The narrator is giving his story while in jail; he is going to be put to death tomorrow. He knows his narrative will invite disbelief, but he promises he is neither lying nor dreaming. All he wants to do now is unburden his soul and lay before the reader “a series of mere household events.” To him, they seem to be nothing but horror, but perhaps someday someone can explain them away by natural causes and effects.
From childhood, the narrator was known for his docility and compassion, particularly towards animals. He never felt happier than when he was caressing an animal. When he married, it was to a woman with the same disposition as him, and they had many pets.
One of the pets was a beautiful black cat without a single white bit of fur. The narrator and his wife loved the cat, but his wife often, albeit jokingly, referenced the old adage that black cats were witches in disguise. The cat was named Pluto and he was the narrator’s favorite pet.
Over time, the narrator’s temperament changed. He became day by day “more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others.” He cursed his wife and eventually came to inflict violence upon her. He also lashed out at his pets, though for a while his love for the black cat left that animal unscathed.
Eventually, even Pluto felt the narrator’s wrath. One night, the narrator felt convicted that Pluto was avoiding him; feeling a surge of drunken rage, he picked up a knife and cut out one of the cat’s eyes.
The next morning, the narrator felt ashamed of what he’d done and swore he would be better. This resolution did not hold.
Pluto healed, but its eye was frightful. He hid from the narrator, which first saddened the narrator but then made him irritated and angry.
The narrator finally felt that the spirit of perverseness had inexorably come upon him. He saw this as “one of the primitive impulses of the human heart… Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than he knows he should not?”
One day, in cold blood, the narrator slipped a noose around the animal’s neck and hung it on the limb of a tree. He cried tears of remorse because he knew the animal had loved him, he knew it had not done anything wrong, and he knew he was sinning. Regardless, he could not control himself.
On the night of the crime, the narrator and his wife were roused by screams of “fire!” Their entire house burned down that night and they barely emerged unscathed. The next day, the narrator inspected the ruins. Only one wall remained, and, surrounded by neighbors craning their necks, the narrator looked at it closely—the outline of a large black cat could be seen in it. The narrator was shocked and terrified by this illusion. He finally realized what had happened: a neighbor must have taken the hanged cat and thrown it into the window to wake the sleepers, and the body left its impression on the wall because the plaster was only recently spread.
Though the narrator had an explanation, he was still perturbed. He thought of the cat for months and came to wish that he had it back. One night at a drinking den, he found one that was like his old one, though with a splash of white fur. He offered to buy it from the landlord, but the man said he’d never seen it before.
The narrator brought the cat home and his wife fell in love with it, but it wasn’t long before the cat’s excessive attention began to bother the narrator. Furthermore, this cat was also missing an eye like Pluto. The cat followed the narrator everywhere he went and he felt extreme dread. He even began to notice that the cat’s white mark, which before had seemed insignificant, now took on the shape of a gallows.
The narrator could not forestall his nightmares or torments anymore. He slipped fully into his evilness; moody, terrible thoughts were his constant companions.
The narrator and his wife were living in an old building after the fire, and one day, the narrator’s wife accompanied him into its cellar on a household errand. The cat swiftly followed them downstairs; in a paroxysm of rage, the narrator picked up an ax. He missed the cat due to his wife’s interference, and so he decided to strike her instead.
He killed her with one blow and decided he would dispose of the body by walling it up, as he could not take it outside without been seen. The cellar walls were perfect for this, as they were loosely constructed and recently plastered. The narrator carried out his task and made sure every detail was perfect. He looked around for the cat when he was done, hoping to kill it as well, but it was nowhere to be seen.
For several days, the narrator lived blissfully, as the cat never returned. He felt no guilt, and he laughed at the fruitlessness of the investigation for his missing wife.
On the fourth day, a party of police came to look around. They inspected every square inch, but the narrator was not worried at all. When the police prepared to leave the cellar, he even cockily tapped on the walls and boasted of how excellently they were put together.
At his tap, the most terrifying, unearthly wail began from within the wall and would not stop. The police hurriedly pulled down the wall. The decaying corpse tumbled out, and inside was the black cat with his “solitary eye of fire”—the narrator had walled him up within the tomb.
The Black Cat is one of Poe’s most beguiling and disturbing tales, and it has attracted a great deal of critical analysis. There are numerous ways to approach this story, so in order to maintain a semblance of clarity, this analysis will be divided into sections relating to different themes, theories, and frameworks of analysis.
The Unreliable Narrator
One of the most salient things about the tale is the fact that readers cannot trust the narrator. He speaks before he is to be put to death, yet his tone is deceptively calm. He speaks of things that are not sane in the tone of a sane person. He admits that he does not understand the things that have happened, but he thinks that perhaps someone else can. He rationalizes all the things he does but shows no remorse or understanding of his moral degeneration. The tale he narrates shows him lapsing into evil because of his divided nature, turning against reality, rationality, and anyone outside of his own self. As Ed Piacentino notes, the narrator “would like the reader to regard him in his present state as calm and rational, a character presumably with self-control,” but he is “actually excitable and illogical.”
Regardless of the narrator’s moral issues or inclination toward perverseness, he is clearly an alcoholic, and that inability to control his drink exacerbates his thoughts and actions. Alcohol is a form of self-destruction for him, but it is a form he welcomes. As critic Magdalen Wing-chi Ki writes, “the jouissance of alcohol allows the subject to live in his own world and expel the other/Other (cat, wife, law) in the self… Poe invites his readers to see that the alcohol has allowed the drive subject to push all identifications aside and enjoy a new being.”
The narrator’s excuse for his behavior is the spirit of “perverseness,” or doing something evil simply because it is evil. However, we cannot take him at his word and it is more likely that his own psychology is to blame. As James Gargano explains, the way the incidents are arranged in the tale suggests development over time as well as “a gradually enfeebling of his moral nature under the impact of increasing self-indulgence.” The narrator also tries to explain away his deeds and rationalize them, which complicates his defense. He is immersed in and infatuated by evil and deliberately chooses to ignore the moral implications of his behavior. He embraces evil more and more, exonerates himself, and often “rejects obvious moral explanations in favor of either spurious or ingenious rationalizations to admissions of his inability to determine the cause-and-effect relationship between the events of his life.”
The Cat as Symbol
At the beginning of the tale, James Gargano explains, the cat is a neutral figure. It is docile, like the narrator and his wife. However, as the narrator turns violent the cat turns aggressive; it then turns into an innocent victim, and finally comes back to haunt him as a reincarnation. It is to be understood symbolically: it is “the narrator’s own multiple nature…once the total self is outraged, the subterranean king, Pluto, tyrannically exacts his vengeance.” When the narrator cuts the cat’s eye out, the “mutilation represents the narrator’s compulsive attack upon himself and a partial obliteration of his vision of good.” The aftermath is a deeper deadening of his moral self. He becomes more stubborn and less insightful; “he is now ready to violate himself in a more complete manner.”
Poe studied daemonology, interested in the intersection between human destiny and demonic power. In his study on this topic, Kent Ljungquist looks into how Poe saw the daemonic impulse as linked with poetic inspiration. Possession in both cases was “a morally ambiguous experience, both elevating and terrifying.” Ecstasy and dread are present in equal parts in this inward mental state. “The Black Cat” is a tale that explores daemonic force, symbolized by the cat itself. Not only were cats often associated with dark powers, but there are also other factors that support this claim based on the scholarship of the daemonic. First, daemons brought about a feeling of oppression, or a heavy weight that could hamper breathing, which the narrator complains of. Second, the daemon can create a feeling of being frozen or paralyzed, which is also an issue for the narrator. And third, nightmares bring feelings of daemonic dread; the narrator suffers from these. Tellingly, “his sensation cannot be defined easily because it is a mixture of elevation and horror. He professes agony over his degradation, but significantly, his sense also thrill to a height of emotion never before experienced.”
The cat is, then, a symbol of the narrator’s daemonic possession. He often comments on how smart it is, and he also seems to think it is “sapping his energy”—that “his moral vitality steadily diminishes” and is absorbed by the cat.
The cat begins as a “model of domestic virtue,” but as the narrator falls apart mentally, “the transformation from domestic house cat to fiendish demon coincides with the narrator’s moral deterioration.” The cat appears in places that are problems for the narrator—the house that burned down after his act of violence and a bar. The cat is thus “an inextricable part of the narrator’s psychology” and also “a symbolic reminder of his destined punishment.” The cat is a powerful entity that grows even more powerful as the narrator’s power and autonomy wane, and ultimately, “these spectral appearances reflect a residue of conscience.”
Critics see the grotesque as a mixture of the normal, the abnormal, the archaic, the modern, the fearful, the horrible, the witty, the burlesque, the singular, the strange, and the mystical. Poe uses the grotesque in his work and pushes it into the excessive, but by his doing so in “The Black Cat” and other tales, as Marita Nadal writes, the grotesque “proves to be a source of both fear and laughter.” Some of the details in the story undermine the solemnity of the narrator’s confession, as do some of the unbelievable and fantastical elements.
Elements of the grotesque in the tale also include uncanniness (an idea expostulated by Freud), repetition, the double, the claim to perverseness, and the fixation on sight. For Freud, losing an eye was linked with castration, so for the narrator, who was perhaps overly concerned with his own masculinity, fixation on the animal’s missing eye could be telling.
The narrator seems to resort to bursts of hyper-masculine behavior to cover his more feminine behavior. Critics Moreland and Rodriguez explain, “He is constantly undermined by his impulsive, irrational temperament, a trait not only common to adolescent boys but also one stereotypically attributed to women. His violent outbursts are not expressions of machismo but are rather futile attempts to eradicate the feminine traits which were always latent in his personality, and are only now coming to the surface.” They suggest that Poe had a subtle message for his male readers: “men’s grip on sanity and masculine identity is more slippery than they might think, that at their most vulnerable moment a demonic thief in the night might pull back the curtains of their minds and deprive them of what they treasure most: their ‘vaunted supremacy.’”
Motive and Meaning
Though readers may want to determine the reason for the narrator’s actions, as Joseph Stark argues, there might not be a sufficient reason at all: the story can be seen to “[uphold] the mysterious nature of the human will in a time dominated by intellectual rationalism.” There are diverse clues in the text that give rise to numerous motives, all of which seem to be presented with equal weight to readers. First, Stark notes that the most straightforward reading would locate the narrator’s behavior in human depravity, but this “fails to acknowledge the unreliability of the story’s narrator as well as the insufficiency of the answer.” We should be cautious of any explanation that the narrator himself gives, and furthermore, “he himself offers no ultimate explanation for the cause behind the perversity.” Another motive is alcoholism, but this does not account for what drove him to alcohol in the first place or the fact that some of his crimes take place when he is not drunk. A third explanation is the psychobiography of the narrator, particularly his effeminacy, but the excesses in which the narrator engages cannot be explained through this.
Ultimately, then, there is no clear explanation. The moral of the tale, if there is one, “may be more a statement on the insufficiency of human reason than the nature of the human will…No one, it may be inferred, is so distinct from either the murderous tendencies of the narrator or from his inability adequately to explain such tendencies.”