What is the setting of "The Black Cat" by Edgar Allan Poe?

The setting of "The Black Cat" by Edgar Allan Poe is at first a jail cell, from which the narrator relates his perverse actions in each of the homes he had previously inhabited. These actions were the result of spending his time in taverns, abusing alcohol. This story, told from the perspective of a psychologically flawed narrator, also explores psychological setting as a key part of the narrative.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would argue that there are a few important settings in this macabre story. The first is the jail cell in which we meet our nameless narrator. He knows he has no hope of making it out of prison, and he states categorically that he will die the following day. It seems that he is imprisoned in his own insanity as much as he is in the prison cell.

The next important setting is the narrator’s former home, which he shared with his wife and a number of pets. Until he allowed his love of alcohol to take over his life, it would appear that the marriage, and the home, was a happy one.

Sadly for the couple’s feline friend, Pluto, this home is where the narrator’s respect for those around him starts to break down. It is the setting for the cat’s violent killing.

After this first home is burned down, the couple move to another home, which will become the setting where our narrator tries to kill a second black cat but winds up murdering his wife when she tries to intervene.

In addition, I would argue that the entire story was set in a world inhabited by a madman and his victims, both human and feline. It is a world tainted by alcohol and destroyed by violence.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

Posted on

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat" is yet another one of his psychological horror tales which leaves the reader questioning the sanity of the narrator. As the short story focuses much on the thoughts and psychological realm of the narrator, there is little room for elaborate description of setting. Setting is quite functional in the narrative: it provides the necessary space in which the plot takes place and reveals the psychological obsession of the narrator.

Early on in the story, the narrator reveals that he is penning his final thoughts before his death. He states, "to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburthen my soul." Later on in the text, it is revealed that the narrator writes from prison: he declares that he writes from "this felon's cell." Thus, it is clear that a significant setting is jail and that the narrator writes not only from a psychologically imprisoned perspective (madness of obsession) but also from a physically imprisoned setting.

When the narrator relates to the reader what he considers a "series of mere household events," he describes various settings where these events occurred. The first of these is his first home, in which he and his wife begin a seemingly idyllic life with numerous pets, including the black cat of the title:

I married early, and was happy to find in my wife a disposition not uncongenial with my own. Observing my partiality for domestic pets, she lost no opportunity of procuring those of the most agreeable kind. We had birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey, and a cat.

However, this peaceful home environment is gradually destroyed by the narrator's increasing use of alcohol, as he admits in his reference to "the Fiend Intemperance." According to the narrator, it is his increasing abuse of alcohol that contributes to his poor treatment of all around him, as well as his violent steps in killing Pluto, the black cat.

After a fire destroys his home, he and his wife are forced to move to an "old building" because of the financial losses he suffered with the fire:

The destruction was complete. My entire worldly wealth was swallowed up, and I resigned myself thenceforward to despair.

This second home has quite a few disadvantages. As it needs to be affordable to the narrator in his time of "poverty" after the fire, it is no doubt less pleasant than his first home. The neighbors with whom he shares the building are also portrayed as observant, or at least they must live in close proximity to him, as he feels unable to dispose of his wife's body without their notice:

I knew that I could not remove it from the house, either by day or by night, without the risk of being observed by the neighbors.

The narrator also reveals to the reader that at least part of the building has undergone renovations that were not particularly effective and that the building suffers from damp. Overall, the setting is clearly portrayed as an unpleasant living environment:

Its [the cellar’s] walls were loosely constructed, and had lately been plastered throughout with a rough plaster, which the dampness of the atmosphere had prevented from hardening. Moreover, in one of the walls was a projection, caused by a false chimney, or fire-place, that had been filled, or walled up, and made to resemble the rest of the cellar.

An additional setting to consider is the "den of more than infamy," a tavern or bar in which the narrator meets the second black cat. The tavern is described as having little furniture, and the only noteworthy item the narrator describes is "the immense hogsheads." It is significant that the second cat is discovered sitting on top of one of these hogsheads. The hogshead can be seen to symbolize the debauchery and intemperance that sit at the core of the narrator's perverse actions toward Pluto.

It is interesting to consider the physical setting of the story as a series of concentric circles. The narrator moves from a happy life in a homely setting, or the large circle, to a smaller environment after the fire, or the "old building." Within this old building, he moves to the confined space of the cellar, and then finally to the smallest setting, the "felon’s cell." This decreasing nature of physical setting fits the change the narrator undergoes mentally: his psychological world shrinks with his alcohol abuse and his twinned obsession with and dread of Pluto and the second black cat.

One final consideration one should make is the idea of the psychological setting of the story. It is being told from the perspective of a murderer, who attempts to convince the reader of his sanity. As such, one could interpret the narrator’s mind as the overarching setting of the narrative. How is one to fully trust or believe the descriptions or perspective provided by a narrator who is psychologically flawed?

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

Posted on

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Having written so many grotesque stories, the reader might think that Poe’s personality was similar to the characters in his stories. According to critics of the time, Poe maintained many loving relationships and surprisingly even liked animals, particularly cats.

Edgar Allan Poe explored the psychology of the criminal mind; in addition, he often investigated evil in the hearts of men. “The Black Cat” becomes then an example of Poe’s probing the mind of someone so obsessed that he commits murder for no sane reason.

The narrator of the story is the main character, a nameless murderer.  As in many of Poe’s stories, the speaker intends to convince the reader that he is not insane, and he should not be held responsible for the crimes of which he is accused.  Of course, since he is to be hanged the next day, he is desperate to persuade the reader of his innocence.

Poe provides few details about his settings.  Unlike many of his stories with elaborate decorations, this story focuses more on the action of the main character.  There are several settings:

the  jail cell

This is a small space where the narrator is forced to examine    his    actions and his life.  He still refuses to take responsibility for his actions.

the narrator’s home

The first house becomes a prison cell for the wife and the pets. The reader discovers that the family has been rich and even had servants. When the house is destroyed by fire, after years of abuse, the pets finally escape their awful "home," and die tortured by the flames.

The bedroom wall that is left standing after the fire with its raised image of the cat foreshadows the second cat’s arrival in the man’s life.  It also represents the psychological hold that Pluto has on the narrator. 

the yard of the burned house

This is the place where Pluto is hung.  This foreshadows the death of the narrator as he will be hung the next day after his story is completed.

the new house

The second house is old and depressing.  The family has lost their wealth in the fire.

the bar where the second cat is found

The bar is a dirty, dank place where the narrator notices the cat sitting atop a huge barrel of wine.

the cellar

The cellar is another important aspect of setting.

One day she [the wife] accompanied me, upon some household errand, into the cellar of the old building which our poverty compelled us to inhabit…

It becomes a horrific scene because the wife innocently tries to protect her pet but is brutally killed. Her tomb becomes the cellar wall where her body will decompose and eventually be mutilated by the second cat, who has to live there for four days

It is unclear how much time elapses during the story. The span of time is detected only by the narrator’s perverted thoughts and actions which determine the course of the story.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

Posted on

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

That is almost a trick question. The story has the classic trope of a narrator you can not trust, but from his words we can infer that he lives in a major city. Since Poe lived for much of his life in Baltimore, Maryland and the East Coast, it is no great stretch to believe that the story takes place somewhere in that general region, but as I said before, the unnamed narrator is possibly mad. If he says he lived in a large house, with servants, and that he owned several animals how can we trust him? A rural setting, for the narrator's first house, is a possibility, but after the fire the narrator moves to another house within walking distance, apparently, of a tavern. That would imply some degree of civilization. So we know he lives near a tavern, but that a sparse clue. In the end, we have little clue of just where exactly the narrator is, assuming the man was even telling the truth in the first place.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

Posted on

Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial