How does Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" reveal an unreliable narrator?

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The narrator is revealed to be unreliable through his bizarre rationalization of his behavior. The fact that he indulges in drunken, rage-filled actions certainly makes his narrative suspect. Since his judgment is obviously clouded when he drinks, we are led to question whether his occasional remorse is genuine. We also wonder whether we can trust his accounting of events.

In the story, the narrator relates killing one cat in a drunken fit of rage and then adopting another cat, which he eventually comes to despise. He tells us that he first saw the second cat (a large, black one) sitting on top of one of the casks of gin or rum in his apartment. Additionally, the casks constitute "the chief furniture of the apartment." When we read this, we are immediately led to question whether the black cat is real or just a figment of his alcohol-induced imagination.

The narrator also relates that the cat's fondness for him is the main inspiration for his feelings of bitter hatred towards it. Furthermore, the new cat is also missing an eye, much like the first one (which he killed after gouging its eye out). By this point, we are led to question the narrator's judgment, never mind his memory of events. We wonder how an affectionate animal can inspire such hatred in a human being.

Later, the narrator begins to see the definite shape of a gallows in a white patch of hair on the cat. At this point, we begin to suspect that the narrator is hallucinating. Certainly, he has become extremely paranoid. As the story concludes, we discover that the narrator has murdered his own wife in a fit of rage and also unwittingly buried her corpse with the cat in the displaced false chimney.

The narrator concludes that it is the black cat, with the "red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire," that has "consigned" him to the hangman. Ironically, he makes no mention of whether his wife's corpse incriminates him. This is bizarre and disturbing on many levels. By the end of the story, we are truly led to doubt the veracity and credibility of the narrator.

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "The Black Cat," Poe's first-person narrator reveals his unreliability throughout the tale. 

First, he calls what he has done--cut out the eye of one cat, hang that cat, try to kill a second cat, and axe-murder his wife--"a series of mere household events." Anyone who would think these were "mere household events" is probably not living in the same reality as the rest of us, and cannot be assumed to be a reliable narrator. He also says these "are nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects." "Ordinary" and "natural" are the last words most people would use to describe what happens in this story. That the narrator would use these terms should cause us to question his state of mind. 

He would have us believe he was a kind, compassionate person who has had some momentary lapses. He later blames his alcoholism ("he blushes to confess" that he drinks) for his cruelties, but provides no good excuse for cutting out the eye of a cat--that is a horrible, unspeakable thing to do no matter how much the narrator tries to normalize it by blaming it on drinking.

Moving on, he says he hangs the cat out of an impulse all of us have had to do a "vile or a silly action" just because it is forbidden. Again, he is trying to rationalize or normalize a sadistic act. Yes, many of us do "silly" things for no good reason, but that doesn't include torturing and killing an animal.  

Finally he blames the second cat for his wife's murder, calling it "the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder," and ending with characterizing the cat--and not himself--as the "monster."

His very odd view that his behaviors are mere "household" acts, along with his inability to take responsibility for murdering his wife, call everything he says into question. Was he really so good to his animals as a child? Did he really only "accidentally" hit his wife with the axe? Is it really the cat's fault his wife is dead?