Sunday, July 24, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe: "The Black Cat"

"For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not--and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified--have tortured--have destroyed. me. Yet I will attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror--to many they will seem less terrible than baroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place-- some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects."

This is the opening paragraph of one of my favorite Poe tales, "The Black Cat." This tale can be read in a variety of ways. Most often it is printed in a collection of supernatural horror stories. It can also be seen as the ravings of a madman. Another way, and my favorite, is as a story told by a sane man who has concocted a mix of fact and fiction, designed to convince the reader that the teller is mad and therefore should not be executed by reason of insanity.

"The Black Cat" is one of a group of tales by Poe that I call "1st person confessionals." It's been awhile since I read all of Poe's stories, so there may be some that I have missed, but for now, I put four stories in that category: "The Black Cat," "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Tell-tale Heart," and "The Imp of the Perverse." (See my post on May 17, 2009 for some comments on this story and Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground).

1. All four are told in the 1st person.
2. All four are murderers.
3. All four are now revealing the whole story.
4. All four were driven by uncontrollable forces to commit their crimes.

The problem is that these are first person narratives. They cannot be evaluated in the same way as a third person narrative. The third person narrator can be trusted since the third person narrator is outside the story and, therefore, has no reason to deceive or mislead the reader. The first person narrator, however, is inside the story, may be involved in the events, and therefore may have solid reasons for deceiving the reader or listener. The reader must evaluate the story in the same way any person's story would be judged--on the basis of what is known about the teller, the teller's possible motivation, and the likelihood of the story itself. How likely or unlikely are these events? Can these events by verified by other sources?

To begin, what is your reaction to the first paragraph of the story which I just quoted? How does it strike you? Notice that the teller contradicts himself throughout. First, he calls the story "wild" and then immediately afterwards, calls it "homely." It's as if he can't make up his mind as to how he wishes to present the tale so that it would be most convincing: is it "wild," a "Horror," "terrible," a "Phantasm"? Or "homely," "mere household events," "common-place," "an ordinary succession of very natural causes and events"? How could the reader avoid being sympathetic to the teller who is so completely confused by this inexplicable series of events?

What do we know about the teller? He obligingly fills in a bit of his background: "From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them. This peculiarity of character grew with my growth, and, in my manhood, I derived from it one of my principal sources of pleasure. " He was lucky in his choice of a spouse for he tells us that "I married early and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own."

What happened to turn this genial, kindly, docile, and humane person into the monster that he reveals later in the story? "The Fiend Intemperance --through which my general temperament and character . . . experienced a radical alteration for the worse. I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence. My pets, of course, were made to feel the change in my disposition. I not only neglected, but ill-used them." It was the "Fiend Intemperance"-- a demon outside him that controlled him. He is not responsible.

He now proceeds to tell the reader the events that lead him to his cell, and the gallows in the morning. His story regarding the mutilation of his first cat doesn't sound reasonable. He is very drunk when he comes home and decides to cut out the cat's eye. Cutting out an eye requires considerable coordination. Could someone drunk really do that? Gouge or stab the eye perhaps, if he got lucky, but, imagine holding a struggling cat in one hand while very drunk and trying to cut out an eye? Not too likely I should think. He may have done it, but I don't think he was drunk when he did it. And, of course, we have only his word for this. Who else could confirm that this happened?

The second and most ridiculous? unbelievable? impossible? unlikely? series of events takes place when the house burns down. In the morning, most of the house is destroyed except for the wall behind the bed, where appeared "as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat. The impression was given with an accuracy truly marvelous. There was a rope about the animal's neck." How can this be explained?

It's simple. He relates that he had killed Plato, the cat, by tying a rope around its neck and hanging it in the garden. When the house caught fire, people had rushed into the garden and attempted to waken him by taking the hanging corpse of the cat and throwing it through the window. It then struck the newly plastered wall with such force that it was covered by dripping plaster.

Is it really plausible that one would kill a cat by hanging it from a tree? And, is it really likely that someone would cut down the corpse of a cat hanging from a tree and throw it through the bedroom window in hope of awaking the occupants when the house was on fire? Or, is it more likely he had killed the cat and had plastered it in the wall to see if that was possible, as perhaps an experiment of some sort?

The third series of unlikely events culminates in the death and burial of his wife. He asks his wife to accompany him on some household errand (never explained) downstairs into the basement, where he is nearly tripped up by the second cat. Enraged he raises his axe (which he conveniently just happens to carrying--perhaps for that household errand?) to kill the cat, but his wife interferes and enraged, he kills his wife instead. Fortunately for him, there was a false wall in the basement which he could easily remove and place his wife's corpse in the opening. There he buries her and plasters up the wall. Again, I have some serious doubts about his tale of what happened.

I think Poe has created a fascinating narrative in which a sane man attempts to convince the reader that he is mad, and at the same time provides, through inconsistencies, evidence of his sanity. As for the mysterious events about the cat, well, what witnesses are there to corroborate his story? His wife?


  1. Fred,

    Wow, what an interesting view of this story! I always thought the part where someone throws the hanged cat through the window to wake him during the fire to be a bit "off". I'm sure there were other things to throw - rocks, potted plants. etc. outside his house. I also like your explanation of the figure of the hanged cat on the plaster wall after the fire. It makes more sense.


  2. Cheryl,

    Yes, throwing the cat through the window is absurd, but he's forced to come up with that in order to explain why the cat was plastered in the wall. It certainly foreshadows future events, doesn't it?

    It's a great story--one of my favorite Poe tales.

  3. Fred,

    I stumbled upon this homage to Poe's "The Black Cat" in Narrative Magazine. It's called "The White Cat" and is written by Joyce Carol Oates.
    Here's the link :

    ( I hope the link works. Let me know if it doesn't. You may have to subscribe to the magazine, which is free.)

  4. Cheryl,

    Thanks for the link. I will check it out.