What is the message of "The Black Cat"?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

poetrymfa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.