point, the rest of the story is told in flashback, as the narrator pens "...the most wild, yet homely narrative... events have terrified--have tortured--have destroyed ."
Although several characters are mentioned in this story, the true focus lies upon the nameless narrator, who is known for his "...docility and humanity of ...disposition. His tenderness of heart... the jest of companions." He was especially fond of animals, and he was pleased to find a similar fondness for pets in his wife. They had many pets including "...birds, gold fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat." The cat was a large, beautiful animal who was entirely black. Pluto, as he was called, was the narrator's favorite pet. He alone fed him, and Pluto followed the narrator wherever he went. Occasionally, his wife would refer to an old superstitious belief that "...all black cats witches in disguise. Not that she was ever serious upon this point...."
Point of View
Poe writes this story from the perspective of the narrator, a man whose "...temperament and character through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance ." Telling the story from the first person point of view (a perspective that Poe used quite frequently), intensifies the effect of moral shock and horror. Once again, the reader is invited (as was the case in both "The Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado") to delve into the inner workings of the dark side of the mind.
Style and Interpretation
"'The Black Cat' is one of the most powerful of Poe's stories, and the horror stops short of the wavering line of disgust" (Quinn 395). Poe constructed this story in such a way that the events of the tale remain somewhat ambiguous. As the narrator begins to recount the occurrences that "...have terrified--have tortured--have destroyed ," he reminds the reader that maybe "...some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than own," will perceive "...nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects." As the narrator begins to tell his story (flashback), the reader discovers that the man's personality had undergone a drastic transformation which he attributes to his abuse of alcohol and the perverse side of his nature, which the alcohol seemed to evoke. The reader also discovers (with the introduction of Pluto into the story) that the narrator is superstitious, as he recounts that his wife made "...frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, all black cats witches in disguise." Even though the narrator denies this (much as the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" denies that he or she is insane), the reader becomes increasingly aware of his superstitious belief as the story progresses. Superstition (as well as the popular notion to which the man's wife refers) has it that Satan and witches assume the form of black cats. For those who believe, they are symbols of bad luck, death, sorcery, witchcraft, and the spirits of the dead. Appropriately, the narrator calls his cat, Pluto, who in Greek and Roman mythology was the god of the dead and the ruler of the underworld (symbolism). As in other Poe stories ( "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "The Gold Bug"), biting and mutilation appear. The narrator of "The Black Cat" first becomes annoyed when Pluto "inflicted a slight wound upon hand with his teeth." After he is bitten by the cat, the narrator cuts out its eye. Poe relates "eyes" and "teeth" in their single capacity to take in or to incorporate objects. This dread of being consumed often leads the narrator to destroy who or what he fears (Silverman 207). 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."). However, are the events of the story, as the narrator suggests, based upon "...an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effect," or are they indeed caused by the supernatural? By using, three main events in this story (the apparition of the first cat upon the burned wall, the appearance of the gallowslike pattern upon the chest of the second cat, and the discovery of the second cat behind the cellar wall), a convincing case can be presented for both sides. While making a case for the logical as well as the supernatural, one must remember the state of mind of the narrator. All events are described for the reader by an alcoholic who has a distorted view of reality. The narrator goes to great lengths to scientifically explain the apparition of the cat in the wall; however, the chain of events that he re-creates in his mind are so highly coincidental that an explanation relying on the supernatural may be easier to accept. Once again, the reader wonders if the narrator's perceptions can be believed as he describes the gallowslike pattern upon the chest of the second cat. Maybe what he sees is just a hallucination of a tormented mind. The markings of an adult cat surely would not change that much, unless maybe the pattern was not part of the animal's fur, but only a substance on its surface which, with time, could wear off and disappear (a substance such as plaster?). Afterall, the second cat is also missing an eye. Poe is very careful to avoid stating if it is the same eye of which Pluto was deprived. Are there really two cats in this story, or did Pluto (possibly "a witch in disguise") survive, and return for retribution. Of all the incidents, the discovery of the cat (first or second) behind the cellar wall is the easiest to believe. The cat was frightened by the man, and logically, sought shelter. What is somewhat strange is the fact that the police searched the cellar several times, and not one time did the cat make a sound. It was not until the narrator rapped heavily with a cane upon the wall, that the cat responded. Was it a series of natural causes and effects, or was it what the narrator described? "Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb."
"The Black Cat" is Poe's second psychological study of domestic violence and guilt (the first being "The Tell-Tale Heart"); however, this story does not deal with premeditated murder. The reader is told that the narrator appears to be a happily married man, who has always been exceedingly kind and gentle. He attributes his downfall to the "Fiend Intemperance" and "the spirit of perverseness." Perverseness, he believes, is "...one of the primitive impulses of the human heart." "Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a stupid action for no other reason than because he knows he should not?" Perverseness provides the rationale for otherwise unjustifiable acts, such as killing the first cat or rapping with his cane upon the plastered-up wall behind which stood his wife's corpse "...already greatly decayed and clotted with gore." We might argue that what the narrator calls "perverseness" is actually conscience. Guilt about his alcoholism seems to the narrator the "perverseness" which causes him to maim and kill the first cat. Guilt about those actions indirectly leads to the murder of his wife who had shown him the gallows on the second cat's breast. The disclosure of the crime, as in "The Tell-Tale Heart," is caused by a warped sense of triumph and the conscience of the murderer. What makes this story different from "The Tell-Tale Heart" is that Poe has added a new element to aid in evoking the dark side of the narrator, and that is the supernatural. Now the story has an added twist as the narrator hopes that the reader, like himself, will be convinced that these events were not "...an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects."
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