By Brian Martin | Graphic/Novels Editor Published: 10/12/2013 10:00 am EST
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” is written as a final confession, a last chance for a madman to absolve himself of his sins or, at the very least, share his story with a captive audience (us). This urgency, the direct addressing of and pleading with the audience, is not unusual in Poe’s work, and with good reason. It draws us in. It doesn’t necessarily terrify us, but it does compel us to read. And the more insane the narrator appears, the more uneasy we become.
The narrator initially seems like a well-intentioned man who has, perhaps, suffered a bit of misfortune. He speaks of falling in love with a woman and their shared affinity for pets. But the man harbors a deep, firmly-rooted aggressive side, one he shows frequently to his wife. Despite the domestic abuse, the first act the narrator commits that he identifies as being truly unforgivable is delivered upon his black cat, Pluto. A fitting name, since this creature sets a series of events into motion that will drive the narrator figuratively (and perhaps literally) to hell.
When I was young, I would always get “The Black Cat” confused with another Poe story, the possibly more well-known “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Both involve a dead body concealed within a house, a “sound” coming from within the makeshift tomb, and the narrators’ gradual descent into madness. The real difference, however, is in the conscience of each of these characters. The narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” lets his own guilt get the better of him, “hearing” the beating of his victim’s heart. The narrator of “The Black Cat” is undone by something beyond himself, as it is the very audible mewing of a cat, trapped within the wall, that alerts police to the narrator’s culpability. Of course, the cat would not have been heard if not for the narrator’s pride. Like any criminal with narcissistic tendencies, the narrator of “The Black Cat” is compelled not simply to be content with the job he’s done concealing his misdeeds, but to point out what a good job he did. It is not guilt, but overconfidence that leads him to inadvertently spoil his best laid plans.
That’s not to say that this story isn’t rife with guilt. In fact, it is guilt which drives the narrator to commit his atrocities to begin with. After violently disfiguring his pet cat (in an act that would have PETA up in arms), he seeks to absolve himself of the constant reminders of his crime, which, naturally, begets more crimes. The farther into guilt the narrator spirals, the worse his actions become. He projects his escalating remorse onto the things around him—most notably his wife and a new cat, which looks suspiciously like the one he murdered—allowing himself to believe that eliminating each of these beings will, finally, absolve him of his shame.
Although the narrator seems unaware of the reasons behind many of his feelings, his is able to identify the source of his abusive tendencies: alcoholism. The character is very vocal about his drunkenness, and the violence that springs from it; so vocal, in fact, that one can’t help but wonder if these antagonistic tendencies aren’t an intrinsic part of his being, and that alcohol simply provides a convenient excuse for them. After all, this is a man who constantly seeks to alleviate his guilt. Given the gross unreliability of the narrator, one has to wonder if even he believes the alcohol is truly to blame. He may be issuing a confession at death’s door, but can a man so in denial ever be believed?
Despite the narrator keeping us at arm’s length, and the lack of sympathy we feel for him, even we can’t help but be unnerved by the cats that slink their way through the story with an icy coolness. As anyone who has ever been in the same room with a cat can attest, these animals always seem to carry an air of superiority about them, like they know something you don’t. As such, the black cat is a perfect method by which to instill the narrator with a sense of paranoia.
Perhaps this is a story about the dangers of substance abuse. Perhaps it’s a tale of having “too much of a good thing,” as the narrator’s love of pets compels him to value each new one less and less (and yes, I’m including his wife in that group). For me, “The Black Cat” will always be a cautionary tale about keeping felines as pets. They’re liable to make you feel guilty about something, whether you’ve committed a heinous act or not. And black cats? They’re the worst.
Brian L. Martin is an educator, writer, and amateur curmudgeon. An avid fan of novels, movies, and beer, he would much rather spend his time reading comics, a lifelong love since receiving a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 242 from Spider-Man himself in 1983. His favorite books include The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is heavy enough to be considered the only real defense weapon he has in his home. He currently lives with his wife in Uppsala, Sweden.