What is the message of "The Black Cat"?

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In the famous short story "The Black Cat " by Edgar Allen Poe, the narrator initially professes a love for animals. He and his wife have numerous pets, but the narrator is particularly fond of a large black cat named Pluto. However, the narrator comes home drunk one night,...

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In the famous short story "The Black Cat" by Edgar Allen Poe, the narrator initially professes a love for animals. He and his wife have numerous pets, but the narrator is particularly fond of a large black cat named Pluto. However, the narrator comes home drunk one night, and after the frightened cat bites him, in a fit of rage he gouges out one of its eyes. In another drunken frenzy, he kills the cat by hanging it from a tree. His house catches fire that night, and the next day he sees a ghostly outline of the hanged cat on a wall, as if the cat is haunting him.

A similar cat follows him home one night, and it begins to terrify him, as he notices resemblances to the cat he has killed. Attempting to kill the second cat with an axe, he instead hits his wife in the head, killing her when she tries to stop him. He encloses her body in the wall with bricks, but when the police come to investigate, the second black cat howls from within the wall, exposing the narrator's murder of his wife.

This horrific story has two primary messages or morals. One concerns the fact that the narrator is unable to hide his guilt. Although it seems that he has covered up his crimes well, the scream of the cat from within the wall exposes him to the authorities. In this denunciation, the ending of this story is similar to the ending of another classic Poe story, "The Tell-Tale Heart," in which the narrator, who is also a murderer, has concealed the body under the floor but is exposed to the police when he thinks he hears the heart of the dead man beating.

The other message in "The Black Cat" has to do with the dangers of excessive consumption of alcohol. The narrator commits his misdeeds when he is under the influence of the "fiend Intemperance"—in other words, when he is drunk. He loses control and becomes violent when he is intoxicated.

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Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Black Cat" uses an unreliable narrator to tell the story of the relationship between the narrator and his large black cat, Pluto. When the narrator comes home drunk one night and believes that his cat has tried to bite him, he stabs out the animal's eye with a pen-knife. The narrator's guilt over this quickly shifts toward cruelty, and he eventually hangs the animal. This same night, the narrator's house burns down. 

The narrator sees the apparition of the cat and then later finds a very similar one in a tavern. Although he takes it home with him, the new cat only seems to increase his paranoia. He believes that he can see a patch of fur that looks like the gallows on the cat. When this cat gets underfoot, he attempts to kill it and instead accidentally kills his wife, whose body he then stuffs into a wall. The cat goes missing thereafter.

At the conclusion of the story, the police discover the body of the wife as well as the cat, which has been trapped behind the wall. The message of this story is perhaps that we are blind to our own failings and evil qualities. It is also an examination of the way guilt functions and how the human mind may rationalize or cope with it, as well as an interesting study of the psychology of a killer. 

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This excellent short story by Edgar Allen Poe seems very similar to other examples of his shorter fiction, especially perhaps "The Tell-Tale Heart." The main similarity is its exploration of evil and the divide between madness and sanity depicted in the unreliable narrator who tells us this tale. This story the narrator begins with a preface in which he deliberately states that he is not mad, whilst the narrative that follows suggests otherwise:

For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not--and very surely do I not dream.

In spite of his protestations, he then calmly relates how, thanks to drink, he tortured a favourite pet and then, after killing it, was haunted by a similar, if not identical pet, who goaded him into "a rage more than demoniacal" which resulted in him killing his wife. At every stage we question how reliable this narrator is, and whether, in fact, he is sane or insane. Thus it is that one of the central themes or messages of this tale is the way in which Poe deliberately blurs the distinction between sanity/insanity and explores the mind and psychology of a killer.

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