illustrated portrait of American author of gothic fiction Edgar Allan Poe

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Compare the theme of perversity in "The Black Cat," "The Imp of the Perverse," and "The Cask of Amontillado."

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The narrator of "The Black Cat" is driven by the "imp of the perverse," that compulsive urge to do evil simply because it is wrong. In the end, he goes mad and commits suicide. The narrator of "The Cask of Amontillado" is also driven by compulsion but has a rational motive: He wants revenge on Fortunato for his insults and betrayals. When he discovers he can get away with murder, as it were, by walling up his enemy in an underground chamber, he does so, thereby committing a double crime—murdering Fortunato and defying the law—because doing so amuses him and gives him satisfaction.

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"The Imp of the Perverse" is evidently intended as a scientific explanation by Poe of the innate human tendency to do the wrong thing—to perform some action simply because we know it is improper, dangerous, or destructive. In Poe's description it sounds much like a manifestation of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). The other two stories to which you refer, "The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado," show the horrifying results of this obsessive urge which Poe analyzes in technical-sounding language in "The Imp of the Perverse."

In "The Black Cat," the narrator abuses and then murders Pluto not because he hates him, but, as he tells us himself, precisely because the cat has loved him and done him no harm. He describes himself in tears as he is slipping the noose round the cat's neck, committing this cold-blooded act of sadism against his own will, as it were. In part, the narrator attributes his cruelty to substance abuse, admitting that he is an alcoholic and claiming that in his earlier life he was noted for the mildness of his disposition and his love for animals. It is not clear if Poe intends this to be taken at face value, or if he is deliberately presenting it as an "unreliable narrator" phenomenon. The man is under a compulsion to enact his "perversity" and not only to kill others—first the cat and then his wife (and in real life those who murder people often do start out by killing animals)—but to destroy himself.

In "The Cask of Amontillado," though the act of walling a man up and thus asphyxiating him in an underground chamber is clearly an act of madness, there at least seems to be a rationale for it: the "thousand injuries" he has sustained from Fortunato. But the final exchange between Montresor and his victim is significant:

"The Amontillado!" I said.

"He! he! he!—he! he! he!—yes, the Amontillado. But is it not getting late? Will not they be awaiting us at the palazzo, the Lady Fortunato and the rest? Let us be gone."

"Yes," I said, "let us be gone."

"For the love of God, Montresor!"

"Yes," I said, "for the love of God!"

Montresor does not really want to kill Fortunato. In saying "let us be gone" it appears he means it, and agrees that it would be better to go back to the palazzo with his "friend" and rejoin the others. His strange echo of Fortunato's plea "for the love of God!" has always seemed sadly ironic to me. As in "The Black Cat," the "imp of the perverse" has compelled a man to do something he knows is monstrously wrong.

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In "The Imp of Perversity," the narrator describes perversity as being like a man who stands on the edge of some terrible abyss and contemplates falling from the edge to his doom. Note what the narrator says about the danger of doing this:

To indulge for a moment, in any attempt at thought, is to be inevitably lost; for reflection but urges us to forbear, and therefore it is, I say, that we cannot. If there be no friendly arm to check us, or if we fail in a sudden effort to prostrate ourselves backward from the abyss, we plunge, and are destroyed.

The natural perversity of human nature means that entertaining the thought is akin to actually carrying out the action, which is borne out by the narrator's thought of confessing to the murder he has committed, that inevitably leads him to confess.

Arguably, this theme of perversity and confession is something that can be seen in "The Black Cat" and "The Cask of Amontillado." In "The Black Cat," for example, what leads the policemen to discover the narrator's crime is the sound of the black cat entombed behind the wall constructed by the narrator. It is possible to consider the black cat as an external representation of the narrator's conscience, and therefore it is his own self that betrays him. In the same way, in "The Cask of Amontillado," Montresor commits the perfect crime, but clearly now feels, years later, that he must confess it to someone:

For the half of a century no mortal has disturbed them.

It is the same perversity that caused the narrator in "The Imp of Perversity" to confess that no doubt led to the downfall of these two characters, although in slightly different ways and situations. Both are undone by perversity as they feel the need to confess to the crimes they have committed, although for Montresor it is left unclear to whom he is confessing and what prompted this confession.

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