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?