Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.