I often wonder what kind of secrets or inner murky depths inspired the darker of Poe’s exploits. His exploration of guilt or lack of it, murder and pain, conscience and punishment, and his fascination with death via entombing.
The Black Cat is one of Poe’s many short stories that focus on the thought processes before, during and after heinous acts of crime or violence.
The story has what is known as an unreliable narrator and although we the readers are led by his account of the events, we have to choose whether the facts as he relays them are indeed the truth.
As they unfold the reader begins to understand that they are the facts, as the narrator perceives them to be. Whether the truth in his eyes, is also the truth in our minds is an entirely different matter altogether.
He, the narrator, starts off with a rather defensive line:
I neither expect nor solicit belief.
Yet mad I am not.
to-day I would unburden my soul.
these events have terrified – have tortured – have destroyed me-
yet I will not attempt to expound them
He doesn’t expect us to believe anything he says and he assures us he isn’t insane. In fact he needs to tell someone before he is sent to his death, because everyone needs to understand just how much he has suffered.
from infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition.
In the text he makes sure the listener/reader knows that he is a gentle person known for his fondness of animals and was never quite as happy, as when with them. Note that even at this stage he separates humans from animals and experiences the animal, as more understanding of his nature.
something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute
which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.
In his eyes Man or humans are of a fickle disposition. Not trustworthy and never loyal.
Subsequently he marries a woman, who is also fond of animals and they accumulate many pets. Among them a majestic black cat called Pluto. His wife alludes frequently to the superstition attached to black cats.
Not that she was ever serious upon this point – and I mention the matter and all for no better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.
Clever how the narrator uses the technique of auto-suggestion. He places a subconscious thread in the readers mind, but done in a way that it seems to be an afterthought. How Machiavellian of him. So the reader henceforth doesn’t just think cat, or black cat, they think ooohh spooky evil black cat.
He then proceeds to give a reason for his behaviour. A place to lay the blame. The narrator speaks of his ‘Intemperance‘ his overindulgence in alcohol, ergo blaming his erratic behaviour and violent deeds on the spirits he imbibes.
I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others.
I suffered myself to use in temperate language to my wife
At length, I even offered her personal violence.
Notice the phrasing in that last quote. I ‘offered’ her personal violence. The literary eloquence of a gentleman or a Freudian slip?
At first he mistreats his wife and all the animals, except for the cat. Interesting to note that he puts his wife on the same level as an animal and yet seems to extend a special period of grace for the cat. He differentiates the level of violence and abuse he usually imposes upon everyone and the level of violence he later exhibits. The first level being the period of grace, ergo normal and the second being so sadistic that even he perceives it as violent.
One night – I fancied that the cat avoided my presence
He physically hurts the cat and in return the animal scratches him, which sends the man into a rage.
The fly of a demon instantly possessed me-
My original soul seemed at once to take its flight from my body
His explanation reads thus, he has taken leave of his senses and is not in his right state of mind when he stabs out one of the cat’s eyeballs. The next morning he is overcome with just a little remorse, however that doesn’t last long. The cat is now avoiding him altogether. This irks the narrator and…
a spirit of Perverseness takes over
He speaks of this ‘Perverseness’ as if it were an entity with a mind of its own. Another person who just happens to drop by when it suits him to do so.
Yet I am not sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart. One of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of man.
So what is he saying here? That within each human being there is a trait of perverseness, an instinct ingrained in our personality.
have we not a perpetual inclination in the teeth of our best judgement, to violate that which is Law, much because we understand it to be such –
Man does not like to be ruled by others or laws made by others.
Do we have an innate instinct to break laws made by other men because we do not like to be governed by those we perceive to be equal or even unequal, as opposed to more than equal?
It was this unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself – to offer violence to its own nature – to do wrong for the wrong’s sake only – that urged me to continue…
The excuses he pulls upon to explain why he just had to do what he does next. He has no choice.
And you and I, we know in truth that he does.
He hangs the cat.
hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart
The night of the day of this evil deed a fire starts and the house and all his worldly wealth is destroyed. Left on his headboard is a burnt impression of the cat with a noose around its head.
There came into my spirit a half-sentiment that seemed, but was not remorse.
Interesting that he actually recognizes the fact that what he feels is not remorse but for him an as yet undefined emotion. I wager something akin to pleasure. Noting that he feels the need to replace that internal something he starts to look for an animal to replace the one he lost. He partakes in the usual Intemperance in a tavern and a cat with one eye follows him home.
The animal evinced a disposition to accompany me.
Note his tone of sarcasm and even a hint of pity at the new cat for being daft enough to want to follow him home.
I soon found a dislike to it arising within me
Its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed me
These feelings of disgust ad annoyance rose into the bitterness of hatred.
I came to look upon it with unutterable loathing
Let’s hit the pause button right there. He has an almost instinctive dislike to something/anything that likes him. He doesn’t like himself, ergo why would anyone else. He punishes the fool that does. Translation being: You are weak for liking me, I will hurt you so you don’t. Hurt you until you stop liking me (the inevitable death at his hands). He feels gratification.
I longed to destroy it with a blow.
I was yet withheld from so doing, partly by a memory of my former crime, but chiefly – let me confess it at once – by absolute dread of the beast.
Guilt in form of fear? Fear that the animal likes him, which means he knows he will have to punish it for doing so.
His wife has drawn his attention to a mark on the cat’s chest, which has the shape of the Gallows.
If I didn’t know any better I would say his wife was in on it with the cat.
Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed.
So let’s recap. The second cat apparently loves him ,follows him round like a lapdog and has a white mark on his chest in the shape of the Gallow, and the man perceives the cat to be a four-legged evil reincarnate of the previous cat. All that is enough to blame the expulsion of all that is good from his body, soul and heart, on the cat.
Evil thoughts became my soul intimates- the darkest and most evil of thoughts.
My uncomplaining wife, alas! Was the most usual and most patient of sufferers.
How very condescending. His wife was the most patient of sufferers. Look at him taking a wee potshot at his wife for taking the abuse in silence. Though silent she may be, she decides to intervene when he tries to kill the cat, so he kills his wife instead.
I actually think the narrator thinks this validates his actions against his wife and that this was what he was working his way up to anyway.
Then he decides to hide the body by entombing the body in the cellar, behind a wall.
I determine to wall it up in the cellar.
Meanwhile the cat has gone missing.
I soundly and tranquilly slept; aye, slept even with the burden of murder upon my soul!
So he thinks because he sleeps peacefully, despite carrying the burden of murder upon his soul, means he cannot have been so wrong in his actions or he would feel guilt and not be able to sleep.
Now comes the best part, which is so Freudian in its nature that it should be framed and hung on a wall. The police search his house and then the cellar. They find nothing, decide to leave and are on their way out when the mastermind of evil crime decides to have a wee tap on the wall of the tomb he has just built.
In answer to the tap a sound akin to a creature in pain, a demented shrew or a maniacal child arises in the cellar. Alerted by the shrieking the police bash down the newly raised wall to find the corpse of his wife and sitting atop of her head, looking much like a mythical creature from the depths of hell, sits the cat. Shrieking like a banshee sent out to punish and seek vengeance.
So.. What made him tap on that wall and inadvertently alert the police to his crime? Is that tap on the wall equivalent to his conscience tapping from deep within his subconscious thoughts. Did he want to be caught, did he need for people to know what he had done and did he want to be punished?
You tell me. I know what I think.
Free downloads of the above mentioned story and other pieces by Poe.
Download to read a copy of The Black Cat by Edgar A.Poe at the Internet Archive or Feedbooks.
Download to read the Complete Works of Edgar A. Poe at the Internet Archive.
Download to listen to The Black Cat presented by Radio Theatre at the Internet Archive.
Download to read The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar A. Poe at Feedbooks.
Download to read the Complete Poetical Works by Edgar A. Poe at the Internet Archive or listen to them at Librivox.