Prior to the technological revolution in medicine and advancements in the art of embalming, the fear of being buried alive due to being misconstrued as dead was very real. As a result, stories of premature burial abound throughout literature and throughout Poe’s stories. The plot of “The Black Cat” puts a nice spin on the narrative device, but the concept of being buried alive also appears in “The Cask of Amontillado,” “Morella,” “Eleanora,” “Ligeia,” and “Berenice.” The premature burial of Roderick Usher’s sister drives the entire narrative of Poe’s story about the fall of that house; further, as if the appearance of this running motif were not obvious enough, there is the story that Poe titled “The Premature Burial.” Beyond the literal fear of this kind of death, premature burial takes on a symbolic meaning as the fear of being trapped in a kind of existential limbo. Outright death brings with it a kind of finality and release from the mortal world: burial alive, in contrast, condemns one to a kind of liminal space between the realms of the living and the dead.
The movement from obsession toward madness takes a particularly sadistic turn in “The Black Cat” when the narrator jabs a penknife into the cat and leaves it with only one eye. When the second cat shows up, it also is mysteriously missing one eye. Eyes are a symbol to which Poe returns again and again in various forms of expression in his stories. In “The Tell-Tale Heart,” it is the sound of the heart thumping away beneath the floorboard that eventually drives the narrator to guilt-ridden insanity, but the engine powering that drive is his obsessive belief that an old man is delivering a curse upon him through his Evil Eye. The eyes of the titular figure in “Ligeia” are the predominant symbol in that story, hiding the key to knowledge their dark and mysterious beauty. As a symbol, eyes—especially when contemplated from the perspective of a paranoid narrator—represent the kind of existential persecution that comes from knowing that one is being observed, yet being unable to locate the observer or do anything to escape their gaze.
Symbol: The Double
The most comprehensive study of the psychology of the Double in Poe’s canon occurs in his long story “William Wilson,” in which the plot is driven by the obsessive pursuit by the narrator of his own doppelganger. The brother and sister who remain the last of the line of the Usher lineage are also positioned—despite gender differences—as being doubles of each other. The Double that Poe engages in “The Black Cat” is a bit more idiosyncratic than his usual employment, as here it is an animal that gets a double. After finally killing off his pet Pluto, the narrator is stunned by the arrival of a near-duplicate of the pet. Despite the Double being a cat rather than a human protagonist, it nevertheless fulfills the symbolic role of being the agency of internal conflict taking place within the protagonist: even when he tries to kill the cat to quiet himself, he finds that he cannot really accomplish this, for a Double manifests in its place.
The narrator names his pet cat after a figure from Roman mythology: Pluto. Modern readers mostly associated Pluto with a former planet or a Disney dog, but Pluto referenced just one thing during Poe’s time: The King of the Underworld (readers might be more familiar with Pluto’s Greek-mythological counterpart, Hades). The fact that the narrator chooses this name for the cat well before things take a turn for the weird indicates that he may already have had a subliminal predisposition toward seeing the cat as evil—or seeing the world in terms of death—from the very start.
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.