The Black Cat Themes
The main themes in The Black Cat are guilt, madness, and alcohol abuse.
- Guilt: The narrator is consumed by guilt, which leads him to commit increasingly horrific acts.
- Madness: The narrator's madness is both a cause and a result of his crimes.
- Alcohol Abuse: The narrator was once a "docile" man, but his abuse of alcohol has led him to act as he does.
Last Updated October 18, 2023.
The Rejection of Guilt
The unnamed narrator of “The Black Cat” describes himself as “moody,” “irritable,” and increasingly “violent.” He is an alcoholic with an ever-worsening temper; he lashes out at his wife, “offers her personal violence,” and verbally abuses her with “intemperate language.” His poor behavior is apparent early on, but it only worsens. When his beloved black cat, Pluto, bites him, the narrator cuts the cat’s eye out. Much of the story focuses on the narrator’s guilt about this act—and the more violent acts that follow—and how his guilty conscience ultimately leads him deeper into alcoholism and abuse. He explains: “I experienced a sentiment half of horror, half of remorse … but it was, at best, a feeble and unequivocal feeling.” To quiet this feeling, he drinks to excess. Despite his claim that he does not regret his actions, his actions after each act of violence indicate that he must feel a sense of guilt.
Unable to stand Pluto’s continued presence, he hangs the cat by a noose. Though the act is reprehensible, it is, perversely, an act of guilt. By murdering Pluto, the narrator is no longer haunted by the specter of his misdeeds. But this does not quiet the narrator’s guilt and, in fact, only worsens it. He begins to hallucinate, his deep-seated remorse buried beneath layers of alcohol and manifesting as visual apparitions. The narrator sees “the figure of a gigantic cat” with “a rope around [its] neck” on the only wall remaining after his house catches fire. A reasonable explanation for how an image of the cat arrived there cannot override the “deep impression” the event makes.
His guilt leads him to attempt to replace the cat, which had once been his close companion. The replacement cat, however, prefers the narrator’s wife; the narrator develops an inexplicable sense of rage toward the creature. When he discovers the cat is also missing an eye—the same one he carved from Pluto’s face—he “long[s] to destroy it.” To extinguish this new reminder of his guilt, the narrator attempts to kill the new cat with an ax. When his wife prevents him, he kills her instead.
The narrator’s reaction to killing his wife is remarkably calm, though it might be suggested that the narrator’s burial of his wife is an attempt to hide not only his crimes but also his guilt. Moreover, his unspoken desire for the policemen to find his wife’s body suggests his subconscious guilt. The black cat’s screeching leads the investigators to discover the wife’s body; it stands on her corpse, a reminder of the narrator’s guilt and inability to escape it.
Insanity and Perversion
The narrator opens the story by claiming he will merely narrate “a series of household events” and that he is not “mad,” despite the strange story he is about to tell. However, the actions and emotions of the narrator are certainly not those of a “sane” person. He claims his violent behavior stems from “the spirit of perverseness”—explaining that “one of the primitive impulses of the human heart” is to do what “he knows he should not.”
He describes his urge to kill Pluto, the first black cat, “because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence … because I knew that in doing so I was committing a sin.” The reason he should not desire to act with violence against this innocent cat is exactly what compels him to do it. This mentality also governs the narrator’s irrational hatred of the replacement black cat. The cat...
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is just that: A cat. Yet, to the narrator, it symbolizes shame, guilt, and violence; for that reason, he attempts to kill it and, instead, kills his wife. His actions—from his drinking and mutilation of the original cat to his insane assumptions about the replacement cat and murder of his wife—indicate that he has embraced perversity and acts exclusively in ways his moral self knows he should not.
Worse, his excitement as the investigators inch closer to his wife’s resting place suggests that the narrator has lost all sense of reason. His insanity is further supported by his belief that the second cat is “the Arch-Fiend” and has purposely led the narrator to his downfall. At no point in the story are the narrator’s actions motivated by logic and are instead ruled by his ever-worsening mental state.
Effects of Alcoholism
The narrator of “The Black Cat” quickly admits to being an alcoholic and notes how drastically his addiction changes his behavior. Though he claimed to have been “docile” and “tender” before he started drinking, even describing himself as especially affectionate toward Pluto, once the narrator falls victim to “the Fiend Intemperance,” he “experienced a radical alteration for the worse.” He blames alcohol as the reason he abuses his wife and mistreats Pluto.
One night, when the narrator is “much intoxicated,” he grabs the cat with “violence.” The cat retaliates with a mild bite. The narrator writes, “The fury of a demon instantly possessed me. I knew myself no longer.” He attributes his rage to his drunken state, describing his reaction as though he is completely out of control; he becomes someone else. In an alcohol-induced state of madness, the narrator “deliberately cut one of [Pluto’s] eyes from the socket.”
Later, the only thing the narrator can do to avoid his memories and forget his guilt is to drink more, to “drown in wine all memory of the deed[s].” When he finds the second black cat, it is, significantly, perched on “one of the immense hogsheads of gin, or of rum” outside “a den of more than infamy.” Poe here explicitly connects the narrator’s superstitions and fears of the cat—his idea that this is Pluto back to get revenge for his murder—to the narrator’s drinking.