The Black Cat Lesson Plans
by Edgar Allan Poe

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Edgar Allen Poe/Tell-Tale Heart/Black Cat

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Edgar Allen Poe – Compare and Contrast “The Tell-Tale Heart” with “The Black Cat”

  • Although Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) is well known for his short stories, he was also a poet, editor and literary critic. He did not publish his first short story or poem, The Raven, until four years before his death. He was a leader of the American Romantic Movement which reacted against the new technologies being introduced in the early Victorian period. The movement emphasised strong emotions as a source of experience such as fear and horror. Poe is now considered to be one of the first to write the short detective story. This format was later copied by writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie.
  • Poe starts off by using short sharp phrases which create a sense of anxiety in the reader: “True!….Hearken!”The first few sentences also include a number of exclamation and question marks, and the last few lines have many exclamation marks. This effect makes the text punchy andcreates a sense of unease in the reader. By contrast, although they do occur, fewer exclamation marks are used in the Black Cat, making the text flow better than in The Tell-Tale Heart but still creating a sense of atmosphere. Both stories are written in thefirst person. In both cases the narrator is thought to be mad, though in the Tell-Tale Heart that is the truth as his interrogators appear to already know that, yet he argues against them:“How, then, am I mad?”
  • In the Black Cat the narrator talks of “perverseness”as being his driving force. In other words he thinks that something has taken over his true nature. His pampering of the two cats in the story contrasts sharply with his drunken cruelty to them: “…never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them…” But when drunk (gin-nutured i.e. after drinking gin) he became possessed by a “fiendish malevolence” or evil wickedness. Poe cleverly increases this already graphic image by qualifying it with “and a more than” which describes that his hatred was stronger than words can convey. “…and a more than fiendish malevolence, gin-nutured, thrilled every fibre of my frame.”
  • The cold truth is that he found that the evil within him exciting, even exhilarating – “thrilled every fibre of my frame”. Surely these are the feelings of a true madman – to take pleasure in other’s sufferings?
  • We do not know why he killed his wife, but this might be because of his madness as he had called her “uncomplaining”. An eye features in both stories. The eye of the old man is what haunted the storyteller in the Tell-Tale Heart whereas in the Black Cat an eye was gouged out by the character in a fit of anger.
  • In both cases the murderer was unmasked because of sounds. It was a sound only heard by the narrator, the beating of the old man’s heart, that caused him to admit his guilt. In the case of the Black Cat, it was the wailing of the cat which he had walled in which led to his downfall. The murderer was caught in both stories because of his arrogance in dealing with the police and his bravado in front of them e.g. by tapping on the cellar walls in the Black Cat. This is a common feature in Poe’s short stories, where the criminal is caught out not by feelings of guilt or remorse but rather by his foolhardy actions.

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Compare and Contrast “The Tell-Tale Heart” with “The Black Cat”