Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The story has many themes, most of them relating to human psychology and several in the form of contraries: reason versus the irrational; human being versus animal; self-knowledge versus self-deception; sanity versus madness; love versus hate; good versus evil; the power of obsession and guilt; and the sources or motives of crime. As in many of his works, Poe is interested in the borderline between opposites and how it may be crossed.

Despite the narrator’s explicit claim of sanity in the story’s first paragraph, he immediately shows himself self-deceived by terming his story “a series of mere household events.” Further, by the end of the first paragraph the narrator has circled to a contradictory position by expressing his hope for a calmer, more logical, and “less excitable” mind than his own to make sense of the narrative. A favorite adjective of his for pets, “sagacious,” which he uses early in the story for both dogs and his cat Pluto, thus ironically indicates the wisdom he himself needs both to see life clearly and not to give in to the irrationality of drinking or violent behavior. What should distinguish man from beast—this is, the faculty of reason—the narrator too frequently abandons, a weakness expressed in the animal metaphor of his “rabid desire to say something easily” to the police searchers.

His early reference to admiring the “unselfish and self-sacrificing love” of animals reveals the narrator’s blindness; ironically, his scornful words, “the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man” (author’s italics), apply to himself. The narrator later reveals that his dipsomania is self-indulgent and self-loving because he “grew . . . regardless of the feelings of others” and dimly perceived that he had lost the “humanity of feeling” (compassion) that his wife retained.

Sheer emphasis or proportion in the story—the great number of words he spends on the cats contrasted with the brevity of his remarks about the maltreatment and murder of his wife—indicates the deficiency in both the narrator’s insight and his feelings. He cannot see that guilt causes him to forestall mentioning his greatest misdeed until the story’s end, while his feeling for his wife was too weak to prevent his murdering her. The narrator cannot see that his killing her is not a mere deflection from his murderous purpose, but its true aim, whose motives are laid down in the sixth, sixteenth, eighteenth, and twenty-second paragraphs of the story. Mutely representing goodness, she has been a constant irritant to him, one on whom he can vent all of his pent-up feelings in one blow.