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A Summary and Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat’

A reading of Poe’s short horror story

‘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. Read the rest of this entry

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A Summary and Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’

A reading of a classic horror story

‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ is a Gothic novel in miniature. All of the elements of the Gothic novel are here: the subterranean secret, the Gothic space (scaled down from a full-blown castle to a single room), the gruesome crime – even the hovering between the supernatural and the psychological. In just five pages, it’s as if Edgar Allan Poe has scaled down the eighteenth-century Gothic novel into a story of just a few thousand words. But what makes this story so unsettling? Closer analysis reveals that ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’ centres on that most troubling of things: the motiveless murder. You can read the story here.

First, a brief summary of ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’. An unnamed narrator confesses that he has murdered an old man, apparently because of the old man’s ‘Evil Eye’ which drove the narrator to kill him. He then describes how he crept into the old man’s bedroom while he slept and stabbed him, dragging the corpse away and dismembering it, so as to conceal his crime. He goes to some lengths to cover up all trace of the murder – he even caught his victim’s blood in a tub, so that none was spilt anywhere – and then he takes up three of the floorboards of the chamber, and conceals his victim’s body underneath. But no sooner has he concealed the body than there’s a knock at the door: it’s the police, having been called out by a neighbour who heard a shriek during the night. Read the rest of this entry

The First Gothic Novel

The early Gothic novelists are an interesting lot. Matthew Lewis, known for his 1796 novel The Monk, wrote his will on a servant’s hat while dying on board a ship from Jamaica to the UK. William Beckford wrote the bestselling Gothic novel Vathek in French in 1782, with the English version being translated by a vicar four years later. Beckford was tutored in music by none other than Mozart for a short while – a product of his vast family fortune (built on the proceeds from Jamaican sugar plantations), comprising some £114 million in today’s money as well as Fonthill (where Beckford had the famous abbey built).

But neither Beckford nor Lewis can claim the honour of writing the first Gothic novel. That accolade goes to a third man, Horace Walpole, who was the son of the first de facto Prime Minister of Britain, Robert Walpole. But the odd thing is that, at first, Walpole didn’t even put his name to the novel. There was a good reason for this.

Walpole1The 1760s was the decade of literary forgeries. One of the most famous forgeries which that decade produced was Horace Walpole’s 1764 book The Castle of Otranto, which is single-handedly responsible for founding the Gothic novel genre. Walpole claimed the story was a genuine sixteenth-century Italian manuscript which had recently been discovered and translated by a ‘William Marshal’. The literary world flocked to buy this exciting new book. His marketing ploy had worked: critics and readers would give their attention to a work of history, but had they known it was ‘only’ a work of fiction they would have dismissed the novel as a ‘romance’ with little real value or substance.

A year later, when the book was reprinted, Walpole added a preface in which he came clean and admitted that he’d made the whole thing up. In doing so, he founded not only a new literary genre but also one of the most perennial features of the Gothic story, the so-called ‘found’ manuscript. Many of the features of Gothic which endure today, such as the subterranean secret, the gloomy castle, and the mysterious ghostly sightings, were all used in Walpole’s novel. Without Walpole, it is doubtful whether there could have been any of Edgar Allan Poe’s greatest short storiesFrankensteinDracula, or Daphne du Maurier. This one novel founded not only a genre but a whole style of writing.

Walpole got the idea for the novel from a dream he had: all he could recall when he woke was ‘that I had thought myself in an ancient castle (a very natural dream for a head like mine, filled with Gothic story), and that on the uppermost banister of a great staircase I saw a gigantic hand in armour. In the evening I sat down and began to write, without knowing in the least what I intended to say or relate.’ The rest, as they say, is history – or rather not history, but fiction, since the whole thing sprang from Walpole’s imagination.

Walpole was also a prolific inventor of new words, and is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with introducing over 200 words into the English language, among them beefy, malaria, nuance, sombre, and souvenir. Without doubt his most celebrated neologism was ‘serendipity’, meaning the ‘faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident’. He coined the word in a letter of 1754, when recounting the ‘silly fairy tale’ (‘fairy tale’ is another term he is credited with inventing) of ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’ (Serendip being a former name for Sri Lanka). The tale is one of the earliest detective stories in existence: it recounts how three princes track down a missing camel largely through luck and good fortune, rather than any forensic skill. ‘Serendipity’ has been called one of the most difficult words to translate.

Walpole’s influence on the Gothic revival extended beyond literature. His London house, Strawberry Hill, was a vast villa that approached the scale and appearance of a castle. Walpole’s house became so celebrated that it gave its name not only to an area of London (near Twickenham and lying in the London borough of Richmond) but also to a style of architecture known as Strawberry Hill Gothic.

Image: Horace Walpole by Rosalba Carriera, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.