I’ve read all of Poe’s fiction and poetry and novels (both completed and aborted) and a great many of his articles, but I’ve reviewed few of them. Since The Weird Tradition group over at LibraryThing is discussing this story, it gives me a chance to write up a review of this one.
Review: “The Black Cat”, Edgar Allan Poe, 1842.
In several ways, this story is similar to Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”. That’s understandable. Both stories are from 1842, and this one was written after that tale.
Both stories are first person accounts of murderers who tried to conceal their victim’s bodies. Both those bodies are discovered by aberrant events. In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator hears the old man’s beating heart beneath the floorboards. Here, the body of the narrator’s wife is walled up and revealed by the shrieks, which are definitely heard by the police investigating his wife’s disappearance, of a cat. Both victims are not enemies of the narrator. In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator tells us he loved the old man. Here the narrator frequently remarks on his wife’s kind and gentle nature. Both narrators are keen to point out they are not mad.
This narrator says he doesn’t expect to be believed. He just wants to report the events that terrified and tortured him. He’s not going to explain them. He wants someone to examine these events more objectively than he can.
Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.
The narrator then starts out by describing his early life and how he had a docile and humane disposition and always had a fondness for animals. He and his wife, whom he liked because she shared his love of animals, had several pets. They included Pluto, a large black cat.
Interestingly, whether it was observation or imagination or personal experience — Poe didn’t take a temperance pledge until 1849, he has a section on how the narrator was undone by drink:
Our friendship lasted, in this manner, for several years, during which my general temperament and character — through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance had — (I blush to confess it) experienced a radical alteration for the worse. I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence. My pets, of course, were made to feel the change in my disposition. I not only neglected, but ill-used them. For Pluto, however, I still retained sufficient regard to restrain me from maltreating him, as I made no scruple of maltreating the rabbits, the monkey, or even the dog, when by accident, or through affection, they came in my way. But my disease grew upon me — for what disease is like Alcohol! — and at length even Pluto, who was now becoming old, and consequently somewhat peevish — even Pluto began to experience the effects of my ill temper.
One night, coming home drunk, the narrator is angered that Pluto seems to be avoiding him. He grabs Pluto who scratches him. Enraged, the narrator blinds Pluto in one eye with a pocket knife.
The narrator is sort of horrified when he sobers up next morning:
I experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse, for the crime of which I had been guilty; but it was, at best, a feeble and equivocal feeling, and the soul remained untouched. I again plunged into excess, and soon drowned in wine all memory of the deed.
As you would expect, Pluto avoids the narrator after this. At first this grieves the narrator. But then the narrator develops an idea that Poe would turn into a story called “The Imp of the Perverse” in 1845.
And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. Phrenology finds no place for it among its organs. 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. 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.
The narrator hangs Pluto from a tree. He does so because he knows it’s a sin that may place him “beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.”
That night a fire breaks out and destroys the narrator’s house. In the ruins of the house, on the one still standing wall, is the odd imprint of a cat with a noose around its neck, its size matching Pluto.
The narrator comes up with an unconvincing rationale: the neighbors, wishing to wake the household when the fire broke out, threw Pluto’s body into the house and it made an impression on a damp plaster wall (which also kept it preserved from the fire), and the cat’s body was consumed in the fire.
Still, the incident makes the narrator uneasy, and he begins to look for a replacement for Pluto.
One night, out drinking, he comes across a cat that looks a lot like Pluto except its belly has an indistinct patch of white. It turns out, on closer examination, to also be blind in the same eye Pluto was which endears it even more to the narrator’s gentle-hearted wife.
The cat is very devoted to the narrator and follows him everywhere. He comes to resent this and even dreads the cat. The dread increases when that patch on the cat’s belly takes on the definite form of a gallows.
The narrator’s personality takes another turn for the worse:
Beneath the pressure of torments such as these, the feeble remnant of the good within me succumbed. Evil thoughts became my sole intimates — the darkest and most evil of thoughts. The moodiness of my usual temper increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind; while, from the sudden, frequent, and ungovernable outbursts of a fury to which I now blindly abandoned myself, my uncomplaining wife, alas! was the most usual and the most patient of sufferers.
One night, going down to the basement of their new home with his wife, the cat causes the narrator to stumble. Enraged, he grabs an axe with the intent of killing the cat, but his wife stops him. With a “rage more than demoniacal”, he buries the axe in her head.
Rather like the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator wants us to know the clever and reasonable steps – and the rejected options — he took to cover up his crime. When the police come to investigate, the imp of the perverse seems to seize the narrator.
They are on the way out of the basement after investigating when the narrator starts talking about how well the walls are constructed and strikes them with his cane. The result is unexpected.
a cry, at first muffled and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman — a howl — a wailing shriek, 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!
The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” said he had seen many things in Hell. Here the narrator says he heard something out Hell.
While not quite as celebrated as some of Poe’s other works, this is a fine tale about the terror of psychological disintegration brought on, it seems, by alcoholism. (The madness of the narrator in “The Tell-Tale Heart” has no such easy explanation.)
Yet, there clearly is something very odd going on here with the gallows appearing on the cat’s belly and how it serves as a harbinger of doom and an engine of vengenace. Perhaps the narrator is right and the killing of a cat invited divine retribution.
Cats aren’t any more “special” than a cow. So if the narrator had eaten it, everything would have turned out fine 😉