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.

Use of Irony in "The Black Cat"

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...

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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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