Not the typical rock-a-bye story, and not that cheerful either. In fact it is beyond gloomy, dark and dangerous. Another gem of Edgar Allan Poe’s works of art, written to challenge readers all around the world into getting the true grip of what is going on in this extra-ordinary, fantastic, mind challenging, breath-taking short story.
In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition”, Edgar Allan Poe declares that the successful writer’s main responsibility is to show “despair” as the “primary” psychological reaction to “reality,” and not to escape despair (as cited in Andreea Popescu 1). His masterpiece “The Black Cat” hits the heart of this statement, as it deals with a desperate narrator’s tale and his psychological problems, that were triggered by the black cat as well as alcohol.
The Black Cat opens in medias res, in the middle of actions, where the narrator is about to be hanged for a murder he reveals using flashbacks. The reason he uses the flashbacks is to try and convince the readers that he has been “forced”to commit murder, and not out of free will. Also, he employs the passive voice for the same reason, which is to show that he is not the one responsible for his wife’s brutal murder. Through the declaration “what disease is like alcohol”, Poe speaks through the narrator which a common ground between them, which is “drowning” their problems in alcohol. The story is narrated in the first person point of view, which makes it unreliable, since our source of information has not proved to be trustful, since we only hear the story from one side.
Abuse of Alcohol
The employment of alcohol is very prominent in Edgar Allan Poe’s works of art, like “The Black Cat”, which might be understood as an ethical story on the ills of alcohol addiction. The protagonist turns from being a nice and tender lover of animals to be a cruel fiend that disfigures and slaughters powerless animals and ends up to be a merciless killer, all because of his drinking problems, as he claims. He thinks because of alcohol, he mistreats his wife, carves the eye of Pluto (the black cat), hangs Pluto on a tree branch, tries to kill the second cat, kills his wife, and walls her body up in the chimney, all because of alcohol! He is delusional, he tries to justify his situation, through blaming his drinking issues, while we as readers stand aside, scratching our heads, trying to get a hint of what is going on.
The story opens as the narrator has already committed his brutal crime of killing and trying to hide his wife’s body in the wall of their small apartment, and he is about to be executed for it, ‘but to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soul’. So this story is like his last message before he dies. It is hard to determine whom he is actually addressing, whether it is the reader or someone else. As James W Gargano argues, the speaker confesses that he is unable to clarify the actions that “overwhelmed” him as he starts his” confession,” and that the order of his events offers an obvious indication that the protagonist is going through a “psychic deterioration”(8). ‘Mad am I not’ and ‘very surely do I not dream’, as the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s Masterpiece “The Tell-Tale Heart,” our narrator opens his story declaring that he is not insane, and tries to support this claim. The man is obviously lying! his story is all fabrications, in which he tries to cover up the true extent of his crime, just as he tries to hide is wife’s dead corpse in the wall to conceal his crime, and hide any condemning evidence. He is a troubled man, who has some serious issues. At first, he states that he had a quiet childhood, with a lot of love and passion for animals, and that this passion has grew with him as he got older. The we find him accusing the most beloved to his heart of being the reason behind his dark thoughts and killings. The narrator, who is nameless, cut the family’s cat eye with a pocketknife, hanged it to a tree limb from its neck, attempted to kill another cat (just because it looked weirdly at him, and reminded him of the first cat), and killed his wife and walled her dead body, just because of a black cat! His contradiction and our confusion came out of the fact that he desires to do wrong, for the sake of doing wrong, and not for any other reason. He states that he ‘hung it because I knew it loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence,’ dangled it because he saw that is doing so, he was doing something immoral, something so dreadfully wrong that it will threaten his ‘mortal soul.’ He states that what he did is an ‘ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects,’ that he had nothing to do with it, and that the axe acted by itself.
Throughout the story, the narrator does not give a cut clear for the killings of his two cats and wife, he just tries to justify his situation, and this actually supports the idea of him being a fraud, a liar. It is ironic that he used to doubt his wife’s beliefs that ‘all black cats are witches in disguise,’ but at the end it is the black cat that drives him crazy. Ed Piacentino states that the speaker’s motive for killing his wife appears to be unintentional and, hence, the crime is not willfully planned, nor is the speaker capable of comprehending logically or convincing persuasively why he did his dreadful acts, throughout the continuous suggestions of justifications of his actions (1). Piacentino also adds that “to attempt to sway the reader’s thinking and to win his sympathy, the narrator deliberately structures his text,” flashing between “narrative time” and “story time”. Nevertheless, although he might not have killed his wife on purpose, he shows little remorse, or even no remorse, ‘soundly and tranquilly I slept,’ and instead of turning himself in, he tried to hide her body in one of the walls of the apartment. We get in his head at the moment when he decides to hide the corpse, but does not know where; he gives suggestions to himself, such as cutting the body into pieces, burning it, or ‘packing it into a box and getting a porter’ to take it away. One who flees from the scene of a crime, tries to hide a body and burns a house, seems pretty reasonable to me, seems pretty sane, and seems to know whats right and whats not. At the very end of the story, he blames the ‘hideous beast’ that he accidentally buried with his wife’s body, to be what ‘seduced’ him to murder. And as in “The Tell Tale Heart,” at first the narrator appears in front of the police confident and calm, but at the end he gets exposed. However, unlike the narrator of “The Tell Tale Heart,” our narrator does not cause his own arrest, the shriek of the cat does. He caused the death of the first cat, but the second cat is what brought him to justice.
Gargano, James. The Question of Poe’s Narrators. “Collage English” 1963, vol. 25: 8-9.
Piacentino, Ed. Poes’s the Black Cat as Psychobiography: Some Reflections on the Naratological dynamics. “Studies in Short Fiction” 35 (1998): 1-6.
Popescu, Andreea. Immolation of the Self, Fall into the Abyss in Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales. “University of Bucharest, 2012. 1.