What makes "The Black Cat" a Gothic story?

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"The Black Cat," like other well-known stories by Poe, fits the category of gothic literature chiefly because there are elements of the supernatural in it. These do not become apparent until after the narrator kills Pluto by hanging the poor animal, and even then, we cannot be sure if the strange things that occur in the story are real or are simply a projection of the narrator's psychotic mental state. The fire that destroys his house leaves a single wall standing upon which there is the gigantic image of a cat with a noose around its neck. The narrator gives a convoluted explanation of how this image could have supposedly appeared there as a result of purely scientific phenomena. The appearance of the second cat, an almost exact double of Pluto, including the missing eye, is a bizarre coincidence, but the narrator relates this fact in a manner that again shows he's deceiving himself. It is only when the white spot on this new cat grows into the shape of a gallows that he realizes the cat is an agent of supernatural vengeance sent to punish him for the crime of killing Pluto and for his generally abusive behavior.

The essence of the gothic is found in not only the presence of the supernatural but also the generally "creepy" atmosphere of fear and terror in this depiction of a man who would first mutilate an inoffensive and formerly beloved pet, then hang it in his garden, and then be subjected to the retribution carried out by another cat that is a doppelgänger of the first one. Yet the narrator's transformation from (as he describes himself, at least) a mild-mannered and affectionate person into a sadistic lunatic is perhaps the most frightening and horrific thing about the story. The one element usually present in gothic literature but lacking in "The Black Cat" is a setting in a place in the remote past, as in the case of "The Pit and the Pendulum," for instance. Also, the cellar in which the man entombs his wife and the cat are Poe's equivalent of the dark castle or catacombs often featured in gothic stories (such as his "The Cask of Amontillado"). The features of "The Black Cat" that do place it in the genre are sufficient on their own to create the proper atmosphere.

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The Gothic genre is known for a few common themes. One is an element of the supernatural, some unexplained influence or phenomenon. This is definitely present in the story, as the narrator is spooked by the second cat's strange likeness to his dead cat Pluto. He says:

"I am almost ashamed to own that the terror and horror with which the animal inspired me, had been heightened by one of the merest chimæras it would be possible to conceive." 

The supernatural element here is not only that it seems that Pluto is back from beyond the grave to haunt the narrator, but that he has returned with a tiny patch of white fur in the shape of a gallows.

Another common theme in Gothic literature is the evil side of the human nature and the emergence of insanity. This is absolutely the case for the narrator, who, he claims, has always been kind, gentle, and an true animal-lover. After he took to alcohol, however, he was abusive to both his many pets and his wife, eventually killing both his favorite animal and his wife. The narrator claims that some of this perverseness, as he calls it, lives in all of us, saying:

"[...] perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart -- one of the indivisible primary faculties, or sentiments, which give direction to the character of Man. Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a silly action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not?"

In this story, we are all capable of such violence, deep down.

As for his decent into insanity, it is indeed hard to read the story without the mental confusion and angst of the narrator to be clearly shown. Certain lines like the following demonstrate this:

" And now was I indeed wretched beyond the wretchedness of mere Humanity. And a brute beast -- whose fellow I had contemptuously destroyed -- a brute beast to work out for me -- for me a man, fashioned in the image of the High God -- so much of insufferable wo! Alas!"

To get so worked up because you think your pet cat is haunting you from beyond the grave is definitely a red flag and shows that the narrator is suffering a severe break with reality. All of these features of the story place it clearly in the Gothic genre.




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