Edgar Allan Poe was a truly pioneering American author. He dared to make a cat a powerful main character that could judge the soul of a man. The Black Cat is a story akin to The Tell-Tale Heart which explores guilt, paranoia, and the true nature of man.
A Few Notes About Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe was a man whose life was plagued by poverty and death. He had strong attachments to the women in his life but found himself rejected by other men. Much of Poe’s fascination with death was inspired by the early deaths of his mother, his adoptive mother, and his wife which all came by tuberculosis. While he was a tyrant in his professional life, in his personal life he was known for being a very sensitive man, a doting husband, a lover of animals, and for being playful with neighborhood children.
During his lifetime, Edgar Allan Poe achieved very little success. His most successful and famous work The Raven, earned him only $14. He struggled with his emotions and alcoholism making it difficult to hold a job for very long. Poe was often his own worst enemy. It wasn’t until after his mysterious death that his true contribution to American literature was understood.
The Black Cat
Below is a short summary of The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe. This work was published in 1845 and therefore, is in the public domain. You can read a copy of The Black Cat in its entirety for free here or listen to an audio recording here.
A narrator of questionable sanity opens by talking about how he is condemned to die. He delves into the story which explains how he came to be in his current situation. As a young man, he was very pleasant and loved animals more than he did his fellow man. He married a woman who loved animals the same way and they had many pets including an entirely black cat named Pluto. Pluto was his best friend and they were often together.
Things begin to change when the narrator discovers alcohol. As the alcohol takes over his life he becomes an angry person. It drives him to one day gouge out one of the eyes of the cat with a knife. He feels sorry about what he did for a while, but his alcoholism would rage again. The man begins to believe that he is an evil person who must finish his evil, so he hangs Pluto from a tree.
That very night the narrator is awakened by the fact that his house is on fire. He and his wife escape and the blaze is put out. To his horror, he finds an image of a cat hanging from a noose on his wall. His mind runs through all kinds of scenarios attempting to come up with a logical explanation for the image. He decides that a neighbor must have thrown the body of the cat through his window to wake him.
Soon the rage dies down and the narrator finds a black cat that is very similar to Pluto (even missing the same eye) and takes him home. The big difference is that this cat has a white splotch of fur on his chest. His wife is head-over-heels for this cat. Soon the narrator’s alcoholism again flairs and his rage builds toward this new cat. It seems that slowly, but surely the white splotch of fur has morphed from being an undefined shape to looking like the gallows.
In an attempt to rid himself of his guilt for what he did to Pluto, he takes an ax and tries to kill the cat, but accidentally kills his wife. The cat disappears and is nowhere to be found. To conceal his deed, he removes a portion of the wall in the cellar, places her body there, and walls it back up. The police come by and searched 3 times and didn’t find anything. On the fourth visit, the narrator becomes arrogant and knocks on the wall in which his wife is concealed. To his surprise, a cry comes from the wall. When the police tear down the wall, they find the body and the black cat.
The Cat’s Judgment: Descent from Man to Monster
Despite the violence seen toward the cats in this story, Edgar Allan Poe was actually very fond of animals – especially cats (his cat’s name was Catterina). In creating the main character of this story, he was aiming to create the most vile human being he could imagine. To Poe, the worst possible offenses in life were to harm an animal or a woman. The Black Cat is a story about the descent of a man into becoming a monster and a very strong condemnation of alcohol as a catalyst to such a descent. This commentary on guilt follows closely in the footsteps of The Tell-Tale Heart.
Pluto (named for the Roman god of the underworld) serves as a barometer for the narrator’s humanity. The stronger the love between the narrator and Pluto, the more humanity is left in the man. His growing abuse of Pluto shows him slowly turn into a monster.
Both of the black cats are really one in the same. The second black cat is likely taken from the Celtic myth of the cait sidhe. The cait sidhe was a spirit creature said to look like a black cat with a white spot on its chest. These mystical beings were capable of great havoc and steal a man’s soul after between the time he died and the time he was buried.