Hello everyone and welcome to the analysis of Poe’s “The Black Cat.” The presentation will provide a quick summary of events and an overview of major themes and writing characteristics. This little lecture presentation is part of a series of videos on short stories and authors. If you enjoy this video, please be sure to check out some of the others.
First, let’s get some essential background information out of the way. The story was written by Edgar Allan Poe and was published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1843. The story illustrates many of Poe’s famous characteristics and is much like his other story, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” as both deal with madness and sudden murder.
So before we jump into analyzing the text for themes and writing characteristics, we should touch on the main points of the tale. I do recommend reading the full text, which is packed with fascinating details that will be overlooked by this short summary. However, for a quick recap this works well.
At the opening of the tale, the reader is addressed by an unnamed narrator who explains that tomorrow he will die. Before his death, he wants to share his story so that he might unburden his soul of the guilt he has. He also alerts readers to the fact that the story may come across as fantastical, but he argues that he is sane and these events happened to him to the best of his knowledge.
When the narrator begins telling his story, he starts some years back, and notes that at that time he was a very gentle and caring individual. He had a loving marriage and together with his wife, he cared for many animals who he loved dearly. His personality shifts though as he turns to drinking, becoming an angry alcoholic. He explains that drinking caused him to have mood swings in which he would have violent outbursts, striking his wife and pets.
Up to this point, the narrator claims the only animal who did not face his wrath was Pluto, the family’s favorite cat. However, one night after coming home drunk, the narrator feels like the black cat is ignoring him, so he reaches out to grab Pluto, who bites him in response. Struck by a sudden rage from having been bitten, the narrator seizes the cat and cuts out one of its eyes. While he regrets this in the morning, he explains that because of perverseness, a desire to do evil, he must continue the abuse. Soon after, he hangs the cat from the tree in his yard, killing Pluto.
The night that he kills Pluto, there is a fire in his house. Everyone safely gets out, but the narrator losses all of his material possessions and wealth. Furthermore, a strange event takes place. On the single remaining wall after the fire, an image of a large cat with a noose around it is burned into the plaster.
Following the terrible events of that night, the narrator explains that he would like to find another, similar cat, as he misses Pluto. Soon after, he finds a nearly identical cat – the only difference being a white patch on its chest – who follows him home and quickly becomes a new favorite in the house.
It does not take long though for the narrator to begin feeling hatred for this cat as well. He explains that it follows him incessantly, and reminds him of his past crime. The final straw, for the narrator, comes when the cats white splotch changes to resemble the gallows, a tool used for hanging people. After seeing this, the narrator promises to seek revenge on the animal.
One day when going down into the basement, the cat trips the narrator and he attempts to kill it with an axe in a fit of anger. To his amazement, his wife stops him from completing the action. In response, the narrator buries the axe in her head. Without skipping a beat, he calmly considers his situation and the need to hide the body. He decides on walling it up in the basement. He is extremely successful in hiding his murder, so that even the police, when they search the basement, find nothing out of the ordinary. It is only when the narrator decides to brag about his achievement by making a veiled comment about the wall to the police and hitting it with his cane that his plan fails. After hitting the wall, a scream emits from behind it, which the police soon find to be the black cat, who is still alive, sitting on top of the corpse.
Now that we are all familiar with the events of the story, let’s look a little deeper at what is going on between the lines by looking at major themes and writing conventions. I will try to keep these overviews brief and because of the nature of the presentation, I will not be able to touch upon everything going on in the text. Furthermore, to keep the video short, I will be discussing the themes and conventions together.
Over the next few slides we will be looking at how madness is portrayed in the tale and how the use of an unreliable narrator and alcohol play into it.
We will also look at some of the gothic elements in the text, including the symbolic use of locations. We will then investigate the psychological backing of the tale, with a focus on repression and perverseness. Finally, we will touch on how animals and humans are portrayed in the tale. So, let’s get started!
We will begin with the focus on madness in the tale. Poe, in many of his stories and poems, highlights problems of the mind, investigating a characters decline and actions while facing insanity. These same ideas are present in “The Black Cat,” even early on as the narrator opens by acknowledging that he may seem insane from the story he will share, but he claims he is not. Immediately then, the narrator is painted as unreliable. This essentially means that the reader cannot trust exactly what he is reporting. Because the tale is exclusively told in the first person from this man, readers only have access to it through his damaged mind. This perspective provides for both a focus on madness as well as confusing moments as the narrator at times shares strange information. For instance, he claims at one point that he regrets hurting Pluto and understands that it is wrong, but proceeds to kill the cat anyway. Alcohol further adds to the depiction of madness as it is a possible source for the narrator’s decline. Unlike many of Poe’s stories, that leave the reasoning of why someone is mad absent, the narrator of this story claims that his drinking led him down his dark path as it made him have violent mood swings. Interestingly, Poe himself was an alcoholic and may have been venting some of his own concerns in the tale. Finally, the concept of madness is solidified by showing the narrator take violent action without any second thoughts or regard for consequences. Perhaps the most insane and eerie moment in the text is the narrator’s calm demeanor when disposing of his wife’s body.
Let’s take a quick look at a quote that exemplifies most of the points we have discussed about madness. The narrator notes that he was “possessed” during his rage, admitting that his mental faculties were no longer his own. He even remarks, “I knew myself no more.” In this quote he also notes that he got to this state by being “gin-nurtured” referencing the alcohol as part of the problem. Finally, in the act of cutting out Pluto’s eye, he demonstrates a violent outburst that is far from sane.
Turning now to another facet of madness, as well as psychology, we will look at Perverseness in the text. As explained in this tale and another of Poe’s stories, perverseness is the desire to do evil because it is wrong. It is a sort of self-punishment. What makes this extremely eerie is the sense of not needing a motive to commit evil then, which is displayed in the killing of both the cat and wife. Within the text, the term is actually presented in all caps, as if it is a powerful entity that must be treated with respect. The change in font also highlights the term, as Poe wants readers to notice it and associate the idea with the madness of the character. Furthermore, rather than glossing over the term, the narrator takes time to explain what the idea is and how it impacts him, which we will look at in the next slide. Poe returns to this idea in his tale “The Imp of the Perverse,” which provides an even more extensive review of the concept before showing an example in the form of a story. Finally, if you are very interested in this concept, you may want to look to Freud and the field of psychoanalysis as it digs deeper into these ideas. For now, let’s look at how the text discusses the term.
In this excerpt, the narrator introduces the term and argues that it is a primal part of human nature, ingrained into everyone. He notes that many people tend to do things that are wrong for the very reason that they know them to be wrong. If you would like to take the time to read the quote, you should pause the video now.
This second quote shows the narrator returning to the idea, and claiming that his soul wanted to hurt itself, possibly as a form of vengeance on itself. He uses the concept of perverseness here to defend killing Pluto.
Building off of the concept of perverseness, let’s take a step back and look at how psychology is treated as a whole in the tale as Poe provides a clear focus on it. The first theme related to psychology that I would like to look at is the return of the repressed. This concept essentially means that one cannot get away from their past deeds or experiences, even if they have forgotten them. While the text never explains outright that the narrator represses his memories and desires, only to have them come back, the plot of the story provides the details for us. Throughout the tale, the narrator is haunted by his past actions. Mentally, he is tormented by his actions as he claims that he could not sleep or function well during the day because of the terrors he kept thinking of. He is also physically tormented by the literal return of Pluto. The near doubling of the cat, along with the fact that it goes unnamed, suggests that this second cat is in some way the spirit or return of Pluto, which has come to haunt the narrator for his crimes. Furthermore, the narrator is forced to face his repressed memories when images of the dead cat and the gallows show up, illustrating his inability to escape his past deeds. Finally, at the close of the tale, the fact that the second cat is the reason he is caught and that it reveals his murder solidifies the theme of being unable to escape the past and the inevitability for the repressed to return. The tale further investigates psychology by offering a symbolic journey into the unconscious and the primal. The narrator himself brings up the idea of primal instincts, but it is the fact that his most horrific crime takes place in the basement, a metaphor for the deep parts of the mind, that solidifies the theme.
Take a moment to look over the following two quotes that depict some of the ideas that have been mentioned on the last slide. The one on the left notes the return of the gallows and the quote on the right describes how the second cat haunted the narrator.
Poe might be most famous for his use of gothic elements, and this story does not disappoint. The sheer violence presented is a gothic element itself, as the descriptions are gruesome and the actions are beyond most human capability. Furthermore Poe, as mentioned earlier, uses place symbolically. Location and space are integral to the gothic tradition and this story puts a lot of attention on the two houses that are part of the setting with close descriptions of the structure, such as the walls. The use of supernatural elements is also part of the gothic tradition. While there is not a clear ghost in this story, the possible return of Pluto, as well as the strange events that occur that can have no reasonable explanation, imply moments of the supernatural.
And finally, the last theme we will be covering, the depiction of animals as more humane than humans. The tale, through its depiction of the narrator and his pets suggests that animals may be more caring and civilized than humans are. This is even referenced by the narrator a couple of times as he notes that human companions pale in comparison to animals, and that the primal instincts of perverseness that he blames his actions on are solely a human trait. The actions of the narrator alone show the ability for man to be cruel and uncivilized, while the animals in the tale are not shown in any violent capacity. Finally, the symbol of the black cat is subverted in this tale to support this theme. Normally, black cats are used as omens of evil, just as the narrator’s wife suggests that black cats are witches in disguise. However, in “The Black Cat,” it is the cat that exacts justice on the narrator and helps authorities solve the crime.
As noted earlier, this is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this tale. I hope the overview was helpful and if you have any questions or ideas please leave a comment or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, if you enjoyed this presentation and you wanted to dig even deeper into the story, you may want to watch the conference presentation on Poe and perverseness by Dr. Sbriglia. As always, if you enjoyed the presentation please like the video, subscribe to the channel, and check out Little-lecture.com.