What is the significance of the fire in Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Black Cat"? There's a symbolic phenomenon that I don't seem to understand.

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The fire functions on at least two levels of symbolism in the story. First, it's arguably a punishment directed against the narrator by God, fate, or any supernatural avenging force, for his abuse and murder of Pluto. Though in general Poe's tales seem to take place in a random and irrational universe, there is at least an implied form of moral justice that emerges at crucial points within his narratives. In "The Black Cat," the message that comes through is the obvious and time-honored one that crime doesn't pay. Not only are the man's wealth and property destroyed, but the gigantic image of the cat that appears on the wall is a warning to him that a supernatural avenger is present that will destroy him personally as well.

Poe also uses the fire as a mechanism to reveal more and more of the narrator's aberrant mental state. The man's rationale for the huge image of the cat is a convoluted exercise in denial and fantasy. He actually believes, or says he does, that someone cut Pluto's body down and threw it through the window in an attempt to awaken him when the fire began. This, of course, is possible, but the sound of it is bizarre. He then describes a chemical process by which the action of the fire has supposedly impressed Pluto's body into the plaster on the wall, somehow expanding it into an image many times the size of the cat's body. That all of this seems logical and realistic to the man is the clearest sign of the psychosis that has overtaken him.

We can also see the fire as a simple instance of foreshadowing in the narrative. The destruction of the man's house is basically a preview of what will happen to him eventually. For the time, he has escaped death, but he will ultimately be overtaken by it, and despite his denials and rationalizations, he knows it.

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Fire is traditionally a symbol of both purification and destruction, and both are much in evidence in the fire that engulfs the narrator's house in "The Black Cat". On the one hand, the fire symbolizes the hell that the narrator is sure that awaits him for carrying out such a heinous act as hanging his cat. Yet at the same time, the fire purifies by revealing to the narrator the full consequences of his actions in the form of a terrifying image of a black cat that looks like the one he just hanged.

Now that the fire has apprised the narrator of the truth of his condition, he has a simple choice. Either he can deal with the numerous demons eating away at his tortured soul or he can carry on as before, becoming ever more dangerous and disturbed, sliding deeper and deeper into madness. The fire has destroyed the narrator's former life, thus giving him the chance of a fresh start. But it's up to him to purify his soul, and for one reason or another, this is something he's neither willing nor able to do.

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Prior to the fire, the narrator hung his cat from a tree in his yard,

hung it with the tears streaming from [his] eyes, and with the bitterest remorse in his heart;—hung it because [he] knew that it had loved [him], and because [he] felt it had given [him] no reason of offence;—hung it because [he] knew that in doing so [he] was committing a sin—a deadly sin that would so jeopardize [his] immortal soul as to place it—if such a thing were possible—even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God.

He knows that he is committing a terrible sin, that one could hardly do anything worse (he even regrets it as he does it!), and that it damages his soul in the most hideous and revolting ways. On the very same night, he house catches fire, and he, his wife, and his servant barely escape. His entire wealth is destroyed. In a sense, then, he gets a taste of Hell: it seems that he is punished greatly for his sin of viciously killing the poor cat. Fire can also be cleansing, though, as though it gives the narrator the opportunity to start afresh and do better. After all, he doesn't die; he gets a second chance at life. He does admit that he "regret[s] the loss of the animal," and he begins to "look about" for another such cat to replace the one he killed. However, he ruins this chance, too, growing more and more averse to the new cat he brings home and even beginning to dread it. He tries to kill the new cat, and when his wife prevents him, he kills her instead. The narrator gets a taste of Hell when he is punished by the fire, but rather than take the opportunity to better himself and avoid the real Hell, the narrator grows worse and murders his own wife.

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The fire itself in "The Black Cat" is not immensely significant, but its effect is.  On the very night that the narrator hangs his once-beloved cat Pluto, his house catches on fire.  The entire house with the exception of one wall is destroyed.  When the narrator approaches a crowd gathered around the remaining wall, he notices that a figure on the wall, almost as if an artist had created it, is drawing their attention.  He states that it is

"the figure of a gigantic cat. The impression was given with an accuracy truly marvellous. There was a rope about the animal's neck."

The strange phenomenon is simply that one wall remains which bears a striking, supernaturally created image of a hanging cat.  The narrator sees this incident as his dead cat pointing him out from the grave, and it causes him to slide further into his insanity.

As a side note, the fire adds to Poe's hell motif in this story.  His first cat bears the name of the god of the underworld, and the fire creates a sense of certain damnation for the narrator's actions.

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