Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" is a short story in the horror genre that has
elements of Gothic fiction. It focuses
on the psyche of the narrator, who is in prison awaiting execution.
wrote "The Black Cat" in 1842. It was first published on August 19, 1843,
The Saturday Evening Post, then known as The United States
story opens in the cell of a prisoner the day before he is to be executed
by hanging. After introducing himself to readers as a man who underwent
a horrifying experience, the prisoner writes down the details of this experience,
which led to his imprisonment and scheduled execution. The events in his
tale are set at his home and in a tavern. Although these events take place
over several years, the recounting of them in writing takes place on a
single day in the narrator's prison cell.
scheduled for execution. His loathing of a cat he once loved leads to his
commission of a capital crime.
Woman of agreeable disposition who likes animals and obtains many pets
for her husband.
First Black Cat:
Cat named Pluto that loves the narrator but irritates him when it follows
Second Black Cat:
Cat that resembles the first black cat and may be a reincarnation of the
latter—or so the narrator may think.
who investigate the happenings at the home of the narrator.
Servant: Person working
in the narrator's household.
narrator tells the story in first-person point of view. He is obviously
deranged even though he declares at the outset of the story that "mad am
I not." He tells readers that excessive drinking helped to bring on his
erratic, violent behavior. (It may be that the drinking worsened an existing
mental condition.) The narrator tells his story as he sees it from his
demented point of view.
in many of his other short stories, Poe does not name the narrator. A possible
explanation for this is that Poe wanted the unnamed narrator to represent
every human being, thereby enhancing the universality of the short story.
In other words, the narrator represents anyone who has ever acted perversely
or impulsively—and then had to pay for his
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By Michael J. Cummings
I die,” says the narrator, who is in a prison cell awaiting execution.
Then he tells about the horrifying events that led up to his death sentence.
he was growing up, he says, he was tender and compassionate. Because he
especially liked animals, his parents provided him many pets to care for.
His fondness for animals continued into adulthood. After he married, his
wife also obtained pets for him, including birds, a goldfish, a dog, rabbits,
a small monkey, and a black cat.
cat was so intelligent, the narrator says, that his wife frequently reminded
him of an an old folk tale implicating black cats as witches in disguise.
“Not that she was ever serious on this point,” the narrator says. It was
an extremely large cat, which the narrator named Pluto, and it was his
favorite pet. The cat was fond of him, too, for it followed him everywhere.
the years, the narrator’s disposition changed for the worse when he began
to drink heavily. He became moody, shouted at his wife, and even struck
her at times. He
mistreated all of his pets except Pluto. In time, however, he even started
to mistreat the cat. One night when he returned home drunk, Pluto seemed
to avoid him. Irritated, he seized it. The cat then bit him on the hand.
So enraged did the narrator become that he withdrew a pocket knife and
cut out one of the cat’s eyes.
next morning, he experienced shock and remorse at what he had done—but
not enough to change him. “I again plunged into excess, and soon drowned
in wine all memory of the deed.” In time the cat's wound healed completely.
But it fled in terror whenever it saw him. At first he pitied it; later
he despised it.
morning, he put a noose around its neck and, tying the rope to the limb
of a tree, executed it. He had tears in his eyes when he did the deed,
for he knew that the cat had loved him, that it had never crossed him.
That night, he awakened to the cry of “Fire!” He, his wife, and his servant
escaped, but the blaze destroyed his house and all his possessions.
next day, he and other townspeople noticed a strange sight amid the ruins:
The figure of a cat with a rope around its neck imprinted on the plaster
of the only wall still standing in what had been his bedroom. The image
horrified him. However, upon reflection, he surmised that someone in the
crowd gathered outside during the fire must have cut down the cat and thrown
it through his bedroom window to awaken him. Then, when one of the other
walls fell, it must have pressed the outline of the cat into the wall that
months, he thought about the cat and regretted killing it. While visiting
taverns, he thought about getting another pet. One night, he saw a black
cat on a barrel of gin or rum. It was as big as Pluto and similar to him
in all other respects except one: It had a white splotch on its breast.
When he stroked it, the cat purred and rubbed against his hand. After making
inquiries, he discovered that the cat was apparently a stray. So he took
cat was content with its new surroundings, and the narrator’s wife took
a fancy to it. In time, however, the narrator once again became irritable
and moody. What helped to provoke him was that it had a missing eye, as
Pluto did. Although the cat annoyed him, he avoided maltreating it; the
memory of what he had done to Pluto was still fresh. Eventually, though,
he began to detest the creature and attempted to avoid it whenever he saw
it. But the cat sensed no animosity in him, for it followed him from room
to room and sometimes jumped into his lap when he sat down.
he noticed that the white hair on the cat's breast began to take on the
shape of gallows, he had trouble sleeping. And when he did sleep, he would
awaken to find the cat in bed with him. Soon, outright hatred of the cat—in
fact, hatred of almost everyone and everything—seized
day, when the narrator and his wife went into the cellar on a household
errand, the cat followed them. In a fit of rage, the narrator raised an
axe to strike at the creature, but his wife stopped his arm from bringing
the weapon down. Demoniacal fury then took hold of him. Pulling loose his
arm, he “buried the axe in her brain.” After considering various ways of
disposing of her body, he decided to hide it behind a brick wall. First,
he removed the bricks. Next, he stood the body in the niche and replaced
the bricks, using mortar to secure them in place.
he looked for the cat, “for I had, at length, firmly resolved to put it
to death.” But it had disappeared—apparently
in fear of his wrath. That night, even with the weight of murder on his
mind, he slept soundly. After all, there was no cat to irritate him. Three
days passed, and still no cat. The narrator says, “My happiness was supreme!”
During this time, there were inquiries about the sudden disappearance of
his wife, but he found it easy to answer questions and had no fear that
the body would be discovered.
the fourth day after her murder, police thoroughly investigated the house
but, of course, found nothing. When they were about to leave, the narrator—pleased
at his cleverness and his ability to handle the police—began
to talk too much.
'I delight to have allayed
your suspicions," he said. "I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy.
By-the-by, gentlemen, this—this is a very
well-constructed house." (In the rabid desire to say something easily,
I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.) "I may say an excellently well-constructed
house. These walls—are you going, gentlemen?—these
walls are solidly put together"; and here, through the mere frenzy of bravado,
I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion
of the brickwork behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.
At that moment was heard
a cry from within the wall, like that of a sobbing child. Then the cry
turned into a scream. The police tore the bricks from the wall and found
the decaying corpse. On its head was the black cat. Without realizing it,
the narrator had walled it up with the body.
A human being has a perverse,
wicked side that can goad him into committing evil deeds. The narrator
says it was this inner demon that brought about his downfall.
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? Have we not a perpetual inclination,
in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely
because we understand it to be such? This spirit of perverseness, I say,
came to my final overthrow. 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 and finally to consummate
the injury I had inflicted upon the unoffending brute. Alcohol Abuse
Heavy drinking can bring
out the worst in a human being. To be sure, alcohol abuse alone did not
cause the narrator's violent behavior. But, as he readily acknowledges,
it certainly put him in a foul mood.
Evil deeds invite vengeance.
Pluto gets even, the narrator indicates, by causing the fire that burns
down the narrator's house. And, if the second cat is indeed Pluto reincarnated,
Pluto sweetens his revenge by alerting police with his crying behind the
wall hiding the corpse of the narrator's wife.
The Power of Suggestion
A weak, unbalanced human
psyche may be highly vulnerable to the power of suggestion. Consider that
the narrator's wife had suggested, apparently in jest, that Pluto was more
than a harmless black cat.
In speaking of his
[the cat's] intelligence, my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured
with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion,
which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise. Not that she was
ever serious upon this point -- and I mention the matter at all for no
better reason than that it happens, just now, to be remembered.In fact, the apparently deranged
narrator may well have taken his wife's comments seriously.
narrator names the first black cat Pluto. In ancient Roman mythology, Pluto
was the king of the Underworld, ruling over the abode of the dead. In Greek
mythology, on which the Romans based their mythology, Pluto was called
Hades. Pluto the cat, therefore, seems to symbolize death to the narrator.
That he gave the cat this name suggests that he thought it a sinister creature
from the moment he first saw it.
narrator's scheduled execution on the gallows is foreshadowed first by
the narrator's hanging of Pluto, next by the outline of the dead cat on
the wall (after the fire), and finally by the outline of the gallows on
the white hair of the second black cat.
the narrator cuts out Pluto's eye, the cat sees better—figuratively.
Previously, the cat loved and trusted the narrator, following him around,
climbing into his lap, and licking his hands. But after the cat loses an
eye, it sees the narrator for what he is—an
unpredictable, dangerous man. It gains insight that it lacked before.
Use of Anaphora
frequently uses anaphora, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase
is repeated at the beginning of a clause or another group of words. Anaphora
imparts emphasis and balance. Here are boldfaced examples from "The Black
I grew, day by day,
moody, more irritable, more
regardless of the feelings of others.
[T]hese events have
terrified -- have tortured -- have
reason returned with the morning -- when
I had slept off the fumes of the night's debauch -- I experienced a sentiment
of horror, half of remorse,
Yet I am not more 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.
blush, I burn, I
shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity
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 and finally to consummate the injury I had inflicted upon
the unoffending brute.
One morning, in cool blood,
I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it
to the limb of a tree -- hung it with
the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my
heart -- hung it because I knew that
it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence
-- hung it because I knew that in so
doing I was committing a sin
Allan Poe was born on January 19, 1809, in Boston. After being orphaned
at age two, he was taken into the home of a childless couple—John
Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was
believed to be Poe’s godfather. At age six, Poe went to England with the
Allans and was enrolled in schools there. After he returned with the Allans
to the U.S. in 1820, he studied at private schools, then attended the University
of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy, but did not complete studies
at either school.
beginning his literary career as a poet and prose writer, he married his
young cousin, Virginia Clemm. He worked for several magazines and joined
the staff of the New York Mirror newspaper in 1844. All the while,
he was battling a drinking problem. After the Mirror published his
poem “The Raven” in January 1845, Poe achieved national and international
fame. Besides pioneering the development of the short story, Poe invented
the format for the detective story as we know it today. He also was an
outstanding literary critic.
the acclaim he received, Poe was never really happy because of his drinking
and because of the deaths of several people close to him, including his
wife in 1847. He frequently had trouble paying his debts. It is believed
that heavy drinking was a contributing cause of his death in Baltimore
on October 7, 1849.
Questions and Essay Topics
Write an essay that compares
and contrasts the narrator of "The Black Cat" with the narrator of "The
Tell-Tale Heart." In the latter story, the narrator is also mentally
unstable even though he maintains at the beginning of the story that he
Read the following two paragraphs,
then answer the question appearing after them.
I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, "I delight to have allayed
your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By-the-by,
gentlemen, this -- this is a very well-constructed house." (In the rabid
desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.)
"I may say an excellently well-constructed house. These walls -- are you
going, gentlemen? -- these walls are solidly put together"; and here, through
the mere frenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held
in my hand, upon that very portion of the brickwork behind which stood
the corpse of the wife of my bosom.
In your opinion, do these paragraphs
suggest that the narrator--perhaps suffering from a guilty conscience--wanted
to be arrested and charged with murder? Explain your answer.
may God shield and deliver me from the fangs on the Arch-Fiend! No sooner
had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence, than I was answered
by a voice from within the tomb! -- by a cry, at first muffled and broken,
like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud,
and continuous scream, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might
have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned
in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.
Write an informative essay
centering on superstitions involving black cats. You can begin your research
by clicking here.
Conduct research that answers
these questions: Did Poe like animals? Did he have any pets?