Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Told in the first person by an unreliable narrator (a term designating one who either consciously or unconsciously distorts the truth), the story can be seen to be divided into two parts, each of which builds toward a climactic physical catastrophe: in the first part, the narrator’s mutilation and later murder of a favorite pet, as well as a fire that destroys all he and his wife own; in the second part, the narrator’s ax murder of his wife, followed by his arrest and death sentence.
Opening with both suspense and mystery in his revelation that he wants to “unburden” his soul because he will die the next day, the narrator gives details (with unwitting ironic ramifications) of his early love for animals and marriage to a woman of the same sentiments, who presents him with many pets. Among these is his favorite, a black cat, whose name, Pluto (Greek god of the underworld), foreshadows the narrator’s descent into the murky regions of alcoholism, self-deception, and violence.
When he does later succumb to alcoholism, the narrator shortly thereafter begins maltreating his wife and pets, which gives a double meaning to his term for drinking, “Fiend Intemperance,” referring not only to alcohol abuse but also to intemperate transgression of rational thought and behavior. Eventually the narrator maltreats “even Pluto” (which implies that the cat was valued more than his wife, whom he has maltreated earlier). One night, presumably out of frustration, he seizes the cat, which has been avoiding him. When it bites him, the narrator says he became “possessed” by a “demon” and with his pocket knife cut out one of the cat’s eyes. At first grieved and then irritated by the consequences of his action, the narrator says that he was then “overthrown” by “the spirit of PERVERSENESS” (author’s capitalization), Edgar Allan Poe’s...
(The entire section is 765 words.)
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First published on the front page of the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post in August, 1843, "The Black Cat" is one of Poe's famous murder tales. The story is told by the murderer himself, the first-person narrator speaking to us on the eve of his execution for the crime of killing his wife. He begins his account in the remote past of his own childhood. The narrator says that he was an extremely sensitive boy, so passive that his schoolmates teased him. His parents provided him with a variety of household pets, and he found their unconditional affection and unselfish loyalty to be morally superior to that of mere humans. Leaping forward in time, the narrator tells us that he married when he was relatively young to a woman whose character complemented his own. She brought a small menagerie of pets into their home including a large, black cat that they named Pluto. The narrator formed an especially strong bond with Pluto, who became his constant companion.
But as time passed, the narrator took to strong drink and his personality underwent a dramatic change for the worse. Under the influence of alcohol, he verbally and physically abused both his wife and their pets; in time, even Pluto was not spared the effects of his drunken rages and began to avoid his master. This irritated the narrator. One night after a drinking bout, he seized the cat by the throat and cut one of Pluto's eyes from its socket. On the morning after this episode, the narrator recalls feeling some remorse for his atrocious act, but he adds that this was an "equivocal" feeling that he drowned with wine.
Pluto recovered, but ran away whenever the narrator approached. The narrator first grieved over this loss of companionship, but then his heart was afflicted by what he calls the spirit of "PERVERSENESS." Under its influence, he impulsively hung the cat from a tree outside his house. That very night, the house and all of the narrator's worldly possessions were destroyed by a fire. Even more remarkable, the outline of a gigantic cat with a noose around its neck appeared on the one wall of the house that remained standing. The narrator explained the appearance of this image as the result of a complex...
(The entire section is 897 words.)