The story that Edgar Allan Poe tells in his short story “The Black Cat” could not be simpler and although its use of an unreliable narrator to tell a story of unrelenting mental instability that ends with a killer’s self-revelation of his deadly deed, it really acts more like a mirror image of his similar story “The Tell-Tale Heart” than a mere replication.
That the narrator is unreliable is clear from the start when he protests a bit too robustly that he is not mad. That he is to be reckoned with comes with his admission that tomorrow is the scheduled date of his death. This unreliability is only further enhanced with his curiously unlikely admonition that the string of events bringing him to his current state were the result of nothing more sinister or inexplicable than mere cause and effect.
We can make a guess as to at least one of the other major players in this ballet between cause and effect when the narrator goes to great pains to immediately let us know of his affection for animals and how that affection was returned. Although he claims to possess a lost for all animals, it is only the dog who is described in detail as he notes particularly their tendency toward loyalty and good judgment. Reminding us that everybody thought of his as well-disposed toward animals, he then goes on to relate how he married a woman of similar mind. Together, at one point or another over the course of their marriage, they cared for pets that ranged from goldfish to monkeys. Oh, and also a cat.
Pluto was a big, friendly black cat beloved by both marriage partners and if his wife occasionally let slip the common superstition that all cats are merely disguised witches, well, that was hardly any indication of actually taking the superstition seriously. Pluto became the narrator’s constant companion and stayed equally loyal even as he began to give in more and more to the temptation to consume alcohol. Alas, the relationship with his wife quickly began to suffer as a result of this addiction as did the relationship with the other pets. But Pluto! Ah, what a companion. It was only with the coming of age that the finicky behavior felines began to come into conflict with the intensifying effects of alcohol upon the patience and anger of human beings. While occasionally abusing his wife did not seem to result in any cause that produced extreme effects, the same cannot be said once drink started urging him to abuse the black cat.
One night upon returning home from an evening of imbibing, Pluto decided he wasn’t in the mood for such company and when he reaches out to grab him for such a rare display of his usual lack of felicity, the cat bit him. The effect of drinking too much became the cause of the bite and the effect of the bite was the loss of an eye for Pluto courtesy of one angry lush and one convenient pen-knife. The cat recovered well enough to recognize the sight of his master as something to avoid in most cases; especially when the recovery from remorse of his deed on the part of the narrator was exactly what one might suspect from an alcoholic.
To paraphrase Homer Simpson, alcohol was the cause of and solution to such demanding emotional stress. The cause and effect of this series of occurrences becomes the stuff of which madness and murder is made.
Cognitive deterioration resulting from the effects of alcohol on the brain leads the narrator to invest the cat first with a sentience reserved for humans and with a supernatural quality even beyond their ken. The result of seeing purpose and motive in the cat’s sudden aversion and apparent disloyalty ultimately results in his hanging the cat until it dies. Soon afterward, the narrator himself nearly kicks the bucket after his home catches fire leaving nothing standing but a single bedroom wall upon which is imprinted what appears to be the image of a cat hanging from a noose around its neck. As the alcohol and guilt assume their place in the natural order of things, another black cat mysterious appears that looks almost exactly like Pluto right down to only having one eye and takes an immediate liking to the narrator.
The feelings are not reciprocated, however. In fact, so extreme is the narrator’s inexplicable repugnance toward the cat that in due time he decides to take an axe to the witchy phantasm and is only stopped from his second incidence of felicide. Unfortunately, that intervention did result in the narrator’s first occurrence of uxoricide. Overcome with fear of the murder of his wife being discovered, he decides to cover up his crime by taking a page right out Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and bricking up behind a wall in the cellar.
Of course, you can’t just have someone disappear suddenly without the police getting wind of it, but their arrival does not stimulate the kind of feverish rise of guilt that dooms the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” In fact, the narrator of “The Black Cat” seems remarkably free of any sense of guilt or remorse at having killed his wife. So free that he actually starts to brag about the quality of the construction of his new home in light of the fact that hardly an inch of the structure had not been subject to search and investigation by the police in their quest to find the wife who had gone missing with no explanation. So boastful is he of the quality of construction that he sets to prove it by rapping robustly against the cellar wall.
The rapping against the wall causes an effect not expected: him and all the police officers in the room to actually hear the effect of his doom: the wailing shriek of a cat. The police waste no time in tearing at the rigidly constructed wall and soon enough discover the decomposing corpse of the man’s wife. More terrifying to her murderer, however, is the other inhabitant of the confined space situated quite comfortably atop the head of his victim: a black cat staring at him with its one eye.