By Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)
A Study Guide
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.
.......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.
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.
'I delight to have allayed your suspicions," he said. "I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By-the-by, gentlemen, thisthis 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 wallsare 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.
.......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 betterfiguratively. 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 isan 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 itselfto offer violence to its own natureto do wrong for the wrong's sake onlythat 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 sinAuthor Information
.......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 coupleJohn Allan, a successful businessman in Richmond, Va., and his wife. Allan was believed to be Poes 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.
.......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.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.
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