Identify and explain the elements of the setting of Poe's "The Black Cat" that are typical of gothic literature.

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are a number of characteristics associated with gothic literature or "gothic fiction." One source lists some of these elements (found in Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto) as a "threatening ancestral curse" along with "hidden passages and oft-fainting heroines."

Another source notes that gothic novels were...

...set in dark, mysterious castles amid an atmosphere of terror and gloom.

Professor Robert Harris includes in his list:

  • setting in a castle
  • an atmosphere of mystery and suspense
  • an ancient prophecy
  • omens, portents, visions
  • supernatural and otherwise inexplicable events
  • high, even overwrought emotion
  • women in distress
  • women threatened by a powerful, impulsive, tyrannical male
  • the metonymy of gloom and horror

The characteristics to be found in Poe's "The Black Cat" would include high emotion on the narrator's part; supernatural and/or inexplicable events; a woman in distress; gloom and horror; and, an atmosphere of suspense.

The narrator's emotional state becomes overwrought as his drinking problem grows beyond his control:

I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. 

And then...

The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer. My original soul seemed, at once, to take its flight from my body...

In terms of supernatural and/or inexplicable events, several elements are present in the story. First there is the half-joking suggestion by the narrator's wife as to the supernatural association between black cats and witches. While this may only hint at the otherworldly, there are other examples. After the narrator hangs Pluto, the house catches fire and somehow, on a wall, there is the image of the murdered cat:

I approached and saw...upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat...There was a rope about the animal's neck.

Strangely, when the narrator brings home a second cat, this animal, too, is about the size Pluto was, and is also missing an eye. However, while Pluto was completely black, the new cat has a white patch on its chest‚—frighteningly for the narrator, in the shape of the gallows.

The woman in distress is the speaker's wife: at first he is only verbally abusive, but he becomes crueler, and eventually kills her without pause because she stops him from killing the second cat.

Besides the narrator's horrific acts, he also experiences dark feelings (such as gloom and horror) when near the second cat:

I am almost ashamed to own—that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened...

An atmosphere of suspense builds throughout the story, but comes into full view after the man has buried his wife's body behind a bricked up wall. He is boastful to the police as to the strength of the walls, and arrogant within himself as to what a fine job he has done in concealing his crime. He even knocks on the walls with his cane, increasing the suspense in the reader as to whether this monster will get away with his crime or be caught:

The police were thoroughly satisfied and prepared to depart. The glee at my heart was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance of my guiltlessness.

These are the elements that contribute to the gothic nature of Poe's short story.

Additional source:

Adventures in English Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers: Orlando, 1985.