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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2005
Revised in 2010..©
Type of Work
.......Edgar 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.
.......Poe wrote "The Black Cat" in 1842. It was first published on August 19, 1843, in The Saturday Evening Post, then known as The United States Saturday Post.
.......The 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.
Narrator: Prisoner scheduled for execution. His loathing of a cat he once loved leads to his commission of a capital crime.
Narrator's Wife: Woman of agreeable disposition who likes animals and obtains many pets for her
First Black Cat: Cat named Pluto that loves the narrator but irritates him when it follows him everywhere.
Second Black Cat: Cat that resembles the first
black cat and may be a reincarnation of the latter—or so the narrator may think.
Policemen: Officers who investigate the happenings at the home of the narrator.
Servant: Person working in the narrator's household.
Point of View
.......The 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.
.......As 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 deed.
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By Michael J. Cummings
.......“Tomorrow, 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.
.......When 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.
.......The 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.
.......Over 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.
.......The 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.
.......One 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.
.......The 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 remained.
.......For 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 it home.
.......The 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
.......After 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 him.
.......One 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.
.......Afterward, 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.
.......On 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.
Allusion and Symbolism
.......The 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.
.......The 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.
.......After 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
.......Poe 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 Cat":
I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others.
[T]hese events have terrified -- have tortured -- have destroyed me.
When reason returned with the morning -- when I had slept off the fumes of the night's debauch -- I experienced a sentiment half 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.
I 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
.......Edgar 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.
.......After 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.
.......Despite 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.
Study 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 is not.
Read the following two paragraphs, then answer the question appearing after them.
......."Gentlemen," 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.
.......But 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?
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