Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1242
Symbolism in “The Black Cat”: Symbols abound in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat”; Pluto’s missing eye, the unnamed black cat’s white marking, and the image in the narrator’s burned home are all significant vehicles of symbolism.
- For discussion: What could the narrator’s action of taking out Pluto’s eye symbolize?
- For discussion: Why do you think there was an image of a hanged black cat in the narrator’s burned home? What does this image do to the narrator? What symbolic significance could this image have?
- For discussion: Is there any evidence to suggest that Pluto is a supernatural entity? How so? What myths of resurrection surround cats? How do Pluto and the second cat seem to punish the narrator?
- For discussion: The second cat is similar to Pluto in size and is also missing an eye. However, it has a white mark. What does this white mark eventually become? What might the mark symbolize? How does the narrator react to the mark?
- For discussion: Both cats are present throughout the majority of the story. How does the narrator’s descent into madness relate to the cats? What do you think the cats could symbolize in regards to the narrator’s mental state?
Studying Unreliable Narration in “The Black Cat”: “The Black Cat” has an unreliable narrator. He tells readers at the beginning that he “neither expect[s] nor solicit[s] belief,” and yet, little in the story justifies readers’ not trusting his version of events. While it becomes clear that he perhaps suffers from a mental illness intensified by the overconsumption of alcohol, the narrator conveys his account from start to finish with a consistent detachment from the story’s increasingly disturbing events.
- For discussion: Where in the text do you learn that the narrator is unreliable? (How) Does this affect your reading of the story?
- For discussion: Since the narrator is admittedly unreliable, do you think there’s any reason for him to fabricate the story or misinterpret events? Why might he do so?
- For discussion: When does the narrator appear most out of touch with reality? When does he seem more rational? What differences can you find between the narrator’s language in these moments?
- For discussion: (How) Does the unreliability of the narrator develop his character? What personality traits does the narrator seem to have? How does his character change over the course of the story, and how does the narration help show this change?
Significant Themes in “The Black Cat”: Two main themes in “The Black Cat” are centered around dualities: sanity versus madness, and sin versus morality. The tension in these dualisms manifest through the narrator’s internal, psychological struggle between the good and evil parts of his nature. In addition, the narrator’s alcohol abuse is the catalyst for his evil thoughts, sinful actions, and insanity. As he grapples between good and evil, he sometimes sees things rationally. However, he is ultimately unable to hold on to his morality and sanity and succumbs to evil and madness.
- For discussion: What internal struggle(s) do you perceive the narrator to be experiencing?
- For discussion: At what points in the story does the narrator struggle between sin and morality? (When) Does he seem aware of his sins? At what point does the narrator appear to lose all morality?
- For discussion: What does the narrator mean when he claims to be overtaken by a “spirit of PERVERSENESS”? Evaluate his account of this drastic change in personality. Does his account make sense? Why or why not?
Additional Discussion Questions:
- How does the narrator act when the police search his house? How does the narrator describe his feelings? What differences do you see between the narrator’s external actions and internal emotions?
- Why do you think the narrator knocks on the wall where his wife is buried? What does this say about the narrator’s mental state and sense of guilt?
Tricky Issues to Address
Mental Illness and Alcohol Abuse: The short story contains references to alcohol abuse and its negative effects on the narrator’s psyche. The narrator also exhibits signs of a potential mental illness that suggest the source of his violent and homicidal actions. Further, the narrator often appears to lack empathy as he details his change of temperament, his actions, and his drinking addiction.
- What to do: Point out that the narrator is potentially irrational due to his intemperance and a possibly deteriorating mental condition. Explore why Poe included these flaws in the story.
Animal Cruelty and Domestic Violence: The short story includes several instances of animal abuse, most notably when the narrator removes Pluto’s eye and hangs him. The narrator abuses his other pets and his wife.
- What to do: Encourage your students to think about the narrator’s actions in terms of Poe’s aesthetic choices. By analyzing the story as an artifice, students can find deeper significance in its horrifying elements.
- What to do: Remind students about the tropes and tenets of gothic fiction. Poe wrote many short stories that confront typical gothic subjects such as death, terror, and the grotesque. Point out to students that the story can be viewed through the lens of the gothic literary period, and that the macabre aspects of the story engage specific gothic tropes.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching "The Black Cat"
While the main ideas, characters, themes, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving teaching “The Black Cat,” the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the text.
Focus on “The Black Cat” as an anti-story. An anti-story breaks conventions and challenges expectations of what a story should include, either through a lack of plot, an unusual subject matter, or through some other literary device that breaks the conventions of story-telling. Students may consider the unreliability of the narrator as cause to doubt all events in the story. For this approach, consider then the evocative effects of the narration and the narrator’s rationale, sound or not, for constructing such an alleged story. Such an approach invites students to examine the story’s purpose and aesthetic.
Focus on “The Black Cat” as a cautionary tale. Poe’s short story can be read as a cautionary tale against alcohol. The narrator of the story only commits evil acts after he begins drinking. The narrator calls alcohol the “Fiend Intemperance” and explains how drinking caused him to change as a person. The narrator’s transformation from a kind man to an abuser, murderer, and misanthrope sends a strong message about alcohol abuse and its destructive effects. Given the circumstances of the story, readers may choose to view it as a morbid warning against excessive drinking.
Focus on “The Black Cat” as an exploration of duality. Many of the significant themes within the short story involve some form of duality. The most prominent theme is that of morality: humanity’s capacity for both good and evil. The narrator explains how, when taken by rage and evil influences, his “soul” seems to leave his body, creating a “fiendish malevolence.” The narrator’s downfall is due to this struggle between natures. He eventually gives in to evil thoughts and begins committing horrendous actions. With this in mind, “The Black Cat” can be analyzed through the narrator’s inward struggle between good and evil urges.
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