The Black Cat Summary
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” an unreliable first-person narrator relates how alcohol and self-deception led him to kill his pets and murder his wife.
- In a drunken rage, the narrator hangs his beloved black cat, Pluto.
Wracked with guilt, the narrator adopts another black cat, but its markings provide a constant reminder of Pluto and of his own evil deeds.
- In the end, the narrator murders his wife and, after being caught, is executed by hanging, just as Pluto was.
First published on the front page of the Philadelphia Saturday Evening Post in August 1843, “The Black Cat” is one of Poe’s famous murder tales. The story is told by the murderer himself, the first-person narrator speaking to us on the eve of his execution for the crime of killing his wife. He begins his account in the remote past of his own childhood. The narrator says that he was an extremely sensitive boy, so passive that his schoolmates teased him. His parents provided him with a variety of household pets, and he found their unconditional affection and unselfish loyalty to be morally superior to that of mere humans. Leaping forward in time, the narrator tells us that he married when he was relatively young to a woman whose character complemented his own. She brought a small menagerie of pets into their home, including a large black cat that they named Pluto. The narrator formed an especially strong bond with Pluto, who became his constant companion.
But as time passed, the narrator took to strong drink, and his personality underwent a dramatic change for the worse. Under the influence of alcohol, he verbally and physically abused both his wife and their pets; in time, even Pluto was not spared the effects of his drunken rages and began to avoid his master. This irritated the narrator. One night after a drinking bout, he seized the cat by the throat and cut one of Pluto’s eyes from its socket. On the morning after this episode, the narrator recalls feeling some remorse for his atrocious act, but he adds that this was an “equivocal” feeling that he drowned with wine.
Pluto recovered but ran away whenever the narrator approached. The narrator first grieved over this loss of companionship, but then his heart was afflicted by what he calls the spirit of “PERVERSENESS.” Under its influence, he impulsively hung the cat from a tree outside his house. That very night, the house and all of the narrator’s worldly possessions were destroyed by a fire. Even more remarkable, the outline of a gigantic cat with a noose around its neck appeared on the one wall of the house that remained standing. The narrator explained the appearance of this image as the result of a complex chemical reaction to the heat of the flames.
The narrator then began to look for another cat to replace the dead Pluto. At one of the taverns he frequented, the narrator came across another black cat, nearly identical in appearance to Pluto except for a large white patch on its breast. He took the cat home, but while his wife immediately embraced this new pet, he developed a deep dislike for it. His irrational animosity toward the new cat grew as his wife showered affection upon it and became especially intense after he learned that, like Pluto, this cat was blind in one eye. Evil thoughts entered his mind again. He abused his wife, but his dread of the second cat prevented him from mistreating it. In time, the white splotch on its breast looked like a hangman’s gallows in the narrator’s eyes.
One day, the narrator, his wife, and the second cat went into the cellar of the old building where they now lived. As they were going down the stairs, the cat nearly tripped the narrator’s feet from under him. Enraged, he took an axe and aimed a blow at the cat, but his wife stopped his swing before the blade could reach its target. The narrator broke from her grasp and buried the axe in his wife’s...
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brain. He now considered how to dispose of her body so that his crime would not be detected. Taking his example from the monks of the Middle Ages, he decided to wall her body up in the cellar. He found a particularly soft wall at the base of a false chimney, dislodged some bricks, and placed the corpse there. He then sealed this makeshift tomb with a plaster that resembled that of the old brickwork. The narrator was confident that no one would ever find the body. He looked for the second black cat but could not find it. The narrator was not concerned about this; indeed, when the cat did not appear for three days, he was sure that he had finally rid himself of his “tormentor.”
Four days after the murder, a party of police officers came to the house and conducted a search. Even though they made several trips into the cellar, the narrator remained confident that they could not find his wife’s body. But as the police began to leave, he was struck by a burning desire to say something to them that would affirm his “triumph” and further allay their suspicions. In a “frenzy of bravado,” he pointed out how solid the walls of the house were, rapping with a cane directly on the spot where he had entombed the corpse. The sound of the rapping elicited a cry that like that of a sobbing child and grew into an inhuman howl. The police dismantled the wall and found the corpse already decayed and clotted with gore, the second cat sitting atop its head. The narrator then realized that he had inadvertently walled the second cat in with his wife’s body. He blamed this infernal creature for sending him to the hangman’s noose.