Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic tale “The Black Cat” was written to invoke a sense of shock in the reader. This short story is written as a first-person narrative in which the narrator travels through increasing levels of insanity throughout the pages. The first time I read this story, I thought that the narrator may have imagined it all. I thought there was a possibility that there was no cat at all, and the narrator suffered from delusional hallucinations.
After analyzing the essay a few more times, it became clear to me that the cat was definitely real and that the narrator told the story for a specific purpose. The narrator aimed to tell the story in a plain way to explain only the facts of his experiences, and to allow the reader to decide why the events transpired as they did. Analysis of “The Black Cat” has led me to the conclusion that the narrator suffers from madness, and the events of the story provide a detailed progression of his insanity. In the introduction of this tale, the narrator expresses his intentions of sharing the events he went through.
The phrase “I neither expect nor solicit belief” explains that he is not trying to get anyone to believe his story, and that the events are unbelievable even to him. Instead, he is telling this chain of events for his own good as explained by the excerpt, “But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul” (705). He needs to get it off his chest, and maybe writing it down was the best way he knew how. Later on in the story we find out that the narrator is telling this story after being incarcerated for his crimes in “this felon’s cell” (709).
The re-telling of a crime and trying to figure out the underlying reasons for events that led up to a crime is very common for someone to do while sitting in prison. Prison is also an excellent haven for insanity to thrive, and could have an effect on the way the narrator retells the account. The narrator also tries to make it clear that he knows he is not mad, but I thought it was interesting how he revealed this to the reader. Instead of constantly giving reasons to defend his sanity, he indicated this in one phrase, “mad am I not” (705).
Almost posed as a question, this phrase shows confusion and uncertainty in the mind of the narrator. This is the first of many times that I noticed his language revealing a level of madness even though he was trying to claim exactly the opposite. Other phrases that seemed to do the same thing were: “surely do I not dream;” “events have presented little but Horror;” and “Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the commonplace” (705). The language of the narrator in his introduction shows the uncertainty that he feels surrounding his reasons for committing his crimes.
Another crucial aspect of the narrator’s story is his use of alcohol. The narrator explains his early life and “tenderness of heart” (705) and pays special attention to his love of animals. These characteristics all seem to disappear for the narrator as soon as he mentions his use of alcohol. His reference to “the Fiend Intemperance” (706) applies to overusing alcohol and suffering from its ill effects. Following this reference, the narrator begins to explain all of the bad things he starting doing after succumbing to the pressures of the bottle.
His entire demeanor changed, and he even began to verbally and physically abuse his wife (as well as his pets). “But my disease grew upon me – for what disease is like Alcohol! ” (706) shows he feels very passionately about alcohol playing a significant part in his character’s demise. Alcohol probably did have an effect on the events of his story, but as the narrator recaps these events from prison they have become twisted. This could be due to the fact that he was too drunk to remember exactly what happened, that prison has made him crazy, or that he was actually crazy throughout the entire story!
It is apparent that alcohol was not the sole reason for the narrator’s change, but it did provide a means for the insanity to latch on to. Another theme prevalent in “The Black Cat” is the idea of perverseness. The narrator first mentions this curse on mankind after he cut out Pluto’s eye when he thought the cat was avoiding him. The narrator feels that the reason he did not stop after this initial, alcohol-induced sin was because of the “spirit of PERVERSENESS” (707).
He explains this as such: “Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? ” (707). There are perverse tendencies in all of us, but most stable individuals have the ability to overcome their perverse nature. Most people do not cut out their pet’s eye because it was avoiding them or string a cat by its neck from a tree because it loved them. The narrator feels perverseness is what drove him to continue doing the things he did, but he also felt that as time went on he was being haunted by supernatural powers in the form of a black cat.
While the narrator’s preliminary crimes against his cat were somewhat disturbing, the most serious crime occurs at the end of the story when the narrator kills his wife after she tries to stop him from killing the second cat. This climax of the story was definitely disturbing, but I can’t say that I was shocked. Throughout the story the narrator’s language and actions became more and more unstable, which is another testament to his madness. Most people would feel remorse following the murder of their spouse, but instead the narrator just walls her up in his basement.
He also never again refers to his wife or her body as anything but “the corpse. ” He shows a sort of remorse for his actions against an animal, but shows absolutely none for a human. When the police come to search his house, the narrator gives himself and his hiding spot away because “the glee at my heart was too strong to be restrained” (711). He was more concerned about getting away with his crimes than in feeling a sense of wrong. He was so proud of himself for getting away with murder that his own emotions led to his incarceration.
The narrator rejects the possibility that he committed his ultimate crime of killing his wife because he was mad by stating that he is “above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of case and effect, between the disaster and the atrocity” (707). When it is actually quite logical to see that his insanity caused him to react the way he did to the events of this story and led him to prison, the narrator refuses to consciously admit this. He tries to blame supernatural powers as well as his spirit of perverseness for his actions, but I think both of those do not explain the crime as well as pure insanity does.
The narrator’s increasing level of insanity and his actions were influenced by alcohol abuse, his perverse nature, and probably some delusions, but had he been a sane individual he would have been able to overcome those pressures. While trying to recount the events in an unbiased way to let the readers decide what led him to his ultimate fate, the narrator revealed much more of his unstable mind and character than he probably intended.
Works Cited Poe, Edgar A. “The Black Cat. ” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. Shorter 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008. 705-11. Print.