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In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story "The Black Cat," the main character, other than the two cats prominently featured in Poe’s story, is the unnamed narrator. The story is told in retrospective style by the narrator, apparently a man of means given his reference in the story to a servant who lives with him and his wife, and who the reader is led to believe is imprisoned and soon to be executed for a crime to be described. Similar to Poe’s narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" who strenuously denies any suggestion that he is “mad” before proceeding to refute his own point, the narrator in "The Black Cat" begins his story with a rejection of the notion that he is anything but sane, stating “. . .mad am I not . . ., before informing us that his conscience is troubled: “tomorrow I die, and today I would unburden my soul.” Having informed the reader of his need to unburden his soul regarding the chain of events that led to his current status, he then proceeds to describe his character as follows:
“From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets.”
The narrator, who is yet to mention his wife and current pet, the black cat, is setting the stage for the subsequent description of his descent into hell – a series of developments in which the aforementioned spouse and cat both play prominent roles, and during which the narrator is rendered financially destitute as a result of his alcoholism and a fire that destroys his home. By emphasizing his docile nature in the beginning, however, he is establishing the context in which he performed a crime so vile that his punishment is execution. His avowed affection for animals is particularly relevant for his description of the events that will follow and that involves not just one but two black cats. The precipitating development that sets the fatal chain of events in motion is the narrator’s growing problem with alcohol, the “Fiend Intemperance,” as the puts it. The effects of his alcoholism includes physical and emotional abuse of his wife, as well as a growing disdain for the animals he previously nurtured, including the titular black cat, Pluto, “a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree.” Pluto, obviously, play a major role in the narrator’s descent into madness. Cats, of course, are intuitive and sensitive to the dispositions of those with whom they live. Pluto is no exception, and his owner’s increasing hostility to all around him is felt by the cat. After having one of his eye’s cut out with a knife by his inebriated master, Pluto is later hanged with a noose by the narrator.
The next character mentioned is the narrator’s unnamed wife, who he affectionately describes as follows: “I married early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own.” While he clearly once enjoyed his wife’s company, however, the first hint of troubles to come – besides the story’s opening reference to the narrator’s impending execution – occurs when he notes his wife somewhat primitive intellect with respect to matters of the occult: “my wife, who at heart was not a little tinctured with superstition, made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise.” Further information on the narrator’s wife is provided later in the story, after he has killed Pluto, who has been replaced in the home by another black cat, a description of which will be provided next. Describing his and his wife’s relationships to this new cat, with his own decidedly mixed, he states regarding his spouse, “. . .my wife, who, as I have already said, possessed, in a high degree, that humanity of feeling which had once been my distinguishing trait, and the source of many of my simplest and purest pleasures.” So, we know that the narrator’s wife is of a sweet disposition and has been subjected to physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband, the degradations of which have not destroyed the humanity inside her.
The next character is the second black cat, described by the narrator as follows:
“It was a black cat—a very large one—fully as large as Pluto, and closely resembling him in every respect but one. Pluto had not a white hair upon any portion of his body; but this cat had a large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast.”
That “splotch of white” will become increasingly important to the narrator’s rapidly diminishing sanity. Despite the cat’s displays of a friendly and loyal disposition towards the narrator, the latter quickly develops a deeply-felt sense of loathing towards the animal, noting that some of this hatred for the animal stemmed from the fact that, like Pluto after the narrator had cut out one of its eyes, the new cat was similarly missing an eye. It is that white fur on its breast, however, that haunts the narrator the most, as, over time, the “splotch” begins to take on a noticeable pattern, best described by Poe’s as follows:
“It was now the representation of an object that I shudder to name—and for this, above all, I loathed, and dreaded, and would have rid myself of the monster had I dared—it was now, I say, the image of a hideous—of a ghastly thing—of the GALLOWS!—oh, mournful and terrible engine of Horror and of Crime—of Agony and of Death!”
The final characters in "The Black Cat" are the policemen who come to the narrator’s home and before whom the narrator, having killed his wife and concealed her remains behind a brick wall in his cellar, are presented the audible cries of the cat who the narrator had mistakenly sealed in his wife’s vault. There are, we can deduce, six police officers, as, in the story’s final paragraph, a reference to “a dozen stout arms” that “were toiling at the wall” following the narrator’s ill-considered decision to demonstrate the stoutness of the house’s walls by rapping on the newly-constructed section of wall with his cane, the sound of which provoked the entombed cat’s cries.
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