Comment on the theme of justice in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.”

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Broadly defined, justice means that any given action should meet with a fitting and appropriate consequence. In this short story, the protagonist, intoxicated and with “the fury of a demon,” tortures and then kills his pet cat. He hangs the cat from a tree for no good reason, knowing that the cat had loved him and “had given (him) no reason of offence.”

After the protagonist kills his cat, a fire breaks out in his bedroom and burns down the house. His “entire worldly wealth (is) swallowed up.” The protagonist says that he is “above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect” but, in saying so, implies that the fire may be some manner of cosmic or divine justice. This might fit our earlier definition of justice in that the action of killing his cat has been met with a consequence (the burning down of his house and the loss of all his possessions) that might seem fitting and appropriate.

Later in the story, the protagonist finds another cat which looks strikingly similar to the one he killed. This cat follows the protagonist, but yet again he grows to dislike the cat and has violent feelings towards it. The protagonist is unable to hurt this second cat, however, because it reminds him so much of the “shame” of his “former deed of cruelty” and because he is paralyzed “by absolute dread of the beast.”

This “beast” comes to haunt the protagonist’s every move, “with a pertinacity ... difficult ... to comprehend.” The second cat leaves the protagonist “no moment alone,” and the protagonist, being constantly reminded of his “former deed of cruelty,” becomes overwhelmed with “the darkest and most evil of thoughts,” so much so that “Evil thoughts (become his) sole intimates.” The protagonist is driven mad and eventually murders his wife.

The misery heaped upon the protagonist by the second cat is arguably an example of justice in that the madness that consumes the protagonist seems a fitting and appropriate consequence for the cruelty of which he has been guilty. One might also argue, however, that the protagonist’s madness and the fire which destroys his home are not consequences which happen as a result of his actions but merely unrelated events. In this case, there is no justice in the story, cosmic, divine, or otherwise, and the protagonist merely becomes a hapless victim of his own uncontrollable madness.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial