In Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat," how did the narrator change over the years?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” the narrator experiences a descent into madness. The object of his obsession is a black cat named Pluto, one of his and his wife’s many pets.  A previously affectionate relationship between the narrator and the cat (“Pluto . . . was my favorite pet and playmate. I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house”) begins to degrade with the former’s alcoholism.  As Poe’s narrator describes it,

“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.”

The narrator’s psychological state – in effect, his transformation from one-time normal human being with an abiding love of all animals into an alcohol-infused sadist.

It is in this reduced state that the narrator, increasingly angered by the cat’s avoidance of him, gouges out one of the cat’s eyes.  As the cat recovers, it remains frightened of the narrator, whose disposition continues its downward slide:

“And then came, as if to my final and irrevocable overthrow, the spirit of PERVERSENESS. Of this spirit philosophy takes no account. 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.”

When the narrator hangs the cat from the branch of a tree, he remains entirely cognizant of the immorality of his actions: “I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin—a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it—if such a thing were possible—even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.”

With the passage of time, and his house having burned down, the narrator and his wife resume a seemingly normal existence.  The appearance of another large black cat, however, this one with a white breast, presages another deterioration into madness.  The white fur on the cat’s chest begins to take the form of a noose, and the narrator begins to loathe this cat as much as the one he earlier mutilated and killed:

“For my own part, I soon found a dislike to it arising within me. This was just the reverse of what I had anticipated; but—I know not how or why it was—its evident fondness for myself rather disgusted and annoyed me. By slow degrees, these feelings of disgust and annoyance rose into the bitterness of hatred.”

The cat’s evident affection for the narrator is not reciprocated, and the latter’s dislike of this new pet grows more intense with each passing day.  As he describes his state of being, “. . . now was I indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere Humanity.”

And, finally, his pathological hatred towards the cat, which, in attempting to kill with an ax, ends up in his wife’s head instead, now reaches its homicidal peak.  He describes his feelings as possessing “the darkest and most evil of thoughts,” and his temper “increased to hatred of all things and of all mankind.”

Poe’s narrator descends into madness early on in the story and from then on he experiences psychological turbulence that results in the murder of his wife and his own imprisonment for life.