By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Black Cat’ was first published in August 1843 in the Saturday Evening Post. It’s one of Poe’s shorter stories and one of his most disturbing, focusing on cruelty towards animals, murder, and guilt, and told by an unreliable narrator who’s rather difficult to like. You can read ‘The Black Cat’ here. Below we’ve offered some notes towards an analysis of this troubling but powerful tale.
First, a brief summary of the plot of ‘The Black Cat’. The narrator explains how from a young age he was noted for his tenderness and humanity, as well as his fondness for animals. When he married, he and his wife acquired a number of pets, including a black cat, named Pluto. But as the years wore on, the narrator became more irritable and prone to snap.
One night, under the influence of alcohol, he sensed the black cat was avoiding him and so chased him and picked up the animal. The animal bit him slightly on the hand, and the narrator – possessed by a sudden rage – took a pen-knife from his pocket and gouged out one of the cat’s eyes.
Although the cat seems to recover from this, the narrator finds himself growing more irritated, until eventually he takes the poor cat out into the garden and hangs it from a tree. Later that night, the narrator wakes to find his house on fire, and he, his wife, and his servant, barely escape alive. All of the narrator’s wealth is lost in the flames.
A crowd has gathered around the smouldering remains of the house. Setting foot in the ruins, the narrator finds the strange figure of a gigantic hanging cat on one of the walls, the dead cat having become embedded in the plaster (the narrator surmises that a member of the crowd had cut down the hanging cat and hurled it into the house to try to wake the narrator and his wife).
A short while after this, the narrator is befriended by a black cat he finds in a local tavern, a cat that has shown up seemingly out of nowhere, and resembles Pluto in every respect, except that this cat has some white among its black fur. The cat takes a shine to the narrator, so he and his wife take it in as their pet.
However, in time the narrator comes to loathe this cat, too, and once, when he nearly trips over the pet while walking downstairs into the cellar, he picks up an axe and aims a blow at the animal’s head. His wife intervenes and stops him – but, in a fit of rage, he buries the axe in his wife’s head, killing her instantly.
He conceals the body, but when the police call round to look into his wife’s disappearance, a sound from the place where the narrator has concealed the body exposes the hidden corpse.
When the body is revealed, the black cat is there – and it was the cat that had made the noise that gave away the location of the corpse. The narrator had walled up the animal when he had hidden his wife’s body. And with this revelation, the narrator’s story comes to an end.
The narrator piques our interest at the beginning of ‘The Black Cat’ by announcing that he dies tomorrow; it becomes clear that he is to be executed (by hanging, aptly, given the fate of his first pet cat) for the murder of his wife.
The ending of ‘The Black Cat’ suggests that a productive analysis between this story and ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ might yield a fruitful discussion. For one, both stories are narrated by murderers who conceal the dead body of their victim, only to have that body discovered at the end of the story.
It was Robert A. Heinlein, a later American author who made his name in the genre that Poe helped to create (science fiction), who remarked: ‘How we behave toward cats here below determines our place in heaven.’ What drives human beings to commit horrible deeds of pointless sadistic cruelty towards defenceless animals?
Whenever we read upsetting stories in the newspapers about people who have committed violent acts upon pets for no discernible reason, we have probably wondered this. Are they all psychopathic?
The narrator of ‘The Black Cat’ seems not to be – for he can recognise that his violent cruelty towards his cat is sadistic and vile, and even recoils in horror when his conscience is pricked and he realises that he is doing wrong. He attributes his violent behaviour towards the cat to ‘perverseness’, arguing that we all do things from time to time purely because we know they’re wrong.
Yet even in the face of his horrific treatment of Pluto – the cat’s name is shared with the Roman god of the Underworld – and his apparent desire to atone for his cruelty with the second pet cat, he ends up lapsing into his old ways and tries to kill the creature for no reason other than that he comes to be annoyed and irritated by it.
But of course, the mention of gin in the story offers a clue as to the cause of the narrator’s violence and irritation. What could cause an otherwise pleasant and humane youth, who grew up loving all animals, to turn into such a brute towards them – and, in time, towards a fellow human being? One answer suggests itself: alcohol.
‘The Black Cat’ can be analysed in light of Poe’s dislike of alcohol: he struggled with alcohol and was prone to drinking bouts which caused him to act erratically, so he knew well the dangers of over-indulging in drink until it begins to alter the drinker’s moods.
The narrator’s growing irritation towards both cats may, then, be a result of his overuse of alcohol. Shortly before his death in 1849 – possibly brought on by the effects of alcohol – Poe became a vocal supporter of temperance. It may be that ‘The Black Cat’ should be analysed as being, among other things, an earlier attempt to dramatise the dangers of drink.