Poe Study Guides
Notes Compiled by Michael J. Cummings..©
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 these events in writing takes place
on a single day in the narrator's prison cell.
Narrator, a prisoner scheduled for execution. His loathing of a cat
he once loved leads to his commission of a capital crime.
Narrator's Wife, a woman of agreeable disposition who likes animals
and obtains many pets for her husband.
Black Cat, a cat named Pluto that loves the narrator but irritates
him when it follows him everywhere.
Black Cat, a cat that resembles the first black cat and may be a reincarnation
of the latter–or so the narrator may think.
officers who investigate the happenings at the home of the narrator.
Person working in the narrator's household.
Type of Work Short
story in the horror genre that focuses on the psyche of the narrator. Poe
was one of the developers of the short story as a literary genre. He defined
a short story as a narrative prose work that (1) is short enough to be
read in one sitting, (2) takes place in one locale on a single day, (or
even in a few hours), (3) centers on a single line of action, and (4) maintains
a single mood. Every word or phrase should contribute to the theme and
Time of Publication and
Writing "The Black Cat" was first published on August 19, 1843, in
Saturday Evening Post, then known as The United States Saturday
Post. It was written in 1842.
Themes (1) A human
being has a perverse, wicked side–another self–that can goad him into doing
evil things that have no apparent motive. The narrator himself admits
that a perverse, primitive impulse–a desire to do evil even though he had
no explanation for doing it other than overindulging in wine–triggered
his violent behavior. (2) Heavy drinking can bring out the worst in
a human being. Alcohol abuse alone did not cause the narrator to strike
out. But, as he readily acknowledges, it certainly put him in a foul mood.
(3) A weak, unbalanced human psyche may be highly vulnerable to the
power of suggestion. The narrator's wife had suggested, apparently
in jest, that Pluto was a witch in disguise. (4) 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. (5) Fear of discovery
can bring about discovery. At the end of the story, the narrator's
strange behavior makes the police suspicious of him.
(Point of View) First-person unreliable. The narrator is obviously
deranged, readers learn during his telling of his tale, even though he
declares at the outset "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 the unnamed narrator becomes 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.
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, thus, 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.
Irony 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.
Poe's Frequent Use of
Anaphora Anaphora is 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 blush, I
burn, I shudder, while I pen the damnable atrocity
of Poe's Life? Poe himself owned a cat at the time that he wrote this
short story. He was also a heavy drinker during this period.
I experienced a sentiment
of horror, half of remorse. . . .
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
Author 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,
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, he 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.
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 him.
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
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
'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.