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Written by Timothy Sexton
One of the most robust motifs running throughout the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe is the utilization of the unreliable narrator. The unnamed narrator of “The Black Cat” gives a horrific account of a story that some would term quite unbelievable and, at best, grotesque. In this sense, the murderer devolving ever deep into madness joins a line of Poe’s questionably truthful narrators that includes such iconic figures as the young man driven to confession by the beating of the hideous “Tell-Tale Heart” and the admittedly charming psychopath leading an unsuspecting victim to cask of amontillado wine.
Prior to the technological revolution in medicine and advancements in the art of embalming, the fear of being buried alive due to being thought 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” actually takes a nice twisty turn on the device, but the concept of being buried alive can 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 and then, as if the appearance of this running theme is not quite obvious enough, there is the story that Poe titled “The Premature Burial.”
The Black Cat” is yet another of Poe’s tales that reveals peculiar insight into the extreme effects of obsession by the author. Many of Poe’s characters develop an obsession that slowly but inexorably builds into madness. At first, the narrator of this story appears to be perfectly normal, exhibiting no signs of encroaching psychosis. By the end of the story, of course, it is an obsession that has dragged him down the vortex into full-tilt madness. The same progression from normalcy to terrorized insanity can be applied to the killer in “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Montresor in “The Cask of Amontillado” is a very special atypical case for Poe’s obsessive narrators because even at the height of his obsessions movement from neurotic to psychotic he still manages to project a charm that comes dangerously close to sucking the reader into accepting his rationalization for his ghastly vengeance upon poor Fortunato.
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 that Poe returns to 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 the 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.
The most comprehensive study of the psychology of the Double in Poe’s canon occurs in his long story “William Wilson” where the plot is driven by the obsessive pursuit by the narrator of his own identical 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 motif of 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 in this case being the cat rather than a human protagonist, it nevertheless fulfills the symbolic role of being the agency of internal conflict taking place within the protagonist.
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 mythology 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 from the very start.
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I think that the purpose of the first paragraph is to convey to the reader that the narrator is unreliable. 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...