Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat"
"The Black Cat," which first appeared in the United States Saturday Post (The Saturday Evening Post) on August 19, 1843, serves as a reminder for all of us. The capacity for violence and horror lies within each of us, no matter how docile and humane our dispositions might appear.
- By Martha Womack
Martha Womack, better known to Internet users as Precisely Poe, has a BA degree in English from Longwood College in Virginia, and teaches English and Theatre Arts at Fuqua School in Farmville, Virginia. When Martha first began teaching American literature, she found so much conflicting information about Edgar Allan Poe that she became confused about what to teach her students. As she began to research the author's life and literature, Martha discovered that a horrible injustice had occurred, and she became determined, like many others, "to set the record straight." "This mission" has lead to ten years of research and the creation of her web site, Precisely Poe. Martha is proud and pleased to be a part of the Poe Decoder, a continual project to dispel the myth surrounding Poe, the man and his literature.
Click here to email Martha Womack.
- Summary of the story
- Point of View
- Style and Interpretation
- Related Information
- Works Cited
- Complete Text Available
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Summary of the story
"For the most wild yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not--and very surely do I not dream. But tomorrow I die, and today I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world...a series of mere household events....[T]hese events have terrified--have tortured--have destroyed me....[P]erhaps...some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own...will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects."
Tomorrow the narrator will be executed for the brutal murder of his wife. As he awaits his own death, he finds it necessary to record the events which seduced him into murder and informed the police of his crime.
From infancy, the narrator had been noted for his "docility and humanity of... disposition." His tenderness of heart made him "...the jest of [his] companions. [He] was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by [his] parents with a great variety of pets." He married at an early age, and like the narrator, his wife had a similar love for animals. They had "birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat. Pluto, the cat, was "a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree." As the narrator remembers Pluto, he also remembers something that his wife once said about all black cats being witches in disguise according to "some ancient popular notion." He never really believed she was serious about this point, and he is not quite sure why he remembers it now.
Out of all the pets, Pluto was his favorite. He "alone fed him, and he attended [him] wherever he went about the house. It was even with great difficulty that [he] could prevent [the cat] from following [him] through the streets." Their friendship lasted for several years until the man's temperament began to change. He grew, "day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others." He cursed at his wife, and eventually he "offered her personal violence." His pets began to feel the change in his disposition--a change brought about by the "Fiend Intemperance [lack of control in consuming alcohol]."
"One night, returning home, much intoxicated...[he] fancied that the cat avoided [his] presence." He grabbed Pluto, who out of fear, "inflicted a slight wound upon [his owner's] hand with his teeth. The fury of a demon instantly possessed [the man]." He took a penknife from his waistcoat pocket, "and deliberately cut one of its eyes from the socket!" When morning came, the narrator saw what he had done to the poor creature on the previous night. "The socket of the lost eye presented...a frightful appearance...." The narrator unable to deal with the results of his own actions, "soon drown in wine all memory of the deed."
"In the meantime, the cat slowly recovered. He went about the house as usual, but as might be expected, fled in extreme terror at [the narrator's] approach." At first the man was somewhat grieved by the cat's actions; however, this feeling turned into irritation. "And then came, as if to [his] final and irrevocable overthrow the spirit of PERVERSENESS.
"One morning, in cold blood, [the narrator] slipped a noose about [Pluto's] neck and hung it to the limb of a tree;--hung it with the tears streaming from [his] eyes, and with the bitterest remorse of [his] heart;--hung it because he knew that [the cat] had loved [him], and because [he] felt it had given [him] no reason of offence;--hung it because [he] knew that in so doing [he] was committing a sin--a deadly sin that would so jeopardize [his] immortal soul as to place it--if such a thing were possible--even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God."
"On the night of the day on which this most cruel deed was done, [the narrator] was aroused from sleep by the cry of fire....The whole house was blazing. It was with great difficulty that [his] wife, a servant, and [himself], made [their] escape....[His] entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and [he] resigned himself thenceforward to despair."
"On the day succeeding the fire, [he] visited the ruins. The walls with one exception had fallen in. This exception was found in a compartment wall...against which had rested the head of [his] bed....About this wall a dense crowd were collected, and many persons seemed to be examining a particular portion of it with very minute and eager attention....[U]pon the white surface...as if graven in bas-relief...[was] the figure of a gigantic cat...[with] a rope about [its] neck."
"When [the narrator] first beheld this apparition...[his] wonder and terror were extreme.... [Then he remembered that] the cat...had been hung in a garden adjacent to the house. Upon the alarm of fire, this garden had been immediately filled by the crowd--by someone of whom the animal must have been cut from the tree and thrown, through an open window, into [his] chamber...with the view of arousing [the narrator] from sleep. The falling of the other walls had compressed the victim of [the man's cruel deed] into the substance of the freshly-spread plaster; the lime...with the flames, and the ammonia from the carcass...[had created the hideous image in the wall]."
For months, the man could not forget the gigantic image of the cat in the wall. It was during this time that he actually began to regret the loss of his cat Pluto, and he began to look for a similar pet to take the cat's place. "One night as [the narrator sat in a tavern in a drunken stupor], [his] attention was suddenly drawn to some black object, [sitting on a large container] of gin or of rum...." He approached this object, and touched it. He was surprised to discover that "it was a black cat--a very large one--fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him in every respect but one. Pluto had not a white hair upon any portion of his body; but this cat had a large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast." The cat responded by purring loudly, and the narrator talked to the owner of the tavern about purchasing the cat; however, "this person made no claim to it--knew nothing of it--had never seen it before."
When the man left the tavern, the cat accompanied him home. "When it reached the house it domesticated itself at once, and became immediately a great favorite with [his] wife. Much to the narrator's surprise, he "...soon found a dislike to [the cat] arising within [him]." As time passed these feelings turned to hatred of the cat. He began to avoid it out of a sense "of shame, and the remembrance of [his] former deed of cruelty....What added to [his] hatred of the beast, was the discovery, on the morning after [he] brought it home, that, like Pluto, it had also been deprived of one of its eyes. This circumstance, however, only endeared it to [his] wife...."
The more that the narrator avoided the cat, the more it seemed to follow him. "Whenever [he] sat, [the cat] would crouch beneath [his] chair, or spring upon [his] knees, covering [him] with its loathsome caresses. If [he] arose to walk it would get between [his] feet and thus nearly throw [him] down. or fastening its long and sharp claws in [his clothing], clamber, in this manner, to [his] breast." The man longed to destroy the cat, but refrained from doing so "partly by a memory of [his] former crime, but chiefly...by an absolute dread of the beast. This dread was not exactly a dread of physical evil--and yet [the man] was at a loss how otherwise to define it...."
More than once his wife had called his attention to the splotch of white on this cat's chest "...which constituted the sole visible difference between the strange beast and the one [he] had destroyed." Slowly, over a period of time, this indefinite splotch of white began to take the shape of an object that terrified the narrator. This ghastly shape was that "of the GALLOWS!--oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime--of Agony and of Death!"
"...[N]either by day nor by night ...[could the narrator find] the blessing of rest any more." During the day, the cat would never leave the man's side, and at night, he would wake up "...from dreams of unutterable fear to find the hot breath of the thing upon [his] face, and its vast weight--an incarnate nightmare that [he] had no power to shake off--incumbent eternally upon [his] heart!
"Beneath the pressure of torments such as these the feeble remnant of the good within [him] succumbed. Evil thoughts became [his] sole intimates--the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of [his] usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind...."
"One day [his wife] accompanied [him], upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building which [their] poverty compelled [them] to inhabit. The cat followed [the narrator] down the steep stairs, and, nearly throwing [him] headlong, exasperated [him] to madness. Uplifting an axe, and forgetting in [his] wrath the childish dread which had hitherto stayed [his] hand, [the narrator] aimed a blow at the animal, which, of course, would have proved instantly fatal if it had descended as [he] had wished. But this blow was arrested by the hand of [his] wife. Goaded by the interference into a rage more than demoniacal, [the narrator] withdrew [his] arm from her grasp and buried the axe in her brain. She fell dead upon the spot without a groan."
The next step was to conceal the body. Many thoughts passed through the man's mind. He thought about cutting the corpse into small pieces, and destroying them by fire. Maybe he could dig a grave for the body in the cellar floor; or possibly, he could cast the corpse into the well in the yard. The narrator even thought about packing his wife's body into a box as if it were merchandise, and getting a porter to remove it from the house. Finally, after much deliberation, the narrator knew that he had found the perfect solution. He would "...wall [the body] up in the cellar, as the monks of the Middle Ages [were] recorded to have walled up their victims."
The cellar was well-adapted for a purpose such as this. "Its walls were loosely constructed, and had lately been plastered throughout with a rough plaster, which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented from hardening. Moreover, in one of the walls was a projection, caused by a false chimney, or fireplace, that had been filled up and made to resemble the rest of the cellar." The narrator knew that he "...could readily displace the bricks at this point, insert the corpse, and wall the whole up as before, so that no eye could detect anything suspicious."
"By means of a crowbar [the narrator] easily dislodged the bricks, and...carefully deposited the body against the inner wall...." He then "...relaid the whole structure as it originally stood." Afterwards, he "...prepared a plaster which could not be distinguished from the old, and with this [he] very carefully went over the new brick-work....The wall did not present the slightest appearance of having been disturbed." The narrator cleaned up the mess with "the minutest care."
His next step was to look for the cat. The man had "firmly resolved to put it to death." However, the cat must have been frightened by the man's previous actions, and it was now nowhere to be found. "It did not make its appearance during the night; and thus for one night, at least since its introduction into the house, [the narrator] soundly and tranquilly slept; [yes], slept even with the burden of murder upon [his] soul."
Three days passed, and still there was no sight of the cat. A few inquiries had been made about the narrator's wife, but he had easily answered those. "Even a search had been instituted--but of course nothing was to be discovered. Upon the fourth day...the police came, very unexpectedly, into the house, and proceeded again to make rigorous investigation of the premises....They left no nook or corner unexplored....[F]or the third or fourth time, they descended into the cellar....The police were thoroughly satisfied and prepared to depart. [The narrator] burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance of [his] guiltlessness."
"Gentlemen," [the narrator said], as the party ascended the steps, "I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this--this is a very well-constructed house...I may say an excellently well-constructed house. These walls--are you going, gentlemen?--these walls are solidly put together...." At this point, the narrator "...rapped heavily with a cane which [he] held in [his] hand, upon that very portion of the brickwork behind which stood the corpse of [his wife]....No sooner had the reverberation of [his] blows sunk into silence, than [he] was answered by a voice from within the tomb!--by a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream...a howl--a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph...."
"Swooning, [the narrator] staggered to the opposite [side of the cellar]." The police began tearing down the wall. There before all, stood "...the corpse, already greatly decayed and clotted with gore....Upon its head...sat the [cat], the hideous beast whose craft had seduced [the man] into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned [him] to the hangman. [He] had walled the monster up within the tomb."
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...[whose] events have terrified--have tortured--have destroyed [him]."
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...[made him] the jest of [his] 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 [were] 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 [are transformed] through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance [alcohol]." 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 [him]," he reminds the reader that maybe "...some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than [his] 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, [that] all black cats [are] 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 [the] 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." [See Style and Interpretation]
- Poe Perplex on the Black Cat
- Do Black Cats cause bad luck?
- "I am Safe" - David Grantz
Qrisse's Edgar Allan Poe Pages
- Levine, Stuart and Susan, editors. The Short Fiction of Edgar Allan Poe: An Annotated Edition. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
- Quinn, Arthur Hobson. Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography. New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1941.
- Silverman, Kenneth. Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.
- The United States in Literature: "All My Sons" Edition. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1973.