The Black Cat
Damn Cat: The Blasphemous Spirituality of Poe’s The Black Cat
In the tradition story-telling, few concepts are as popular as supernatural intervention into human life. These interventions typically feature a very familiar, nearly house-hold collection of descriptive forms: angels, demons, invisible kinetic forces, and even nature itself are all used as representations of divinity, and unknowable power. It is the mark of a true master to escape from this gallery of cliché and craft details which make a unique statement; in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Black Cat, so much is accomplished in chilling, gruesome style. For Poe, the Christian concept of God is irrelevant, and he writes from a position of his own morality, in which there is no guardian, no benevolent light to guide souls from the path of darkness. There is only unstoppable, disembodied retribution, as the abuses of the narrator are punished not spiritually, in the next life, but in the present, with shocking violence. Following original sin, in which the narrator slices out one of his beloved cat Pluto’s eyes with a pocket knife in repayment of “a slight wound upon the hand” (Poe 30), madness rapidly begets madness, as patterns of destruction invert upon the narrator’s life and psyche. The lack of a clear antagonist in the story is essential. Pluto, alcohol, the house fire, and the gallows: distinct events and narrative aspects, each touched by an unspecified element of the supernatural, run together like the frames of a film reel, weaving a concept of spirituality in which evil is not a part of life, but a vast, looming framework in which the trappings of mortal life are but small parts. In The Black Cat, horror itself is the only God which Poe recognizes, fear is far from abstract, and morality is enforced not by a righteous, perfect creator, but through vicious twists of madness and fate.
Key to a correct interpretation of this tale is the narrator’s devil-may-care regard for the concept of a rational explanation. In his own words, “I am above the weakness of seeking to establish a sequence of cause and effect, between the disaster and the atrocity” (Poe 31). There is no true sensible explanation for the image of the hung cat appearing in the wreckage of the sudden fire, just as there is no true sensible explanation for the mad swings of violent temper the narrator repeatedly experiences. Instead, a reader is forced to turn away from reality, to the world of the extra-sensory, the world of fate, insanity, fortune, and doom. In Poe’s imaginings, this second world is every bit as real as the first, fully capable of crossing boundaries of perceptions to leave a damning message on a crumbling wall, the breast of a cat, or at the bottom of a gin bottle. Of course, Poe is not merely a teller of ghost stories and bloody parables; his work The Black Cat is notably lacking in any formal theological or mythological structure in which to place the supernatural events which occur. In an ideologically mature literary decision, Poe shuns dogma, be it Christian or even Pagan, in favor of humanity’s ultimate boogey-man: the unknown.
In addition, spare moments of irony, hidden between the actions packed lines of this brief tale, do much to illustrate its anti-Christian themes. It is no coincidence the first cat, Pluto, shares a name with the Roman god of the underworld; this parallel emphasizes the strength of superstition over traditional faith. Also, in a quiet instance of reflection following the murder of his wife with an axe, Poe’s narrator remarks, “I determined to wall it [the body] up in the cellar – as the monks of the middle ages are recorded to have walled up their victims” (Poe 33). This unusual portrayal of monks as having victims is not incidental, and the conversational tone serves to underline the sense of inexplicable comfort with which society accepts and overlooks the bloodier aspects of organized religion. Religious individuals themselves are not the only ones to fall under criticism; the essential Christian concept of man as uniquely holy is excellently satirized as the narrator laments, “A brute beast – whose fellow I contemptuously destroyed – a brute beast to work out for me – for me a man, fashioned in the image of the High God – so much of insufferable wo!” (Poe 32) To conceive of a murderous, raving drunkard as sacrosanct, as being essentially removed by virtue of creation from the abject madness of the animal world, is laughable. Yet, in context, it is an intentionally bad joke, one to be met with quiet horror, eliciting new thought in regards to just what exactly elevates mankind from the cruelty of his environment. That is, if there ever has been any true elevation, at all.
Edgar Allen Poe’s short story The Black Cat is a thematically rich, grisly tour-de-force, one in which concepts of alcoholism, vengeance, violence, and fate are tackled in raving triplicate. However, the story’s true brunt is carried in its twin absence of rationality, and of the presence of God. Miracles occur, as mere splotches of white fur change slowly into accusations of murder, but these miracles exist without an established faith to claim responsibility for them. Fear comes alive in The Black Cat, mocking the narrator as he builds about himself the house of his own demise. As to what is truly behind it all, Poe offers no answer, only the knowing implication that every choice, once chosen, carries inescapable consequence.
Works Cited Poe, Edgar Allen.
“The Black Cat”. Introduction to Literature. Ed. Manya Lempert. Tucson: University of Arizona. 2015. 29-35. Print.
Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic Elements
Traditional Gothic characteristics were originally exemplified by Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. This text was the first novel of its kind to introduce, a suspenseful atmosphere, ancient prophecies, and metonymy of horror. Novels and stories frequently revisit the same elements when creating a gothic tale, but can also use other characteristics to create the same essence of Castle of Otranto. The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe uses an abundance of adjectives to set a gloomy scene, but also uses the narrator’s emotional distress and supernatural curiosity to structure the gothic tale. Edgar Allen Poe is widely known for making some of the greatest Gothic texts, but also has very distinct characteristics throughout his, modeling after Walpole, but also creating a standard for future texts. Most of Poe’s works are easily identified as gothic due to the theme of death and decay, although that is not always the theme being portrayed by the story until later in the work.
In The Black Cat it is made apparent, that death is a common subject, but the beginning is primarily an internal struggle within the narrator. As a writer, Edgar Allen Poe has to create characters with depth, that add to the suspense of the story. In response, most of his characters have some sort of mental illness, or eventually go mad. While reading from the narrator’s perspective, the readers are concerned about the mental state of their story teller, but sometimes forget the context of the story being told. In the opening of The Black Cat the narrator says “Yet, mad am I not” proclaiming his mental state early, allowing the reader to look deeper into his character, but forgetting the scene setting given n the same same page. The opening also tells readers that the narrator is telling this story the day before his execution, allowing readers the try and create a story before the narrator elaborates his confession. He says he married young and her “disposition not uncongenial with my own”, ironic how happy his wife made him, but would later be literally be the hand of her unhappy fate. It is made quite apparent in the beginning, after stating that recent household events presented the narrator with horror, that this is a gothic text, but with some missing tell-tale elements such as a castle.
Continuing into the story, Poe’s black cat character named Pluto, is introduced and creates a basis of preceding events. Looking at Pluto analytically, Pluto is the Roman God of the underworld, which makes sense because this creates that theme always present in gothic texts, but not yet alluded to in The Black Cat; death. This theme is not outwardly stated, but had to be interpreted when being presented to this character so early on. Death is a theme made apparent later in the text, but is often presented throughout gothic texts. When the narrator finally kills Pluto, the connection between his name and his fate is presented, when he “reappears” as an apparition in the fire. If the cat Pluto is being represented as a god, then it can be assumed he can reincarnate himself to terrorize the narrator who killed him. Poe choose to keep the theme death hidden to add suspense and a more iconic ending although usually presented early on. In the following scenes the narrator, still not evidently mentally ill, begins to illustrate his problem with alcohol, ultimately creating the dissolution of the first black cat. “I grew day by day, more moody, more irritable, more regardless of the feelings for others.” He claims another being possessed him to kill his cat, that it was not truly him who killed Pluto, but can the cruel murder be attributed to his alcohol and in personal opinion, his mental state which is beginning to deteriorate at this point in in the story. The two themes that eventually coincide, madness and death, promote Edgar Allan Poe’s classic Gothic structure.
Another Gothic element usually presented in gothic texts, has to do with the supernatural, which Poe almost always manages to present in his stories. In The Black Cat, Poe yet again keeps this theme hidden, making the reader interpret multiple things to come to the conclusion of a supernatural presence. The first example is the suggestion made by the narrator’s wife of the similarity between cats and witches. In history, cats are associated with witches due to their malevolent nature, and their nocturnal lifestyle. After the death of the first cat the narrator sees the image of the cat with the noose around its neck while the house is on fire. It can be debated whether he sees the image due to his failing mental state, or if it is something supernatural, an effect of him killing the first cat. Once the cat is replaced with a coincidentally similar cat, the reader should wonder if the coincidence has to do with a celestial being, or in other words the dead cat. Poe decides to use the supernatural as a gothic element in his stories because of the interesting aspect in a dark story. At the time The Black Cat was written, readers were intrigued by the unknown, not too different than audiences of today. When a writer decides to explore topics like this, one that can be looked into further other than the context given, it excites readers therefore making it a popular, and much anticipated aspect in Gothic literature, but more specifically Edgar Allen Poe works. After seeing the apparent apparition, the narrator convinces himself, what he saw was untrue, but the terror still haunts him “it did not less fail to make a deep impression upon my fancy.”
A Gothic story would not truly be Gothic without a suspenseful ending. After trying to murder the second cat, the narrator ends up butchering his wife, which gives the anticipated audience of the time the ending they await. The suspense and metonymy of horror, are crucial elements in Gothic literature, and usually are saved for the climax of the story, which Poe successfully created. In The Black Cat, the narrator claims the cat waited for him behind the walls, to have the police catch him as if the cat created a master plan. Although this idea is believable in this time period, readers could also still be thinking the of cat as a celestial being. This cat alone is represented by many gothic themes, without the context of the story, black, nocturnal, evil, and now supernatural which Poe uses to entertain readers. Thinking back to the beginning, readers must remember this is his confession, in which he blames the black cat for all his wrongdoings. If readers correctly interpreted the narrator’s opening they would know the wife’s outcome, another literary Element Poe’s gothic texts are known for is the foreshadowing, although it is not a standard in his works.
Edgar Allen Poe uses literary elements to make his stories his own original texts although the Gothic genre was created. Poe writes his texts modeling The Castle of Otranto, but overall the style is based on the audience in existence and his preferred style of writing utilizing his typical elements. In The Black Cat the themes of death, the supernatural and madness are hand in hand with the melancholy setting to create classic works of Gothic Literature.