Define perversity and explain how it impacts the stories "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart."

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The two narrators in the stories “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” are perverted.  Edgar Allan Poe delved into the perversity of each of his protagonists to find what compelled them to commit his crime.

What does the word perversity mean? The word itself is a noun derivative of the word perverse. The Oxford English dictionary defines perverse as the opposite of what is morally right or good; someone who is perverse is wicked or evil or debased. Thus perversity is the act of being perverted. 

How does perversity impact these stories? In today’s vocabulary, if someone is perverted, it usually is a sexual reference.  This was not true of Poe’s perversion.  His perversions were the human misdeeds of one person against another animal or human being.

In “The Black Cat,” the narrator acts because he knows that he should not.  The man had an impulse to commit a sin and an uncontrollable longing to impose his will.  This man was corrupted by alcohol; therefore, his deeds were predisposed toward the perverse because he had not control over his actions when he was drunk. 

Our [Pluto and the narrator] friendship lasted, in this manner, for several years, during which my general temperament and character - through the instrumentality of the fiend Intemperance - had (I blush to confess it) experienced a radical alteration for the worse. I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others.

Obviously, this man was a “mean drunk” who could not control his actions when he was under the influence.  His perverted acts included:

  • Cutting out the eye of Pluto, his pet
  • Hanging Pluto from a tree in the yard
  • Killing his wife with an axe
  • Walling up his wife’s corpse

His perversion is complete when he states that he felt satisfied that everything was as it should be.  He is has killed all of his humanness. The narrator goes from killing an animal-- which represents a killing of part of himself and his feelings for others -- to killing another human being — all the while feeling justified in his actions.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” has an unquestionable madman as the narrator.  He does not even have the excuse of alcoholism.  His perversion comes from a strange force that propels him forward into obsession.  The narrator for "A Tell-Tale Heart" finds himself trying to explain why he committed the heinous murder of an old innocent man.  His perversion comes not from an addiction, but rather from an obsession that has driven the narrator to murder. 

He shrieked once—once only.  In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him.  I then sat on the bed and smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done.

What perversion to sit on the bed that was just used to kill the old man!

This story is a man’s tale. No women involved. Through his preoccupation with the “vulture eye,” his physical strength becomes pronounced.  He not only kills the old man, but he chops his body into pieces so that it will be easy to hide the body.   A noisy neighbor is the only reason that the man’s perversity is found out.  

Two different stories, two narrators, several gruesome murders—these facts are the perfect definition of perversity.

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