The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Black Cat" (1843)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Black Cat” was written by Edgar Allan Poe and first appeared in the United States Saturday Post (Aug. 19, 1843). Poe (1809-1849) was somewhat well-regarded in his own time, but since his early and untimely death he has become a major figure in world literature, regarded as the architect of the modern short story, the inventor of the mystery fiction, a major poet and literary critic, and a writer extremely influential on the French Symbolists of the late nineteenth century, among a number of other achievements.
The narrator of “The Black Cat” describes how he loved animals as a child. As an adult he married a woman who shared his affection for animals, so that they kept a regular menagerie of pets. The narrator’s favorite was a large black cat, Pluto. Unfortunately, “through the instrumentality of the Fiend Intemperance”1 the narrator becomes moody, irritable, and violent. The more he drinks, the more he abuses his animals and the more he berates and threatens his wife. He holds back from mistreating Pluto, but one night, returning home drunk, he notices that Pluto is avoiding him. He grabs Pluto, who bites him. Now possessed by a gin-fueled malevolence that is “more than fiendish,”2 the narrator uses his pen-knife to cut one of Pluto’s eyes from its socket. Pluto recovers but always flees from the narrator. At first the narrator is sorry that Pluto avoids him, but the narrator’s sorrow turns to irritation, and then to perverseness, and in cold blood the narrator hangs Pluto from a tree, despite the tears of remorse which roll down his cheeks. That night the narrator’s house burns down, taking with it all of his wealth, although the narrator and his wife survive. The only thing left standing is a section of wall on which, “as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface,”3 is the figure of a gigantic cat with a rope about its neck. The narrator convinces himself that someone threw Pluto’s body into the room to wake him up during the fire, and that Pluto’s body shielded the section of the wall.
The narrator begins to regret Pluto’s absence, and in a “den of more than infamy”4 he finds a large black cat, similar to Pluto (even missing an eye) except for a large splotch of white fur on its chest. The cat immediately greets the narrator and is friendly to him, and the narrator takes him home. But the narrator quickly and irrationally grows to hate Pluto, although the narrator’s wife loves the new cat as much as she loved Pluto. Over time the new cat’s white fur seems to change shape into the form of a gallows. The narrator begins to feel haunted by the cat: at night “I started, hourly, from dreams of unutterable fear, to find the hot breath of the thing upon my face, and its vast weight—an incarnate Night-Mare that I had no power to shake off-incumbent eternally upon my heart.”5 Eventually the narrator tries to kill the new cat with an axe. The narrator’s wife prevents him from doing so, so the narrator kills his wife and then walls her body up in the cellar. The police investigate and search the house, but they do not find anything. The narrator is happily tapping the walls, to show the police how solidly the house is put together, when “I was answered by a voice from within the tomb¼a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the damned in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.”6 The police break down the wall and find the corpse of the narrator’s wife, and sitting on its head is the cat, who the narrator had walled up.
Modern readers will initially find Poe’s style in “The Black Cat” to be somewhat dated, thick, and not particularly easy to read. But once the reader settles into the story and become accustomed to its rhythm and vocabulary, it becomes readable and entertaining, and the reader quickly sees that “The Black Cat” is one of Poe’s jokes. A particularly dark joke, it is true, but a joke nonetheless. Poe wrote “The Black Cat” in imitation of the temperance tracts of his day. These were accounts of the horrors of alcoholism, usually written in first-person format. In the case of the narrator of “The Black Cat,” alcohol leads him to ever-increasing bouts of senseless violence, fueled by his growing irritability and irrationality. Some critics have seen “The Black Cat” as a serious examination of the drive to unprovoked violence, but it seems obvious that Poe meant the story as a long, straight-faced, increasingly absurd satire of the temperance tracts.7
Of course, Poe being Poe, “The Black Cat” was likely written with an additional purpose in mind:
When readers juxtapose the narrator’s words and actions with current forensic research on psychopathy—especially with the research of Robert D. Hare, audience and purpose become clear. Moreover, Hare’s research...also highlights Poe’s political and scientific acumen along with his literary skill at creating a character that readers during the 1840s would have understood in light of the legal debates concerning the insanity defense. Poe created a textbook psychopathic personality, leaving out none of the traits, even though the currently accepted definition of psychopathy was not agreed upon until the early 1990s. Through this narrator, Poe reveals the inner workings of a criminal type that public defenders of Poe’s time, along with scientists and the public, agreed should not be held accountable for their crimes.8
Modern readers may not find “The Black Cat” particularly chilling; its status as a horror story is overblown. But it is entertaining, and it has layers not immediately apparent.
Print: Edgar Allan Poe, The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Modern Library, 1992.
1 Edgar Allan Poe, “The Black Cat,” The Collected Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Modern Library, 1992). 222.
2 Poe, “The Black Cat,” 222.
3 Poe, “The Black Cat,” 223.
4 Poe, “The Black Cat,” 224.
5 Poe, “The Black Cat,” 226.
6 Poe, “The Black Cat,” 228.
7 Eric Savoy, “The Rise of the American Gothic,” in Jerrold E. Hogle, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 183.
8 Vicki Hester and Emily Segir, “Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Black Cat,’ and Current Forensic Psychology,” The Edgar Allan Poe Review 15, no. 2 (Autumn 2014): 175.