In Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Black Cat, how does the description of the cat as "sagacious" contribute to the meaning of the story?
In his 1843 short story The Black Cat, Edgar Allan Poe’s narrator describes himself as an animal lover, with a particular affinity for certain of his and his spouse’s many pets. Among those he considers particularly discerning is a large black cat named Pluto. In explaining his affinity for animals, the narrator uses as an example of the way in which the bond can form between a human and his or her pet the loyalty the animal has to its owner. As he states early in the story,
“To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature of the intensity of the gratification thus derivable.”
In the case of the narrator, it is not a dog with whom he develops a special bond of mutual admiration and respect, it is the cat. Once again, as Poe’s narrator explains his relationship to the cat, he emphasizes its apparent gift for discerning quality in a human:
“[The cat] was a remarkably large and beautiful animal, entirely black, and sagacious to an astonishing degree. Pluto—this was the cat’s name—was my favorite pet and playmate. I alone fed him, and he attended me wherever I went about the house.”
The repeated use of the word “sagacious” in describing the qualities of favored pets is almost certainly intended to emphasize the significance of the cat’s later transition from loyal and loving to suspicious and fearful. This transition, as the narrator attests, occurs in the context of his increasing consumption of alcohol and the dramatic mood changes that result:
“I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. . . My pets, of course, were made to feel the change in my disposition.”
While he points out that his changing temperament with regard to those with whom he shared a residence – wife and pets – had caused a deterioration in his relationships, he does note that his feelings for the cat had not similarly changed. That the cat, however, changes its attitude towards the narrator is a direct reflection of its sagacious nature: it senses the narrator’s growing hostility to all those around him and reacts accordingly, thereby alienating itself from its master.