Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584
Besides the narrator’s ironic self-contradiction or unwitting irony, Poe’s other most pervasive technique in the story is symbolism. Symbols of perception include the narrator’s particular mutilation of Pluto, for like his pet, the narrator is half-blind, not only in the past, in the story he relates, but also in the present, when he still cannot understand what it all means. In the past he was half-blinded by drink, and in both the past and present by guilt, rationalizing, or unwillingness to see unpleasant things. For example, though he claims to have been “half stupefied” when he first became aware of the second black cat, only a consuming if unacknowledged sense of guilt can explain his asserted failure to notice that it was one-eyed until after it was home, despite his prior continued petting of it in the tavern and detailed notice of its markings. He wanted an exact substitute, with the same injury, in order to punish himself. The words “half”’ “equivocal,” and “blindly,” which the narrator applies to himself at various times, reveal his defective vision.
Symbols of rationality and its defeat can be found in the narrator’s horrible act of burying the ax in his wife’s “brain”—a word that emphasizes thinking more than the word “skull” would. In this act, the narrator has in effect extinguished his own rationality, as well as its chief human representative in his sphere. Further, when the brick wall is broken down, the black cat is found perched on the corpse’s head, one more indication of the narrator’s guilt (recalling the site of the wound) and its cause.
Among the symbols of “humanity of feeling” is the second cat’s marking. It has, in the narrator’s phrasing, “a large, although indefinite splotch of white, covering nearly the whole region of the breast.” Moreover, the cat has, the narrator says, a habit of “fastening its long claws in my dress” to “clamber, in this manner, to my breast.” Finally, the cat will not let him sleep; he awakens with it on his chest: “its vast weight [was] . . . incumbent on my heart!” (Poe’s italics). The repeated references to “bosom” “breast,” and especially “heart” point to the narrator’s fatal deficiency of love and compassion.
Finally, several strands of symbols help express the conflict between good and evil. The very scene of the crime, a cellar, recalls the suggestive name of the narrator’s first black cat and represents the narrator’s descent into the darkness of irrationality, the forces of the unconscious mind, and evil. Comparable imagery of spirited darkness can be found in the narrator’s recollection that, prior to the murder, “the darkest and most evil thoughts” had become habitual to him; in like manner, he refers to his wife’s murder as “my dark deed.” The interrelation between consciousness and conscience is suggested by the narrator’s keeping his wife’s corpse in this dark underworld, after walling her off—analogues of psychological repression.
Finally, the cat’s howl in response to the narrator’s rapping of the wall is described in symbolic terms: It begins as a muffled cry, “like the sobbing of a child,” but quickly swells into a “continuous scream . . . such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.” In capsule form, this utterance describes the whole of the narrator’s life—and death.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2355
In Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Black Cat," the nameless narrator begins his horrifying tale by informing his readers that he is about to relate a "series of mere household events." [FN1] He then wonders if, in the future, when his morbid tale is discussed by others considering his case, they will find it to be "nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects." [FN2]
Considering the terrible conclusion of the story, this very opening establishes an ironic tone that continues until the end of the tale. The fact that the Narrator would even wonder if his horrible story would ever be considered a "series of mere household events," and the casual, almost off-handed way he contemplates his actions immediately informs the reader that the opinion of the Narrator and the facts of the story he is relating may turn out to be something completely different from what is first presented. He tells us in the beginning of the story that "tomorrow I die." Obviously something extraordinary has taken place or he would not be in that fateful position. The reader quickly comprehends that the Narrator's opinion of the story and what actually occurred may be two very different versions of some gruesome event. The fact that the Narrator is in jail and has been sentenced to death only adds to the irony of his musings. He looks back on the events with "awe," yet thinks that others, sometime in the future, will understand and sympathize with him, finding what he did not odd at all. In the end we know he will die because in the beginning he has still, only hours before his death, come to terms and accepted responsibility for the consequences of his actions. In the very first paragraph of the story he points the finger of blame at "these events" which he claims "have terrified— have tortured—have destroyed me." Refusing to recognize his own guilt, the Narrator condemns "these events" as the cause of all his woes. As a reading of the story quickly demonstrates, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Clearly the most ironic element in "The Black Cat" is the Narrator's own perversely unrealistic and distorted view of the horrible scenario that unfolds. He dismisses his awful cat mutilation as a "vile or silly action" committed, perhaps, like other foolish acts committed by "Man" "for no other reason than because he knows he should not." He goes on to wonder, "Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such?" [FN3] Later he finds himself haunted by the specter of the dead cat, but he comes up with a rational, albeit improbable, explanation for the strangled-cat image on his burned-out wall. His married life is a shambles and he lives, as we will learn later in the story, with a murderous, suppressed rage. But he barely mentions his wife until the end, when, in fact, he kills her; and he calmly goes about his daily life as if nothing were wrong, giving no hint that this peaceful facade is about to crumble.
In addition to his distorted sense regarding his relationships, the Narrator views his drinking problem as some alien, outside force. He conveniently blames his alcoholism for his miserable behavior, as if he had nothing to do with it himself. At the outset of the story he details his love of animals, describing his "partiality for domestic pets" and goes on at length about his "friendship" with Pluto, the first black cat. But within a couple of paragraphs, the Narrator is describing the terrible night when, in a drunken rage, he stabbed the poor cat's eye out. He goes on to blame "the Fiend Intemperance" which caused the "radical alteration" in his mood. Thus, he remains the good-natured animal lover, pointing the finger at alcoholism instead of himself, thereby freeing himself from any responsibility regarding the cat, or any of the events that follow. Preferring not to examine his own motivations too closely, the Narrator adopts the attitude of a bewildered victim, acknowledging the dreadful nature of his deeds, yet remaining aloof from them at the same time.
In describing Poe's fiction, G.R. Thompson defines Poe's use of irony as "a basic discrepancy between what is expected or apparent and what is actually the case." And he calls Poe " a satiric ironist," using satire to make a "fuller use of comic distortion." [FN4] Thompson goes on to identify "literary irony" as "a writer's verbal and structural mode of purporting to take seriously what he does not take seriously, or at least does not take with complete seriousness." Irony, Thompson says, "is more often than not philosophically characterized by a skepticism engendered by seeing opposite possibilities in a situation . ... it is in this sense that the term irony describes Poe's characteristic mode of writing." [FN5]
Throughout "The Black Cat," Poe's very tone is filled with this kind of ironic comment on his Narrator's actions and dilemmas. His unsettling juxtaposition of humor and horror, coupled with the Narrator's own bizarre matter-of-fact attitude towards his misdeeds not only keep the reader off balance, but also help establish Poe's almost sarcastic attitude towards the Narrator and his crimes. According to Thompson:
When the satirist makes use of irony, he pretends to take his opponents seriously, accepting their premises and values and methods of reasoning in order to eventually to expose their absurdity. [FN6]
Thus, we see the Narrator seriously discussing his dilemma, and, in effect, asking the reader to take his side and feel sorry for him. His lame reasoning and weak excuses become more ludicrous as his actions become more vicious. But Poe does take his Narrator seriously, allowing him to reveal himself as he desperately attempts to explain his awful behavior, hoping that someone will understand.
On the surface, the Narrator's admitted alcoholism ("the Fiend Intemperence"), is apparently the chief cause of his many woes. However, this, too, is treated in a sardonic fashion by Poe. The Narrator explains that his attitude towards his wife and his beloved pets changed once he started drinking:
I grew, day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings of others. I suffered myself to use intemperate language to my wife. At length, I even offered her personal violence. [FN7]
But the Narrator, although aware of the effects of his overindulgence, never tries to discover the cause of his anger, or the reason why, suddenly, he had decided to take up drinking and beating his wife.... He simply relates the facts and the consequences. Throughout the story, Poe allows the Narrator to find excuses for his vilest deeds as the noose tightens around his neck. Vincent Buranelli asserts that Poe's depiction of particular mental states is one of the most "arresting attributes" of his short stories and one that he was able to create by "consulting his own psychology." [FN8] Poe's own problems with alcoholism are well known, and in "The Black Cat" his incisive description of the Narrator's madness, and his ability to hide it even from himself, portrays this character in an ironic, yet most revealing way.
At the outset of the story, the Narrator quickly shows himself to be something of a pompous egotist, placing himself in the role of the observer as he describes his first cat, Pluto, in glowing terms, contrasting him to the "paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man." [FN9] By holding up the cat as some ideal, the Narrator quickly exposes his true feelings towards other human beings, claiming, as he does, to prefer the company of a cat over another man. But in his obvious disdain for humans, the man's dislike of all living creatures is also exposed. He claims to love Pluto, but it is hard to believe that he really means it. The Narrator says that "from my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition." He quickly backs up that statement, detailing his love of animals since his early childhood. But having admitted earlier that he is awaiting the sentence of death, and by making such a point of his kind nature, the Narrator immediately becomes a suspicious character, and when seen in the context of the entire story, a ridiculous figure. Here is this wife and cat killer piously describing his sweet nature. His denial is frightening and funny at the same time.
Poe's use of language, and the Narrator's own arrogance quickly inform the reader that beyond the Narrator's smooth words and placid exterior, terrifying and brutal possibilities exist. Later on, when the Narrator's violent actions demonstrate his true hatred of his cat and his wife, the irony of the Narrator's condescending attitude towards "mere" man and beast becomes apparent. As the story proceeds, the Narrator continues to expose his increasingly hostile feelings towards his cats. But it isn't until his final, murderous act that the man openly reveals the loathing he actually feels for his wife. At that point, he declares the deed a "hideous murder," and not an accident at all, as if it had been a crime he had been plotting all along. [FN10] However, here again, he doesn't admit his guilt; and calling it a "hideous murder" is almost a slip. He quickly moves from Point A, swinging at the cat, to Point B, crushing the wife's skull. He never really says it was an accident, yet he never admits having violent designs on his wife, either. He then proceeds to wall up his wife's body in the basement and calmly relates the details of his basement construction project, commenting that "For a purpose such as this the cellar was well adapted." [FN11] In the Narrator's mind, Point B is now fully established. The murder has been accomplished, and the reader should simply accept that fact. The Narrator turns his attention to a discussion of his excellent masonry skills. In deftly making this leap of reasoning for the Narrator, Poe demonstrates the inherent irony of the man's situation along with his calculating attitude and utter lack of remorse.
Poe saves his most ironic moment for the end when the police arrive to investigate the wife's disappearance. Suspicious at first, the police, after questioning the Narrator and searching his home, find no evidence of the missing wife. Finally satisfied, the inspectors are about to depart when the Narrator delays them. Too nervous to fully realize that he was about to get away with the crime, the Narrator triumphantly boasts about the wonderful construction of his house. His bragging, superior attitude, on display since the beginning of the story when he was denigrating "mere Man," at this moment serves only to trip him up at a critical time. His obnoxious arrogance coupled with his nervous guilt conspire to help expose the murder. What, perhaps, brought him to this desperate stage, his pomposity and hidden rage, has now led to his undoing. Banging on the new wall to prove how wonderful his house is, he inadvertently uncovers his wife's body, and at the same time his terrible crime and the dreaded, missing cat.
G.R. Thompson calls the ending of the story "almost the ultimate irony, to act against one's self..." and the poor wife's murder a "major absurdist irony" when the narrator commits an act that is "the result of subconscious remorse over the cat he has previously mistreated and thus ultimately the device of his self-torture." [FN12] In implicating himself at the end, the Narrator sheds the mask he had been wearing all along. Although, to the end, the Narrator insists on blaming his misfortune on a source other than himself. As he did with his alcoholism in the beginning, now at the end, he finds another scapegoat, this time the black cat:
... with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. I had walled the monster up within the tomb! [FN13]
Of course, in a sense, it really was the black cat that caused the Narrator to murder his wife, and it was the black cat that revealed his guilt to the police. And at this level, the story works simply as a tale of horror; a demonic creature invades a man's home and destroys his life. But the ironic element that Poe employs takes the story in a different direction, allowing the hidden character of the Narrator, and the truth of the situation to be revealed. The black cat may have been the agent that was instrumental in his downfall, but it is the man himself who is wholly responsible and Poe leaves little doubt of that. The black cat, hideous, hidden behind the wall, cemented in by the Narrator himself, is a striking symbol of the decay and corruption of the man's soul. His guilt, self-hatred, and need for punishment are all exposed when he bangs on the wall, prompting the black cat to howl, and revealing to the stunned policemen the secret hidden behind the wall.
1. Poe, Edgar Allan. The Black Cat. Boston: Northeastern University Press. 1986. Pg.l.
2. Poe. Pg. 2.
3. Poe. Pg. 5.
4. Thompson, G.R. Poe's Fiction. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Pg.9.
5. Thompson, Pg. 9.
6. Thompson, Pg 9.
7. Poe. Pg 2.
8. Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe. Boston: Twayne Publishing Company. 1977. Pg.79.
9. Poe. Pg.2.
10. Hoffman, Daniel. "The Marriage Group." Edgar Allan Poe. Modern Critical Views. Harold Bloom, Editor. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1985. Pg. 83.
11. Poe. Pg. 8
12. Thompson. Pg.72
13. Poe. Pg. 18.
Buranelli, Vincent. Edgar Allan Poe. Boston: Twayne Publishing Company. 1977. Pgs. 65-81.
Frushell, Richard C. "An Incarnate Nightmare: Moral Grotesquerie in The Black Cat." Poe Studies. G.R. Thompson, Editor. Pullman: Washington State University Press. Pgs. 43-45.
Hoffman, Daniel. "The Marriage Group." Edgar Allan Poe. Modern Critical Views. Harold Bloom, Editor. New York: Chelsea House Publishers. 1985. Pgs. 81-102.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Black Cat. Boston: Northeastern University Press. 1986.
Thompson, G.R. Poe's Fiction. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Pgs. 9-72.
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