“For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief.”
From the moment the story begins, the reader has reason to be skeptical of the narrator. In the first place, if the events of the story are to be believed at all, there is only one conceptual setting from which the first-person narration of those events could logically originate: in the custody of the judicial system somewhere between being arrested for murder and being executed for that 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.”
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, remaining 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, according to this view, require some sort of devastating neurological event. Then again, Poe's point might just be a very human kind of horror: Who knows what evil actually lurks in the heart of the most docile of men?
“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.”
The narrator is keen to mention that it was his wife who regarded cats as witches in disguise. Perhaps he is telling the truth. An interesting point, however, is that immediately after bringing up this belief of his wife, the narrator goes on to say that he only mentioned it because he suddenly remembered it. It's not clear what this means, but it's certainly worth noting in the broader ecosystem of the story's mystery and horror. It may be that he is trying to subtly manipulate the perspective of the reader or listener with an almost hypnotic-like suggestion that perhaps everything that happened was supernatural in origin. It may simply be that it is the narrator that holds this belief, and that, in his dissociative state, he is projecting his own belief onto his wife. Or, it may be something else entirely.
“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.”
At last, the reader is given an explanation for why the narrator turned from the model of docility into an aggressively violent husband and pet owner: alcohol. And, in a manner stereotypical of alcoholics, 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. In his account, the inability to stop drinking is due not to his own failure of character, but rather due to the existence of a sentient Fiend who even has a name: Intemperance. The narrator will go on to present numerous rationalizations for his behavior, never taking responsibility for what he has done.
“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 insightful here from a psychological perspective. From a legal perspective, however, he has absolutely no ground to stand on. This quote serves a similar function to the previous one: as with his alcoholism, the narrator projects his darker inclinations—and responsibility for them—outward onto abstract features of his environment.
"I knew myself no longer."
The narrator asserts this, then immediately goes on to proclaim that his original soul—the one with the docile disposition—had taken flight. In its place, some malevolent, fury-filled demon has appeared, utterly unrecognizable in relation to the person he was before the arrival of the cat that may—or may not—have been a witch. In the end, the reader is left trying to figure out which parts of the narrator's story—if, indeed, any of them—actually happened at all. Did the narrator's character really transmogrify so horribly? Or, was this twisted person twisted all along—and his narrative deception is just one more charge to level against him?
The Black Cat Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Black Cat is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.