Alan Poe is one of the writers who advanced dark romanticism in the nineteenth century in America. This subgenre evolved from the transcendental philosophy, and it sought to explore the dark side of events or issues. Poe is known for his mad and unbalanced psyche in writing dark and sinister works mainly due to his childhood experiences. The Black Cat is one of such dark writings where Poe uses terror and depravity to explore the dark side of a home and how things can go awry. In the story, the narrator starts by highlighting his childhood and his undying love and compassion for animals.
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He marries someone equally loving, and they both share many common attributes and life interests. They own a black cat named Pluto and life seems normal until the narrator sinks into alcoholism, which changes him forever. He starts mistreating his wife and pets without tenable reasons. Ultimately, he kills Pluto, his once-beloved pet, and his wife suffers the same fate later in the story. In the Black Cat, Poe uses metaphor, paradox, symbolism, foreshadowing, irony, repetition, and similes to explore the themes of death, violence, and terror.
Violence, Death, and Terror
Throughout the story of The Black Cat, Poe explores the themes of violence, death, and terror exclusively until the end of the narration. Murder and death are central to the story as the narrator descends into insanity due to alcoholism. The narrator kills his favorite pet, Pluto, and appears to enjoy the process. He parades the audience with a series of gory acts, such as gouging eyes, hanging, and the axing of the innocent cat. Ultimately, he kills his wife in a rage of fury while attempting to kill the second cat that he adopted after murdering Pluto. However, the audience wonders why the author chose to focus on violence, murder, and terror in this story. Poe’s life experiences contributed largely to his obsession with a dark romanticism. According to Pruette,
The life of Edgar Allan Poe might be considered an unhappy record of that “disaster” which “followed fast and followed faster” this man of brilliant capacities till it drove him into opposition with most of the world, deprived him of the love he so inordinately craved, paralyzed his creative abilities, seduced him to seek a vague nepenthe in the use of drugs and stimulants, and, its relentless purpose achieved, cast him aside, a helpless wreck, to die from the darkened tragedy of a Baltimore (370).
In other words, in The Black Cat, Poe is retelling his story and how he was mentally tormented by a series of unfortunate occurrences including the death of his parents and wife. In the story, the narrator becomes an alcoholic, which mirrors the same phenomenon in Poe’s life.
Moldenhauer calls this form of writing “confessional rhetoric” whereby the narrator-protagonist “introduces or concludes his account with elaborate gestures of self-condemnation, and with dire forecasts of eternal disgrace for his name or perpetual torment for his soul” (285). In The Black Cat, the narrator does not draw a conclusion, and the audience can only assume that he suffered in eternity after the brutal killing of his wife. Poe’s life experiences explain why he chooses to explore the dark side of life in this story by talking about death, terror, and violence.
The Black Cat is rich in metaphors and personification, which are used to underscore how the inner world of the narrator transforms as he sinks into alcoholism and insanity. For instance, the narrator says, “…sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman” (Poe 14). In this case, the narrator is talking about his psychopath tendencies and paranoia, which turned him into a ruthless killer of people and pets dear to him. His guilty conscience is the black cat, which has become a hideous abomination. Additionally, the narrator implies that he would be haunted by his actions forever.
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He admits, “I had walled the monster up within the tomb” (Poe 14). The wall mentioned here is for his house, a place where the narrator is supposed to find safety and peace, but he has turned it into a tomb. In other words, his home has become a place for the dead. He has to live with the consequences of his actions, no matter how grim they appear.
Symbolism is used extensively in this story, and it underlines hidden messages that contribute to the plot development and the themes of death, violence, and terror. The first symbol is the black cat, which also doubles as the title of the story. Traditionally, black cats symbolize death and darkness together with the gloomy future that the narrator is about to experience. Even his wife, who does not believe in superstition, “made frequent allusion to the ancient popular notion, which regarded all black cats as witches in disguise” (Poe 4). Additionally, on top of the cat being black, it is named Pluto. In Greek mythology, Pluto was the Roman god of death or hades, or the underworld (Richardson and Bowman 5). The cat is also half-blinded, which symbolizes the narrator’s irrationality probable due to excessive drinking.
The narrator might also be blinded by his guilty conscience. After the black cat is killed, another one appears, but with a white spot, which troubles the narrator. He confesses that the white spot on the new cat is now the “representation of an object that I shudder to name…I loathed, and dreaded…the image of a hideous – of a ghastly thing—of the gallows! – oh, mournful and terrible engine of horror and of crime – of agony and of death” (Poe 10). The white patch is a symbol of the narrator’s evil spirit, which cannot be killed – it has become part of his life, and it will haunt him into eternity.
The first form of irony is situational where the narrator mentions that he is a humane and timid person. As a child, he was noted for his docility and humanistic disposition. His “tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions” (Poe 3). Ironically, the same person, who once loved animals and spent most of the time caressing and feeding them, becomes a murderer. This turn of events is out of the ordinary – it is ironic. Additionally, he does not kill animals and people for any reasonable cause, but for the sheer thrill of doing it. The other form of irony is dramatic, which occurs at both the start and the end of the story.
The narrator opens his narration by saying that his purpose is to tell the world “a series of mere household events” (Poe 3). However, as the story progresses, the audience discovers that the events are out of the ordinary. He kills the black cat bizarrely and takes the audience through the darkest places of his life, which is tormenting. At the end of the story, the narrator is confident that the police will not find the hidden body of his dead wife, as he has stuck it between the walls of the cellar. He brags, “Secure, however, in the inscrutability of my place of concealment, I felt no embarrassment whatever” (Poe 13).
The narrator is assured that the police cannot find out about his secrets. Ironically, noises coming from the very wall that he trusts to keep his secrets lead to the discovery of the hidden body. The agony of the demons that triumph in the damnation has come back to haunt the narrator.
At the start of the story, the narrator foretells that he is about to take the audience through a wild and unbelievable experience. He is about to die, tomorrow, and thus he has to unburden his soul today. He is about to face death after the brutal killing of his wife. He talks about “gallows”, which he sees in the white patch of a new cat. These gallows foreshadow how he will die. He would probably be executed through hanging. The narrator also foreshadows the death of his wife. He says, “At length, I even offered her personal violence” (Poe 4). The author reveals to the audience what is about to happen later in the story, albeit subtly.
The author uses paradox with a parallel structure to prepare the audience, albeit subtly, for the dark story that lies ahead. The narrator says, “For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief” (Poe 3). Paradoxically, the story is “wild” and “homely” at the same time. These phrases are almost antonyms and juxtaposing them in the same sentence implies that the story he is about to tell is not ordinary. Similarly, in the middle of the story, he references the divine as the “most merciful and most terrible God” (Poe 6). Saying that God is merciful and terrible, at the same time, underscores the narrator’s madness. This paradox highlights the narrator’s troubled and guilty conscience, which contributes centrally to the themes of terror, murder, and violence.
The Black Cat is a chef-d’oeuvre short story by Edgar Alan Poe, which underscores his obsession with dark romanticism that was popularized in nineteenth-century America. The story is eccentric whereby a hitherto timid and humane person descends into alcoholism and becomes a monster. He kills his beloved cat and wife and derives pleasure from such heinous acts. The themes of death, violence, and terror stand out conspicuously throughout the story.
The author uses irony, metaphor, symbolism, foreshadowing, and paradox as stylistic devices to develop these themes. Poe wrote such dark stories as a reflection of his life. He experienced the loss of the loved ones, which drove him into alcoholism and lost touch with humanity. Poe uses confessional rhetoric to mirror his life experiences in his gothic stories as part of advancing dark romanticism.
Moldenhauer, Joseph. “Murder as a Fine Art: Basic Connections between Poe’s Aesthetics, Psychology, and Moral Vision.” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, vol. 83, no. 2, 1968, pp. 284-297.
Poe, E. Alan. The Black Cat. 1843. Web.
Pruette, Lorine. “A Psycho-Analytical Study of Edgar Allan Poe.” The American Journal of Psychology, vol. 31, no. 4, 1920, pp. 370-402.
Richardson, Adele, and Laurel Bowman. Hades. Capstone Press, 2003.