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Written by Timothy Sexton
“FOR the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief.”
Liar. What a liar! In the first place, if the event of the story are to be believed at all, there is only one conceptual setting from which this narrative of those events could logically originate: in the custody of the judicial system somewhere between being arrested for murder and being executed upon conviction of the charge of murder. Under such intensely emotional circumstances, who on earth could possibly retain the state of mind necessary to relate such a horrific tale in such a controlled manner without absolutely aching for the reader or listener to believe him? The opening line of this story is a bright shining light spelling out words in the sky: DO NOT BELIEVE EVERYTHING THIS GUY IS ABOUT TO SAY. Edgar Allan Poe remains the sublime master of the first-person tale of terror told by an unreliable narrator. That mastery is given one of its finest exhibitions in "The Black Cat."
“From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition.”
For instance, this assertion. In light of events to be described very shortly, this verbal self-portrait is dubious at best. Some behavioral psychologists caution that things like character and disposition are inherent attributes that can only be altered only in the most cosmetic and usually temporary of ways, but that remain resistant to a comprehensive turnabout even when subjected to the most extreme forms of behavior modification. The transformation from inherent benevolence to a character of pure malevolence would require some sort of devastating neurological event. Then again, who knows what evil actually lurks in the heart of the most docile of men, right?
“In speaking of his [the cat] intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise.”
Get it? It was the wife that regarded cats at witches in disguise. Perhaps he is telling the truth. An interesting point, however, is that immediately after bringing up from out of nowhere this belief of his wife the narrator goes on to say that he only mentions it now because he suddenly remembered it. Curious, huh? It's not like he might be trying to subtly manipulate the perspective of the reader or listener with an almost hypnotic-like suggestion that perhaps everything that happened was the work of a witch.
“Pluto -- this was the cat's name -- was my favorite pet and playmate.”
The guy who committed unspeakable atrocities against the cat…this was the person whom the cat loved above all others and who played with him more than any other human. Remember that opening line about neither expecting nor soliciting belief? Familiar with the manipulative process of reverse psychology, much?
“Our friendship lasted, in this manner, for several years, during which my general temperament and character -- through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance -- had (I blush to confess it) experienced a radical alteration for the worse.”
Ah, at last, the reader is given an explanation for why this guy turned from the model of docility into an aggressively violent husband and pet owner. Alcohol! And, like any good alcoholic does, the narrator transforms the process of becoming a drunken lout from one in which he is the perpetrator into one in which he is the victim. The inability to stop drinking is due not to his own failure of character, but to the existence of a sentient Fiend who even has a name: Intemperance!
“Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such?”
The narrator may be onto something significantly insightful here from a philosophical perspective. From a legal perspective, however, he has absolutely no ground to stand on. This is a strain of argument certain to lead to judicial condemnation which will offer precious little chance for consolation of being philosophically sound.
"I knew myself no longer."
Or so he says. He then immediately goes on to proclaim that his original soul—the one with the docile disposition, you’ll recall—had taken flight and then taken a powder. Gone, gone, gone forever. And left in its place, some malevolent, fury-filled demon utterly unrecognizable from the person he has before the arrival of the cat that may—or may not—have been a witch. When reading the events that unfurl from this point forward in the story, it may well be worth bringing to mind the recollections of one Verbal Kint from the film The Usual Suspects. He tells a pretty great story himself, filled with magnificent detail that lends a sense of authenticity and believability to his story. In the end, however, one is left trying to figure out which parts of Kint’s story—if, indeed, any of it—actually happened at all. That’s a good thing to keep in mind when reading “The Black Cat” from the moment in which the narrator insists that the really great guy he had always been just suddenly and magically transmogrified into the macabre killer currently in custody.
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