The Black Cat (short story)

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"The Black Cat"
Author Edgar Allan Poe
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Horror fiction
Short story, Gothic Literature
Publisher United States Saturday Post[1]
Media type Print (periodical)
Publication date August 19, 1843

"The Black Cat" is a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. It was first published in the August 19, 1843, edition of The Saturday Evening Post. It is a study of the psychology of guilt, often paired in analysis with Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart".[2] In both, a murderer carefully conceals his crime and believes himself unassailable, but eventually breaks down and reveals himself, impelled by a nagging reminder of his guilt.

Plot[edit]

Illustration for "The Black Cat" by Aubrey Beardsley (1894–1895)

The story is presented as a first-person narrative using an unreliable narrator. He is a condemned man at the outset of the story.[3] The narrator tells us that from an early age he has loved animals. He and his wife have many pets, including a large black cat named Pluto. This cat is especially fond of the narrator and vice versa. Their mutual friendship lasts for several years, until the narrator becomes an alcoholic. One night, after coming home intoxicated, he believes the cat is avoiding him. When he tries to seize it, the panicked cat bites the narrator, and in a fit of rage, he seizes the animal, pulls a pen-knife from his pocket, and deliberately gouges out the cat's eye.

From that moment onward, the cat flees in terror at his master's approach. At first, the narrator is remorseful and regrets his cruelty. "But this feeling soon gave place to irritation. And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of perverseness." He takes the cat out in the garden one morning and hangs it from a tree, where it dies. That very night, his house mysteriously catches fire, forcing the narrator, his wife and their servant to flee.

The next day, the narrator returns to the ruins of his home to find, imprinted on the single wall that survived the fire, the figure of a gigantic cat, hanging by its neck from a rope.

At first, this image terrifies the narrator, but gradually he determines a logical explanation for it, that someone outside had thrown the dead cat into the bedroom to wake him up during the fire, and begins to miss Pluto. Some time later, he finds a similar cat in a tavern. It is the same size and color as the original and is even missing an eye. The only difference is a large white patch on the animal's chest. The narrator takes it home, but soon begins to loathe, even fear the creature. After a time, the white patch of fur begins to take shape and, to the narrator, forms the shape of the gallows. Then, one day when the narrator and his wife are visiting the cellar in their new home, the cat gets under its master's feet and nearly trips him down the stairs. In a fury, the man grabs an axe and tries to kill the cat but is stopped by his wife. Enraged, he kills her with the axe instead. To conceal her body he removes bricks from a protrusion in the wall, places her body there, and repairs the hole. A few days later, when the police show up at the house to investigate the wife's disappearance, they find nothing and the narrator goes free. The cat, which he intended to kill as well, has also gone missing.

On the last day of the investigation, the narrator accompanies the police into the cellar. They still find nothing. Then, completely confident in his own safety, the narrator comments on the sturdiness of the building and raps upon the wall he had built around his wife's body. A wailing sound fills the room. The alarmed police tear down the wall and find the wife's corpse, and on her head, to the horror of the narrator, is the screeching black cat. As he words it: "I had walled the monster up within the tomb!".

Publication history[edit]

"The Black Cat" was first published in the August 19, 1843, issue of The Saturday Evening Post. At the time, the publication was using the temporary title United States Saturday Post.[4] Readers immediately responded favorably to the story, spawning parodies including Thomas Dunn English's "The Ghost of the Grey Tadpole".[5]

Analysis[edit]

Like the narrator in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart", the narrator of "The Black Cat" has questionable sanity. Near the beginning of the tale, the narrator says he would be "mad indeed" if he should expect a reader to believe the story, implying that he has already been accused of madness.[6]

The extent to which the narrator claims to have loved his animals suggests mental instability in the form of having “too much of a good thing”. His partiality for animals substitutes “the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man”. Since the narrator’s wife shares his love of animals, he likely thinks of her as another pet, seeing as he distrusts and dislikes humans. Additionally, his failure to understand his excessive love of animals foreshadows his inability to explain his motives for his actions.[7]

One of Poe's darkest tales, "The Black Cat" includes his strongest denouncement of alcohol. The narrator's perverse actions are brought on by his alcoholism, a "disease" and "fiend" which also destroys his personality.[8] The use of the black cat evokes various superstitions, including the idea voiced by the narrator's wife that they are all witches in disguise. Poe owned a black cat. In his "Instinct vs Reason -- A Black Cat" he stated: The writer of this article is the owner of one of the most remarkable black cats in the world - and this is saying much; for it will be remembered that black cats are all of them witches.[9] In Scottish and Irish mythology, the Cat Sìth is described as being a black cat with a white spot on its chest, not unlike the cat the narrator finds in the tavern. The titular cat is named Pluto after the Roman god of the Underworld.

Although Pluto is a neutral character at the beginning of the story, he becomes antagonistic in the narrator’s eyes once the narrator becomes an alcoholic. The alcohol pushes the narrator into fits of intemperance and violence, to the point at which everything angers him – Pluto in particular, who is always by his side, becomes the malevolent witch who haunts him even while avoiding his presence. When the narrator cuts Pluto’s eye from its socket, this can be seen as symbolic of self-inflicted partial blindness to his own vision of moral goodness.[7]

The fire that destroys the narrator’s house symbolizes the narrator’s "almost complete moral disintegration".[7] The only remainder is the impression of Pluto upon the wall, which represents his unforgivable and incorrigible sin.[7]

From a rhetorician's standpoint, an effective scheme of omission that Poe employs is diazeugma, or using many verbs for one subject; it omits pronouns. Diazeugma emphasizes actions and makes the narrative swift and brief.[10]

Adaptations[edit]

  • Universal Pictures made two films titled The Black Cat, one in 1934, starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and another in 1941, starring Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. Both films claimed to have been "suggested by" Poe's story, but neither bears any resemblance to the tale aside from the presence of a black cat.[5] Elements of Poe's story were, however, used in the 1934 film Maniac.[11]
  • "The Black Cat" is the eleventh episode of the second season of the television series Masters of Horror. The plot essentially retells the short story in a semi-autobiographical manner, with Poe himself undergoing a series of events involving a black cat which he used to inspire the story of the same name.
The Black Cat, 1910–1911. A painting by Gino Severini
  • "The Black Cat" was adapted and performed with "The Cask of Amontillado" as Poe, Times Two: Twin tales of mystery, murder...and mortar -- a double-bill of short, one-man plays written and performed by Greg Oliver Bodine. First produced in NYC at Manhattan Theatre Source in 2007, and again at WorkShop Theater Company in 2011. Part of the 2012 season at Cape May Stage in Cape May, NJ.
  • "The Black Cat" was adapted into a 7-page comic strip in Yellowjack Comics #1 (1944).
  • In 1910–11 Futurist artist Gino Severini painted "The Black Cat" in direct reference to Poe's short story.
  • Sept. 18, 1947, Mystery in the Air Radio Program with Peter Lorre as the Protagonist in The Black Cat. Note: eye is not gouged out. Instead the cat's ear is torn.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Baym, Nina (2012). The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 8th Edition, Volume B: 1820-1865. New York City: Norton. p. 695. 
  2. ^ Meyers, Jeffrey (1992). Edgar Allan Poe: his life and legacy. New York City: Charles Scribner's Sons. p. 137. ISBN 0-8154-1038-7. OCLC 44413785. 
  3. ^ Hart, James D. "The Black Cat". The Concise Oxford Companion to American Literature. Oxford UP, 1986. Oxford Reference Online. Accessed October 22, 2011.
  4. ^ Quinn, Arthur Hobson (1998). Edgar Allan Poe: a critical biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 394. ISBN 0-8018-5730-9. OCLC 37300554. 
  5. ^ a b c Sova, Dawn B. (2001). Edgar Allan Poe, A to Z: the essential reference to his life and work. New York City: Facts on File. p. 28. ISBN 0-8160-4161-X. OCLC 44885229. 
  6. ^ Cleman, John (2002). "Irresistible Impulses: Edgar Allan Poe and the Insanity Defense". In Harold Bloom. Edgar Allan Poe. New York City: Chelsea House Publishers. p. 73. ISBN 0-7910-6173-6. OCLC 48176842. 
  7. ^ a b c d Gargano, James W. "The Black Cat": Perverseness Reconsidered". Texas Studies in Literature and Language 2.2 (1960): 172-78.
  8. ^ Cecil, L. Moffitt (December 1972). "Poe's Wine List". Poe Studies V (2): 42. 
  9. ^ Barger, Andrew (2008). Edgar Allan Poe Annotated and Illustrated Entire Stories and Poems. U.S.A.: Bottletree Books LLC. p. 58. ISBN 978-1-933747-10-1. 
  10. ^ Zimmerman, Brett. Edgar Allan Poe: Rhetoric and Style. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2005.
  11. ^ Maniac - Cast, Reviews, Summary, and Awards - AllRovi

External links[edit]